On the Culture Surrounding Bullfights
El Toro Bravo. The Brave Bull. The Spanish Fighting Bull. No animal is mightier, stronger, more dangerous, deadly, or majestic. El toro bravo is NOT an ordinary bull that many would associate with being a bull. It is a behemoth of creatures, and the much of the Spanish people believe whole heartedly that it is King of the beasts, not the lion. In ancient Roman coliseums, the strength and majesty of el toro bravo was tested by pitting it against lions, tigers, elephants, and bears; it won a vast majority of these matches. One of the many images the Catholic Church has for the devil/a demon is a giant bull, black in color, blood red eyes, fiery hooves, and immense horns. Because of the Catholic Church’s influence in Spain, it becomes undoubtable where this image came from. El toro bravo has become a culture within a culture, a fanfare and spectacle within a fierce debate.
The bullfight is not a part of mainstream Spanish culture. The bullfight is nothing but a pathetic translation of what a corrida is. A corrida is not a bullfight. It is a traditional, ritualistic dance of death with man and beast. They are not fighting, it is not a sport, it is not win or lose; it is life or death, it is a live-action art form, it is not to be taken in any other context. The corrida is only the main event in the culture that surrounds el toro bravo. The rest of the culture, despite being better defined as a subculture, is still a culture. Religion, food, media, language, activities, lifestyles, and even politics all play an important part in the culture of el toro bravo. Beginning with the ancient history of the corrida, to the rituals and superstitions or the matadors, climbing all the way through to International politics; el toro bravo may not be celebrated globally, but it has a global impact. Not bad for a semi-secluded tradition dating back to prehistory.
Religion, food, language, media
Indeed, there are cave paintings in Spain that depict men lancing bulls and bison. The rituals of the corrida are Pagan in origin. El toro bravos ‘slain’ for sacrifices to the gods. The Roman Empire more than likely adopted their coloseums and gladiator matches from ancient Spanish corridas (although vice versa is not without probability as well). When the Roman Empire became Catholic, so did Spain, and thus ended the Pagan practices within the country. But the Pagan influence was not driven out completely; much of the Patron Saints of cities that have bullrings, or plaza de toros have pagan origins. The church has simply assimilated the pagan traditions and made it their own. Most fiestas occur around or on Catholic holidays (once Pagan celebrations), and usually these fiestas are crowned with one or several corridas. So the religious connection becomes obvious. The Catholic Church is traditional, ritualistic, and resistant to change; the matadors are traditional, ritualistic, and resistant to change. Catholic priests attend corridas, bless the bulls, matadors, swords, everything. And the matadors pray to the Patron Saints and to God for a good fight. In the permanent plazas del toros, there are churches located inside the arenas themselves.
The proletariat of northern Spain identifies itself with the corrida in many ways; food, language, and the media. American sports and television shows have created a vast wealth of catch phrases that most people understand, but not everyone knows the true origin of. In much that same process has the corrida shaped and molded the catch phrases of Spanish pop culture. Dozens of movies have been produced about corridas and el toro bravo, many translated into English. The most famous movie is called Blood and Sand and because many corridas are televised, broadcasted over radio, and almost all are reviewed in newspapers, any term used to describe el toro bravos, corridas, or the performances of famous matadors will probably be picked up by the populace. The coverage of corridas by popular media compares easily to any professional sport in America, but because the corrida and el toro bravo are considered traditional, the coverage also includes literature to an extent that is unimaginable in America. The national library of Spain has some 4,500 different pieces of literature about the rich tradition involved with corridas and el toro bravo. One of those traditions is the fiesta. The fiesta is, many times, a celebration of el toro bravo. The celebration of an “angry pot roast” (The Spanish Senorita…) can only end one logical way. Pot roast. After el toro bravo falls dead in the plaza de toros, its body is dragged into a butcher’s shop and butchered. If el toro bravo is especially prized for its size, or performed especially well in the corrida, then its meat will also be especially prized, and much of it is bought up by premium restaurants. The testicles of a great el toro bravo are considered a delicacy and a very potent aphrodisiac. The bulk of the meat is given to local vendors for use during the fiesta, and consumed by the general populace in some manner.
The allure of the corrida reaches everyone. Much like American children dream to be sports athletes and pop singers, do Spanish children dream of being matadors (boys make up an overwhelming majority of those who dream to be matadors; a reflection of the disproportionate amount of women matadors; two, as of 1999). In the past, young boys would endanger themselves by climbing the fences of el toro bravo’s grazing area and ‘dancing’ with young bulls, only one to three years of age. In many cases this led to death, but in maybe just as many cases, if not more, it lead to the young boys becoming apprentice matadors, called novillero. And because bulls remember human encounters (for good or for bad), the young boys’ teasing usually makes the young bulls fiercer in the corridas. In this day and age, most of the matadors come from a poor country background, a true rags-to-riches story. Formal ‘bullfighting colleges’ have been opened; the most famous in Madrid, but these are under attack by some for teaching young matadors methods instead of art. This concern is reflected in the stands of the plaza de toros by some. There are always those that heckle the matador for being too safe, or making a cheap jab at el toro bravo. Not because they protest corridas or the slaying of el toro bravo, but because they enjoy the artistic dance created by man and beast, and see anything else as unacceptable. Another group of people that go to corridas and heckle the matador are those that participate in the Running of the Bulls. These people are the first and foremost people to endanger themselves in the presence of the bulls. A typical encierros, or running of the bulls, has five to six male bulls of various ages (usually only one or two el toro bravo, being five years of age), and then around nine ‘fighting cows.’ Because they place themselves in the most danger, those that participate in encierros feel a sort of kinship with el toro bravo, and do not easily tolerate the abuses by the matador. Women also feel the allure of the corridas, but a disproportionate number. Only recently have women been allowed to attend corridas, that considered it can be called a miracle that women matadors were christened only twenty years after women were first allowed to attend. Truly the job of a matador appeals to everyone. Matadors are some of the highest paid performers on Earth, much less in an semi-impoverished nation like Spain, and get to date wealthy women, live in large houses, and marry beautiful actresses and singers. Because of the wealth and status, matadors have become the targets of paparazzi. They are pursued by the Spanish tabloids as fiercely as British tabloids pursue the British Royal family. But it is not all fun and games for the matadors, he can easily die in the plaza de toros.If a matador is beloved enough by the people, as the good ones always are, his death is mourned nationally. If the death is caused by gorging, it makes his death only more bitter for the Spanish peoples.
