Timothy Mitchell. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport. Editor: Karen Christensen & David Levinson. Volume 1, Berkshire Publishing, 2005.

Bullfighting is a spectacle in which men ceremonially fight with—and in Hispanic tradition—kill bulls in an arena for public entertainment. Bullfighting is practiced primarily in Spain and to a lesser extent in Mexico, Central America, South America, southern France, and Portugal.

The sport depends on five elements:

  1. A large and constant supply of “noble” or “brave” bulls (i.e., bulls specially bred to charge aggressively in a straight line)
  2. A large and constant supply of young poor men
  3. Large numbers of hero-worshipping people addicted to thrilling displays of raw physical courage
  4. A smaller number of aficionados obsessed with technical and historical details
  5. Generations of writers and intellectuals who consider bullfighting a fine art rather than a sport

In any given year approximately ten thousand bullfights are held worldwide, usually in the context of a local religious fiesta that may also include running bulls or cows through the town streets, as in the famous festival of Pamplona, Spain.

Although bullfighting possesses many ritualistic aspects, we should not call it a “ritual.” In a true ritual, such as the Catholic Mass, the officiate and communicants are engaged in deliberately symbolic activity; their every word and every action have an agreed-on spiritual referent; everything is rigidly predetermined, nothing is left to chance. None of these qualities can be found in a bullfight. Bullfighting has no deliberately symbolic activity, only simple signals such as handkerchief waving and clarion calls. The bullfighter’s actions do not “stand for” anything beyond themselves, and the spectators are always entitled to disagree about the actions. A great deal is left to chance because one cannot predict the behavior of bulls, crowds, or matadors. A fair chance always exists that the performance will turn sour and anticlimactic or tragic and ugly.

The rules of a typical bullfight call for a four- or five-year-old bull to be “picced” in his withers with a long lance, further weakened by banderillas (decorated darts) and risky or flashy cape passes, then killed with a sword thrust by a man wearing decorative rather than protective clothing. Because the horses of picadors (mounted riders who pierce the bull with lances during the first stage of the fight) now wear thick padding, the element of cruelty to animals is incidental rather than central to the actual mechanics of the bullfight, more apparent than real. Bullfighting has been an ecological preserve for the Iberian toro bravo (brave bull), a species as rare and unique as the American buffalo, cherished and pampered by ranchers. The archaic concept of manhood that animates the spectacle requires a worthy opponent at all times. That is why Hispanic fans always shout out their disapproval if they perceive that a bull is being mishandled and mistreated. Nevertheless, the psychology of both bullfight performers and spectators is thoroughly sado-masochistic, as could hardly be otherwise in a show that features public killing and needless risk of human life. For the thoughtful student of world sports, bullfighting raises questions of a moral or ethical nature much more serious than the ones raised by animal rights activists.


A predatory species of mammal known as Homo sapiens and a herbivorous mammal species known as bos taurus had gone forth and multiplied with particular success in the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Mythology tells us that when Hercules had to steal bulls, he went to what is now the province of Cadiz in southern Spain. Apart from being used as food, the bull was in all likelihood a totemic figure and/or sacrificial victim for the races that populated Iberia during the Bronze Age (c. 2500 BCE). Local cults were later blended with beliefs and practices common to the entire Mediterranean area—chief among them the cult of Tauromorphic Bacchus, or Dionysus, firmly entrenched in the Hispania of Roman days. However, the Visigothic barbarians who occupied Hispania when Rome fell had no interest in animal baiting, and the grand amphitheaters were abandoned and never used again.

In the hinterlands, however, the bull continued to play the role of magical agent of sexual fertility, especially in wedding customs that called for the bride and groom to stick darts into a bull tied to a rope. The object was not to fight the beast—certainly not to kill him —but rather to evoke his fecundating power by “arousing” him, then ritually staining their garments with his blood. This nuptial custom evolved into the rural capea (bull-baiting fiesta), which in turn led to grandiose urban spectacles organized to celebrate military victories or royal weddings. The common people were permitted to crowd into gaily decorated plazas (one in Madrid had room for sixty thousand spectators) and watch their lords, mounted on gallant steeds, lancing bulls.

Until the eighteenth century vast herds of aggressive Iberian bulls roamed freely and bred themselves with no interference from the human species. When knightly bullfighting was in flower, the elite sent their peons into the wilds to round up as many bulls as they could. However, not every wild bull had the right amount of bravura (focused aggressiveness) to make the aristocrat look good with his lance; thus, large numbers of bulls were supplied in the hope that enough of them would act out their roles convincingly.

