If you’ve ever wondered where that phrase “Grab the bull by the horns” comes from, here’s a theory: Minoan Crete. Bull leaping has captured the imagination of any viewer who has had the good fortune of browsing the terra cotta frescoes of young maidens leaping over bulls in the royal palace of Knossos. Nevertheless, archaeologists argue if the practice ever existed in reality but was not just a metaphorical symbol or ritual for a cosmological myth.
The idea behind the sport points to the “agon” or struggle that humankind undergoes to put order or control the wild often furious and fatal forces of nature. By leaping over a wild bull, Minoans were in a symbolic way taming or subduing its power. The physical act of leaping over a bull must have been quite a challenge. Some experts conjecture it is an impossible act especially since the bull’s horns would have been vertical. Jeremy McInerey of Expedition magazine states, “Alexander MacGillivray, for example, asserts that no person ever jumped over a bull’s back on Crete or anywhere else. He suggests instead that the artistic depictions of bull- leaping are representations of a celestial drama. “Orion confronts Taurus, composed of the Hyades and Pleiades (the seven sisters), while Perseus somersaults with both arms extended over the bull’s back to rescue Andromeda.”
The cosmological connections of bulls bring some other archaeologists to the conclusion that the practice had a liturgical or ritualistic function. Still others claim that the maneuvering of the body and accuracy of literally grabbing the bull while it is running would make bull leaping similar in importance to an Olympic sport.
As we have no evidence of liturgical texts for the Minoans, it is hard to rule out 100% that the sport did not exist. In fact, the famous excavator of Knossos, Sir Arthur Evans created drawings to explain how the process would be done. According to his notes, “the process consisted of four clearly defined phases as the leaper approached, grasped the bull by the horns, vaulted over onto the animal’s back, and then sprang onto the ground,” (“Bulls and Bull Leaping in the Minoan World.”)
There is one more piece of evidence that bull leaping would have existed: the modern-day sport of course Landaise. Landaise offers ethnoarchaeologists hints about the ancient Greek practice of bull-leaping according to National Geographic. It is mostly practiced in southwestern France and northern Spain to this day, much the same way bull fighting is. In this sport, young sauteurs, usually male, leap directly over a charging bull (but a cow is more typical). However, sauteurs do not handspring over the bull, as the athlete in the fresco does. They do, however, perform different sorts of flips.
Leaving the practice aside and moving to the etymology of the term, Tom Bowen, lexographer at onestopenglish.com remarks:
This expression probably originated in the American West where it was a common, but dangerous, practice to wrestle with steers. This was not only done for entertainment at rodeos but was part of the everyday working life of ranchers and cowhands throughout the west. To control a bull or a steer (a young bull) the cowhand would first have to catch it. Trying to grab the neck or legs of a dangerous creature like this was not an option. The only solution was to take a deep breath and face the problem directly by grabbing the bull by the horns and then pulling it to the ground. This expression now means to confront a problem directly without “beating about the bush”.
But there is nothing to keep a Greek or Philhellene from making the leap from the Wild West to Minoan Crete. In any case you have to have balls in order to either lead or leap in front of a raging bull. Whatever the problem is, you have to grapple it face on.