In Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises (1926), several American ex-pats, damaged and disillusioned by their experiences in World War I, attempt to distract themselves by fishing, drinking, fighting, and watching the running of the bulls and the bullfights that were part of the San Fermin festival in Spain. After re-reading the novel, I was disappointed to find the whole group pretty unlikeable, but I was struck by Hemingway’s hunger to understand bullfighting. In particular, the matador and his relationship to the bull he interacts with and eventually kills.
Hemingway subsequently wrote Death in the Afternoon (1932), a non-fiction description of the traditions of Spanish bullfighting and a passionate defense of its virtues.
Both books introduced American audiences to bullfighting in general and Hemingway’s interpretation in particular. He talks knowingly about the famous matadors of the day because he studies their careers, eats at their favorite restaurants, and stays at their favorite hotels. He makes a point of identifying himself as an aficionado, an expert who understands and appreciates the complexity of the bullfight, different from and far superior to the mere tourist.
He glorifies the Spanish fighting bull as a semi-wild fighting machine, bred for aggression and strength, yet he adds, “In the old days, the bulls were usually bigger than they are now, they were fiercer, more uncertain, heavier, and older.” This introduces a common theme in works about bullfighting: the past was far more glorious than the present. The bulls were fiercer, the matadors braver, the whole spectacle more meaningful.
That’s an interesting thought. Today, bullfighting is losing some of its appeal even in Spain, especially for younger audiences. Many would rather watch football (soccer). Somewhere in the past, however, this combination of flashy spectacle and gore was not only meaningful but central to a culture.
Bullfighting is something of a misnomer, in that no man (or woman – Yes, there are a few female matadors) actually fights a bull, at least not the way boxers fight, more or less as equals, The Spanish fighting bull is bred to be aggressive and weighs about ten times more than the matador. So a more accurate term is the corrida, which can mean the running of the bulls or the bullfight itself.
In the corrida, there are different sections, each with strictly enforced rules. The toreros (bullfighters) are divided into three categories:
matadors, the stars of the show,
picadors, who ride horses and carry lances,
and banderilleros, helpers on foot who show the matador how the bull moves to the cape before he faces it. They also step in to help if the matador is injured.
The corrida has three parts:
The first section features the parade of participants and recognition of the presiding official, with the participants in colorful costumes that continue designs from the 17th century. The matador wears the traditional “suit of lights,” highly decorated and embroidered in silver or gold.
A recognized bullfight features three matadors who will face two bulls each in separate fights. The selection of bulls and order of go is decided ahead of time.
When the first bull enters, the matador observes as the banderillos show how it moves to the cape.
Then the matador moves out with a gold and magenta cape and does several passes, demonstrating his skill and learning the individual quirks of the bull.
Next the picadors, mounted on horses, jab the bull in the thick muscle where the neck meets the top of the shoulders with their lances, weakening it so that later the matador can stab it there.
The second section involves the planting of the banderillas, sharp sticks with colorful paper decorations into the bull’s neck and shoulders. These also weaken the bull.
The third section belongs to the matador alone. He must face the wounded bull, working closer and closer to it with each pass of his small red cape. At the moment of truth, the matador approaches the bull from the front and stabs it between the shoulder blades, killing it. The judges and audience then react to how well the matador has performed throughout the fight. This section, though the most famous, takes only about fifteen minutes from start to finish.
So how did this celebration of death all dressed in flamboyant colors come to be? Is it a spectacle? A competition? A sport? A sacrifice? It seems to have multiple threads tying the parts together, including agrarian games of skill and daring, Cretan bull leaping, Moorish mounted hunters, Celtic-Iberian bull cults, public spectacles and circuses, Mithraic bull sacrifice, and assorted mythological and religious elements.
