Learn Spanish » Spanish Culture Blog » Bullfighting in Spain
Few modern day spectator sports provoke quite as much controversy as bullfighting and yet it would be difficult to imagine Spanish identity without it. To its supporters it is a way of life, an art form involving ceremony and ritual. To its detractors it amounts to little more than barbaric torture and slaughter. Yet to many foreigners, for whom the killing of an animal for sport in a ring is a totally alien concept, Spanish bullfighting is a complex tradition to understand or accept – both in physical and moral terms. A bullfight is about many things – performance, bravery, skill and death. No doubt it is also bloody and shocking, but its supporters argue that a bull is better off dying on the point of a matador´s sword than in the abbatoir (matadero). To witness a bullfight might not necessarily mean to condone it, but it may provide an insight into this Spanish tradition and make parts of Spanish identity a little easier to understand
The History of Bullfighting culture
Bullfighting culture of one form or another has been around for centuries and its precise history is difficult to chart. Strong evidence exists to suggest that its roots can be traced back to prehistoric bull worship and sacrifice by the Celtic-Iberians, whilst others have argued that its origins actually lie in the traditions of Ancient Rome, when human vs. animal combat was a popular warm up act to the gladiatorial sports. Alternatively, bullfighting may have been introducted to the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors in the 11th century, where the bull was fought on horseback using a javelin (similar to the modern Portuguese bullfight).
However by the Middle Ages, bullfighting in Spain had evolved into a sport practiced by the nobility in a similar manner to hunting and jousting. Religious festivals, royal weddings and events celebrated with fights in the town or city´s plaza (main square), where noblemen would ride competing for royal favour. In the 18th century, it has been argued that the Spanish king Felipe V took exception to the sport and banned it, saying that it set a bad example. However its popularity was such that the commoners kept the sport going, and, since they could not afford the horses began the practice of dodging the bulls on foot and using capes to aide in positioning the bulls. By the 1720s this new form of bullfighting was drawing even larger crowds, prompting the construction of dedicated bullrings. Initially they were square in shape, but later the design changed to a circle to discourage the cornering of any action. The bullfight, or corrida, has changed little since 1726, when Francisco Romero fought on foot and paved the way for the modern style seen today.
The Modern Corrida
A Spanish bullfight involves three matadores or toreros and six bulls, each of which is at least four years old and and weighs 460-600 k. Each matador has six assistants – two picadores or “lancers”, mounted on horseback, three banderilleros or “flagmen” and a mozo de espada or “sword servant”. Collectively they make up a cuadrilla or team of bullfighters.
The whole spectacle is highly ritualised and conforms to a time honoured set of rules and traditions, which is part of Spanish society´s culture, opening with a parade of all the participants into the arena to salute the presiding dignitary, accompanied by music from a band. Two alguacilillos on horseback look up to the president´s box and symbolically ask for the keys to the puerta de los toriles, the door behind which the bulls are waiting.
The bullfight is divided into three stages and on the release of the first bull the first stage, the tercio de varas, begins. The matador and banderillos test the bull for its ferocity and the matador has his first confrontation with the bull using a gold and pink dress cape or capote. Then two picadores enter the ring on horseback and one stabs the mound of muscle in the back of the bull´s neck. Although this seems unecessary, doing so lowers the bull´s blood pressure so that it does not have a heart attack and weakens its massive head and neck muscles.
The second stage, or tercio de banderillas, sees the three banderilleros each attempt to plant two barbed sticks into the bull´s neck. This further weakens the bull´s neck whilst spurring the bull into making more ferocious charges.
The final stage, the tercio de muerte,sees the matador back in the arena, alone and armed with a smaller, red cape and a sword. He uses the cape to attract the attention of the bull in a series of moves, demonstrating both his control over it and his daring by getting very close to it and even turning his back on it and walking away! It is a common misconception that the colour red is used to anger the bull, as in fact bulls are colourblind and the red is merely used to mask the bull´s blood. This faena, or work, is the most important part of the fight and the matador must attempt to manoeuvre the bull into position so that he can stab it between the shoulder blades and cleanly pierce the aorta or heart. This final act is often very quick as the matador is only given ten minutes to carry out the act. The bull dies instantly and is carried out by harnessed horses.
If the crowd believes that the matador has done well, the arena rises to their feet and waves white handkerchiefs, shouting in approval. The president judges the performance and will award the bull´s ears, tail and occasionally hoof to the matador as a prize. The matador then does a lap of honour around the ring, people throwing hats, scarves, flowers and even jugs of wine down to him! League tables of matadors are maintained each season based on the number of bulls they have fought and the number of ears and tails awarded.
When the sixth and final bull is dead, the matadors and their teams return to the ring and cross the arena in a symbolic act – that man has defeated death and is immortal.
