Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal Arts
6 minutes for reading

BORIS BURDA: How to teach a bull to be a hero

BORIS BURDA: How to teach a bull to be a hero
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Art design: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Midjourney




There are a few minor roles in this play, but basically it’s a theater of two actors, two different roles. One of them can earn fame and immense popularity, while for the other it is almost impossible — no one will let him on stage more than once. But this second actor can also deserve various awards. What is the highest?




If a bull at a bullfight has caused everyone’s delight, it will not be killed, but will be honorably sent to breed. The answer «left alive» also counts.




Perhaps, if you are told that ritualistic games involving bullfighting appeared around the 20th century, you will only twist your finger at your temple: wasn’t there bullfighting many centuries ago? Don’t rush — we are talking about the 20th century BC! It was then that the tradition of tavrokatapsia, which can be translated as «grabbing the bull», was born in Crete.

The bright and colorful frescoes of the Knossos Palace have brought to us examples of unheard-of daring: the participants of the games (interestingly, more often women than men) jumped over huge bulls, sometimes leaning on their horns, sometimes in other ways. It is not difficult to guess how the bulls reacted to this, and that is why tavrokatapsia was a deadly business.

Scenes of this ritual can be found, for example, in Ivan Yefremov’s novel «The Land of Foam». There, several young men and women jump over a bull, grab its horns, sit on top of it, and eventually exhaust it so much that the exhausted bull stops, head down. That’s the end of the game — there’s no need to kill the bull (the opposite is actually not true, people sometimes obviously died).

Centuries later, bullfighting reached the capital of Homer’s Agamemnon, the gold-rich Mycenae. Here, it was usually men who fought the angry cattle. The Indian Marwari tribe had different rules: the bulls were frightened and driven into the crowd, and the bravest tried to tear off the jewelry tied to the bulls’ horns. If you missed, you were in trouble.

The Basques also learned this game in the Pyrenees, and it was taken up by them. Their origin is mysterious, some believe that the Basques came from the Caucasus… Maybe from Crete — their games with the bull are exactly the same as in the square in front of the Knossos Palace. Along with professionals, a lot of amateurs take part in Basque games, and the bull’s horns are wrapped in cotton wool (which doesn’t help much).


Фреска «Прыгающий бык». Найдена в Кносском дворце, Крит, Греция. Датируется примерно 1600—1450 годами до нашей эры
«The Bull-Leaping» fresco. Found in the Palace of Knossos, Crete, Greece. Dated to approximately 1600-1450 BC / wikipedia.org




A real bullfight, in which the bull was not tired but killed, was most likely introduced by the Arabians, for example, it was celebrated at almost every holiday in Muslim Seville since the beginning of the 11th century. Usually, a mounted knight would fight the bull and kill it with a heavy spear. It is said that the first Christian knight to kill a bull in this way was the great Cid Campeador.

The wedding of a noble lady could rarely do without a bullfight, and the groom himself had to stick a banderilla, a short spear decorated with the bride’s flowers, into the bull’s withers. There were no stadiums for these competitions yet; the central squares of cities served as them. For example, in Madrid, Plaza Mayor became the traditional venue for horse bullfighting.

A milestone in the history of bullfighting was reached in 1572, when King Philip II opened the Royal School of Riding, as it was decided that a caballero’s fight with bulls would be cheaper than the loss of expensive horses in training. Royal patronage increased interest in the favorite pastime. But it turned out that not all kings were the same…

In 1700, Philippe V, a frenchman, grandson of the «Sun King» who could not stand this Spanish custom, ascended the throne, and the monarch’s tastes became the tastes of the nobility, and the interest of the noble Spaniards in bullfighting faded. However, this immediately sparked an outbreak of enthusiasm for the popular version of bullfighting-with a bullfighter on foot, without the risk of expensive horses.


Франсиско де Гойя. Бой быков, 1816
Francisco de Goya. Bullfight, 1816 / wikipedia.org




The modern version of bullfighting was born in the Andalusian city of Ronda. It was the bullfighting that left the squares — the first special arena for bullfighting, the Plaza de Toros, was built in Ronda. It happened in 1785, but even before that, Ronda became famous not only for its love of the new foot bullfighting, but also for an almost cult hero who became one of the founders of the new format.

