Fiesta of San Fermin: Running with the Bulls in Pamplona

Bulls running on 7th July 2005, Consistorial S...

Bulls running on 7th July 2005, Consistorial Square, Pamplona. Image taken by Johnbojaen and uploaded on 1st september 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the best known, and most controversial, annual festivals in Spain takes place in early July in Pamplona. The week long festival is held in honour of San Fermin, said to have been the first Bishop of Pamplona who was decapitated in the third century AD. He is the patron saint of boot makers, wine traders and bakers and is co-patron, with St Francis Xavier, of the Spanish province of Navarre.

History of the Festival

So, how did a Bishop get involved in the annual bull running event made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’? The Festival dates back to the 12th Century and was a mixture of reverence to the saint, markets and bullfights. Originally, the festival was only two days long and was held in October until the constant bad weather persuaded the people of Pamplona to move the date to July in 1591.

Over the centuries more events such as music, dance, fairground attractions and parades were added to the religious aspect, causing some concern amongst the clergy, but at the heart of the festival, there was always the running of the bulls through the streets of Pamplona and the bullfights.

Running of the Bulls

From July 7-14, every morning at 8am, the bulls are let loose into the streets in an event called ‘el encierro‘. They run between a special holding corral and the bullring, covering a distance of 825 metres. In times gone by, it was the easiest way to get the bulls from outside the city into the bullring. As the bulls ran, young men would run in front of them to prove their bravery.

This has now become the most famous part of the whole event as television channels the world over show the bulls with hordes of young people, dressed in white with scarves showing which peña, or fan club, they belong to around their necks, running in front of them or trying to touch them. Usually between 10 and 12 bulls are released every morning. The route is lined with a double fence which stops the bulls from running into side streets. There is a gap large enough between the barriers to allow people to escape but not the bulls. Every year, however, many people are injured during the event. Some are trampled, some are knocked down and some are gored by the maddened bulls. Surprisingly, there have only been fifteen deaths since records began in 1924.

Once the bulls reach the bullring, they are separated out and the best ones are chosen for the bullfights which takes place in the evening. Tickets for the ‘corrida‘ as it is known in Spanish are much sought after.

Stages of the Bull Fight

The first part of the bullfight is when the bull enters the ring and the matador watches as the ‘banderilleros’ use capes to attract the bull. The matador watches the bull to see how he moves and if he favours one area of the arena over another. He also looks for any weaknesses the bull may have. The matador will make certain passes with his cape, at this point usually pink on one side and gold on the other, at the bull, decided by hundreds of years of tradition. The dazzling outfit worn by the matador is known as a ‘traje de luces’ or ‘suit of lights’

Next, the two picadors will enter the ring with their horses blindfolded and padded. They each carry a lance which they will use to attempt to stab into the large muscle of the bull’s neck. The horses are very highly trained and can turn instantly but they are on occasion injured and indeed killed. The use of the lances by the picadors will cause the bull to start losing blood which will weaken him. A judge will decide when the picadors have hit the bull enough times to cause the right level of weakness and the matador may ask for further attacks to be made.

Then the banderilleros will re-enter the ring. Their job is to attempt to plant brightly-coloured sticks with sharp barbs into the shoulders of the bull. This further weakens the bull and obviously causes even more loss of blood.

Finally, the matador will re-enter the ring carrying a small red cape (the colour doesn’t matter as bulls are colour-blind; it is just tradition that dictates the colour) and a sword. The cape is stretched out either by using a piece of wood or at times, the sword. The matador will then make several passes with the cape, getting as close to the bull as he dare. The idea is to show his control and his ability. It is at this point that the matador is most in danger and many have been gored by being careless or losing concentration at a crucial moment. Doctors are always on hand to deal instantly with any injuries. Again, there are traditional moves that are made with the cape, with certain passes being seen by the crowds as more impressive than others. Finally, the matador will try and get close enough to kill the bull with a thrust of the sword at an exact point which goes through the spine and into the aorta.

If the matador fails to make a clean kill he is not only booed by the crowd but is disgraced. The bull will be quickly killed to spare it any further suffering. The entire fight takes fifteen minutes with horns sounded at each point to warn the matador of the time he has left to complete his task. The crowd may choose to save the bull by waving handkerchiefs. The matador will wait for a decision from the President of the Bullfight who will make the final decision. If he hangs out an orange handkerchief, the bull will be allowed to live and will be retired and used for stud. This, however, virtually never happens. Bulls are never used in the ring twice

Art or Cruelty?

Every year, there are protests by animal rights campaigners against the San Fermin fiesta but it would seem that the tradition is so entrenched in Pamplona that it is unlikely that the event will end. Many thousands of people travel from all over the world to watch the bull running and the bullfights, providing a much needed boost to the local economy.These days, many Spaniards are against bull fighting but there are many more who consider bull fighting to be an art form, a spectacular dance to the death between man and beast.