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Bullfighting in Spain: What you NEED to know

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(Last updated on: 26/05/2022)

Bullfighting in Spain is big business. What what does it actually entail? And is bullfighting in Spain ethical? In this article I will talk all about bullfighting and tell you everything that you need to know.

What is bullfighting?

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Quite simply, bullfighting is a fight between a bull and a human. This person is known as a bullfighter or a matador. They are attempting to immobilise, subdue or indeed kill the bull – and there are usually rules and regulations for the fighting as well as various cultural expectations.

Bullfighting in Spain is, typically, known as Spanish-style bullfighting. This style is practiced outside of the country, in places like Portugal, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, the south of France and more.

Bullfighting is an important (and constitutional) tradition across Spain – it is a huge part of the country’s culture and history, and it is also a big factor for tourism in Spain too. The Spanish define it as an art form. Bullfight is different to the Running of the Bulls, which you can read about HERE.

What happens at a bullfight in Spain?

Bullfighting in Spain is very regimented.

At each bullfighting event you can expect to see three matadors (generally referred to as torero or diestro in Spain) each fight two bulls. Each of these matadors will have six assistants. These are:

  • Three banderilleros – those who carry and use the banderillas 
  • Two picadores – lancers on horseback
  • One mozo de espadas – a sword page

The bullfight is split into thirds – or tercios in Spanish. There is a parade called the paseíllo, with band music and the opportunity for the fighters and their assistants to salute the presiding dignitary at the event. Each tercio is announced with the sound of a bugle, and they go like this…

Terco de Varas

This translates to ‘the lancing third’. The matador confronts the bull with a magenta and gold capote (cape), testing for ferocity and performing various passes. This is a chance for the fighter to observe the behaviour of the bull and note any quirks it might have. 

The next part of this tercio sees one of the picadores enter the arena – with a lance of course. Horses wear padded covers to protect them from the bulls; prior to 1930, they didn’t wear this protection and many more horses died than actual bulls during bullfighting in Spain.

During this part of the event, the picador stabs the bull just behind its neck, where there is a mound of muscle. What the bull does after this gives the matador clues as to how to continue in the next stages of the fight.

Tercio de Banderillas

This is the ‘third of banderillas’ in which each of the three banderilleros will try to insert two banderillas into the bull’s shoulders. These are sharp barbed sticks. Naturally, this angers the bull and the fight intensifies.

Occasionally the matador himself will attempt to plant banderillas, but if he does so it will be in a more extravagant way. He will make it part of the whole performance with exciting moves and techniques.

Tercio de Muerte

The final third of the fight is known as the ‘third of death’. This is when the matador enters the ring alone, taking with him a small red cloth known as a muleta as well as a sword. The matador will use a series of passes to attract the bull and wear him down as well as thrilling the audience with theatrics. Tercio de Muerte is the most performance-based third when it comes to bullfighting in Spain. This is particularly thrilling for the audience.

It almost looks like the bull and the fighter are dancing together at times. This is known as a faena. At the end of it, the the matador uses his cape to get the bull into a position where he can stab it between the shoulder blades in a very dramatic pass. He uses his sword (known as an estoque) to stab the bull in an act called the estocada.

DID YOU KNOW: the cloth is not red because bulls react particularly strongly to the colour red – they are actually colour blind. The cloth was originally red to hide the blood from the audience, and is still red to this day in the interest of preserving tradition.

After the fight, the audience will ask the president for the matador to be awarded with an ear of the bull if they have performed exceptionally well – even two ears, if the performance was that good. In much rarer circumstances, a particularly brave bull will be pardoned (given an indulto) allowing it to be spared from death on the day. It will live out the rest of its natural life on a peaceful ranch.

The history of bullfighting in Spain

running of the bulls

Bullfighting in Spain has a long history. This is why it is so important to the Spanish people and why it is a protected part of their culture! It goes back to the worship and sacrifice of bulls in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean region, and extends to present day when bullfighting in Spain is very much still a part of life.

Way back in ancient Mesopotamia there was a poem written, entitled the Epic of Gilgamesh. One of the lines says “The Bull seemed indestructible, for hours they fought, till Gilgamesh dancing in front of the Bull, lured it with his tunic and bright weapons, and Enkidu thrust his sword, deep into the Bull’s neck, and killed it”. This could well be the world’s first recorded bullfight, although this massively pre-dates bullfighting in Spain.

Bullfighting was considered to be an incredibly noble sport in medieval Spain. It was something that really only the rich took part in, as they had the means to supply (and also train) the bulls. Back then, it was simply a bull being released into a closed arena to fight a solo man on horseback who had a lance. The best bullfighter in these days was said to be a knight called El Cid.

