The Spanish term corrida de toros literally means running of the bulls. This second Snippets of Spain post is dedicated to our experience attending the Annual Easter Saturday Bullfight in Malaga.
‘Mas cornadas da el Hambre’
‘Hunger gives more gorings [than the bulls do]’
“Traditionally, bullfighters were poor country boys. Indeed, it was assumed that only someone who had known hunger would have the incentive to get into a ring and risk a goring (cornada).”
The New Spaniard, John Hooper, p423 second edition
Reader take note: this post describes and shows photos of Spanish bullfighting that may cause distress to some readers.
I have not done any research on Spanish bullfighting before entering the Plaza De Toros La Malagueta arena, which is a beautifully round and historic bullfighting stadium in downtown Malaga. The first event conducted inside this stadium was in 1876 so there has been a long and sustained history and culture of this “art form” or “culture” as many describe as in Malaga. The ritual of the bullfight is paramount and bullfighting itself has been conducted in many countries, including Spain, for some 300 odd years. So I attend this bullfight without understanding the intricate art, detail or knowledge of what will actually go on and what I will bear witness to inside a Spanish bullfighting arena. And although my mind is full of assumptions – one bull, one matador, red capes and a ‘dance’ with the bull before it is killed (is it really slaughtered in front of us all?) – I’m still more than a little curious to know what actually occurs.
“The aim of the toreros [bullfighters] is not to kill the bull as swiftly as possible, as would be the case with genuine combat, but to enact a ritual in which the plot is identical, but the variations infinite.”
The New Spaniards, John Hooper, p417 second edition
Steve, Charlie, Ash and I decide to buy four 20 Euro tickets and attend the Spanish bullfight even though this event is on our second day in the country. The bullfight, as much as we can get out of the helpful lady behind the counter at Malaga’s Information Centre, happens right here in Malaga twice a year and it just happens to be that Easter Saturday (today) is one those days. Our decision to attend is not made light heartedly, and we discuss at length the pros and cons of attending. But we are all open to attending and make a pact that if anyone of us is uncomfortable with any part of the bullfight we would depart. I’m curious to know what actually happens inside the arena at a bullfight and am also keen to be able to form my own opinion about whether Spanish bullfighting is in fact a long held cultural art form or indeed an archaic past time or a cruel and bloody sport.
We find our numbered seats that are positioned in the warm glow of the setting sun. The seats are not seats as such, but rather a dedicated bum-width space along a long concrete step that goes all the way around the bullring. We are mid-level so there are rows below and above us. I notice the crowd slowly entering and finding seats, many Spanish spectators carrying with them a thin mat to sit on while others have brought along binoculars.
A few rows down directly in front of us is a dedicated band area where a three-piece trumpet band sits. They play the trumpet and help create a typical Spanish mood and atmosphere to the bullfight. And with the blow of their trumpets, the event starts.
Through the gates directly below and left to us, the group of participants appear. Matadores who are called Matador de toros which translates as professional bull killer, Picadores “Lancers” on horseback with their horses wearing a padded rug hung over their body, Banderillos or “Flagmen”, and other supporting characters such as the Mozo de espadas “Sword page” who are the Matadore’s assistants all enter the historic, perfectly rounded, golden sand arena together. The small crowd claps and cheers while the bullfighting participants enter as a parade or paseíllo to salute the presiding dignitary sitting directly opposite us on the other side of the arena.
The costumes are spectacularly colourful and richly embroidered. The torero costumes are inspired by 18th century Andalusian clothing and the Matadores are easily distinguished by their spectacular and quite costly traje de luces or “suit of lights” often custom-made and embroidered with silver or golden thread. There are different horses – elegant Spanish horses that are highly trained in dressage that prance in the arena on tippy toes and then there are less elegant looking horses who look more heavy and flat footed. Soon we will come to understand these differences.
The introductory ceremony concludes and the participants leave through the gates. All that remains are three Matadors with their capes. And without warning a massive bundle of black muscle – the bull – enters the arena through the gates. These bulls can weigh up to 1000kg. It races across the arena with its eyes wide open and mouth already frothing. The specially bred Spanish Toros (bulls) are an Iberian cattle breed selected for their special combination of aggression, strength, stamina, and intelligence. It is a beautiful looking black bull and in one glance we sense it’s strong, shining, muscular, and dangerous nature. These bulls apparently reach maturity slower than normal meat breeds, and they’re selected mainly for the bundle of muscles over the shoulder and neck area called the morillo which gives these bulls their distinctive profile and strength in its horns. They have never been inside an arena with the Matadores before this very moment, and they will never leave it again alive.
