18. The riding on the bull


We have seen how Europa is brought to the sphere of the highgod on the back of a bull. In Roman time the deceased is often seen riding on the back of a sea monster (hippocamp) with the head of a bull or a ram or a horse. He has the wreath of victory in his hand and can even be recognized by the mystical rosette on his forehead. (Trier Mus. Germany, drawn by the author).



Also the journey of Helle and Phrixos on the back of the golden ram is a journey to paradise, the land of the copper mountains, where the sun rises (Colchis), and where the symbol of the highgod, the Golden Fleece, is hanging high in the tree of life, guarded by the snake and the sun-king, Aeëtes. The highgod is here a deus otiosus, only visible in the tree of life, and perhaps the name Ajaje-Aeê.

It is very important to note the pair, brother and sister, riding the bull. The mythical forefather of the prophetic priests in Dodona was named Hellos, the woodcutter, and a holy double axe was one of the sacred instruments (Philostr.Im.33,1) belonging to the oracle of Dodona. His name makes him partner to the goddess Hellotis. A.Lesky has collected the traditions belonging to Hellos/Hellotis[1] and has paid special interest to the tradition about the first time this oracle made itself heard: it exposed the cattle rustler Mandylas[2] who became so mad at it that he decided to cut down the holy oak at night but was stopped by the dove of the goddess coming out of the tree. This woodcutter and “Gottesfrevler” and criminal is a good example of the tantric ecstatic and he is, acc. to Lesky, to be seen as the first priest of the oracle. Lesky and others have also paid attention to a modern fairy tale from modern Dodona (Jannina):

A priest went into the wood to cut trees. His wife accompanied him, but she went on deeper into the forest. He started by cutting down a thick pear tree, but when he was almost finished, he went to find his wife that she should come and finish the work. But the thick tree broke and turned over, and out of the trunk came a female bear demanding his love. The child who was the fruit of this strange encounter had infinite strength, but at last the king sent a pack of dog's-head-demons to kill him, but he overcame them and took all their treasures.

This fairy tale is a fine example of prehistoric motifs being preserved in folk tales. The tree can only be cut down properly by an androgynous effort, and there is a strong element of man-to-animal symbolism: the hero takes strength from his bear-nature, and is able to rule even demons, taking advantage of their riches.

Hellotis, Helle and even Helen abducted by Paris is the Greek version of the motif so often seen on Near Eastern seals of a naked goddess standing on the back of a bull. She is brought down from heaven by the young god.

On one of the mosaics from Anthioch[3] two women are seen crossing the sea on the back of two sea monsters called Agreus (“hunter”) and Palemôn (another name for Melicertes/Melqart). A relief from the adyton-podium in the great temple in Niha shows an Amor riding on the bull towards an incense altar with a male and a female united in sacrificing[4]. The god of this temple was Juppiter from Baalbeck seen on the relief below[5].  In the niche under the feet of the god is seen a sitting goddess. Together they constitute the world pillar guarded by calves.

That this iconography is not a coincidence, or the product of some Roman artist, is seen from the same motif on a silver band from Batna, North Africa, from the time of the birth of Christ[6]. At the centre is seen the androgynous union of male and female god flanked by snakes, male and female snake ascending to vision of the gods. This ecstatic symbol is flanked by two Amores riding towards it on goats.



This symbolism of riding the bull/ram or sea monster (or some other symbol of divine ecstasy) towards ascension to heaven or paradise is taken over by the Roman belief in life after death. From Mus. Pioclem a beautiful drawing taken from G.Zoega´s Abhandlungen. t.IV shows two centaurs of different sex. One of them carries Amor playing the flute, the other Psyche with the apple. Behind them putti are stealthily picking the apples of the tree of life. The music is the ecstatic moods leading to the union of male and female. In the scene below, Psyche is in the shape of a butterfly burnt in fire by two putti. The curling snip of their wings shows, acc to Zoega, that they are demons. It is the Near Eastern rite of “going through the fire” as the culmination of an ecstasy inaugurated by the centaurs carrying young women with panther´s hides.



A relief from a silver vase found in Casa dell´ Argentaria, Pompeii shows the female Centaur with a skin of a panther over her shoulders and a throwing-stick or club used for hunting (pedum or lagobolom). A little Eros is climbing her back, a last remnant of the Great Hunter obsessing his followers with his madness.