Later, in around 1726, Francisco Romero is said to have been the first to introduce on-foot bullfighting in Spain. He was also the first to use the mutela and the estoc. This drew a bigger crowd than previous types of bullfighting, and the modern form of the sport was born from this.

Bullfighting in Spain is completely legal. It is actually encouraged by the government and lawmakers in the country. As previously mentioned, it as a hugely important part of the Spanish culture and heritage. While it is controversial around the world, Spain regards it as something brilliant. There are bullfighting schools for children, and to be a matador makes you something of a celebrity. 

In 2013, the Spanish national government passed a law stating that bullfighting is in fact an indisputable part of Spain’s cultural heritage. This came after the parliament of Catalonia, a Spanish region, voted to ban bullfighting in the area in 2009. The ban went into effect in 2012, but was overturned in 2016 because of the law passed by the national government three years earlier.

A year later, in 2017, the island of Mallorca passed a law that banned the killing of a bull during a bullfight. However, thanks again to the 2013 ruling, this new law was deemed to be partially unconstitutional.

The ethics of bullfighting in Spain

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Bullfighting is the most traditional of Spanish Fiestas and has been throughout modern history. However, despite having Government approval to continue, there is mounting public pressure to ban bullfighting in Spain on ethical grounds.

Pressure groups attempt to lobby against bullfighting, yet the King of Spain himself has allegedly stated that the day the EU bans bullfighting is the day Spain leaves the EU. Cleary he is very passionate about this.

This raise in momentum is the result of societal change- society has become more conscious about these matters. Ethical tourism is fast moving towards the mainstream and people are much more conscious about which forms of wildlife tourism they partake in and which they avoid.

There are many reasons that bullfighting in Spain is viewed as being unethical- from the way that the bulls are trained to the way that many are sadly killed during and after the fights. Such activities would not occur in many parts of the world in the modern day, yet they continue in Spain.

The Spanish Government and the King himself want to continue the ‘tradition’ of bullfighting in Spain because it is seen as an important part of their heritage and culture, it is an authentic tourism activity. However, isn’t it natural for us to grow and evolve? For us to reflect on our behaviours and to fix what might be broken?

I personally believe that bullfighting in Spain is an outdated and cruel activity that is absolutely unethical. But it seems that not everyone agrees…

Bullfighting – an important part of Spanish tourism

Bullfighting in Spain plays a significant, multifaceted, and controversial role in the country’s tourism industry. The bull is a symbol of Spain and a landmark of its countryside. It has played an important role throughout the history of tourism in the country.

Bullfighting in Spain is big business. Throughout the years, bullfighting in Spain has generated millions of Pounds for the Spanish economy. Due to demand, this expanded and increased in popularity over the years.

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Bullfighting occurs all over Spain. Some of the most famous bullrings include:

Personally, I don’t think that bullfighting in Spain has much of a future. People simply don’t want to watch animals being mistreated these days. I think that this industry’s days are numbered….

Famous bullfighters 

There has been many famous bullfighters over the years. Naturally, many of the best and biggest names came from Spain – here are some of them!

Manuel Laureano Rodríguez Sánchez – also known as Manolete (1917-1947).

He was considered to be one great bullfighters of all time, a serious fighter who was great at the suerte de matar.

There is a pass called the Manoletina, which was named after him.

There is also a statue of him outside the bullring in Linares.

He died after being gorged in the upper right leg by a bull during a fight.

Cayetano Ordóñez y Aguilera (1904-1961).

Head of a family of bullfighters, he was the first bullfighter to be carried (in triumph) through the main gates of the Maestranza in Ronda.

Later, author Ernest Hemingway based the character of Pedro Romero in The Sun Also Rises on Cayetano.

He was the director of the Lisbon School of Bullfighting, and he died nineteen years after retiring from the sport.

Juan Belmonte García (1892-1962).

Due to minor leg deformities, Juan designed new techniques and styles of bullfighting which changed the game for the future.

He also fought in a record number of fights for his time – 109, which remained the record until it was overtaken by Manuel Benítez Pérez in 1965.

Juan retired three times as he kept making comebacks, before his death just the week before his 70th birthday. H

e is said to have potentially committed suicide, and a film about his life, Belmonte, was released in 1995.

Bullfighting in Spain: Further reading

Bullfighting in Spain is an interesting topic. The history and the ethical implications certainly make for some interesting debates over a Sangria or two! If you are interested in learning more, take a look at the following:

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