Bullfighting in Madrid: The Wrong Kind of Sword Dance

[WARNING: This post contains GRAPHIC IMAGES of Bullfighting]
Bullfighting. Not something that I had ever really thought of going to, but that’s where I was headed. As I hadn’t been able to stay with a couchsurfer in Madrid, it was time to make up for it with some quick forum searches for uniquely Spanish activities. Bullfighting was not something that I was totally convinced I wanted to do, but in the spirit of “yes” decided to give it a go. Chelsea and I went and got a quick lunch which included “Arabian desserts” and an avocado smoothie, and then made our way to the bullfighting ring. The building was absolutely enormous, four levels of red-pink brick with ornate designs and a towering gated archway in the shape of a keyhole at the entrance. We were a bit earlier than the other couchsurfers, and as we stood wondering if this was actually a good idea, a young boy came up to us and handed us two tickets. Wary of some scam, we refused. He pushed them on us insisting, “gratis, free, no los necessito.” Well we weren’t going to pass that up either, so with tickets in hand we walked around the building, exploring the different murals and statues. It was a dripping hot day with the sun high in the sky even at 4:00. There were no clouds whatsoever and everyone trying to find whatever shade they could. Even the tickets were sold with this in mind, for about 50% more at whatever price range you could have a seat on the shady side of the stadium, or for a bit less than that, in the section where the shade would reach midway through the event. Our tickets, of course, were in the sun. Oh well, can’t argue with free. Speaking of free, we were quite baffled when one of the vendors who had set up on the street outside started shouting “FreeAguaaaa FreeeeeeAguaaaaFreeagua!!!” The water was clearly not free, and it wasn’t until we wandered over to the cart that things became clear. It was not free water, instead it was cold and the long drawn out call had turned “agua fria” into a false promise of hydration. I bought some cold water for 1.50 euros along with a large bag of sunflower seeds. Finally the other CSers turned up, including an American, an Israeli, and a man from (i think) Turkey. They got tickets next to ours and we headed up into our seats. Like the Globe theater, you could buy a cushion for your stone seat for a euro, but I decided to skip it and soon enough we found ourselves high up in the large ring of bleachers surrounding the arena. It was even bigger than it looked from the outside. None of us knew anything about bullfighting, but we were about to get our introduction.
First came a trumpet call, from a small group of trumpeters on the far side of the ring. With this call, the three toreadors of the day paraded out with their attendants and stood facing the judges. There was some music and they all went away before more trumpets and the bull charged into the ring, snorting and looking this way and that. Men with bright pink capes would come out and draw the bull’s charge.

If things got too close, there were small wooden shields by the walls where they could run behind until the bull left. The point of the whole thing seemed to be to get the bull to wear itself out running. After a little while there was another call of the trumpets and a mounted spearman came out on an armored horse. While the pink-caped men stood around the horse drew the charge of the bull, and the rider stabbed it above its neck while it tried to gore the horse. I was amazed that the horse seemed not to fear the charge until I realized that it was wearing a blindfold of sorts.

The force of the bulls horns would cause the rider and steed to lean in at quite an angle. After this part was over, three men would come out on their own holding two colored rods with spikes on the end. One at a time, they would run up to the bull, dodge its charge, jump, and thrust the spikes into the animals neck or upper back, leaving the bull running around with six colored rods sticking out of it. After this it was time for the real show, judging by the crowds reaction (and storybooks I read as a kid) The toreador entered, dressed up in an outlandishly sparkly and skin-tight costume.

He waved his cape at the bull and let it charge, sometimes drawing two or three charges in sequence, to the delight of the crowd. The hard-core fans were all closer to the center, and there seemed to be specific moves that drew applause, cries of “ole!” (Yes! For real!) and cheers. As far as I could tell, it was a bit like pouring cider in Basque Country; the closer you get to failure (being skewered) and the greater the image of nonchalance you project, the better the performance. Several times after a series of frantic charges and misses, the matador would turn his back on the bull and simply walk away, to howls of delight from the fans. The matador would finally go and exchange his sword for another one at the edge of the ring and set about to kill the animal. The death blow was dealt by passing very close to the charge and thrusting the sword into the upper back of the bull, I assume into the heart. I had always thought that this bit would be quicker (and I think it is supposed to be) but the bull took a long time to die.

It would stand there, swaying, walking back and forth, while the pink cloaks surrounded it, waving about to confuse it. Finally it would stagger and fall to the ground, at which point the toreador would have to retrieve his sword and an assistant would us a small knife to sever the spinal cord of the animal, instantly killing it. The crowd would be going wild by this point, singing, cheering, and waving small white handkerchiefs in the air. Music would start and a team of horses would be paraded out, lashed to the bull, and drag it out of the stadium. A team of grounds crew would rake sand over the blood, there would be a short break and the whole thing would start again. And again. And again. I didn’t stay for the whole thing, but it by the time I left at least six bulls had been killed. It also seemed like everything that could “go wrong” in a bullfight did. While I was there, several pink capes and toreadors had been thrown by the bull and the rest of them would have to run out and distract the bull to rescue them.

A bull ended up jumping over the fence around the arena into the area where the support teams were all standing. They looked terrified and all jumped the fence into the ring and the bull charged in circles around the outside until someone thought to open a door to the center and everyone jumped the fence again. One toreador lost his sword and had to get a new one and when his bull finally was stabbed he went to get it back, only to be charged and thrown by the bull in its last struggle for life. I have to say, before too long I was rooting for the bull. If anyone is wondering, yes it is just as barbaric a tradition as you think it is. I think it would be a good thing to for it to be shut down, and the idea of so many people taking so much pleasure out of the torture and killing of an animal is a little bit sickening. Part of it is that it just doesn’t seem fair to pit a fully rested man against a bull that has already been run in circles lanced, and stabbed with the colored rods. All of this said, I’m glad I saw it before it disappears. It is a cultural phenomenon that already seems as something out of the distant past. Though I would have seen it anyway, I also am a bit glad that I was given free tickets and didn’t end up supporting it monetarily. One last thought before I go to bed: Did anyone else read the children’s book about a bull that was given a pardon for fighting well? I can’t remember the name, but I’m sure one of you does!


About Jeremy Carter-Gordon

My blog of a year studying point-and-hilt sword dancing on a Watson Fellowship. Enjoy reading, tell me your thoughts and leave me a comment, or visit my website at JeremyCarterGordon.com
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2 Responses to Bullfighting in Madrid: The Wrong Kind of Sword Dance

  1. Lauren Breunig says:

    I remember that kid’s book too! I think it’s called Ferdinand the Bull. He was a good fighter but didn’t like fighting, right? He’d rather lounge in the meadow and smell flowers, as I recall. As always, it’s great to read about your adventures. Miss you lots and sending love and hugs from Vermont!

  2. Liza Carter says:

    The book was “Ferdinand the Bull”. He much preferred smelling flowers. One day he was visited by men looking for the biggest, meanest bull to take to the bullfights in Madrid. The saw him just as he was stung by a bee. His stomping and snorting to get rid of the bee convinced the men they had found their mean, fighting bull and took him to Madrid. There he refused to fight and simply smelled the flowers in the women’s hair. They had to take him home again to him meadow of flowers where he lived happily smelling the flowers.

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