The future of Spanish bullfighting is very much in flux these days. Despite bans in the Canary Islands and Catalonia, decreasing popularity internationally, and a decrease in total bullfights domestically, bullfighting competitions continue to dominate the spring and early summer festivities in Andalusia, Valencia, Madrid, and Castille. After a recent parliamentary vote succeeded in beginning the legal process of cementing bullfighting as a protected Spanish cultural activity, there has been an outcry from those who see the sport as barbaric and cruel. Before you make your own judgements about bullfighting, let's clear up some misconceptions about the sport and the customs that surround it. When you're more informed, you'll be able to appreciate and enjoy everything bullfighting festivities have to offer on your next trip to Spain.
Bullfighting traces its foundation back to roots of modern civilization; according to biblical sources, the "first" bullfight took place between Gilgamesh, a prehistoric king of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk, and the invincible bull of heaven, which was impervious to traditional weapons, and was only slain through Gilgamesh's trickery. The Sumerians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Minoans (among others) revered and often practiced bull worship and sacrifice, which eventually made its way to the Roman world and the rest of western civilization. Bullfighting is thus not limited to the Spanish-speaking world, beyond Spain, it is popular in Portugal, France, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Greece, Turkey, India, Bangladesh and Japan, to name a few. Bullfighting is also not strictly limited to toreros (bullfighters) versus bulls, and bullfighting does not necessarily mean the death of the bull. In fact, in many places to kill the bull in the ring is either illegal (Portugal) or highly unethical (Argentina, Brazil, Greece), and not practiced. In typical Spanish bullfighting, there are various types of fights such as the corrida de toros where the bull is usually slain in conclusion of the fight, but there are also "comic bullfights" called charlotadas, where a particularly amusing or extremely brave bull will be granted a pardon known as indulto. These pardoned bulls leave the ring alive and return to their home ranch as a stud, spreading their either humorous or brave seed for the rest of their lives.
To the chagrin of animal rights activists, the recent vote by the Spanish parliament all but guarantees that bulls will continue to be slain in the ring where there is lust for blood. In other areas, however, steps are being taken to protect bullfighters, the audience, and the bulls themselves. In Portugal, a bull can only be slain by a licensed butcher after having left the ring; in southwestern France where bullfighting is popular, the true stars are the bulls themselves, who gain fame and statues in their honor, product endorsement contracts, and have luxurious, private stables in a very similar way to celebrities. For those conscious of the bull's (and the fighter's) well-being, there are more responsible, less dangerous fights that award the bull with prestige and a life of happiness on the ranch after retirement. For those interested in the more traditional blood sport, there are and for the foreseeable future, will be venues to enjoy this traditional Spanish art form.
Like the Assyrians and Sumerians before us, humans will always have a special connection to bulls and all things bovine, whether we chose to worship, love, eat, or be entertained by them. However you choose to enjoy bullfighting culture, you would be best served by renting a vehicle in Madrid or one of the country's other cities for an unforgettable road trip across Spain to see how different folks across this beautiful nation choose to reflect on their cultural connection to this historic sport.