The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Bull attacking a matador
Bull attacking a matador

Bullfighting or tauromachy (Spanish toreo, corrida de toros or tauromaquia; Portuguese corrida de touros or tauromaquia) is a blood sport that involves, most of the times, professional performers (matadores) who execute various formal moves with the goal of appearing graceful and confident, while masterful over the bull itself; these maneuvers are performed at close range, concluding with the death of the bull by well-placed sword thrust as finale.

It is a ritual spectacle that is usually designated a sport, although there is no scoring or competition between human participants. Although there is a significant degree of skill and danger involved, the bulls are often physically compromised before or during the match.

The practice generates heated controversy in many areas of the world.


Where bullfighting is practiced

The controversial but popular spectacle is staged most famously in Spain (where there are over 400 arenas) but also in southern Portugal, some countries in Latin America (principally Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador), in California and in the south of France. Especially prominent bullrings are to be found at Madrid, Seville and Mexico City. In Pamplona, the "San Fermín running of the bulls" or encierro, the ritualized stampede through the streets, has overshadowed the corrida itself; the event is dedicated to the patron saint of Navarre Saint Firminus .

A similar activity, Jallikattu, takes place annually in the state of Tamilnadu, India.

Fujairah, one of the Emirates that makes up the United Arab Emirates, has a long, quite separate history of fights among bulls.


Bullfighting goes back to Minoan Crete, where the bull-vaulting ritual practiced by youths of both sexes is memorialized in the famous wall-frescos at Knossos. The frescos offer no hint of struggle or violence, and the Lunar Bull was a sacred animal. Modern archaeologists tend to emphasize the danger involved in this athletic skill and may underestimate the extent to which the bull cooperated. The killing of the sacred bull (tauromachy) is the essential central iconic act of Mithras, which was commemorated in the mithraeum wherever Roman soldiers were stationed.

It is often linked to ancient Rome, when many people-versus-animal events were held as a warm-up for gladiatorial sports. The event's earliest roots are probably religious, as many bulls played an important part in the belief systems of many ancient Mediterranean cultures; compare, for instance, the Minoan reverence of the bull and the Greek and Roman practice of sacrificing bulls. It was introduced into Spain by the Moors in the 11th century. In its original Moorish and early Spanish form, the bull was fought from horseback using a javelin. (Picadors are the remnants of this tradition, but their role in the contest is now a relatively minor one.) Bullfighting spread from Spain to its Central and South American colonies, and also in the 19th century to France, where it developed into a distinctive form in its own right.

In the 18th century, the Spanish introduced the practice of fighting on foot, Francisco Romero generally being regarded as having been the first to do this, about 1726. The modern style of Spanish bullfighting is credited to Juan Belmonte, generally considered the greatest matador of all time, who introduced a daring and revolutionary style which kept him almost constantly within a few inches of the bull. Although extremely dangerous (Belmonte himself was gored on many occasions), his style is still seen by most matadors as the ideal to be emulated.

Styles of bullfighting

At least three distinct styles of bullfighting are practiced in Spain, France and Portugal. The "classic" style of bullfighting which comes to most peoples' minds, where the bull is killed, is the form practiced in Spain and many Latin American countries.


Picador spearing a bull
Picador spearing a bull
The "suerte de banderillas"
The "suerte de banderillas"
Cleaning up after the bullfight
Cleaning up after the bullfight

Spanish-style bullfighting is called a corrida de toros (literally a "running of bulls", the name being derived from the past participle of the Spanish verb correr, "to run"). In a traditional corrida, three matadores (also called toreros or, in French, toreadores) each fight two out of a total of six bulls, each of which is at least four years old and weighs up to about 600kg. Each matador has five assistants — two picadores ("lancers") mounted on horseback, and three banderilleros. Collectively they comprise a cuadrilla or team of bullfighters.

The corrida is highly ritualised, with three distinct parts or tercios. The participants first enter the arena in a parade or paseo to salute the presiding dignitary, accompanied by band music. Next, the bull enters the ring to be tested for ferocity by the matador and banderilleros with pink and gold capes.