The throwing-stick, the panther's skin, the ecstatic feelings inspired by the Great Hunter show a symbolism unchanged in 6000 years. On another picture Dionysos is seen showering his panther with wine. (Both pictures are from C.Bruun, Pompeji, 1881, fig. 106 & 21.)

The male centaur has as his background 5 lamps and 5 gates, the female centaur a tree. They are the symbols of the duality male and female, fire and vegetation being united by love to form an ecstatic unity. The gates, as well as the cymbal hanging on the high tree reaching for the sky, are symbols of ecstasy, the five lamps and the two leafy treetops and the third pointing to the man sitting enthroned on the high pedestal mark 7 levels of a road to ecstasy and apotheosis. On this road a female fruit bearing nature is integrated into the fiery male nature. The prehistoric “yin-yang”-symbolism can still be the key also in the understanding of Roman-Hellenistic sculpture.



A strange motif is Heracles wrestling with Proteus, the old man from the sea. The same is told about Odysseus:  he has to wrestle with this creature of the great sea and force him to show the road to the transcendent world. When Jacob, the sun hero, returns from exile he has to wrestle with God before he is able to re-enter the holy land. This motif illustrates a belief in the necessity to conquer a divine force closely linked to the highgod, and perhaps even forcing it to serve you. Otherwise you will not be able to complete the ascension to paradise or transcend the big sea to the land beyond. Heracles putting Proteus (with a fishtail and the kundalini-snake rising from the top of his scull) into submission, is Melqart or the deceased’s soul riding on the back of a hippocampus with a fishtail and a ram’s head. The motif is parallel to the motif of taming and riding the bull. The search for the bull as the seat of mystical ecstatic experience is a motif also well known from the iconography of Oriental mysticism. A piece of ivory from Nimrod shows a man with a kilt full of snake coils forcing into submission both lion and gazelle as symbols of the life-giving force and the demonic destroying force.

Several lion masks are also found in Nimrud, obviously for cultic use. Note the "third eye" on the forehead – probably made out by an inlaid gem[7]:



The snake has two tails like Jamm in Ugarit, KTU 1,83. G.Ahlberg Cornell, Herakles and the sea-monster in Attic black-figure vasepainting,1984 .


Reitzenstein[8] brings the picture below of putti travelling over the great sea of death to the place of apotheosis, symbolised by a lighthouse with an enormous fire blazing at the top. They come from the world of duality symbolised by the contrasting pillars of vegetation and stone and are heading for the ziggurat-like tower symbol of the central world mountain.

Apuleius´s lovestory: “Amor and Psyche” is incorporated in another story about Charite and her beloved Tlepolemus: the young girl Charite is abducted by robbers during her wedding. They threaten her with execution and later plan to sell her to a brothel. (Isis working in the brothel of Tyre for 10 years). The goddess of grace and loveliness is in the hands of chaos. She tries to escape on the back of the donkey, Lucius, a ride that is expressly compared with Europa´s riding on the bull, Phrixus´s on the ram. But she is caught quickly. The motif has no purpose at all in this story, but it is part of the destiny of a Syrian goddess.



The young man has to dress like a woman to escape. He comes to the robber´s den, and the robbers are killed in the midst of a great orgy. (The chaos-time is celebrated with an orgy, which brings fatal weakening to the powers of chaos, Typho & the Sacaeans.)

But the young hero has to suffer the fate of the vegetation, he is killed during a hunt. Charite is revenging herself on the hunter, who, instead of helping her husband against the wild boar, dealt him the final blow. He is blinded. This is the typical fate of the hunter: Seth, Orion, Teiresias, Lycurgos.

Tlepolemos, Tri-ptolemos, Palaemon, Telemachos are all typical names for the sun warrior: ”He who does battle to the end”.

[1] Wiener Studien, Zeitschrift für klassisch. Phil., 46, 1927-8, pp.48-67

[2] Schl. Od. XIV, 327

[3] D.Levi, pl.LXIII

[4] D.Krencker-Zschietzschmann, Römische Tempel in Syrien/Text, 1938, fig. 149

[5] fig.163, also from Niha.

[6] W.W.Baudissin, Adonis und Esmun, t.VI

[7] Mallowan 2, fig. 544

[8] “Noch einmal Eros und Psyche, ARW 28, 1930f, pp.42-87