Among those who work with cattle for a living, competition might turn into bull-riding, bull leaping, bull-fighting, steer wrestling, cowboy bull fighting, bull running, or bull-jumping. The images shown here include bull-riding in American rodeos, cowboy bull fighting, traditional Tamil (India) bull taming, bull-jumping (La Course Landaise, France) with the jumper’s feet encased in his cap, and bull fighting (Spain, Mexico, and Peru). The rodeo games are competitions, judged on form and time. The running of the bulls is a different kind of dangerous game, still wildly popular despite dozens of injuries participants suffer every year. But only traditional bull-fighting involves a public, ritualized execution of a bull.
It’s hard to think of a time in European ancient history where the bull didn’t play an important role. Shown here are paintings of a bull at Niaux Cave, France (13,000 years old) with barbed arrows piercing its side, one of the bulls from Altamira Cave, Spain (40,000 years old), and a strange panel of bull/man hybrids from Covaciella Cave, Spain (14,000 years old). In the last one, the panel seems to show a progression from wild bull to hybrid bull/man.
The same combination appears in Greek mythology, where the bull plays a major part in a twisted tale of deception and revenge. King Minos’s mother, Europa, was seduced by Zeus in the form of a bull, resulting in the birth of Minos and two brothers whom Minos defeated so he could be king. One day Minos asked Poseidon, god of the sea, to send a bull from the depths of the waters, which he would then sacrifice to the god. However, when the bull appeared, Minos kept it for himself and sacrificed a lesser one. Angry at the lack of respect, Poseidon (or maybe Venus/Aphrodite, depending on the version you’re reading) made Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, fall in love with a bull. She then gave birth to the hideous Minotaur, part man and part bull. Because he was so vicious, he was confined to the Labyrinth. There, Theseus finally killed him. Perhaps the original matador and bull.
The famous bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos, in Crete, Greece, shows a young athlete doing a flip along the back of a bull while two helpers look on. It’s from 3500 years ago. A bronze sculpture from about the same period shows another acrobat somersaulting over a bull’s horns. Ceramics, seals, rings, and figurines repeat the theme. It also appears in Egyptian art of the period and Syrian seals from a century earlier. Some archaeologists claim the practice was more symbolic than real, but Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated at Knossos, thought the acrobat pictured could vault over the bull by grabbing the horns, as shown in the diagram.
The Knossos bull-leap seems entirely possible to me, though the dimensions of the bull may have been enlarged for greater visual impact. Certainly, the new “bull fighting only” events in American rodeos regularly feature cowboys leaping or somersaulting over the backs of bulls. (See videos in Sources.) The practice would have been very dangerous, just as it is now, but that’s an important part of all of these spectacles. Some scholars feel the number of young people who died in the course of bull-vaulting displays added to the myth of children being sacrificed to the Minotaur in the Labyrinth.
Unfortunately, we don’t know the significance of the bull-leaping events at Knossos because we can’t read Linear A, their written language, and their civilization disappeared after a volcanic eruption on Crete. But along with the bull-leaping scenes, Knossos contained many images of bull sacrifice, so the bull-leaping may well have been part of a larger ceremony that ended with the bull being killed. In that case, it would have served a very different purpose from bull competitions and games.
Animal sacrifice meant to please or appease the gods was common at least as far back as 6,500 years ago, with extant records from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, and Greece.
In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, (2100 BCE), the hero-king of Uruk refused the advances of the goddess Ishtar, daughter of the Sky-God Anu, so she demanded her father send the Bull of Heaven down to exact revenge. The Bull brought droughts and plagues, but with the help of powerful spirits, Gilgamesh killed the Bull of Heaven and restored harmony, at least temporarily. “The Bull seemed indestructible. For hours they fought, till Gilgamesh, dancing in front of the Bull, lured it with his tunic and bright weapons, and Enkidu thrust his sword deep into the Bull’s neck, and killed it.”
Animal sacrifices to Zeus and other deities were ways for ancient Greeks to ask the help of the gods. They led the animal to the altar and poured water on its head. When it moved its head down from the water falling on it, on-lookers interpreted the gesture as a nod of agreement. The liver and entrails were examined after the animal died. If the reading was positive, indicating the gods had accepted the offering, the sacrificed animal became the centerpiece of a great feast.