In the first stage of the fight, the two picadors enter the arena, armed with lances or rejones. Each is mounted on a heavily armoured and blindfolded horse of extremely large stature. The bull is encouraged to attack the horse, which is well protected by its armour and generally treats the attack with stoic patience. The picador stabs the bull with his lance to weaken it, often leading to a considerable loss of blood on the part of the bull. The idea is to weaken the bull,and to damage his neck and shoulders muscles so he lowers his head and horns, making it possible for a matador on foot at the end of the bullfight to attempt to stab the bull with a sword between the bull's shoulder blades. The audience often objects to excessive use of the lance, as this is seen as making the fight too one-sided.

In the next stage, the suerte de banderillas ("act of the banderillas"), the three banderilleros each attempt to plant two coloured, harpoon-pointed sticks (banderillas, literally "little flag") on the bull's flanks. These further weaken through loss of blood the enormous ridges of neck and shoulder muscle which set fighting bulls apart from ordinary cattle, while also frequently spurring the bull into making more ferocious charges. The placing of the banderillas is also the last chance to correct or fine tune the charging tendencies of the bull. Some of the more skilled matadors will often do this themselves.

In the final stage, the suerte de matar ("act of killing"), the matador re-enters the ring alone with a small red cape or muleta in one hand and a sword in the other. Having dedicated the bull to an individual or the whole audience, he uses his cape to attract the bull in a series of passes, demonstrating his control over it. (Veterinary physiological aside: Bulls are actually colour blind, so the cape needn't be red to serve its purpose. It being of red colour is just a matter of tradition.) There are a number of distinct styles of pass, each with its own name. For instance, the veronica is a pass in which the matador slowly swings the cape away from the charging bull while keeping his feet in the same position. The faena is the final series of passes before the kill, in which the matador with a muleta attempts to manoeuvre the bull into a position to stab it between the shoulder blades and through the heart. If this fails he must then cut the bull's spinal cord with a second sword, killing it instantly. The task of killing the bull is given to the matador alone; his title means literally "killer".

Very occasionally, a bull will be allowed to survive a fight as an indulgence or indulto granted in recognition of an exceptional performance. Such bulls are generally retired from competition, as their experience in the ring makes them extremely dangerous opponents.

While most bullfights take the form described above, occasionally mano-a-mano ("hand to hand") contests are held in which two matadores fight three bulls each.

Other lesser spectacles are

  • the encierro. A "running" of the bulls in the streets, in which youths compete to outrun the charging bulls. Originally, it was the moving of the bulls from the pen to the plaza. The most famous are those of Pamplona in July.
  • vaquillas (sokamuturra in Basque). A young cow is freed in a small ring (often built and dismounted for the festival period) among local youths who tease her. The cow may have a dangling rope to recover her.
  • Comedy spectacles, such as El bombero torero y los enanitos toreros ("The bullfighting fireman and the bullfighting dwarves").


Spanish-style corridas still occur in France but only on special occasions such as Whitsun or Easter, as they are particularly expensive to run. More often, a course Camarguaise is practised in which the objective is to snatch a rosette from the head of the bull.

A young razeteur flees from a bull
A young razeteur flees from a bull

The participants, or razeteurs, begin training in their early teens against young bulls from the Camargue region of Provence before graduating to regular contests held principally in Arles and Nîmes but also in other Provençal towns and villages. Before the course, an encierro – a "running" of the bulls in the streets – takes place, in which young men compete to outrun the charging bulls. The course then lasts for about 15-20 minutes with the razeteurs snatching rosettes or tassels off the bulls. Afterwards, the bulls are herded back to their pen by gardians (Camarguaise cowboys) in a bandido, amidst a great deal of ceremony. Although the course Camarguaise does not end in the death of the bull, it is at least as dangerous to the human contestants as a corrida. At one point it resulted in so many fatalities that the French government tried to ban it, but had to back down in the face of local opposition.


