Spanish Bull Fighting – History, Tradition, and Controversy

🗓: 4 Aug | 🌍: Southwest Regions, Spain

As an young kid who lived in the United States, I grew up on the staple American meal of hamburgers. I have fond memories of weekly dinners with my father and sister, where we would eat delicious 50 cent hamburgers and drink vanilla shakes. Some years ago by son and I took a father and son road trip across Route 66 where we enjoyed many wonderful tasting hamburgers along this iconic stretch of Americana. To this day, I still enjoy eating hamburgers. What does this have to do about Spanish Bull fighting? First, let me explain what I learned about the history and traditions of this national sport.

Much of what we learned was started by visiting the Museo Taurino (Bullfighting Museum) in Córdoba, Spain. Afterwards, I spent some time reading what I could about Spanish-style bullfighting to learn more.

A Spanish Fighting Bull – The National Animal of Spain

The Spanish Fighting Bull is the National animal of Spain. When you visit Spain, it is obvious that this country loves their bulls. While riding throughout Spain we came across many black silhouetted billboards of the Osborne Bull (Toro de Osborne).

The image of the bull is found on stickers, post cards and other items. It has become a symbol for Spain by sports fans where the bull is embedded in the Flag of Spain in the manner of a coat of arms.

Pablo Picasso, the Spanish artist, painter, sculptor, printmaker, and ceramicist even included bulls in many of his works.

The Bull by Pablo Picasso, 1945

Many bulls come from Andalusia, where meadows of renowned establishments with names like Osborne, Juan Pedro Domecq, Marqués de Albaserrada, and Partido de Resina have operated for centuries. These breeders come from a long and proud history and are people who care for and know their animals.

Symbols and branding from many of the breeders throughout Spain.

To learn more about the breading of Spanish bulls read the article Bullfighting: what I found during a year on breeding estates by Robin Irvine

Spanish-Style Bullfighting

The history of bull fighting goes back to pre-Roman times however the sport of modern Spanish-style bullfighting is credited to Joaquín Rodríguez Costillares.

Rodríguez Costillares was a Spanish bullfighter, in the late 1700s, who established the “cuadrillas tradition” where teams of two or three banderilleros and two picadors taunt the bull. He also organized the tercios de lidia (thirds of fight), invented the Veronica and other basic cape movements as well as the current traje de luces (suit of light)

Matadors are national heros who are idolized in imagery and paintings.

The traje de luces (suit of lights) is the traditional clothing that Spanish bullfighters wear in the bullring.

Fernando Mariín Tortola (1946)

The bust of Manuel Laureano Rodríguez Sánchez (1917 – 1947), a Spanish bullfighter from Córdoba.

Colorful posters illustrate the fashion and tradition of Córdoba bullfighting in the 1950s

Antonio Cañero by Carlos Ruano Llopis (1926-1930 c.)

Antonio Cañero was a famous Rejoneador (bullfighter who fights the bull on horseback).

Rejoneador are typically revered as the best, because the rejoneador learns how to not only fight the bull, but also to direct the bull to protect his horse. This relationship of horse and rider is an ancient Spanish custom, and an important part of the tradition of bullfighting in Spain.

In 2017, Leonardo Hernandez literally went head to head with a bull during a battle in the San Fermin festival in Pamplona.
*Photo from Associated Press.

A Matadors statue in Toros, Spain

A statue of Carro Romero, Seville, Spain

Throughout our travels through southern Spain we noticed numerous bullrings where events would typically occur in the late spring and summer months. Due to COVID-19 there were not any events planned during our time there.

Toros has a event planned for August 1st.

The Death of the Bull

Proponents for bull fights argue that these events are are not meant to be a competition; they are meant to be a show, or play, with the final act being the valiant death of the bull under the courage of a skilled matador.

The kill is done by aiming straight over the bull’s horns and plunging the sword between its withers into the aorta region. This requires discipline, training, and courage; for this reason it is known as the “moment of truth”.

After the bull is killed it is ceremoniously dragged out of the ring and then slaughtered for consumption.
* Image from Stars and Stripes

Ethics of Bull Fighting Compared to Beef Consumption

Let’s consider the life of a Spanish fighting bull compared to the beef industry in the United States: The human Society International estimates that 250,000 bulls are killed each year for bullfighting. It’s estimated that 31 million cattle are slaughters for food consumption in the United States alone. The United States is the third largest producer of beef, behind China and Brazil. The bulls that are killed from bullfighting are just 0.8 percent of those that are killed for food consumption in the United States.

In an article titled The Eating Of The Bulls: From The Spanish Fighting Ring To The Plate, nutritionists Ismael Díaz argues that “Bulls bred for bullfighting are grass-fed, live in spacious fields and are particularly well taken care of, says Díaz. They also live a longer life than animals bred for human consumption — five to six years, as opposed to the average 18 months.” Díaz continues “that eating meat from fighting bulls is ‘more ethical’ than eating meat that comes from slaughterhouses, where animals often grow up in cramped spaces, are injected with hormones and don’t get to see the light of day.

“The fighting bull lives a completely privileged life, until its horrible death,” says Díaz, who recognizes that the animal “suffers stress” when it enters the ring. He says that while the tense fight can affect the taste of the meat, there are treatments cooks can apply to the meat that improve the taste. “So what’s better,” he asks, “a good life with a difficult death, or a limited life with a death that’s a bit less cruel?”

Conclusion

As someone who eats meat regularly, including beef, I feel it would be incredibly hypocritical of me to have an issue with Spanish-style bullfighting especially considering that beef production in my country, the United States, is responsible for the death of substantially more (12,300 times more) cattle than are killed in Spanish bull fighting.

Of course, one could argue, that this is not about the consumption of the bull. It’s about the cruelty and prolonged suffering of these animals for the sake of a spectator event. This is a point, I too, struggle with.

Animal rights activists feel bull fighting is barbaric and should no longer be practiced. This is a view that is becoming more and more popular: In a 2018 nationwide survey, 65 percent of Spaniards had little to no interest in attending a bull fighting event and for those aged 20 to 24 it was 76 percent. The Spanish newspaper El Pais also suggested that only 37% of Spaniards were fans of bull fighting.

The numbers of spectators who attend bull fighting events is on the decline and some regions of Spain has passed laws banning the practice all together.

The future of Spanish-style bull fighting looks grim. Most of the 2020 season has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a growing number of people are becoming outraged over the Spanish government contining to fund bullfighting with public money. Unless the industry can change and adapt, Spanish bull fighting may be something that we only read about in history books, internet articles, or blog posts.


Next Blog Post

Join us next blog post as we head south from Córdoba to enjoy the El Torcal de Antequera.


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A couple of vagabonds traveling the world on motorcycles.

7 thoughts on “Spanish Bull Fighting – History, Tradition, and Controversy

  1. Very interesting point of view. It is also true that, if bullfights disappear, so would the spanish fighting bull, since the breeding of these bulls is focused exclusively on bullfights and would no longer be profitable. Simply as a curiosity, the hospital where the bullfighter Manuel Laureano died, better known as “Manolete”, after a bull goring in Linares, is the same where I was born, the Hospital de los Marqueses de Linares.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting article. I have never thought of the ethics of meat consumption comparing bull fighting the day to day consumption. I always think it’s unfortunate to lose a part of a country’s culture so hope that this is not lost forever. To be completely honest, I don’t see how horse racing is much different in terms of raising an animal for profit and that’s so popular here.

    Like

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