A matador dressed in dark green move a magenta and gold flag in front of a bull, which is turning to charge at the matador.

Anthropology: The Ritual of Bullfighting in Andalucía, Spain

The crowd cheers, the bull roars, and the matador stands his ground: a time-honored dance of man and beast takes place in the arenas of Spain. What you are experiencing is a bullfight, known as a corrida de toros in Spanish. It is a traditional part of Spanish culture representing an art form in itself. This tradition could not be more apparent than in the southernmost autonomous region of the country: Andalucía. This region is known for many things: beautiful beaches, cities full of life, and a Mediterranean charm. Bullfighting finds its place within this cultural abundance, and is a defining part of Andalucía’s history and festivals. 

Seville: The Capital

The capital city of Andalucía, Seville, has a history spanning many cultures and civilizations. It was founded as a Roman city, said to have been built by Hercules himself. Surviving through Moorish, Castilian, and eventually Spanish rule, Seville is now a cultural hub of religion, flamenco, and architecture. It is the largest city in southern Spain, and its size reflects the popularity of bullfighting here — there are more than 15 festivals/events featuring bulls in Seville alone. When talking about Sevillano culture, bullfighting cannot go unmentioned!

A wide paved walkway by a canal in Seville, with traditionally designed buildings on the right.
The buildings of Seville, Image source: Traveling with Aga

History of Horseback

To begin understanding the significance of the corrida de toros in Spain, we must first examine its origin and place in history. The bullfight was a popular event since the time of the Romans, where the fight between bull and man was a show put on by warriors, to the thrill of the spectators. It became popularized in Spain and the general Iberian Peninsula only when the area was conquered by the Moors, a term originally used to refer to the indegenous Roman Berber and Muslim populations from northern Africa.  Learn about the history of Moors in the Iberian Peninsula and Spain here

A Moor on horseback holding a lance, pointed at the back of a bull charging towards the rider on the right.
A Moor on horseback fighting a bull with a lance, Image source: JSTOR

These rulers, when taking control of Andalucía during the Middle Ages, formalized the bullfight into a ritual event. Interestingly, bulls weren’t initially the only animals involved in the bullfight — the Moors rode on horses when facing up against the bulls. Often armed with a lance as a weapon, they would fight the bulls on horseback. In comparison to the enclosed arenas of today, the beginnings of the bullfight actually took place on the streets of Spanish towns.  A more central location where the corrida de toros was staged was the town or village square. So how did the bullfight evolve from the valiant Moors on horseback riding against the bull on the streets, into the modern version we see today?

Modern Ground Fights

The earliest record of a bullfight taking place on the ground without horses was in the 1720’s, in the early 18th century CE. The matador is widely acknowledged to have been from the city of Ronda, in the Malaga province within the Andalucían region of Spain. A famous bullfighting arena from the 18th century CE, called Plaza de Toros, is still present in Ronda as a testament to its long bullfighting history. Ever since this time, bullfighting has changed to be a ground fight. 

A legendary fighter who grew up in Seville and became a matador from a young age is Juan Belmonte. He revolutionized the act of the bullfight, creating new techniques and redefining valor within the sport. Read more about Juan Belmonte’s life and bullfighting career here! Now, the corrida de toros is a crucial part of Sevillano and Spanish culture, evolving over centuries to become the rich and celebrated tradition it is today.

A wide shot of a bull charging towards a matador, with the audience seated in the arena in the back.
A modern bullfight taking place on the ground, Image source: Travels with Tricia

Notable Arenas

Andalucía boasts grand architecture with influences from the Greek, Roman, Middle Eastern, and north African cultures — and among these magnificent structures are the bullrings, or arenas, where bullfighting ritually takes place. These arenas, scattered throughout Andalucía, each have their own history and unique structural features.

La Real Maestranza (Seville)

The grandest arena in Seville is the Plaza de Toros de La Real Maestranza de Caballería — a long name more commonly shortened to La Maestranza. Architects began construction in 1756, surprisingly only being completed 120 years later in 1881! La Maestranza shares the honor of being the oldest site of modern bullfighting on foot, along with the Plaza de Toro in Ronda. Holding up to 12,000 spectators, the arena welcomes avid fans of both bullfighting and history alike. The bullring of Seville is widely recognized to be a tense and serious place of bullfighting, with the audience holding their breaths as they watch the matador fight the bull to the death.

The front of the La Maestranza, with white walls and mustard yellow outlineds around the windows and doors.
The Plaza de Toros de La Real Maestranza de Caballería, Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Jerez Bullring (Cádiz)

Another bullring in Andalucía which has maintained the tradition of horses in bullfighting is the Jerez Bullring in Cádiz. Cádiz is a port city which is a base for the Spanish Navy, historic exploration, and modern trade. The bullring hosts an annual Horse Fair, in which a parade of horsemen and horsewomen honor the tradition of horses within the bullfighting history of Andalucía. Slightly smaller than the La Maestranza in Seville, the Jerez Bullring has a capacity of 11,500 seats. 