The Portuguese now practice a type of bloodless bullfighting which is in many respects different to its original form. A Portuguese corrida de touros has three main events:

  • Horseback fight - A rider, dressed in traditional 18th century costumes fights the bull from horseback. The horses are Portuguese Lusitanians, specially trained for the fights. These horses are usually skilled in dressage and may exhibit their art in the arena. The purpose of this fight is to stab three or four bandarilhas (small javelins) in the back of the bull. In Spain, these riders are called rejoneadores.
  • Matadores - In the Spanish fashion (see above), but without the spear. These men simply play the bull with a red coat.
  • Forcados - The forcados are a group of eight men who challenge the bull directly, without any protection or weapon of defense. The front man provokes the bull into a charge to perform a pega de touros (bull catch). The front man secures the animal's head (usually it is a violent choke) and is quickly aided by his fellows who surround and secure the animal until he is subdued.

The bull is not killed in the ring and the fight is accordingly referred to as a "bloodless bullfight". After these three sets, the bull is removed from the arena alive and is killed quickly, away from the audience's sight, by a professional butcher. Nevertheless, tradition was so strong at the small town of Barrancos , where the bull was illegally put to death in the arena, that the government was forced to relent and permit the town to follow its ancient matador tradition and kill the bull in the arena.

In Portugal, bulls have their horns severed in a way that they do not present sharp points. This practice was introduced by King Joseph I of Portugal after a tragic event in a bullfight he was presiding. The son and heir of the Marquis of Marialva was fighting a bull on horseback when the animal wounded his horse. The young man fell, was kicked by the bull and killed. The Marquis himself, then around 70 years of age, jumped from the royal cabin that he shared with the king, drew his sword and killed the animal.

Also in Portugal, the main stars of bullfighting are the riders, as opposed to Spain, where the matadores are the most prominent bullfighters.

Cultural aspects of bullfighting

The bullring in Lima, Peru - the oldest bullring in South America, dating back to 1766
The bullring in Lima, Peru - the oldest bullring in South America, dating back to 1766

Many supporters of bullfighting regard it as a deeply ingrained integral part of their national cultures. The aesthetic of bullfighting is based on the interaction of the man and the bull. Rather than a competitive sport, the bullfight is more of a ritual which is judged by its aficionados based on artistic impression and command. Ernest Hemingway said of it in his 1932 novel Death in the Afternoon: "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 the fighter's honour."

The bullfight is above all about the demonstration of style and courage by its participants. While there is usually no doubt about the outcome, the bull is not viewed as a sacrificial victim — it is instead seen by the audience as a worthy contestant, deserving of respect in its own right. If a matador is particularly poor, the audience may shift its support to the bull and cheer it on instead. A hapless matador may find himself being pelted with seat cushions as he makes his exit.

The audience looks for the matador to display an appropriate level of style and courage, and for the bull to display aggression and determination. For the matador, this means performing skillfully in front of the bull, often turning his back on it to demonstrate his mastery over the animal. The skill with which he delivers the fatal blow is another major point to look for. A skillful matador will achieve it in one stroke. Two is barely acceptable, while more than two is a botched job. Although the matador's final blow is usually fatal, it may take the bull some time to die. A coup de grace is therefore administered by a bandillero, using a dagger to pierce the animal's brain.

The moment when the matador kills the bull is the most dangerous point of the entire fight, as it requires him to reach between the horns, head on, to deliver the blow. Matadors are at the greatest risk of suffering a goring at this point. Gorings are not uncommon and the results can be fatal. Many bullfighters have met their deaths on the horns of a bull, including one of the most celebrated of all time, Manolete , who was killed by a bull named Islero, raised by Miura.

If the matador has done particularly well, he will be given a standing ovation by the crowd, who wave white handkerchiefs and sometimes throw hats and roses into the arena to show their appreciation. Occasionally, if the bull has done particularly well, it will get the same treatment as its body is towed out of the ring (and even more so if it survives the fight). The successful matador will be presented with colours to mark his victory and will often also receive the severed ears and tail of the bull.

Spanish bullfighting is a traditionally male sport. Only recently have a very small number of women ever been matadors, such as Cristina Sánchez, but they have experienced considerable resistance and hostility from aficionados and other matadors.

