By Chere Di Boscio
Next week in Pamplona, Spain, a long standing tradition will take place. Over the course of eight days, dozens of bulls will be forced to run through streets, crowded with reckless, thrill-seeking visitors. It’s a ‘macho’ kind of ‘challenge’ for men–mainly Spanish, but not only–to run with the bulls (though ‘run from’ is a more apt description). Every year, dozens of these ‘adventure tourists’ are injured, and some even die. And every one of the bulls who starts the run in Pamplona will be killed in the bullring that lies at its end. Some think this is a quaint, colonial tradition, showing the age-old struggle of ‘man vs beast’ at its most spectacular.
However, it’s not much of a contest: the bulls who run in the festival of San Fermín in Pamplona are held in corrals, where they spend the night before the race being jabbed with electric prods and sharp sticks in order to rile them up. Once released into the streets, the bulls are beaten and goaded into the bullring by tourists who crowd the route. When they arrive to the ring, the animals are stabbed repeatedly with sharpened lances and daggers by ‘picadors’ to anger and weaken them, before they are eventually given their death blow by the matador (Spanish for ‘killer’). According to PETA, bulls often drown in their own blood when the matador drives a blade into their lungs.
A Gory History
It’s often thought that the roots of Spanish bullfighting are linked to the Roman circus, or even further back to Minoan bull-leaping. But the likely origins probably lie in 5th century Moorish practices that transformed into Spanish traditions of the nobility jousting each other on horses. To practice, Spanish nobles formed clubs–some of which still exist today–to organise competitions amongst themselves in their town’s main square. These competitions happened all over Europe and beyond, but at some point bulls were thrown into the mix in Spain, probably to test the horse and rider under pressure. Servants were at hand on the sidelines to distract the bull by waving their hats and capes when things got dangerous, and this is probably where the waving of the red cape to the bull began. on standby on the sides to distract the bull when things got too hot – or went wrong. No doubt the servants waved around their hats or capes to catch the bull’s attention when necessary.
The First Ban
Bullfighting was already banned in the early 1700s by King Felipe V with the support of the Pope, both of whom thought the sport set a bad example for the masses and laid waste to too many good noblemen. The ban didn’t end the sport; it just changed it, making the men on the ground waving the capes the main attraction, rather than the noble rider. Cape waving became something of a dance, with stylised passes, each with its own name. Eventually, the horsemen did return, which is why there are two forms of bullfighting in Spain: the “corrida de toros“, now the most common form, where the bull is fought by a men on their feet and the “corrida de rejones” where it is done from a horse.
Three Stages of Death
So what happens in a bullfight, exactly? First, there’s a lot of traditional pomp. The bullfighters, their teams and the officials participating parade into the ring. They enter opposite the president’s box and walk towards it, salute and then do a turn around the ring. The ‘fight’ is divided up into three stages called “tercios”, with a trumpet signalling the beginning of each stage. First is the “tercio de varas“, when the bull is released from a gate opposite the president’s box. The matador and his team get the bull to do a few passes so they can assess its charges, disposition and strength.
After this, two picadors, each holding a lance, enter the ring, mounted on horses. Their task is to pierce the flesh of the muscles of the bull to weaken it–though the bullfighters will tell you it’s to lower the animal’s blood pressure and ‘straighten its charge’. This practice is cruel not just for the bull, but for the horses too, as they are obviously attacked by the bull and often get thrown to the ground. In fact, until the late 1920s, the picadors’ horses were completely unprotected and many were gored and killed–today they wear padding, but are still often hurt. The second stage is the “tercio de banderillas“. Banderilla means little flag, and the “flag” in this case is a wooden stick, about two feet long, with a metal barb at one end, which gets thrown into the bull’s neck. After the bull has been truly tortured in the first two stages, a trumpet then sounds the third stage, called the “tercio de muerte“: Spanish for ‘the third stage of death’.
At this point, the matador dedicates the bull to someone, usually someone important, by throwing his cap up to them, or to the crowd in which case he places the cap in the centre of the ring. This time the matador fights the bull with a small red cape, the “muleta“, in one hand and a sword in the other. The matador works the bull trying to join passes together into sequences. After the first pass with his muleta the matador must kill the bull within 15 minutes. At 10 minutes of tormenting the bull the matador will be given a “reminder” by the trumpeteer.
Shortly after this, the matador swaps swords, the one used to work the bull being a lighter version of the one used to kill it. The matador lines up with the bull, gets it to charge at him, and leaning into the charge he plunges the sword deep into the bull’s shoulders, the “estocada”, the kill. In a corrida de rejones, the rejoneador will usually kill the bull from his horse, but some prefer to dismount and do the deed on the ground.
Good Death, Bad Death
A “good” kill is when the sword goes in down to the hilt, cutting the heart or aorta, allowing the bull to die quickly. A “bad kill is when the matador strikes bone, or the sword goes in at a bad angle or not at all. The matador must have another go, or even several tries before the the bull is killed. In very rare instances, when the bull is considered to have put up a particularly brave and noble fight, it is allowed to live, living out its days in the countryside, contributing its genes to the pool. In the rare case that the matador is killed by the bull, then one of the remaining matadors has to step into his shoes and finish the bull off–rather karmically, superstition has it that a matador who does this will soon be killed in the ring himself.
When the bull is dead, the matador takes a ‘trophy’–usually an ear, two ears or a tail, depending on how good the fight was deemed to have been. A team of mules then comes to drag the bull out of the ring, and its meat is served the next day in the local markets and restaurants under the name “carne de toro bravo“.
A Tradition: Like the Rack
Bullfighting is now banned in many countries,and those who participate in them would be liable for terms of imprisonment for animal cruelty. Argentina banned the sport in the late 1800s, and the Americans ended the practice in Cuba when they entered the Spanish America war. In 1991 the Canary Islands became the first Spanish state to ban it. Ironically, in the rest of Spain, there are laws against cruelty to animals, but bullfighting is specifically exempt–Portugal, Southern France and many countries in Latin America, like Mexico and Colombia still hold bullfights on the grounds that it is part of their ‘cultural heritage’.
Certainly, it is a tradition with spectacular pomp and gorgeous outfits and moves from the matadors. However, there is no need to actually kill the bull in the ring; it has been argued that there are more animal-friendly, bloodless alternatives to the bullfight. Moreover, there are plenty of traditions in Europe that were too cruel or dangerous to continue: think of putting criminals in the rack, bear baiting, dog fighting and sending children to work. Societies are constantly changing and evolving, and insisting on the continuing of a cruel Medieval tradition–even though the majority of the Spanish public are against it–is a sign of a society in stagnation.
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References www.peta.com www.catavino.net www.andalucia.com