Hostility on the Hoof

As bullfighting on foot became more popular during the 1700s, the demand for bulls increased accordingly, specifically for bulls that could be counted on to charge and not to flee. So the landed blue bloods did the same thing with the bulls that they had done with themselves in earlier epochs: They developed techniques for testing bravura, then perpetuated the blood of the bravest through consanguineous (descended from the same ancestor) mating. Whether or not we think that aristocrats were a superior species, the animals they bred unquestionably were and are amazingly consistent in their power, size, and aggressiveness. Hundreds of cattle ranches supply the roughly twenty-five thousand bulls killed every year by Spanish matadors. The many brands of brave bulls that constitute the indispensable raw material for today’s corridas (programs of bullfights for one day, usually six) descend from only five castas or bloodlines, all developed during the eighteenth century. The prestige of a particular brand of bulls was traditionally based on the number of horses, toreros (matadors or members of the attending team), or innocent bystanders they had killed or maimed. On several occasions bulls being shipped to a bullfight by train escaped from their railroad crates to wreak havoc.


In a rural fiesta no one is in a hurry to see the bull dead; when the time comes to kill him, any method will do, from a shotgun to a mass assault with knives. In the urban corrida, however, showing efficiency and know-how is crucial; the bull is to be dispatched cleanly (at least in theory) and in three timed suertes (acts)—picador, banderillas, and matador. Daily experience in the slaughterhouse gave certain ambitious plebeians the necessary knowledge and skill, and the boldest discovered they could earn more money by doing their jobs in public in the manner of a duel: man against monster. The guild system then dominant in the work-a-day world served as the model for turning bullfighting into a true profession with rules, regulations, hierarchism, apprenticeship, and seniority.

The first professional bullfighters were men completely immersed in the ethos (distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs) of the eighteenth-century urban slum. They detested the effeminate aristocratic fashions imported from France and proudly affirmed “pure” native concepts of male honor, along with bold and insolent styles of dressing, walking, talking, and killing. Among the rank and file of the down and outs, the readiness to kill or die with a maximum of nonchalance was the only route to prestige. Bullfighting on foot appealed chiefly to violent men who had nothing to lose and something to prove. Ironically, the sport has always enjoyed enthusiastic support among the same poor masses who would never have chosen bullfighting as a way to escape poverty—masses who, in other words, were either resigned to their lowly fate or hopeful that through hard work and daily sacrifice they could somehow find a better life but who were willing, all the same, to deify those few who were neither resigned nor inclined to hard work. Bullfighters were rebels in a rigidly stratified society, violators of the general law of submission to circumstances. However, the violation of one value system implies adherence to another.

The code that matadors lived by was called “verguenza torera” or “pundonor” (point of honor). Both terms possess a certain connotation of “touchiness” that descends quite directly from the oldest, most benighted tradition of Spanish honor obsessions. Simply put, the colloquial term verguenza torera means a bullfighter’s willingness to place his reputation ahead of his own life. This is not a mythical or romantic notion but rather a genuine code of conduct. Flashy flirtation with death has both financial and psychological rewards: By all accounts the heady delusion of omnipotence and heroism that matadors experience is quite addictive. A retired bullfighter is like a reformed alcoholic, always on the verge of a relapse into his favorite vice. Sometimes death is the only sure cure. Those bullfighters who best embody the imprudent honor code receive positive reinforcement from the crowds—rewarded, as it were, for their appetite for punishment. Toreros who stray from the code are negatively reinforced in the form of jeers, taunts, thrown objects, and malicious reviews. Readers of Death in the Afternoon may recall the U.S. writer Ernest Hemingway’s witty, catty, and often vicious disparagement of the bullfighters of his day.

Throughout the nineteenth century the popular concept of bullfighting was that of a martial art. Matadors were considered to be warriors; their “suits of light” were a kind of super-uniform, and their performances were so many episodes of a grandiose national saga. Unlike other European nations during this period, Spain saw its colonial possessions shrinking instead of expanding. For many Spaniards the corrida may have been a gratifying fantasy of national potency to make up for the less-than-glorious reality.