Many of Spain´s bullrings are hundreds of years old, and even if you don´t fancy seeing the fight they are well worth a visit for their architecture whilst many also house little museums. A law passed in 1996 organised bullrings, or plazas de toros, into three categories according to their age, size and number of events staged there each year. The rings in Bilbao, San Sebastián, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, Córdoba, Seville and Málaga are all classed as first class rings. The oldest bullring in Spain is in Ronda and dates from the 1700s whilst Seville´s ring, the Real Maestranza, has a seating capacity of 10,000! The centre of the plaza is known as the platillo, with the inner circle being named the medios, and the outer the tercios. The stands are known as the tendido, and are either bajo (lower) or alto (higher). As the sun predominantly shines on one side of the ring, this section is known as Sol (sun) and is where tickets are the cheapest. The seats in the Sombra (shade) are more expensive. During the fight there will be areas where the sun will go down and also areas where the sun may appear. These may be sold as Sol y Sombra, cheaper than the Sombra seats but more expensive than the Sol tickets. The bullring also has its own chapel where the matador can pray for safety and luck before a corrida.
One of the most famous matadors today is José Tomás, born in 1975, who is reknowned for his daring behaviour when faced with a bull, as he gets as close to the bull as he can. He is often gored during the corridas and has been seriously injured serveral times. In 2002 he retired without warning, before returning in 2007 after declaring “living without bullfighting is not living”. He always attracts a huge crowd due to his audacious behaviour, and tickets were being sold for up to $5,300 for his return corrida in Barcelona!
Another famous name around the world is “El Juli”, who caped his first bull at just 9 years old! He went on to become the youngest professional bullfighter at the age of 15, and was the highest paid bullfighter in history at the age of 17. Nowadays he is expected to earn around $75,000 per appearance!
The life of a bullfighter outside the plaza de toros is becoming almost as important as his life within it. Morante de la Puebla, formally known as José Antonio Morante Camacho, has caused a great deal of controversy due to his bouts of depression, which have forced him to withdraw from the profession for months at a time. Born in Seville in 1979, he took his alternativa in Burgos in 1997, and first fought as a matador in September 1998. He is often considered the most artistic bullfighter of the new generation, and one of the greatest masters of our time, if not the best, when it comes to the capote. He defines himself as an impulsive matador, led by instinct. However, he recently overestimated his boldness in the Plaza (bullring) at Puerto de Santa Maria, Cádiz, when he stumbled and was seriously gored by the bull. He spent five days in hospital after receiving severe muscle damage to his right leg. However, he quickly recovered and returned to the plaza in Málaga on 18th August 2009, and was successful enough to cut an ear.
The bulls used in bullfights are known as the toro bravo, a rare species of bull that is only found in Spain, the south of France, and some South American countries. The first mention of bulls in Spain dates to around 1000B.C, but the modern day toro is the product of selective breeding by Spanish farmers from all over Spain since the beginning of the 18th century. Nowadays they are classified according to their size, colour, markings, origin, face-shape and horns.
- Aficionado: fan of bullfighting
- La Alternativa: ceremony in which novilleros are proposed and seconded by two other matadors and thereby graduate from novillero to matador.
- Banderillero: matador´s assistant who places darts in the bull´s back
- Capote: pink and yellow cape
- Cornada: a goring
- Corrida: Spanish word for bullfight
- Cuadrilla: crew of assistants that travel with the matador
- Cuerno: horn
- Estocada: act of thrusting the sword
- Estoque: sword
- Fiesta Brava: lit. Wild feast. Another word for a bullfight
- Indulto: pardon granted to spare the bull´s life if it has behaved courageously
- Manso: a bull that won´t fight
- Matador: the bullfighter who kills the bull
- Mozo de espada: sword servant (the one that holds the sword until the matador is ready to use it)
- Muleta: red cloth used by the matador in the third and final act of the bullfight
- Novillero: young bullfighter that can only fight against the novillos
- Novillos/vaquillas: young bulls
- Oreja: ear of the bull, offered as a trofeo
- Orejas y rabo: two ears and a tail, the highest prize the matador can receive
- Paseíllo: the entering of the bullring by the toreros
- Picador: matador´s assistant who rides a horse and stabs the bull with a lance like spear
- Tauromaquia: the art of bullfighting
- Tercio de banderillas: the flag third
- Tercio de muerte: the death third
- Tercio de varas: the lancing third
- Torear: to bullfight
- Traje de luces: lit. Suit of lights. Very expensive, ornate and traditional suit worn by matadors. It is put on the matador with the help of a dresser, in a time-prescribed order
- Trofeos: trophies awarded to a matador following an outstanding performance