There are three distinct parts to a Spanish bullfight:
Stage 1: Tercio de Varas “part of lances”
Picadores are bullfighters or “lancers” who are mounted on horseback with varas (lances). The lance is attached to the end of a very long pole and their aim is to stab the bull in the morillo (mound of muscle) area producing the first loss of blood. These horses are the tall, heavy, and flat footed ones and they’re also blindfolded and wear a protective mattress-like covering over their bodies. Unfortunately, prior to the 1930s these horses were gored to death inside the ring by the bull. These horses are not specially corrido trained (like the prancing dressage horses coming up) and their purpose is to give height to the Banderillos so they can insert the lance which in effect weakens the neck and makes the bull less dangerous.
“This has always been the most hotly debated phase of the fight. One reason is that, whatever changes were made, this lead either to more punishment for the bull or to greater risk for the horses. In the old days, when the picador had a more or less ordinary and unprotected mount, it was the norm for horses to be gored, and to be stumbling over their own entrails by the time they left the ring.”
The New Spaniard, John Hooper, p420 second edition
The two Picadores enter the arena on horseback. When we first watch the bull charging with its head down towards the still horse, and then trying to gorge the horses’ underbelly with its horns we instantly place our hands over our wide open mouths, like we are about to watch a tragic accident in real time, and naturally we turn our eyes away. As we are not expecting to see this occurring to the horse, it took us completely by surprise and we felt shocked. Ash was asking, “Is the horse hurt? Is it bleeding? It’s got to be!”
Some people in the know say the horses are drugged so that they are these docile creatures in the bullring, others say that the horses are not only blindfolded but also their ears and nostrils are filled as to not sense the approaching bull which prevents them from taking their normal response – get the hell out of there! The horse does not move or shy away at all from the heavy pure rage coming for it. It already feels so inherently wrong, but for the horse not the bull at this first stage. It’s certainly a confronting first part of the bullfight, and one that I’m glad has changed its rules since the 30s. The horses do not get hurt, well they didn’t today but I have read online of tragedies occurring from time to time.
Stage 2: Tercio de Banderillas “part of Banderillas”
A number of Banderillos (another type of Matador) attempt to plant two barbed sticks called banderillas “little flags” into the bull’s shoulder. Not in the same place as the lance lodged itself in, but another area of the neck so the colourful sticks bend over the bull’s flank. This again is intended to weaken the bull’s neck and shoulder muscles and the bull experiences more loss of blood and gradually becomes weaker starting to show signs of exhaustion. By the end of this stage the bull stands in the middle of the arena with a number of colourful sticks inserted into the top of its morillo region hanging down over its shoulders with a trail of dark red blood flowing all the way down its two front legs. Patches of blood remain on the sand where the bull stands.
The Banderillos hold a large gold and magenta cape out and move it about. It’s called a capote and it entices the bull to charge at them – bulls are attracted to charge at moving objects – while the Banderillos move by running and literally jumping behind the safety barricade around the ring. It is there in their safety that the bull watches them until something else gains his attention. The Matadores can also place the colourful banderillas into the bull while on foot or on the specially trained dressage horses. The bull tires from charging at the horse or the cape. These magnificent horses literally prance around the bullfighting arena, escaping from the brutal touch of the bull as it charges at it. The horse and bull are in a dance. From this higher point, the Matador leans over and down to place the colourful banderillas into the bull’s shoulder-neck area. If anything this requires an amazing set of skills both for rider and horse. At times I was aghast at how close the bull came to ramming the back legs of the horse and how amazingly balanced the Matador was in leaning over the top of the bull while his horse was moving in the opposite direction.
Stage 3: Tercio de Muetre “part of death”
The Matador re-enters the arena alone on foot. He carries a smaller red cape called a muleta in one hand and a sword used to deliver the killing blow, the estoque, in the other. He uses the muleta as a demonstration of control and risk in getting close to the bull. By the way bulls are colour blind, so their rage to charge is not caused by the red colour of the cape (like we were all led to believe) but by the cape’s movement made by the Matador. The reason the colour of the muleta (cape) is red is so the blood is be less noticeable.