The military origins of bullfight music have been firmly established by scholars. Every change of suerte in a bullfight was, and is, signaled by a bugle call; the melodies are much the same as those used in infantry and cavalry barracks. The pasodoble, the stirring music played even today by bullring bands, descends directly from the military march. More than five hundred of them were composed, and the band was always on hand to set the right tone of militancy. After the loss of Spain’s colonies to the United States in 1898, numerous bullfights were organized in which people wore the national colors, and bullfighters made inflammatory speeches. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) both sides sponsored corridas; bullfighters would parade with clenched fists or fascist salutes, whichever was appropriate. During the darkest days of their country’s isolation under General Francisco Franco, Spaniards flocked to bullrings to reaffirm their identity with something that they knew was their own and that they took to represent their finest qualities. However barbarous its origins, however sordid some of its practices, the fiesta de toros (festival of the bulls) had truly become Spain’s Fiesta Nacional.

Process of Elimination

For every successful matador paraded around the bullring on the shoulders of ecstatic fans, an invisible army of forgotten young men tried and failed. Like certain marine species that give birth to thousands of young so that a few will reach maturity, the overwhelming majority of would-be matadors has been eliminated by environmental factors, each harsher than the last. The bull’s horns are the most basic, physical agent of this process of natural selection. For many Spanish youth the beginning was the end. Since the mid-1700s at least 170 young aspirants were killed by goring, along with 142 banderilleros (persons who thrust in the banderillas), 70 picadors, 59 full matadors, and 4 comic bullfighters. These statistics do not include toreros killed during ranch tests or private parties, nor do they include capeas (amateur bullfights), which have arguably been festal Spain’s major device for maiming young bodies and crushing hopes. Doctors specializing in taurotrau-matologia (horn-wound surgery) are accustomed to working on the pierced thighs, ruptured rectums, and eviscerated scrota of bullfighters. When an apprentice torero recovers from his first goring and reappears in the ring, his manager anxiously watches for any sign that his valor or his determination has been compromised.The all-powerful element of luck will still preside over his career. To be successful, a man must meet a noble and cooperative bull at the right moment; he must also have padrinos (godfathers), a good manager, opportunities, a crowd-pleasing personality, grace, flair, and a whole series of other qualities that is difficult to isolate but nevertheless means the difference between glory and mediocrity.

In view of this brutal selection process, one might well ask why any young man in his right mind would want to be a bullfighter. Poverty is the answer most often given to this question. Many portions of the Spanish populace have been condemned to misery, illiteracy, and lack of opportunity. Harsh as they have been, however, these social conditions are not sufficient in themselves to explain matador motivation. They obviously do not tell us why bullfighters who were already immensely wealthy—such as Espartero or Belmonte or Paquirri—remained in the plazas, or why so many men who had actually found good jobs wanted only to fight bulls. Additional motivational factors include self-destructive tendencies and unusually powerful oedipal conflicts. With an activity that has been one of the only means of advancement in a rigidly stratified society, whose wellspring is passion and whose lifeblood is the ritual combat between two animal species, where a lucky and skillful few succeed where so many hundreds fail, where so many frustrated men hound their sons into bullrings to avenge their own defeats, where critics dip their pens in poison and crowds go from adulation to mockery in a second, we cannot help but find sadomasochistic behavior patterns. In general, matadors are men obsessed with insurmountable violent masculine role models and rivals; their ambition is directly correlated with the obstacles placed in their path. Violence becomes identified with fullness of being; winning or losing, brutalizing or arranging to be brutalized, the bullfighter keeps his buried fantasies of omnipotence alive. Hemingway idolized masochistic matadors with adolescent enthusiasm, but in many ways they are like compulsive gamblers who throw caution to the winds and unconsciously play to lose all. Unlike gamblers, bullfighters go for broke in front of huge crowds of people egging them on; so, in the last analysis, the taurine (relating to bulls) honor code is a matter of mass cultural psychology. Countless bullfighters have confessed to fearing the crowd’s reactions more than the bulls themselves. Mass desire is as potentially sadomasochistic as individual desire: It will polarize around any expert manipulator of violence, seemingly autosufficient and untouchable in his charisma. The dramatic death of a matador in the line of duty (caused most often by his socially sanctioned suicidal honor) and his subsequent deification in popular lore simply carry the whole idolatrous process to its logical conclusion.

Women in Bullfighting

The bullfight has been transformed by the entry of women performers to its professional leagues as matadors. The presence of women in the ring remains an issue with some aficionados, but more and more are coming to accept women as the equals of their male counterparts.

