Bulls-head rhyton, stone, Knossos, 1600-1450 BC (Credit: Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Bull’s-head rhyton a treasure of Minoan Crete

One of the finest artefacts uncovered in the Little Palace of Knossos in 1905


One of the most famous finds from Sir Arthur Evans’ excavations of Crete in 1905, the Bull’s Head Rhyton, is a masterpiece from Knossos, a Bronze Age archaeological site in Crete and major center of the Minoan civilization. The rhyton, was used as a ritual vessel for pouring liquids (libation). Libations of wine, water, oil, milk, or honey were used to worship a god or honor the dead. The vessel was filled with the appropriate liquid through a hole in the neck and emptied through another hole on the muzzle. Remains of the libation would often be drank from the bull’s mouth by the worshipper.

Profile and section of the bull’s head rhyton from the palace at Knossos, from Sir Arthur Evans, 
Town-Houses in Knossos of the New Era and Restored West Palace Section, with Its State Approach 
(London: Macmillan, 1928), p. 529 (Credit: Universitäts-Bibliothek Heidelberg)

The rython was found in a structure called the Little Palace about 200 meters northwest of the palace at Knossos. The carving, from a single block of black steatite, is nothing but spectacular for it was worked with great precision to render the natural features of the real animal. The eyes are made of rock crystal and red jasper while the snout is outlined with an inlay of white seashell. The horns are wooden with gold leafing and have since been reconstructed.

Bull’s head rhyton from the palace at Knossos, c. 1550-1500 B.C.E., black steatite, jasper, and mother-of-pearl, 26 cm high, Archaeological Museum of Heraklion (Credit: Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The bull is an emblematic religious symbol of the Minoan world and this particular bull’s head rhyton is the finest and most complete example of ritual vessels from this period. Beyond its ritualistic significance in Minoan Crete, it became a symbol of diplomatic power and prestige. Rhyta such as this one were often exchanged as valuable gifts, signifying respect, allegiance, or the establishment of friendly ties between cultures. Images of them appear in 18th dynasty Egyptian wall paintings, where they are shown as pharaonic gifts from visiting Cretans.

In ancient Greek myth, Minos, son of Zeus and Europa was the mighty king of Crete. He had a wife, Pasiphae, and three children: Androgeus, Ariadne and Phaedra. Minos kept a creature called the Minotaur, who was part bull, and part man, in a splendid labyrinth beneath his palace at Knossos. Every 9 years, the Athenians had to send 7 youths and 7 maidens to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, as retribution for the death of Androgeus. This myths was created after Minoan civilization had declined by the late 15th century B.C, but still reflected the respect that later Greeks had for the people of Crete. Inspired by this myth, Evans named the culture he discovered at Knossos the ‘Minoans’.

For more info visit Archaeological Museum of Heraklion