The sculptural relief image in the photo shows a sacrificial procession in front of the Roman temple of Magna Mater (Great Mother of the Gods), sometimes called Cybele (600 BCE) and compared with the goddess Astarte. The bull’s spilled blood conferred upon the recipients the blessings of the goddess: purification, preservation, and well-being.
In the Greek vase pictured, a bull is led to the altar of Athena, who stands to the right (545 BCE). Often, the sacrifice of a bull was connected to a request for fertility and plenty. Sometimes it was a plea for rain after a drought.
One of the most important rites in Ancient Rome was the suovetaurillia, the sacrifice of a pig, a sheep, and a bull to the god Mars, so that the land would be blessed and purified. This ceremony preceded a public festival. In effect, the sacrifice was the reason for the fiesta that followed.
In Mithraism, popularized and spread by the Roman army throughout the Empire, the central image is Mithra, the god of light, kneeling on a bull as he stabs it. Blood pouring out of the bull fertilizes the Earth, and grain, flowers, and plants sprout from the spot. Life grows out of death.
Curiously, the Roman arena at Merida, Spain, which is still used for bullfights today, is built over a much older site of Celtic-Iberian bull sacrifice, so bulls have been ritually killed on that ground for well over 2000 years.
Between 160 and 300 CE, the taurobolium, the Roman sacrifice of a bull, changed from a communal offering to a personal one. The person being purified lay in a pit with a perforated board placed over it. The blood of the slaughtered bull ran down through the holes, so the person in the pit bathed in the purifying blood.
Animal sacrifice is often mentioned in the Bible as a way to recognize God’s blessings and atone for sins.
The first section of the book of Leviticus says:
The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. He said,
“Speak to the Israelites and say to them, ‘When any of you brings an offering to the Lord, bring as your offering an animal from either the herd or the flock. If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he is to offer a male without defect. He must present it at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting so that it will be acceptable to the Lord. He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him. He is to slaughter the young bull before the Lord, and then Aaron’s sons, the priests shall bring the blood and sprinkle it against the altar on all sides (Leviticus: 1 – 3)
And again in Leviticus 4:1:
If the priest sins, bringing guilt on the people, he must bring to the Lord a young bull without defect as an offering, sacrifice it, then dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle blood on the altar and base.
In the New Testament, Jesus, the Lamb of God, becomes the ultimate sacrifice, the one whose blood is capable of washing away all sins. Echoes of the taurobolium remain today in gospel songs like “Have You Bathed in the Blood of the Lamb?”
In all of these examples, the bull is sacrificed for a reason –recognizing the power of the gods, righting a wrong, submitting a request for divine intervention, or ensuring that life can flourish.
In Medieval Spain, a different kind of bull ritual involved a betrothed couple darting a bull so that some of its blood fell on both of them, thus insuring fertility in the marriage to come.
In the bullfight, the picadors, mounted on horses, stab the bull at the top of the shoulder with their lances in order to weaken it before the matador finishes it.
While they are now considered secondary players in the drama, at one time mounted bullfighters were the stars. When the Moors from North Africa conquered the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in 711, they brought their fine horses with them. Over their 700-year reign, mounted hunting challenges were a favored pastime of the aristocracy, early predecessors of the jousting tournaments favored in Medieval Europe. Among other animals, the Moors hunted wild bulls from horseback, using lances. It was a competition and a display of courage and horsemanship.
After the Christians drove the Moors out of Spain in 1492, Christian aristocrats continued the Moorish practice of hunting on horseback with spears. Bull-lancing tournaments became an important part of public celebrations. Even when Pope Pius V banned the practice in 1567 and threatened anyone who participated in it with excommunication, it continued. Finally, the Church settled for changing the rules, including limiting it to one bull in the arena at a time.
However, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the picadors’ horses were given thick padding to protect them from the bulls’ horns, preventing some of the goring deaths that were once quite common. While the picador horses may once have been exceptionally well-trained mounts of the Moorish aristocracy, the padded, blindfolded horses in use in the bullring today seem more like tragic participants in the spectacle.
When the aristocratic, mounted bullfighters of old were using an arena, they often employed peasants on foot to help out. These men flapped skins or capes at the beasts to distract them if the rider was in trouble. Occasionally, a man on foot would show such skill and bravery against the bull that he would become the star, despite his low social status. Gradually, the aristocrats abandoned bull-lancing as entertainment, and the common people embraced bullfighting as their own. Then and now, a matador can rise from poverty to riches if he has what it takes to be a superstar matador.
Matadors often lead short lives. Joselito and Manolete, two of the most famous bullfighters of the 20th century, were killed by bulls. Joselito died at 25, Manolete at 30. The young matador pictured, Victor Barrio, was killed in 2016, gored by a bull while he was still trying to break into the big time.
Part of the appeal of bullfighting, for both participants and spectators, is its inherent danger and presence of death. Some describe bullfighting as less a sport than a modern sacrifice. Hemingway called it a performing art and a tragedy. The matador featured in the Journeyman video listed in the Sources says, ”We create art with a fierce beast. It’s a ritual. It’s a liturgy.” One of the reporters described the relationship between the bullfighter and the bull as a “wonderful dance.”
Other matadors talk of the love they have for the bulls they kill, the intensity of the relationship between them in the last moments. “I love them and I kill them,” one explained.
Many of these descriptions include references to art, dance, and spirituality. Perhaps that’s part of what sets bullfighting apart. It’s also the only public spectacle where death is a welcomed participant. It’s interesting that bullfighting, with all its flash and style, speaks so loudly to certain people because it’s so clearly about death and dying. Or more accurately, the style of dying. A matador must be more than brave enough to face a fighting bull in a public arena. He must have a dancer’s grace in how he stands, how he moves, how he works the cape. And in the end, he must be “a good killer of bulls,” as Hemingway said, knowing how to approach the bull from the front, making sure its head is low and its front feet squared up, so the sword can go straight down between the shoulder blades. A botched coup de grace is a disgrace, no matter how skilled the cape work was that preceded it.
Although the modern bullfight is clearly the relic of thousands of years of ritual sacrifice and competition involving bulls, it lacks the underlying sacrifice necessary to justify it. There’s no divinity whose favor is being sought through this fight and death. It’s become a contest between men and beast, but the outcome is predetermined. Only the style of death remains to be proven.
Having killed animals for food (chickens and fish), I understand that the meat we buy wrapped in plastic comes from an animal that was slaughtered by someone. (About 31 million cows are killed for meat in the United States each year.) We just didn’t see it so we don’t have to think about it. The bullfight makes us uncomfortable because it’s clearly all about the style of death. The bull’s, sometimes the horse’s or the matador’s, and ultimately ours. It’s serious and intense.
A lot of anti-bullfight sentiment comes from animal rights groups that claim the bullfight is animal torture. I agree some parts are disturbing. I’ll probably never watch a live bullfight. But I find some of the criticism leveled against it unwarranted. One commentator from the BBC called Spanish bullfighting the “sole survivor of the games at the Colosseum, the Theater of Death.” After 70 CE, the Romans added Iberian bulls to the long list of exotic animals they imported to their arenas, including the Colosseum in Rome, where animals and humans were killed for the entertainment of Roman citizens. It was a reminder of the brutal power of the Empire – terror in the service of politics, hardly the first or last group to use the tactic. But the numbers of people and animals slaughtered in the Colosseum were staggering, especially for the time. Emperor Augustus bragged that more than 3500 wild beasts were killed in the arena during his reign. That record soon fell. Historian Cassius Dio estimated over 9,000 beasts were killed over a 100-day celebration. In addition to having the animals fight each other, they were often turned loose on people considered enemies of the state: criminals, prisoners of war, poor people, slaves, Christians, political rivals, undesirables. Occasionally, even the emperor got involved in the killing, though he was protected from any real harm. Emperor Commodus bragged he had slaughtered thousands of beasts and had himself depicted as the Greek god Hercules, complete with a lion’s pelt and club.