The most respected woman performer of the early twentieth century was Juanita Cruz (b. 1917), of whom ex-bullfighter Domingo Ortega declared “she was the pure bullfight represented in the body of a woman.” Juanita Cruz’s debut public performance was in 1932, and her career was at its peak when in 1934 the dictatorship of General Franco banned women from performing on foot in public. His ban cut short the ambition of a whole generation of women bullfighters. Unable to continue her career in Spain, Cruz went to Latin America, where she graduated to professional status.

Juanita Cruz was not the only woman performer to have her career in Spain halted by Franco’s ban, although some, like Cruz, managed to continue elsewhere. Under his rule women were allowed to participate in rejoneo (horseback bullfighting). During this period the rejoneadora Conchita Cintron, born in Chile in 1922, developed an outstanding career in Latin America and later in Spain as a horseback performer. However, in Spain women did not legally perform in public on foot until 1974, when a campaign led by the woman bullfighter Angela Hernandez (b. 1946) ended the ban.

Since the reentry of women, such as Angela Hernandez and Maribel Atienza (b. 1959), into bullfighting during the 1970s, the number of women taking part has gradually increased in what is now a media-dominated and structured and regulated amateur and professional bullfighting league. The women performers of the 1970s and 1980s participated at the amateur novillero (novice bullfighter) stage but were never referred to by the masculine title of novillero or torero; they were instead referred to as novilleras. Like their predecessors they faced fierce criticism, and their careers were usually short-lived. Only in the 1990s did women foot performers become fully established as bullfighters.

The career of Cristina Sanchez has come to symbolize a new status for women in bullfighting. Sanchez, born near Madrid in 1971, graduated as the top student from the Madrid bullfighting school in 1989. She continued on to become one of the most successful young novilleros of her time. Sanchez maintained her place at the top of the novillero leagues until 1996, when she became the first woman to take the alternative, graduating to professional torero status in Nimes, France, one of the bullrings included in the Spanish circuit. Unlike her predecessors, Sanchez insists on being called a “torero” rather than the feminized “torera.” Although she rejects the label of “feminist,” she argues that as performers, men and women should be treated as equals. Her success during the early 1990s was followed by several other hopeful young women performers, such as the novilleros Yolanda Caravajal (b. 1968), Laura Valencia (b. 1971), and Mari Paz Vega (b. 1974), who was granted professional torero status in 1997.

Microcosm of Spain

From a historical point of view, bullfighting has been nothing less than a microcosm of Spain, a nation built not on individuals but on quasi-familial factions, where a “strong man” ultimately derived his strength from the debility of his supporters, and the weak got nowhere without patriarchs, godfathers, political bosses, and other men who bestowed rewards and punishments in accordance with their mood swings. Until recently the Spanish political system served to keep most Spaniards out of politics altogether, instilling in them a fatalistic attitude regarding the whims of authority. The office of president of a bullfight still represents this legacy of arbitrary despotism. Fraud and influence peddling were once endemic on the “planet of the bulls.” Horns were shaved, half-ton sandbags were dropped on bulls’ shoulders, critics were bribed. (One of the cruel ironies of bullfighting is that the most honest and reputable critics are also the ones most determined to preserve the authentic risk of human life upon which the whole enterprise is founded.)

Beyond tricks and corruption, we can see that bullfighting’s personalistic patronage system mirrors that of the larger society. The provincial fiesta de toros was a cautionary tale about what could happen to people without connections or friends; small-town mayors anxious to please their supporters had no qualms about acquiring the largest, most fearsome bulls for penniless apprentice toreros to struggle with and occasionally succumb to. Sooner or later a would-be bullfighter must find protectors-exploiters, the more the better, or he will get nowhere. El Cordobes wandered for years without such connections, and when he finally found them they were desperate gambling types much like himself who were willing to take a chance on a brash newcomer. The other side of this coin of unfair exclusion is unfair inclusion, young men from the right families, prodigies favored from the beginning by cattle breeders, impresarios, and critics. Traditionally the whole point of a matador’s career was to go from being a dependent, a client, a receiver of favors in a more-or-less corrupt system of personalistic patronage to being a dispenser of favors and patronage—the boss of his cuadrilla (team), a landowner, a big man in his community, a pillar of the status quo, idolized by impoverished and oppressed people. A whole web of complicities makes bullfighting possible—including local religious belief systems. The fiesta de toros is always held in honor of a patron saint, a kind of supernatural protector in touch with an arbitrary central authority who can be cajoled into doing favors for his “clients.”