Francisco Romero was born in the same year, 1700, when the new king of Spain came to the throne and refused to patronize bullfighting. The status of foot bullfighting was low then. Back in the XIII century, King Alfonso X the Wise issued a decree according to which it was considered a disgrace to perform in bullfighting for money — the bullfighter received only a piece of meat from a dead bull. A small profit…

He served a noble caballero, and one day his master, who was participating in a horse bullfight, was knocked out of the saddle. Francisco, without hesitation, rushed into the arena, waved his cloak in front of the angry bull’s face and distracted him for a few seconds, during which his master was saved. This cloak was the first muleteer — the honor of its creation belongs to Romero.

It was Romero who became the first great bullfighting torero in the modern format. He is also the founder of the first dynasty of great bullfighters. His son Juan also became a famous bullfighter, and his grandson Pedro killed more than 5,000 bulls in his career without getting a scratch. There is now a plaque on the house in Ronda where Pedro was born.




The first face of modern bullfighting is, of course, the matador (translated as «killer», but who else is he?). He is dressed in a luxurious costume called Traje de Luces — «the costume of lights». It has 14 different almost obligatory elements: from the Capote — a heavy two-color cloak, to the Estoque — a sword with a slightly bent end.

Perhaps the main star of twentieth-century bullfighting was Juan Belmonte, who, in his rivalry with the equally great bullfighter Joselito, developed a new style of fighting: standing almost in place, letting the bull get very close, and dodging it with deft movements at the last moment. Joselito was unlucky and died, and Belmonte performed like this for 25 years in a row.

The great Manolete was equally glorious, and a number of bullfighting experts call him the best bullfighter in history. Songs were dedicated to him, and a new kind of liqueur was named in his honor. When he was killed by a bull at a bullfight in Linares, Franco declared three days of mourning in Spain, during which only funeral melodies were played on Spanish radio.

Hemingway, who adored bullfighting, also played a significant role in Belmonte’s glorification — many believe that it was Belmonte who he introduced in his novel «The Sun Also Rises». Later, in his novel «The Dangerous Summer», he described the story of the rivalry between two other great bullfighters, Antonio Ordóñez and Luis Miguel Dominguez (incidentally, his sister’s husband). It’s worth reading!

In Hemingway’s novel, Ordóñez wins, but was it really so? Yuri Nagibin’s novel «One on One» gives a different version-that both this rivalry and its outcome were jointly staged by Ordóñez and Dominguez for the purpose of advertising. Try and check it out… But the fact that Dominguez’s fame only grew after this fight is a truth that can be easily verified.

It was also said about Manolete that advertisers who invested millions in him demanded that his bulls have their horns filed to make them less dangerous. As you can see, it didn’t save him… But even now, conversations about the bulls being tranquilized before the bullfight, being kept in the dark for hours so that they can’t see properly, and so on, don’t stop. The money is considerable…


Хуан Бельмонте Гарсия — испанский матадор, один из самых известных матадоров своего времени и, как и его соперник Хоселито, считающийся совершившим революцию в искусстве корриды в начале XX века
Juan Belmonte Garcia is one of the most famous matadors of his time. Like his rival Joselito, he is considered to have revolutionized the art of bullfighting in the early 20th century / wikipedia.org


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A typical performance of tauromachia (Greek for «war with the bull») consists of several fights. Each bull takes about 20 minutes. Why is it so short? Because around this time, the bull begins to realize that it is not the rag that threatens him, but the guy waving it, and the danger to the bullfighter increases many times over.

The battle with each bull is divided into three tertiaries. In the first, picadors, riders with spears, stab the bull to make it angry. In the second, banderillas — thin darts with colorful ribbons — are stuck into the bull’s neck. And in the final one, the matador himself demonstrates miracles of agility and gives the bull the last fatal blow with his sword.

Becoming a matador is not easy. First, a couple of years in the lower rank of besserista, then the more honorable title of novillero, which gives the right to fight a young bull, and then the applicants «accept the alternative» — they become matadors, having received the recommendations of two current toreros. A matador can already compete in the arena against an adult bull.

After a matador wins, he is awarded various prizes — the more beautiful the victory, the higher the prize. The minimum reward is a bull’s ear, the highest is two ears, and for a very beautiful victory, the tail can also be awarded, which means that the bull’s carcass is not given to the poor, because it belongs to the winner. The Great Manolete was also awarded a hoof (once even two!).

