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follows is not intended as a defense of Spain's "Fiesta Nacional," nor
as justification. As Ernest Hemingway noted in "Death in the Afternoon,"
information will be provided. You will have to make up your own mind
whether or not you wish to view or follow the art and study of
The bullfight has its origins from experience, from the observation of
the semi-wild natural state of most bulls - especially the "semental,"
the seed bulls. Like virile males of other species, the semental find
interruption of their pursuit of what pleases them to be aggravating at
least and enraging at worst.
to lore, horseback riders were the first to notice that bulls would be
annoyed by anything in sight that moved - especially something that, by
not being frightened off, appeared to be a challenge.
Rejoneros, or bullfighters on horseback, such as the Domecqs, or Fermin
Borques, can still be seen today demonstrating their skill and the
superb training of their horses. Often during the large fiestas, like
San Isidro in Madrid, the weeks of bullfighting are interspersed with
The modern bullfight - that is, a matador alone on foot facing the much
larger, heavier and more powerful animal - boils down to three acts or "tercios."
In the first act, the bull, the "protagonist," is allowed into the ring,
an open space with limits much larger than the smaller, dark space where
the bulls have been kept awaiting this moment that afternoon. Prior to
being kept in a pen area beneath the stands that lets out onto the ring,
the bulls are corralled outdoors. In Madrid, they are kept at the
outskirts of the city, and can be viewed, before their appointment in
The ring is covered with beige sand, "arena," and enclosed by a barrier
- the "barrera." At two points on opposing sides of the ring are wooden
walls, "burladeros," behind which it appears toreros hide and taunt the
bull. In essence, what they actually are doing is testing the bull's
reactions to movement, and sound, and provocation. In fact, the entire
first act is intended to demonstrate and view the bull's natural
instincts and movement - and strength and speed. This is the first time
the matador gets a good look at the bull he must face in action.
Torero is the general term for anyone who works with bulls. Matador -
the person who kills - is the person who's job it is to kill the bull,
and is like the captain of a team, directing assistants toward that end.
From the moment the bull enters the ring, you will see the matador
directing his team to get the results desired. You will also see and
hear the comments from the aficionados - the students of tauromaquia -
and their judgment of the appropriate or inappropriateness of the
matador's actions and those of the matador's team.
You will also see other matadors, the competitors for fame and honor on
that day's "cartel," or billboard, at times trying to demonstrate their
own ability with the same bull in a "quite," which essentially is
stealing another matador's bull for fun.
All the matadors and assistants stand at the ready when the first bull
enters the ring, with long, stiff, normally pink capes with yellow
lining folded inward, the peak of the cape resting under the toreros'
chins. They will stand along part of two white lines that ring the arena
just inside the barrera. These rings define proper locations - for the
matadors during certain segments of the fight, and for the horses that
will be brought in.
Bullfighting has a lot of rules, and etiquette, and aficionados tend to
be the most critical of matadors and toreros who break the rules or
literally step out of place because they are students and know the rules
The rules, and the bullfight itself, are intended to minimize
unwarranted harm to the animal and maximize the element of danger to the
matador, and therefore spectacle.
After the bull has seen the ring is not empty, it's natural instinct is
to clear the ring of other animals to give it an unobstructed field of
view. This is why everyone is in the ring - to attract the bull's
The first thing you need to learn about the Spanish bullfight is that
bulls are color blind. They do not see the color red in the cape that is
the killing cape. They do not see it any better than they see the pink
and yellow stiff capes of the first tercio. What they see is movement.
And what the matador and aficionados are watching in the first tercio is
how the bull reacts, or doesn't react, to movement - as an indication of
how it will or will not react when it is time for the matador to kill
A bull that paws the ground and snorts, for instance, is met with
disappointment from the matador and crowd. Such action indicates the
bull is afraid, and is trying to compensate by trying to scare off the
animals annoying it. A bull that charges with its hoofs first is
similarly disappointing, as it appears unwilling or uncertain of using
its horns - its natural defense.
A bull that lower's its head, however, just prior to making contact with
one of the long, stiff capes, is a bull that wants to attack its
"antagonists" - the toreros. And that is the trait most sought after by
the breeders of bulls - a naturally aggressive, powerful and arrogant
beast. How the bull lowers his head, with what apparent intention - is
one side down? Do the horns curve inward or upward? Does it stop or
combine the motion with forward progress? All are important factors
being watched during the first tercio.