Though many sources cite the Roman spectacles in the Colosseum as the origin of the Spanish bullfight, the only connection I can see is the use of the circular arena, which spread with the Roman Empire. The Colosseum fights were meant to instill fear of the government. Most sports events today reinforce tribal/regional loyalty – Us vs Them. But the bullfight is neither of those. It’s a living anachronism. At its best, it’s a study of intense light and dark, life and death. It’s what remains of a sacrifice to the gods.
Sources and interesting reading:
Becker, Jeffrey, “Preparations for a Sacrifice (interpretation of the Roman frieze 100 CE, now at the Louvre Museum, Paris), Khan Academy, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ancient-art-civilizations/roman/early-empire/prepartions-for-a-sacrifice
Belmonte, Juan – Spanish Bullfighter,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Juan-Belmonte#ref671082
“Bullfighting: spectacle,” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/sports/bullfighting#ref884774
“Bullfighting – History,” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/sports/bullfighting/History
“Bullfighting,” Scholastic. https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/bullfighting/
“Bullfighting in Spain – Origins and History,” Spanish Unlimited, 22 February 2012, www.spanishunlimited.com/spain/culture/2012/2/bullfighting-in-spain-origins-and-history
“Bull-leaping,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bull-leaping
Clottes, Jean. Cave Art. London: Phaidon Press, 2008.
Collon, Dominique, “Bull-leaping in Syria,” Egypt and the Levant 4:81-88 (1994)
“Course Landaise,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Course_landaise
“Cretan Bull, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cretan_Bull
Gray, Geoffrey, “A Bullfighter’s Sacrifice,” New York Magazine, 10 July 2016, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2016/07/bullfighters-sacrifice.html
“Great Mother of the Gods,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Great-Mother-of-the-Gods
Harrison, Richard, “Inside the Ancient Bull Cult” History Today, 10 July 2019, https://www.historytoday.com/miscellanies/inside-ancient-bull-cult
Hemingway, Ernest. Death in the Afternoon. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1932.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1926.
The Holy Bible, New International Version. Zonderan Publishing House, 1984.
Kennedy, A. L. On Bullfighting. New York: Anchor Books, 2001.
Lorca, Federico Garcia, “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias,” World Literature. (Donna Rosenberg, ed) New York: McGraw Hill, 2004
McInerney, Jeremy, “Bull and Bull-Leaping in the Minoan World,” Penn Museum magazine, 42:3, 2011.
“Moors in Spain” By Alfonso X(Life time: 1221-1284) – Original publication: Cantigas de Santa Maria https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42629227 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moors#/media/File:MoorsinIberia.jpg
“Minoan Bull-leaper,” (photo of sculpture) Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Minoan_Bull-leaper.jpg
PETA on bullfighting https://www.peta.org/issues/animals-=in-entertainment-cruel-sports/bullfighting/
“Picador on Horseback,” Spanish, 19th century, anonymous, Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/761113
Sherwood, Lyn, “Reflections on the Last ‘Golden Age’ and a Lament for the Current ‘Bronze Age’” Bullfight World, La Prensa San Diego, 30 April 2004 https://laprensa-sandiego.org/archieve/april30-04/sherwood.htm
“Spanish-style bullfighting,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish-style_bullfighting
“Taurobolium” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Taurobolium
“Gore and Glory: The Art of Bullfighting” (2002) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntbawAqz7Go Journeyman TV
Bull leaping https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vqyPbFccjo
Bull leaping video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vqyPbFccjo&t=92s
Bull riding https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Vp9N8LhMGs
“Bulls After Dark” Bullfighting at the Calvary Stampede, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnmkIZYsTys
Steer Wrestling https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8lyJUY5Ndw
Vaulting video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUuFww8u0rw