The front of the Jerez Bullring, with a yellow exterior on the bottom half and a stone exteriron on the top half, and a palm tree in front.
The Jerez Bullring in Cádiz, Image source: Servitorio

Plaza de Toros in Campofrío (Huelva)

A final arena we can cover that displays the illustrious history of bullfighting is the Plaza de Toros in Campofrío, Huelva. It is the fourth oldest bullring in the world! Originally built in 1716, it has been renovated throughout the 20th century CE. When it is not being used for bullfighting, the arena hosts a number of other events, including sports championships, dance performances, and fairs. This surely is a testament to how bullfighting figures as a central part of Andalucían and Spanish culture!

An aerial view of the Plaza de Toros in Campoforia, showing the golden dirt and a white exterior.
The Plaza de Toros in Campofrío, Image source: Geocaching

For more information on these three arenas and other notable ones in Andalucía, you can visit this site here!

The Format of the Fight

The modern bullfight has been standardized into a specific format, which is made up of three main stages, or tercios. The entire bullfight is presided over by the judge, called the presidente. The three stages are elaborated on below:

Stage 1: Tercio de Varas “Stage of Lances”

In this initial part of the bullfight, the matador tests the condition and aggressiveness of the bull.  The matador makes initial passes with a brightly-colored flag known as the capote — these passes are called “lances”. After testing interaction with the bull, the next step is to ensure that the bull is not too dangerous for the rest of the bullfight. To hinder its ability to raise its head too high when attacking later on, two picadores riding on horses stab the muscle on the bull’s neck using lances as a weapon.  

The matador has his back to the bull, throwing the magenta and gold flag behind him to provoke the bull running through it.
The matador using a magenta and gold flag to test the bull, Image source: Images of Andorra

Stage 2: Tercio de Banderillas “Stage of Little Flags”

Once the bull is sufficiently handicapped, it is time for the 2nd stage. In the Tercio de Banderillas, the matador further weakens and angers the bull by trying to stab small barbed flags called banderillas in its neck and shoulder muscles. They also utilize a cape and sword to tire the bull out while it continues to lose blood. This stage only ends when the presidente makes the call that the bull is ready to continue physically into the final and fatal stage.

The matador dressed in green turns in midair as he points the small flags into the bull's back muscles, as it runs towards the back.
The banderillas being driven into the bull’s muscles, Image source: China Daily

Stage 3: Tercio de Muerte “Stage of Death”

The final stage of the bullfight is multifaceted and complicated. Most of the emphasis is placed on the matador’s skill and finesse while facing head on against the bull. The matador enters the ring with a red cape (the now-famous symbol of the Spanish bullfight!) known as the muleta, and a sword. A fun fact is that it is not the red color of the cape that angers the bull (a common misconception), but its movement. The red color was traditionally used to mask the color of blood, and has continued to be used in this manner.

The matador completes the entire performance of this final stage by doing smaller combinations of passes, each with the red flag and sword in hand.  The end of the performance (and bullfight) is marked by the fatal blow of the sword to the bull’s heart — called the estocada. If the fighter doesn’t execute this move properly, the bull must be killed by severing its spinal cord instead. The goal is to quickly end its life to minimize suffering. If the matador fails to defeat the bull in time (around 15 minutes are allotted for this stage), then it is seen as a dishonor. 

A close shot of the bull's head as it charges towards a red flag held close to the ground by the matador.
The bull charging at the red flag in Stage 3 of the bullfight, Image source: CNN

The progression of the bullfight is full of tension and excitement for onlookers. The matador must demonstrate their abilities and be able to mix in novel techniques with traditional maneuvers. Definitely a fight for the brave!

A Spectator Sport

The corrida de toros is not complete without its spectators, who are just as much part of the performance as the matador himself. All throughout the fight, the audience in the stands shout both their praise and displeasure with the matador’s actions, appealing to the presidente to change his mind at times. For example, a common shout heard from the audience to express their approval of a particularly well-done pass by the matador is “Olé!”. If the matador fails to deliver the final estocada properly, the spectators will loudly protest from their seats and create a negative atmosphere in the arena. 

An evening view of the spectators in a bullfighting arena, with lights behind them and a tower of the city seen in the distance.
The many active spectators gathered at the bullfighting arena, Image source: Andalucía.org

A bull is usually killed either during the fight or afterwards outside the arena. However, if spectators appeal to the presidente before the final blow of the matador, they have the ability to change the course of events and spare the bull its life. A matador who wins the fight can also be awarded an ear of the defeated bull by the presidente if the spectators demand it, and take a victory lap around the arena at the audience’s wishes. Therefore, both the bullfight and the matador are heavily dependent on the feelings, emotions, and preferences of the audience.  Bullfighting is a tradition that requires spectators as a crucial element.

