Take The Bull By The Horns
PETA, purveyor of many a concept contrary to sound reason, is lobbying for the expulsion from our animal idioms the phrase “taking the bull by the horns”. It would also like to see buried into the linguistic earth such classic phrases as “beating a dead horse”; “killing two birds with one stone”; and “bringing home the bacon”. In its stead, the fervid and usually exceedingly vocal animal-rights advocacy group hopes to popularize and insert into our language the far less inspiring line, “taking the flower by the thorns”.
By doing so, as the argument follows, the organization hopes to sublimate our gratuitously “speciesist”bent (which tends to demean, to abuse, and eventually to consume most non-human walks of life) and move us toward a gentler terminology. It’s no longer only that which enters our mouth with which PETA is concerned, but that which exits it as well. We wouldn’t assail with our words neighboring peoples of diverse races. Why would we do so with our barnyard friends?
On the whole, I find myself rather sympathetic to PETA’s larger position—that we value too highly our own species at the cost of all others.One needn’t look much further beyond the closest, smelliest, and probably most inhospitably-crammed industrial farm to find agreement on this sad truth. Animals are mistreated in an inexcusable way and on a callous, massive, and—disquietingly above all—growing scale. And, ultimately, the majority of these creatures which we deem edible (and not merely scientifically useful for our laboratory tests) will be tortured and sacrificed in the service of our carnivorous taste. In the millions they’ll be confined and slaughtered, if only to provide for us a thoughtless moment of gustatory bliss.
Yes, changes could and arguably should be made to this industry of sinew, suffering, and beef, but that doesn’t mean we should rip out our own tongues. We shouldn’t be made to redress the cruelty of our local, to this point indispensable factory farm by clipping the wings of our own words.
So much is lost in the transition from “taking the bull by the horns” to “taking the flower by the thorns” that it’s difficult to know just where to begin. By moving from the first to the latter, from the fistic to the floral, the essential vigor of the idiom loses all of its strength. Excepting a few species, the flower is an entirely passive organism. It might leap if animated by Wordsworth’s pen, but by and large, if it’s not involuntarily leaning toward the sun, the flower is soporifically inert. Of course, the flower is a vital part of this earth, without which our obstreperous bulls would find it hard to nourish and enliven themselves, but there is no manly struggle in avoiding thorns on a stem.
Beyond that, in the mind of the PETA public relations committee, the origin of the phrase is obviously confused. So far as I can tell, to take the bull by the horns is to forgo its immediate execution. Instead of that more sanguinary end, to “take it by the horns” is to wrestle it down into submission but with an eye toward its preservation. It’s to grant to this beast of plows and stampedes a taurine taste of clemency; a sweet and merciful extension on life.
That’s precisely what Heracles did when, having been charged by his jealous step-mother Hera and his masochistic cousin Eurystheus (who was also, much to Heracles’ frustration, the powerful king of the hero’s adopted city of Tiryns) he brought to tranquil compliance the bull. It was the seventh of his famous twelve labors, at whose completion he was to be burned and re-fashioned a god. But first, he’d be made to complete his onerous chores.
This he did, and he accomplished the combined feat with remarkable forbearance. PETA might even stand to applaud the way by which he went about his work. While it can be read as relatively cruel the fact that he strangled to death the daunting Nemean lion, or destroyed the insatiable, reproducible Linean hydra, or shot down with poison-laden arrows the murderous Stymphalian birds,Heracles conducted himself in an otherwise friendly manner at times when friendliness shouldn’t have availed him.
Instead of killing the Ceryneian hind, which was an evasive, gold-horned stag that he’d been tracking without success for the better part of a year, Heracles let it live. He might’ve shot it with another arrow, as he did the Stymphalian birds, or decapitate or asphyxiate it as he did the hydra and lion, but he opted instead to wrestle and then safely carry it off. Having secured his prize, he turned toward home.
En route to the deer’s deliverance in the palace of the king, however, Heracles was stopped by the sibling gods Artemis and Apollo. On top of their sundry other roles and human intrigues, the two share in being protectors of animal life and the glen. With minimal pressure exerted on his broad shoulders, the two deities succeeded in convincing Heracles to return the hind back to its native place after having shown it to Eurystheus—who’d hoped to make the stag a captive in his royal menagerie. In what might’ve been the first mythical instance of “catch-and-release”, the great hero set the trophy free.
Heracles was equally as merciful with all the other animal she encountered. To hog-tie the dangerous Erymanthan Boar, the son of Zeus used his thunderous voice. Startled by the sound and perhaps dazed by its brutes onorous force, the boar fell into the great hero’s lap. He then proceeded to don his husbandry hat by cleaning the Augean Stables. A necessarily dirty task, the demigod Heracles deigned to complete it without a complaint. He rinsed with the rivers Alpheus andPeneus countless dirty stables—in which some three thousand oxen ate, defecated, and lived. The animals were all the better for his having completed this task; their chief herdsman, Augeas, who tempted fate by reneging on his promise to Heracles, wasn’t so lucky. With a blow of Herculean resolve andstrength, he was killed.
Considering homicide a petty sin, Heracles continued on his path toward twelve. He tamed the man-eating horses of Diomedes (to whom he later fed the man from whom those hungry horses got their name), gathered and shepherded the cattle of Geryon, ascended from Hades with the infernal hound Cerberus, and, most importantly, took the Cretan bull by the horns.
That is, after all, the relevant myth and the reason forPETA’s outrage. But as is so often the case in mythology (as it is, for that matter, in any religion as well), much is to be found in the subtlety of the image. The bull, in the ancient Greek’s mind, was less an animal than it was a symbol. The protestor in behalf of PETA can breathe a sigh of relief; the bull wasn’t an actual, breathing mammal, but a thought-provoking metaphor.
The bull, you see, was a symbol of Crete, the small but deceptively powerful island nation floating just south and perpendicular to mainlandGreece. It was there that the Minoan civilization thrived and, in its thriving, exploited its continental neighbors up above. A far older civilization, and thus one more powerful on land and sea, the Minoans had a chronological leg upon a city like Athens which was to become, in due time, the locus of Mediterranean politics, finance, art, and life. Surely, though, it wasn’t those glorious and cultivated things yet and until that time, it would be made to bow before a superior state. Therefore, the Minoans became what we might today call a suzerain of early Greece, the former extracting from the latter exorbitant taxes, tolls, and funds. By clever analogy, this is what was meant by the annual “sacrifice” of the fourteen Athenian children (of whom seven were young men and seven young maidens) who’d be shipped off and thrust into the bowels of the labyrinth or the Minotaur’s teeth. They were the metaphorical price—and a dear one at that—continually paid to Crete.
To “take the bull by the horns”, then, was to face down and grapple with this stifling economic imposition. It was to liberate from the exploitative Cretan clutch a country eagerly readying itself to sally forth on its own. Athens was prepared to be sovereign, to be free, to be financially disencumbered of this “bull”. Heracles made it so.
PETA may, and likely should continue to seek redress for our shared and brazen crime of “Speciesism”,perpetrated, as it’s been, for so many years, but it ought not attack our philhellenism. To take the bull by the horns is, quite literally, a Herculean act, and to erase it from our speech would require an even mightier force. I don’t think, fueled by soy and plant protein, the organization has the strength. This animal idiom will therefore remain.