Social aspects

In the era of mounted bullfighting, it was a sport of nobility like jousting. The introduction of ground fighting allowed commoners to practise it. It became a means for poor people to achieve fame and fortune. When a famous torero was asked why he risked his life, he reportedly answered Más cornás da el hambre ("Hunger hits harder with its horns"). The maletilla or espontáneo was a poor person who illegally jumped into the ring trying to show that he could bullfight before being taken away. Bull breeders have extensive properties (generally in Andalusia, Extremadura or Castilla-La Mancha) where the bulls are raised free-range . They try to select cattle with a characteristic combination of intelligence, strength and attack-proneness. Often a star matador buys a ranch where he retires rich to breed his own pedigreed bulls. The bullfighting season coincides in each city with the local yearly festivals. Often the plazas are run by charities. After especially shocking disasters, charity corridas are organized.

Influence in art

The corrida happens to the tune of live-played pasodoble s. Many of them were composed to honour famous toreros.

Bullfighting is seen as a symbol of Spanish character. It has inspired Francisco de Goya, Georges Bizet, Vicente Blasco Ibáñez , Julio Romero de Torres , Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Cantinflas, Pedro Almodóvar, Fernando Botero, among many Spanish and foreign artists.

Criticisms of bullfighting

Bullfighting has for many years been a controversial activity; it is widely reviled outside Spain (and increasingly within it) as a gratuitously cruel blood sport. Animal rights campaigners object strongly to bullfighting because they think that the killing of an animal should not be abused for entertainment. Some also think that the bull suffers a slow, painful death. Bullfighting is banned in many countries; people taking part in such activity would be liable for terms of imprisonment for animal cruelty. "Bloodless" variations, though, are permitted and have attracted a following in California. A number of animal-rights activist groups undertake anti-bullfighting actions in Spain and other countries. In Spanish, opposition to bullfighting is referred to (somewhat inaccurately) as taurofobia.

English-speaking critics often confuse the tauromachia with the coarse entertainment of "bull-baiting" formerly popular in Britain, in which packs of specially-bred bulldogs were loosed upon a bull confined within a ring or even tethered to a stake. Bull-baiting was a rustic and lower-class entertainment until the 1830s, when increased sensitivity to animal suffering made it objectionable to the governing classes and it was outlawed.

Some separatists despise bullfighting because of its association with the Spanish nation. Recently Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia was declared an anti-bullfighting town. However, even a former Herri Batasuna leader was a novillero before becoming a politician.

Critics of bullfights charge that, in addition to the treatment meted out to the bull in the ring, it is often mistreated in other ways immediately before the contest — for instance:

  • Petroleum jelly is put in the bull's eyes to weaken its sight.
  • The horns are filed down to remove the bull's ability to aim properly. Sometimes called barbering.
  • Heavy sacks are dropped on the bull's kidneys to make it wilder.
  • Sometimes, the bull is tranquilized.

However, these views are not widely supported in the countries where Spanish-style bullfighting is practiced; the argument is that bulls are bred for the ring and live well before they are killed, living much better and freer than meat cattle.

Furthermore, part of the artistic impression of a corrida is based on the "cleanliness" of the kill; prolonged suffering is regarded as part of a very poor performance, and experienced bullfighters are able to avoid it. The highest form of Airs above Ground (the Lippizaner dancing) is bullfighting, to use all the high precision movements learnt in the school to evade the bull and have its rider spear it is the most dangerous and difficult move of all. Abuses to the bull that make it less apt to fight are regarded by many aficionados as scandalous.

It is notable that Spanish laws against cruelty to animals have abolished most of the spectacles with animals while including specific exceptions for bullfighting.


  • French Dictionary translate in english by Google

See also

External links

  • the french site, translate by Google
  • Mundo Taurino, a complete guide to bullfighting
  • Asociación para la defensa del animal, a Spanish anti-bullfighting group
  • Anti-bullfighting page, with picture and video galleries showing the cruelty behind bullfights
  • Bullfighting in Andalucia
  • The cruelties of bullfighting . Created by two children of 11 and 10, but nonetheless very well-organized and adult-level.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 05:21:32
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01