Significance in Anthropology and Culture

The significance of the bullfight runs deeper than a mere sport for entertainment. It acts as a ritual where man faces death, which is represented by the bull. For man to overcome fear of death and achieve the desired immortality, he must first face it head on. This is what is metaphorically conveyed through the elaborate costumes, stages, and actions of the bullfight. By toying with the bull and taunting it, the matador shows a confidence over death itself. Therefore, a successful end to the bullfight signifies the matador’s conquering of death. 

An old painting of a historical bullfight, with the matador avoiding the bull covered in lances, and spectators pointing from the stands.
Historical artwork depicting the ritualized bullfight, Image source: mariahrob

There is also another underlying theme of sacrifice in the bullfight. The ancient civilizations of the Iberian Peninsula worshipped the bull as a mythological figure, and the bullfight was a recreation of a drama between the bull, acting as God, and the human. The bull’s final death at the hands of a human signifies the sacrifice of God for human salvation. Even today, the bull is seen as a sacred symbol of sacrifice used in tandem with religion. The significance and meaningful narrative of the bullfight therefore is passed on every time a matador faces a bull, ensuring the continuation of this tradition well into the future.

La Feria de Abril: The April Fair

The Feria de Abril, translating to the April Fair, is the biggest festival that takes place in Seville during the months of April-May every year. This is also the time when the biggest and most anticipated bullfights happen in the famous La Maestranza. In fact, these bullfights happen daily! The best matadores travel to Seville to participate, drawing in large crowds of both Sevillanos and tourists.  La Feria de Abril begins two weeks after Semana Santa, the Catholic holy week, right after Easter Sunday. Since the Fair features not just bullfighting but also dancing, folk music, traditional mouthwatering food, and an overall celebration of Sevillano culture. This is indeed a festive opportunity to showcase the dramatic and skilled corridas de toros that are native to Andalucía! You can read more about this historic and merry festival here.

A street in Seville during La Feria de Abril, with strings of white and orange lanterns above and festive tents on the left.
The streets of Seville during La Feria de Abril, Image source: Wikimedia Commons

A Place for Women?

The discussion of the bullfight in Andalucía brings with it questions about women’s places within this tradition. Historically, female participation can be traced back to the beginnings of the modern corrida de toros — in the late-18th and early-19th centuries CE. During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s, women who wanted to practice bullfighting had to immigrate out of Spain as they were not allowed to bullfight inside the country. Only in 1974 was the ban on women bullfighting lifted in Spain.

However, they still faced discrimination in getting recognized as bullfighters, especially in completing the ceremony that elevates them to the status of matador. We can see that women have had to fight for a place within this tradition, oftentimes without getting the same recognition as men. As the bullfighting sport continues to be practiced in Andalucía and Spain, women will also continue carving out a space for themselves, and open up more opportunities for future generations.

A close shot of a female matador dressed in white and gold, holding a magenta and gold flag in one hand and a black cloth in the other.
A female bullfighter in the arena, Image source: The Independent

Modern Controversy

Bullfighting in Spain is not without its controversies. As we enter a modern era, many people oppose the bullfight since it glorifies animal abuse and encourages the cruel harming of bulls that are bred for death. Not only does the bull suffer during the bullfight from weapons wielded by the matador and picadores, but also from other forms of torture that have become common — such as setting fire to its horns. Bullfighting has actually been banned in Catalonia since 2012. However, the Spanish National Parliament overturned this ban in 2016, stating that bullfighting constitutes an essential part of the Spanish cultural heritage. The same argument for unconstitutionality was made when there was a push for sparing the bull’s life at the end of the corrida

A group of protesters in Spain behind a blue line, holding up signs that say "Stop Torture" and "Stop Corridas de Toros".
Protesters fighting against the corridas de toros, Image source: Teller Report

While both sides of the controversy continue to push for their arguments, neither side is giving up the fight. The protests and disapproval for bullfighting is actually supported by a majority of the Spanish population. In Andalucía, on the other hand, bullfighting is so integrated into the culture that there is open support for its continuance into the future. Although we do not know the ending of this controversy, it is one which allows us to evaluate what costs we are willing to accept in the name of culture and tradition.

A Tradition Rooted in History

Andalucía can be highlighted for its long-standing history of bullfighting alone. The south of Spain has endured numerous cultural and religious transitions. This resulted in an amalgamation of Western Europe, northern Africa, and the Mediterranean. Among these transitions, the corrida de toros has continued to endure as a constant. The constancy of this tradition is questioned as we move forward into the future, but one thing is for certain: bullfighting makes up an important and revered part of the Andalucían culture.

A matador stands directly facing a bull on the right, sweeping a red flag on the ground as the bull charges.
A matador and bull engaged in a bullfight, Image source: Blog Fuerte Hoteles

Leave a Reply