We have all heard this phrase--I think that I may have found its origin in Vergil. Here is the scene in Book V of the Aeneid: a bulky wrestler named Dares boastfully challenges his fellow Trojans to a wrestling match. When no one dares to take up the challenge, Dares walks right up and grabs the bull by the horns--he grabs the bull that was promised by Aeneas to the winner of the anticipated wrestling match. Eventually, an older man, Entellus, is coaxed to take up the challenge and, with dramatic twists and turns in the match, ends up beating boastful Dares. You can read the entire episode at Book V, lines 362-484 (see link).
But the point I want to focus on is the phrase "take the bull by the horns." What Dares does is, as we also like to say, to "bring matters to a head." His brazen grabbing of the bull by the horns eventually provokes a challenge to him; and so the match takes place, after all.
In life, we often need to take the bull by the horns: to take that step that tests and probes our circumstances, in effect, investigates our circumstances to find out where people stand. You can think of innumerable examples: the attorney who proceeds to trial to see if the other side is serious about going to trial or not, the child who tests the limits of the parent, the person who seeks to bait or provoke another to see if the other can be toyed with or has great reserves of self-control, or the person in love who seeks to find out if there is any chance of reciprocity.
We see that "taking the bull by the horns" can be productive of good or can be a method of manipulation. Sad to say, it is often those with bad intentions who seem more ready to take the bull by the horns than those with good intentions. Those with good intentions should take a lesson from the boldness of the unscrupulous: often you must take the bull by the horns in order to break the logjams of life.
(Image via Wikipedia)