The Spanish Bullfight: A Choreographed and Controversial Spectacle

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Runners take on the bulls on Estafeta Street, July 2013.

The ritual of the bullfight—“la corrida de toros” or “running of the bulls”— is one of the longest standing traditions in Spain. While its exact origins are unknown, bullfighting remains a tradition unique to the country, and one that symbolizes the dichotomy between human civilization (as represented by the matador) and nature (as represented by the bull). Because of its ritualistic character, bullfighting is largely considered an art rather than a sport—though it is certainly physically demanding. Bullfighting is most popular in Spain’s southernmost region of Andalucía, where corridas are held every spring in Sevilla’s famous Maestranza arena, and, of course, in Pamplona—the capital city of Navarra, in the north.

A matador seen with the bull in the final sequence of the bullfight. Taken in Madrid Spain.
A matador seen with the bull in the final sequence of the bullfight. Taken in Madrid Spain.

In a traditional bullfight, three matadors fight two bulls each; the matadors receive their assignments in a morning lottery known as el sorteo, and the bullfight unfolds late afternoon in a series of three acts. First, cuadrillas (teams of fighters) systemically weaken the bull as picadors, mounted on horseback, lance the animal to weaken its neck muscles. In the second act, banderilleros carry out the initial cape work and place banderillas (barbed darts) into the bull. In the third act, the matador appears and performs a ritual display with the muleta—the characteristic red cape of the bullfight—before delivering the fatal sword thrust. When matadors perform extraordinarily well, they receive one ear of the bull as a sign of victory. The best matadors are presented with both of the bull’s ears and the tail.

In Pamplona, “La Fiesta de San Fermín” adds another dimension to the bullfighting ritual: el encierro, the traditional “running of the bulls.” Every morning between July 7-14, six bulls make their way through town to the bullfighting ring as hundreds of individuals (predominantly men) run alongside them in a dangerous spectacle. These bulls are used later in the day in the ritual.

Bullfighting, though embedded in Spanish culture, is also a controversial practice, banned in Catalonia in 2010 for animal cruelty and as an expression of the northern region’s desire to secede from Spain. The Constitutional Court of Spain overturned the ban in the fall of 2016—but bullfighting remains a highly contested custom.

As a ritual, the Spanish bullfight is both brutal and beautiful, and its carefully orchestrated movements are often likened to ballet. In his 1932 account of Spanish bullfighting, Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death.” For both matador and bull, the bullfight is an art in which both are made vulnerable.