The Festival of San Fermín: Like a Red Rag to a Bull?

Laura Mundow • July 3, 2014 • TraditionsComments (1)
Image Credit: @ Think Stock dot com

Image Credit: @ Think Stock dot com

Since 1592, the Spanish city of Pamplona has held the festival of San Fermín from July 6 through 14. It’s a raucous celebration in honor of the city’s patron saint, packed with partying, processions, pyrotechnics…and people galloping through the streets being chased by angry bulls.

In addition to revealing the lengths some people will go to in search of an adrenalin high, the encierro, or Running of the Bulls, whips up a great deal of controversy. On one side are those who lament that it’s a cruel, medieval spectacle that should go the way of the dodo. On the other are those equally vociferous folks who say it’s a tradition steeped in heritage, which should be preserved.

So who’s right? Let’s borrow from bullfighting and pit one team against the other.

For: “It’s as much a part of Spain as sangria!”

The festival is at least 400 years old, with many historians pointing to evidence that it could be more than 700 years old. It began as a way to move bulls from the corral to the bullfighting ring, and gradually evolved into a weeklong festival of fun. The encierro, coupled with the bullfight, is possibly Spain’s most instantly recognizable image, competing only with flamenco. It has also inspired generations of creative brains, none more so than Ernest Hemingway, whose “The Sun Also Rises” brought the encierro to the attention of the world at large.

Ridding Pamplona’s streets of the encierro would be destroying part of Spain’s cultural heritage and tradition, scrubbing one of its most unique features from the history books of the future, say its proponents.

Against: “It belongs in the Dark Ages!”

Its status as a cultural tradition does not grant it automatic immunity from criticism or mean that it should be preserved without question, say bull-running’s opponents. The event is a cruel, archaic pastime that shows no regard for the fear and pain of the bulls. What exactly is brave about terrifying bulls into exhaustion before slaughtering them in the bullring?

It’s a tradition…but so are bear baiting and horse fighting and it’s tough to find many people who defend those. “You can judge the morality of a nation by the way the society treats its animals,” said Mahatma Gandhi. Anti-bull-runners say that animal rights should trump tradition.

For: “Most people don’t get hurt.”

The majority of injuries sustained by human participants in the encierro are relatively minor. It’s not as much of a free-for-all as the video footage might suggest either. There are strict rules which mozos (runners) must adhere to, including: No drunkenness, no inappropriate clothing, and—this rule has probably never required enforcement—no stopping along the run.

Against: “It’s downright dangerous for people.”

It will come as a surprise to no one that running through narrow streets in front of six 1,400-pound, angry bulls is what could modestly be termed Pretty Dangerous Indeed. Since 1910, there have been 15 deaths at the festival of San Fermín, and three in the last decade alone. The most recent death was in 2009, when Daniel Romero was killed after the main artery in his neck was severed by a horn. Injuries are also rife, with around 200 people requiring medical attention each year.

For: “The bulls are taken care of.”

The runs are only 900 yards long and mostly last for just three minutes, say Bull Run aficionados. A sturdy wooden fence blocks spectators from the bulls, and many pastores (bull shepherds) follow the bulls to protect them from any spectators who try and anger them. Additionally, since bulls are herd animals, a few mansos (steers) run with them to help keep them calm.

There’s also the argument that the fighting bull would become extinct if it weren’t for bull runs and bullfighting. Most fighting bulls live longer, more contented lives than farm animals, opine the tradition’s supporters.

Against: “It’s cruel to the bulls.”

The bulls are confused and scared, and many fall on the slippery beer-soaked streets, breaking bones and horns. Plus, eyewitnesses say the bulls aren’t always protected by the pastores, with spectators hitting and screaming at them.

At the end of the run, the exhausted bulls are taken into the plaza de toros (bullring), where they must participate in another controversial Spanish tradition, the corrida (bullfight). Four-dozen bulls die each year at the festival of San Fermín, making up some of the 40,000 bulls killed every year in bullfights across Spain, a death toll opponents say is unacceptable in the name of tradition and entertainment.

Who wins?

If you’re an enthusiastic defender of the preservation of cultural heritage, but you’re also vehemently against cruelty to animals, then you’re in a tricky situation. Both sides have compelling arguments, even though they may be contradictory.

However, it appears that the tide is slowly turning in favor of those who wish to leave this tradition—and its sister tradition, bullfighting—behind. In 2012, Catalonia became the second Spanish region to ban bullfighting. On the other hand, there is no major movement nationwide in Spain in support of a ban and the tradition has come to the US in the form of the “Great Bull Run” in Virginia last year.

What side of the argument do you fall on? Do you think the Running of the Bulls should be preserved as a cultural tradition or banned from modern life?

One Response to “ The Festival of San Fermín: Like a Red Rag to a Bull? ”

  1. Francisco Belara says:

    Running of the bulls should be preserved since it’s a cultural tradition. San Fermin celebration will not be the same without it!

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