The highest reward for the bull was already mentioned at the beginning: it will not be killed, but sent for breeding to improve the famous Iberian bull breed, which is close in phenotype to the wild bull. Each of these bulls weighs about half a ton, is very agile and nimble, and the best are considered to be completely black bulls, the personification of evil forces that man defeats.

Of course, the matador’s main reward is not ears and tail. The earnings of the best of them are huge. For each night of performances at the Las Ventas arena, the famous El Juli received 270,000 euros. Another prominent bullfighter, Enrique Ponce, earned 450,000 euros in a year. Therefore, bullfighters are considered enviable brides, and girls throw their headscarves into the arena for a reason…




However, nowadays the popularity of bullfighting is declining. There are entire organizations that seek to ban it. The poster of one of them depicts streams of blood on the sand and has the inscription: «Cruelty has nothing to do with art or culture». Not everyone agrees with this, but the number of those who do is growing almost every year.

Bullfighting is not very well received in the European Union either. Farmers who raise bulls for bullfighting have been deprived of subsidies. The author of the draft law, british Simon Murphy, said: «Taxpayers should not subsidize activities that are unacceptable to the civilized world», and the European Parliament supported his position, and bullfighting became more expensive.

In 1982, an international tribunal found spanish Prime minister Felipe González and a number of other Spanish ministers guilty of «violating the decree of December 16, 1976, underestimating the intellectual level of the Spaniards, attempting to violate the dignity of children, and perversely influencing ethical and civic education». All this is also about bullfighting…

Even in Spain itself, in 2007, the country’s central TV channel TVE, refused to broadcast bullfighting. Bullfighting in the Canaries was banned in 1995, and in 2012, Catalonia banned it. A huge bullfighting arena in Barcelona’s Plaça d’Espanya was converted into a fashion supermarket. No one is killed there anymore.


BORIS BURDA: How to teach a bull to be a hero
A bullring converted into a shopping center in Barcelona. Photo by Darrell Godliman / flickr.com




In other regions of Spain, bullfighting is still being held. Its supporters refer to national traditions, to the fact that bullfighting is an integral part of the entire Spanish culture. The extent to which this is combined with the fact that bullfighting attendance throughout the country is falling, and a large part of bullfighting spectators are now curious foreign tourists, is up to you to judge…

They say that bullfighting is just a kind of ballet, a beautiful art, and the audience comes to see the matador’s art, not the torment of the bull. They refer to the fact that the bull in the arena is not doomed and, if he is exceptionally brave, can leave the arena alive (but not the slaughterhouse). Do they kill bulls for meat? In general, yes — but not in front of the public, which pays for such a spectacle.

There are many references to the fact that bullfighting is a very developed and successful branch of Spanish industry. These are huge arenas, significant turnover of funds received for tickets, production of accessories necessary for bullfighting, breeding bulls that are fierce and do not gain weight well to keep them fat without bullfighting — in general, without bullfighting, there is a loss!

So, bullfighting is unlikely to be banned, but can it be preserved in a situation where more and more people consider it barbaric and vote against it with their feet, leaving more and more empty seats in amphitheaters? So far, it seems that it will at least reduce its influence, and over time it will be abandoned even in Spain. But it will be remembered for a long time…




The standard bullfighting exclamation «Ole!» dates back to the Muslim conquest, a slightly distorted cry of «Allah!» From bullfighting, it moved to football thanks to the brazilian Garrincha — he dodged defenders like a torero from a bull, and he was also shouted «Ole!»

During the civil war, most toreros were supporting Franco, but there were also torero republicans. According to the memoirs of their contemporaries, they often dedicated the killed bull to the Spanish Communist Party and personally to the beautiful lady Dolores Ibarruri…

Near the Madrid bullring, there are statues not only of the great bullfighters, but also of a man in a simple frock coat. This is Alexander Fleming, the inventor of penicillin, who saved the lives of many matadors.

Ferruccio Lamborghini, born under the sign of Taurus, made it traditional to use the names of famous bulls as the names of his car models, starting with the legendary bull Murcelago, who survived 24 sword strokes and was pardoned.

After Franco’s death, the ban on the publication of the good children’s fairy tale about the peace-loving bull Ferdinand, who, having been caught in a bullfight, refused to fight and was sent back to the pasture, was finally lifted. It’s a good story — all bulls should be like that!


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