Because of the massive support for the corrida and el toro bravo that a great deal of the population of Spain has, politics would eventually be unable to ignore the issue; for good or ill use. During the Inquisition and many following years, the Spanish royalists and the Catholic Church tried to outlaw and ban the corrida as a savage and paganistic practice. The throne executed matadors, and the Church excommunicated attendees, some of whom were priests. But the tradition lived on. Eventually politicians saw the corrida as a potential and powerful political tool for use in gaining the support of the people. During the military regime of Francisco Franco during the 1960’s, the number of corridas held increased dramatically. In part because Franco believed the corrida was part of a Catholic Spainish tradition, but also in part to increase tourism in Spain. Because of the sharp increase in the sheer number of el toro bravo needed for the increased number of corridas and because of a shift from bull to man in the interest of the public, breeders began to selectively breed a weaker el toro bravo. The original genetic strain pf el toreo bravo comes from an ancient species of bull, long since extinct. El toro bravo is only naturally (domestically?) found in Spain; but because of inbreeding and purposeful weakening of the bulls, the majesty once held by el toro bravo is not what it once was. The bulls are larger, yes, but not in a good way. The bulls are overweight with weakened front legs. This combination has the potential to cripple any toro bravo in the plaza de toros because it cannot turn fast enough nor can it sometimes support its own weight on its front legs, causing the beast to collapse.
Another ‘illegal’ trick is horn shaving. Horn shaving is done to el toro bravos to distort their sense of distance; the bulls believe that they are an inch or two closer than they really are. In extreme cases that are easily argued as abuse, the nerve endings in the horns are exposed, not only distorting el toro bravo’s sense of distance, but making it afraid to ram and gorge matadors and walls because of the pain that just the open air causes to the exposed nerves. These two maltreatments are done by breeders for one simple reason: to protect the matador. Many times the matador is a son, or even a son in-law of the breeder, and shaving the horns of a bull to protect the matador seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and it is, in that argument. But it undoubtably puts el toro bravo at a disadvantage; so much of a disadvantage that the national government took steps to inspect the horns of the bulls post-mortem. El toro bravo with shaven horns would result in penalties and punishment for the breeder. This law was never put into effect, however, because the breeders and matadors went on strike, just prior to the opening season of corridas, and the economic pressures created by the strike forced the government to buckle down and accept the will of the breeder/matador union. That is the power of el toro bravo, but isn’t even the full extent of the beast’s influence. Even though not all of Spain has a tradition of corridas, regional governments loathe unpopularity so much that they ignore the requests of animal rights activists in favor of the tradition of el toro bravo. That is, they fear unpopular reactions from banning or barring corridas and other related activities, even though the area they govern has no tradition of such activities. Animal rights activists have only gotten one Spanish province to ban all related activities; the Canary Islands. Corridas and the subsequent treatment of el toro bravo also delayed Spain’s entry into the European Economic Community. But Spain was allowed to join, after a great deal of fierce debate, with out having to alter any of its existing laws regarding el toro bravo.
El Toro Bravo. The Spanish fighting bull. A force that will not be ignored, both physically and metaphorically. The sole fact that there is an entire culture within a culture that surrounds this beast is impressive enough, but when one considers that the traditions involved with the culture have survived (by moderate adaptation to the era) since long before the 1st century bc. then the reaction is ‘unimaginable.’ Spain would not be the country it is now with out the corrida. Latin America would not be the same with out the corrida. Southern France would not be the same without the corrida. Southern California would not be the same without the corrida. The world would not be the same without el toro bravo. There is so much more of the culture surrounding this majestic beast that is going to go unsaid because of lack of good resources available to me (mostly because I don’t speak Spanish). So much. The evolution of the matadors’ origins from wealthy noble to poor miser. The slang created by the corrida. Female matadors and the changing face of the aficionados, those who whole-heartedly support corridas. Southern Spain’s views on el toro bravo. The national pride and use as national animal of el toro bravo. So much unsaid simply because I can’t read the Spanish resources based on majestic el toro bravo. So much importance lost because I cannot fully grasp the culture surrounding el toro bravo. So much.
Things I can mention here but couldn’t work into the original essay:
- After the corrida, the matador is awarded el toro bravo’s ear. If he performs especially well, the president of the corrida may award him the second ear or even the tail to keep as trophies.
- The minimum weight a bull can be to be considered as an el toro bravo is 1,000 pounds, or about 500 kilos.
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Jordan, Barry; Morgan-Tamosunas, Rikki. (2000). Contemporary Spanish Cultural Studies. London: Arnold.
McCormick, John. (1992). In Defense of Poesie and Bullfighting. American Scholar, 61, 109-116.
McCormick, John. (1997). The Bullfight Gentrified. Society, 34, 48-51.
Rodgers, Eamonn. (Ed). (1999). Encyclopedia of Contemporary Spanish Culture. London: Routledge.
Stanton, Edward. (1999). Handbook of Spanish Popular Culture. London: Greenwood Press.
Stanton, Edward. (2002). Culture and Customs of Spain. London: Greenwood Press.