“The bullfight is not a sport in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the word, that is, it is not an equal contest or an attempt at an equal contest between a bull and a man. Rather, it is a tragedy; the death of the bull, which is played, more or less well, by the bull and the man involved and in which there is danger for the man but certain death for the animal.”
Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway, p14
On the one hand, from a foreigner’s perspective, it is an unequal fight. We can’t help but see that the bull has been intentionally weakened and exhausted by stages of attacks on it by varas (lances) and banderillas, and the bull is quite noticeably puffing and panting due to a large loss of blood. But the finale comes with the tanda – a series of passes between the bull and Matador. The crowd enjoy the series of final passes where the Matador displays an ability to almost touch the bull while it passes him. This is the intimate dance of death: a final dance between man and beast. On the other it’s a demonstration of skills. There are many passes in this final part, and each pass demonstrates the Matador’s skills and talents and ability to avoid being gored by the bull’s horns. The crowd call out “ole” which is an exclamation of approval or encouragement from the stand. As a foreigner I cannot distinguish between the different passes. I’m still in too much shock to do any such thing. But the Spaniards in the crowd are watching the intricate showcase of skills by the Matador in the arena. I’m watching the demise of the bull as it just keeps going.
The end comes when the Matador uses the muleta (small red cape) to manoeuvre the bull into a position so as to literally stab it between the shoulder blades and through to the aorta or heart with a sword. The Matador thrusts the estoque (sword) into the bull and then the bull simply collapses to the ground. It dies almost instantly. If not there is another sword to severe its spinal cord but we didn’t have to witness that one.
Not long after the bull collapses, the gates open and three small donkey-ponies displaying decorative coloured plaits in their manes and red flowers all over their bridals are led out by two men on either side of them. They enter the arena pulling a contraption behind them. They arrive to the final place of the dead bull and attach it to the contraption and haul/drag the dead bull out of the arena. In an instant the arena ‘cleaners’ arrive swiftly in smart uniforms to the bloodied scene and begin the clean up of red blood stains in the sand and efficiently smooth over the uneven surface with a rake left from the dragging exit of the heavy lifeless bull.
That was bull number one; there were others. A larger black bull enters the arena. He looks much bigger than the first one and a lot more furious. The same three stages of the corrida occur. Except this time at the end, before the death of the bull with the Matador’s estoque (sword), the people in the stand wave white handkerchiefs in the air. This is a sign of the crowd’s pleasure at this bull’s stamina and performance and it’s a request for it to be pardoned from death. And although pardons are granted by dignitaries sitting in their boxes at times, on this occasion it is not. Then a third bull enters – this one is a light grey coloured bull. We decide to depart our seats and leave the stadium before it is killed by the Matador.
“If a matador does particularly well, the official who presides over the corrida can award him (or her) one or two ears or the tail of the bull as a trophy.”
The New Spaniards, John Hooper, p417 second edition
So what do I think about Spanish bullfighting now that I have attended an event? Well it’s obviously not for me as we ended up departing before the finishing ceremony. I do acknowledge both the cruel aspect and the cultural splendor of bullfighting as well as the art form of the Matador. But the long drawn out suffering and the senseless and slow killing of the bull disturbs me. I’m not Spanish so with only attending this first and one time, it’s really hard for me, an Australian with no historic or cultural ties to bullfighting, to judge something that has been performed in Spain for hundreds of years.
But if someone asked me would I be for or against bullfighting, I would personally say I’d be against it. Steve, Charlie and Ash are of the same opinion. Steve believes after watching a Spanish bullfight that it was both fantastic with the great skills demonstrated by the matador and the beautiful horses but with a tragically disgusting end to the bull. Charlie felt that the whole event was sickening and horrible. Ash feels that the first 10 minutes was most interesting especially the dressage horses and the matador’s facing an uninjured bull with their magenta and gold capote’s (capes), but then the remaining (ie majority) of the bullfight was about slowly killing the bull. She really disliked the way the dead bull was dragged out of the stadium too.
It seems that bullfighting, as it is, has the potential to disappear off the Spanish calendar and tourist circuit as the Spanish and visiting crowds (well here in Malaga on Easter Saturday anyway) don’t attend in large numbers. And the thoughts coming from some of the locals we have met in the streets and cafes and asked their opinion on bullfighting is a mixed response of thumbs up and down.
I suppose time will tell what will happen to the future of this historic spectacle bundled with magnificence and tragedy.