A Primer On Bullfighting by Terin Tashi Miller for LostGeneration.com



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On Bullfighting by Terin Tashi Miller (graphic)


What 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 tauromaquia.

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.

Joselito completing a "Natural"  Photo by Terin MillerAccording 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 occassional rejoneros.

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.

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 well.

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 interest.

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 the bull.

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 theJoselito performing a "Paseo Del Pecho" or chest pass.  Photo by Terin Miller. 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 steed.

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 target..

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 the ring.

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 sword.

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 the bull.


�2004, Terin Tashi Miller




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