That is why the horses - sway-backed, hairy nags supporting heafty
picadors dressed with shin guards and thickly, tightly woven jackets -
are brought into the ring next, as the others in the ring leave except
for the matador. Occasionally, though it is not considered much more
than grandstanding, a rival matador may still be in the ring, as in a "mano-o-mano"
- literally, "hand-to-hand," contest. It is not considered much more
than grandstanding in the normal fight because ideally only the matador
whose job it is to kill that particular bull should be guiding the bull
at this point, and a "quite" is really counterproductive.
The matador is there to direct the bull's attention to the horse - it's
natural enemy - and to remove it from the horse after the bull attacks
the horse. The distance traveled by the bull, the side of the ring it
chooses to defend and clear, and its endurance to pain inflicted on it
when it attacks the horse are all taken into account. The purpose of the
picadors is not really to harm the bull, or to punish it or to bruise
it. The purpose is to keep the bull from harming the
horse more than the effect of its charge, to keep the bull away from the man on the horse,
and to puncture a gland just behind the large, swelling neck muscle that
produces a hormone like adrenaline that causes the large neck muscle to
swell to the point where the bull cannot move its head much. It is not,
as Hemingway thought, intended to weaken the bull's neck muscle to force
it to lower its head. It is not intended to remove danger or "fairness"
for the matador. Of course, as Hemingway noted, it can be used by the
matador, who pays the picador, for all of those things. But that is not
its purpose. (This information has come from Miguelangel Moncholi, a
bullfighting critic on Spanish national television who tried to explain
it to some interested Americans in New York a few years back). A bull
that has been harmed by the picador is considered "ruined." The pic is a
lance with a diamond-shaped point and a crossbar just a short way in
from the point intended to prevent the pic from going into the bull's
hide too deeply. A bull can be ruined by having the pic placed on its spine - too far
back behind its neck - or in its ribs.
The bull bleeds when the pic is used, just as the horse, if the bull's
horns break through the latticed padding used on their undersides, will
also bleed. Even the impact of the bull's horns against the padding, if
the picador doesn't act quickly enough to protect his horse, can damage
the horse. While horses are the bull's natural enemy, the horses have to
be blindfolded, and goaded, into standing still when they can tell a
bull is in the vicinity. A bull can and often does knock a picador off
the horse, usually by picking up the horse and its rider and lifting
with its horns to topple the pair together. Then you'll see toreros
enter to try and distract the bull if the matador is unable to take it
away from the picador, who often is trapped by one leg underneath his
The bull's blood coagulates fast, so that it appears to trail ribbons or
string down its side from the pic wounds. A pic wound is not intended to
be more harmful to the bull than a slight encounter with a rival's horns
- something the bulls experience challenging each other at an early age
on the ranch.
A lance similar to a pic is used in moving bulls from one pasture to
another, and in sorting them from each other. It is not something that
they fear, usually. While the picador can trap a bull by leaning on his
pic if the angle is right, usually if the bull relents on the horse, it
can remove itself from the sting of the pic. Getting it to relent on the
horse is often the problem.
Once the bull's instincts have been demonstrated enough to the matador,
and no defects such as a limp have shown up, and sometimes not before
cries of "ya, vale!" or "enough, already!" from the crowd, the horses
leave the ring.
The second act of the bullfight then ensues. This consists of
banderillas - barbed dowels covered in colorful paper - being placed in
the bull's flanks, near his shoulder blades. The placing of banderillas
correctly is an art in itself. Jose Miguel Arroyo, the modern-day "Joselito,"
is the only matador I've seen place his own banderillas well. The torero
with this particular skill is called the "banderillero," the one who
places the banderillas. On occasion, as with Joselito, if the matador
has been a successful banderillero before becoming a full matador, the
matador may choose to place the dowels himself. The proper placement of
the dowels involves citing or calling to the bull for its attention,
then pirouetting as a distraction with the dowels dangling from either
hand prior to shoving the barbs just under the bull's hide with a
downward thrust from each side. I have noticed the montero, or
bullfighter's black woolen hat, which curves downward, combines with the
held-aloft banderillas to form what looks like the shadow of a bull's
head on the sand. The pirouette of the banderillero appears at first
silly, as the higher up on his toes the more impressive the feat, but
it's function as a diversion of the bull's attention usually works well.
If it does not, the banderillero may be the first to find himself on the
tip of the bull's horns, as the banderillas are supposed to be placed by
reaching over the bull's horns, with the arm pits being the most exposed
The banderillas are also not intended as torture. They are intended to
correct "defects," such as a bull's tendency to favor a particular side
while running - to get it to charge straight. But the bull will also
bleed from the banderillas, which will, when placed properly, hang from
the bull's shoulders down his side, stuck just underneath the hide.
Occasionally, matadors have been struck in the eye by a banderilla
bouncing from the side up in a pass.
