What is bullfighting? It is certainly one of the best-known and at the same time most controversial popular Spanish customs.

A very controversial tradition

Bulls and the customs related to these animals are, undoubtedly, one of the most popular elements of the Spanish culture at an international level. Bullfights at the ring are the most famous event from the whole bullfighting set of traditions.

This animal is the protagonist of not only bullfights, but also other events such as bull runs and acrobatic shows. However, in the recent years, animal rights movements have introduced controversy in the bullfighting world.

The fighting bull through history

The fighting bull or toro bravo is a male specimen of a race which is specifically bread for its participation in this kind of shows. These are indigenous animals from the Iberian Peninsula that have evolved to our days, developing some special characteristics. Their self-defense instinct, temper, complexion and horns are just some of them.

The ancestor of this bull, the urus, was present in several places around the world. Many civilizations use to adore them. We can find some kind of cult to this animals and divine sacrifices in the Greek Church of Crete and the ancient biblical texts.

Bulls also played a key role in the religious ceremonies of the prehistorical tribes. In fact, bull rings probably find their origin in Celtiberian temples, where they used to offer sacrifices. Close to Numancia, in the province of Soria, one of those is still preserved.

Some time after that, the Greek and Roman influence transformed these cults into shows. During the Middle Ages, horse bullfighting was one of the most popular activities among the aristocrats. In the 18th Century, this tradition was abandoned, and the youth invented the kind of bullfighting we know today, where the torero is standing. Francisco Romero was a key character to fix the rules of this new show.

Bullfighting festivities

Nowadays, we still preserve several fiestas that have the bull as the protagonist of the event. Undoubtedly, the most popular ones are bullfights. However, Spanish popular festivities offer also bull runs and acrobatic shows, among others.

Bullfights take place at the bull rings and aim to subdue the animal. They begin with a short stroll around the ring, or paseíllo, and all the participants of the event are introduced. After asking for permission to open the bull door or toril, the first animal comes out.

The ritual goes like this: Each show has three bullfighters that take care of two bulls each. There are three parts to be completed with every animal and they are marked by the sound of bugles. During the first part, the bullfighter uses the capote, a big cape a with a pink and a yellow side. After that, the picadores show up and prick the bull with their long lances.

In the second part, three banderilleros stick two multi-colored barbed darts each into the bull. After this move, it is the time for the final part of the bullfight. In what is called suerte suprema (“ultimate fate”), the bullfighter uses the muleta, a small red piece of cloth which is hanging from a stick. In this last section of the show, the torero must show mastery over the bull, stablish a symbiosis between both of them and finally kill it using a sword.

Bull runs or encierros are another popular bullfighting tradition. People run in front of a group of bulls or heifers, which are led by steers. Runners try to stay as close as possible to the herd, without touching the animals. One of the most well-known bull runs is San Fermín, which is celebrated on July in Pamplona.

The acrobatic contests or concursos de recortes are characterized by confronting participants with several bulls. In turns, they perform all kind of stunts and pirouettes over them. Their objective is to cheat the animal in the last second and risk to the maximum to win the competition.

In addition to all these events, there are many popular festivities in Spain that put the bull in the center of the celebration. Bous al carrer, for example, is a tradition in some towns in Valencia, Alicante, and Castellón. There, they place fireballs on the bull’s horns and then release them to the streets. Another typical celebration is the capea. In many Spanish towns, they free heifers or small bulls for the attendants to have fun while playing around.

Controversy and regulation

An increased awareness of the bull’s suffering and a progressive advancement in the fight for animal rights have negatively impacted the bullfighting tradition. This change of mentality has been slowly transferred to the laws. Nowadays, these celebrations are regulated in a different way in each region.

Bullfights are forbidden by law in the Canary Islands and Catalonia. However, the last one keeps on celebrating other festivities with bulls. In Galicia and most of the Balearic Islands, bullfights are legal, but the practice is banned in some places.

In the rest of Spain, bullfights are completely legal. Yet, they do not have the same consideration everywhere. Generally speaking, the northern regions do not have such a rooted bullfighting tradition as the ones in the center or the south of the country. In Madrid, both Castillas, Murcia and Navarra, bullfighting is contemplated as a Celebration of Cultural Interest and Intangible Cultural Heritage.