Like old-fashioned Spanish political oratory, bullfighting can be seen as a series of dramatic public gestures. Every bullfighter is a potential demagogue, a man who stirs up the emotions of a crowd to become a leader and to achieve his own ends. A bullfighter gains power and wealth only when he learns how to sway the masses, to mesmerize them, to harness their passion for his private profit. The matador rides to the top of society on the backs of mass enthusiasm. However, no bullfighter could sway the masses if they were not disposed to be swayed. As soon as we become spectators of the spectators, we find their mobile and emotional disposition to be intimately related to popular concepts of power, authority, justice, and masculinity. Without heed to experts or critics, bullfight spectators evaluate artistic merit or bravery on their own and express their views instantly and unself-consciously. The downside of this refreshing spontaneity, however, is that popular value judgments tend to be arbitrary, impulsive, and unreflexive. The impulsive evaluations of bullfight crowds rattle and unnerve bullfighters, sometimes leading them to commit acts that result in serious injury or death. At the Almaria Fair in 1981, for example, the normally cautious Curro Romero was gored in an attempt to appease a hastily judgmental crowd. Afterward the public was sorry, of course, as sorry as it had been in 1920 after hounding Joselito into fatal temerity at Talavera and in 1947 when it drove Manolete to impale himself on the horns of Islero. Blood and Sand, the famous bullfighting novel by Blasco Ibanez, ends with this description of the public: “The beast roared: the real one, the only one.”

Cheers and Jeers

At the very least the public judges the taurine performance in an arbitrary, capricious, and personalistic manner. Because the decisions of the bullring president form part of the entire affair, they, too, fall under the scrutiny —and often the vociferous condemnation—of the spectators. Like old Spain itself, the bullfight is a mise-en-scene (stage setting) of an authoritarian power in an uneasy relationship with a blasphemous and rebellious underclass. For many Spanish writers the crowd’s impulsive style of reacting to duly constituted authority was the worst evil of bullfighting, one that reconfirmed Spaniards in their submission to the despotic whims of the powerful. As the embodiment of arbitrary might, the president possesses total immunity, and his decisions cannot be appealed. The public’s only recourse is to whistle, hoot, or insult. Thus, in much the same manner as the old African monarchies described by anthropologists, the corrida permits a ritualistic contestation of power that is momentarily gratifying but essentially without consequence. In his own way, of course, the matador polarizes the crowd’s criteria of dominance and submission: Whatever power he has must be seen in terms of popular concepts of power (who deserves to have it and who doesn’t) worked out long ago during Spain’s traumatic history of civil conflicts. We can picture the bullfight—and its appear to spectators—as a dramatization of machismo as long as we remember that machismo is primarily a psychological mechanism of compensation that provides a fantasy image of superiority in the absence of real sociopolitical power. Perhaps a bullfighter’s manly hyperbole serves to mediate between personal and national inferiority complexes. In any event the evidence would seem to support people who argue that bullfighting is the legacy of obscurantism (opposition to the spread of knowledge), that it is emblematic of the manipulability of the people, their gullibility, their irrational hero worship, their civic immaturity. One would surely exaggerate to see bullfighting as the “cause” of Spain’s former political backwardness, but it was certainly no cure.

Bullfighting is a spectacle of killing and gratuitous risk of life. Only with difficulty can people watch such violent spectacle without being aroused in some way. Even reactions of horror confirm that such spectacle is inherently erotic. Properly defined, disgust is just negative arousal, caused by the fear of degradation that accompanies the desire to give way to the instincts and violate all taboos. Most Spaniards and many foreigners enjoy the violent spectacle without guilt or other moral qualms. The group norms that hold sway at a bullfight enable each spectator to feel his or her physiological arousal as entirely appropriate. Intense stimulation actually increases commitment to the group’s rationalization of it. This socio-psychological mechanism has permitted Spaniards to experience titillation at bullfights and associate it, at a conscious level, with patriotism, manly ideals, integrity, honor, art, and so on. What happens to this group consensus when a goring occurs and the transgressive nature of bullfighting is fully manifested? Community norms are already in place to provide cognitions appropriate to the intense arousal that spectators experience. These norms forge a new group consensus whose conscious elements are grief, forbearance, pity, resignation, and ultimately, reaffirmation of all the heroic qualities that led the matador to risk his life in the first place. The normative emotionality that forms around the fallen matador persists for many years after the tragedy and, in its sociocultural implications, goes far beyond the blood and sand.