The banderillero has three tries to place six dowels - usually three on
either side of the bull. A standard bullfight consists of three matadors
each fighting two bulls individually, or, as in the case of a
mano-a-mano, two matadors facing three bulls each. Occasionally, as in
the case of the "Goyesca" fight on the anniversary of the Segundo de
Mayo uprising against the French troops of Napoleon, a matador may take
on six bulls alone.
The third tercio, or last act, is what is most known and watched of
bullfighting. It is the matador standing in the sand in black slippers
and pink socks and a "suit of lights" consisting of tight brocade like
armor with shining thread, alone with a small red cape about the size of
a shawl, and the bull.
Now is when the matador supposedly has enough knowledge of this
particular bull's actions and instincts to get it to perform as the
partner in a dance that ultimately ends with the bull's death. This is
when, if the matador makes a movement by accident with a trailing hand
or the wind blows his cape towards him, the bull can finally accomplish
what it sees as its task - to eliminate the only remaining interloper in
This is the stage when the matador must perform a series of "faenas," or
tasks, demonstrating through handling of the cape the matador's
confidence and faith in personal ability and the bull's instinctual
movement. It has been said this is when the matador demonstrates
domination of the bull. In reality, this is when the matador fulfills
the task of the fight, the purpose of the demonstration - this is when
the matador proves that art and intelligence are superior to brute force
and instinct, and that those qualities that make humanity higher than
other animals are those qualities that allow humanity to survive even a
contest with an animal that has several other natural advantages.
Aficionados and matadors will say this is when the matador makes the
bull better than when it first appeared, gets the most out of the bull
as a dance partner, and demonstrates faith in something greater than the
both of them since art ultimately is supposedly done "to the glory of
God," as Ecclesiastic says.
Each faena consists of ultimately three elements - a few passes and then
the "natural," which is a pass performed by the matador with the bull
behind, with the matador's entire back exposed should the bull decide to
stop watching the annoying little cape. The matador pulls the bull from
behind to in front with the cape's attraction.
After successfully completing the faenas, and naturales, if well to the
exhortation of "ole!" from the crowd, the cape held spread by a wooden
stick called a muleta and a sword for the matador's protection, the bull
will be led to an area between the white lines to rest while the matador
goes to the team to get the killing sword.
The killing sword curves downward at the tip. When properly placed, it
is designed to either puncture the heart or sever the aorta, causing
instantaneous death. Without the muleta and the other sword, the matador
will face the bull from a proscribed distance, and try to get the bull
to lower its head by draping the cape over the matador's knee. The
matador will then bring the killing sword up in an arc from behind, as
if scraping the sky, and will sight the sword using its blood run at the
place in the bull where the sword should go.
Ideally for the matador, the bull's hooves will be together in front.
Sometimes, if need be, the matador will pass the bull a few more times
to get it to this position. With the bull's front hooves together, its
shoulderblades are spread apart. That's where the sword should go in the
easiest, in the middle of a cross formed by the bull's shoulderblades
and spine. When the bull's hooves are apart in front, the shoulderblades
are together, and the sword will hit bone and bounce high into the air
or get stuck in bone and stick out of the bull's back until it is
removed either from the bull's own movement, the sword's weight, or the
action of the matador, who's responsibility it is to remove the stuck
When the bull's head dips, if its hooves are together in front, the
matador will then charge as if led by the sword. A good matador always
remembers to form the sign of the cross by moving the cape in the left
hand in front and to the right while charging in with the right hand up
over the bull's head. This is supposed to move the bull's horns so the
matador can get in over them to thrust the sword to its hilt and roll
along the bull's left side as the bull moves at the matador. If the
matador loses nerve, or the bull is distracted from the cape, the result
can be disastrous for the matador. Matadors are most often gored in the
femeral artery, right near or in their crotch, causing them to bleed to
death or get infections so deep in their tissue it can't be destroyed.
The bull's horns are not clean. That is why Dr. Fleming, the discoverer
of penicillin, is so revered by bullfighters there is a statue to his
honor in Madrid's bullring, Las Ventas. From a lowered position, the
bull's horns will hit any part of the matador's anatomy on its way up,
including the neck just under the jaw, and of course the chest cavity
from underneath the rib cage.
A badly placed killing sword results in a punctured lung on the bull,
often, which causes the bull to pant with its tongue lolling to the side
as blood pours out of its mouth while it drowns in its own blood.
Aficionados do not like to see a bull tortured, and they are at times
harder on matadors who kill badly - causing that sort of injury - than
matadors who can't successfully place the sword without it flying out of
©2004, Terin Tashi Miller