I am sure that most Spaniards would think (probably correctly) that few people outside Spain have the faintest clue about bullfighting. Most non-Spaniards instinctively dislike it – and are shocked by the bloodletting and apparent savagery. And yet, bullfighting in Spain remains popular and is considered by many Spaniards to be a fundamental part of the very culture of Spain.
So, what is it all about?
Well, probably the best explanation of bullfighting in Spain is presented by Ernest Hemingway in his classic book: ‘Death in the Afternoon’. This was published way back in 1932 – but it is, almost undoubtedly, still the best work on the subject.
Ernest Hemingway, of course, was a full-on ‘alpha’ male, who was a noted big game hunter and afficionado of bullfighting – having attended, so he claimed, some 1,500 bullfights. A terrific writer, his book ‘Death in the Afternoon’ is a classic work in its own right but, most importantly (in the context of bullfighting in Spain), it clearly describes what is happening in a bullfight and puts this activity into perspective – whether you like it or not!
Certainly, it is worth quoting Ernest Hemingway directly on some of his most important points. He says, for example, that ‘bullfighting is not a sport in the Anglo-Saxon sense’. It is something quite different and never claims to be an equal contest. It is, in fact, the ‘playing out of a tragedy’ within a tightly ritualised art form.
In fact, Hemingway says that ‘bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to a fighter’s honour’. In other words, bullfighting in Spain is (very crudely) a theatrical production – albeit one that involves not just emotion but the reality of death and injury.
Certainly, a bullfight in Spain can be likened to a play, in that it has three Acts (Tercios) - with the success of the ‘play’ depending upon the united performances of its two main protagonists. These are the matador and the bull itself – with bravery from the bull being required as much as supreme artistry from the matador. The latter is expected to place himself continually in huge danger in front of a ‘brave’ bull, whilst showing the grace and deftness of a ballet dancer.
Of course, immediately, most peope’s sympathies go out to the bull. However, Ernest Hemingway is quick to point out that ‘the fighting bull is to the domestic bull as the wolf is to the dog’. By this, he means that fighting bulls (torros) bear no resemblance whatsoever to the docile Fresians or Herefords grazing in your local fields.
Indeed, fighting bulls are huge, ferocious and bred specifically and only for their qualities of incredible aggression. ‘Muscled –up’, fast and bearing long, curved horns, by anyone’s standards, they are ‘wild’ animals – and just as deadly.
So what are the three Acts to a bull fight in Spain?
Act One is called the Tercio de Varas (trial of lances) and is, in effect, a ‘real’ trial during which the bull displays his courage (or cowardice). Usually, he is fast, vicious and ‘conquering’. He attacks, at will, anything in the ring, including the matadors with their cloaks and the picador on his horse. Although full of energy, the bull is actually at his least dangerous at this point.
The first Act ends with the bull having suffered, ‘mildly’, from the picador’s lance. However, although ‘successful’ in clearing the ring of the picador and other men, the bull will have been tired by his exertions and will now have become less wild and unfocussed in his charges.
Incidentally, prior to 1926, the picador’s horse was unprotected and would, invariably, be killed by the bull. Now the horses are protected and are rarely badly hurt.
Act Two is called the Tercio de Banderillas (which are short lances some 70cm long with 4cm long barbed points). This act, which lasts about five minutes, is the ‘sentancing’ to the ‘trial’. It is where the bull battles ‘unarmed’ men who place four pairs of banderillas into the huge muscles of the bull’s neck.
The placing of the banderillas, is intended to reduce the bull’s capacity to raise its head and correct any particular dangerous ‘hooking’ of its horns. Meanwhile, the bull is further tired through charging the men in the ring and its head is normally held much lower than before. However, the bull is now genuinely dangerous. Its charges are careful and deliberate and it concentrates its hatred on single objects (any man in front of it).
Act Three is the Tercio de muerte or the execution. This is when the matador controls and dominates the bull and when the matador can best show his ‘brilliance’, his courage and artistry. This is done through tempting the bull to charge at his muleta (a scarlet cloth held with a pointed stick). It is at this time that the matador will be allowing the bull’s horns to almost graze his belly, as he elegantly evades the bull’s charges.
Of course, by this time the bull is tired and, importantly, his head will be lowered. This is vital. Unless it is the matador will be unable to lean ‘safely’ over the front of the bull to plunge his sword between the bull’s shoulder blades.
The execution of the bull is the time of greatest danger for the matador and all his skills and bravery are brought into play as he undertakes the coup de grace. To do this ‘brilliantly’ he should approach the bull from its front and then lean over the very horns of the bull to insert his sword into the bull’s aorta.
The danger to the matador is obvious. Should the bull raise its head or hook its horns up unexpectedly then the matador will be gored and possibly killed…
One way or another, there is always death involved with Spanish bullfighting, making the title of Ernest Hemingway’s book ‘Death in the Afternoon’ nothing if not apt. Whether this is something that you would find interesting and enjoyable, of course, is a matter of personal preference.
In the case of Hemingway, he thought that ‘those who face death with dignity and courage live an authentic life’. I think, in the context of bullfighting in Spain, he meant this almost as much for the fighting bulls as he did for the matadors. However, this was the world view and philosophy of someone from a very different era – one that was inately tough and quite unlike the caring ‘softness’ of modern society.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of Ernest Hemingway’s views, it is hard not to consider bullfighting in Spain as anything other than an anachronism – given contemporary concerns about ‘green’ issues, environmental matters and the rights of wildlife and animals in general.
Finally, my last word on ‘Death in the Afternoon’. It is well worth reading not just for its excellent portrayal of Spanish bullfighting but also for its wonderful picture of Spain in the later 1920s-30s and the culture of Spain during those very different times.