The bullfight may be the last relic of the ancient world. In this discussion, our antiquities scholar discusses the role of religion, catharsis, and redemption in the corrida.
Dr. Allen Josephs
Professor of Literature and Spanish Studies, University of Western Florida
These images and interview with author Dr. Allen Josephs were culled from the production of GORED, a documentary film co-produced by True and available for pre-order on Amazon here.
Death has meaning. In fact, death is what gives life meaning. That’s the story of the corrida: death gives life meaning. But there’s something beyond that. There’s something that has to do with the sacrifice itself. With the dispensing of the death. With being the high priest. You know the matadors are really the only high priests from the Pagan days that we have left.
Why do you kill the thing that you love? If I had the answer to that question, I would tell you. I don’t have it. Nobody has it. But the story is there in the sacrifice of every single god. All the early religions have a sacrificial god. When Jesus of Nazareth is put on the cross and sacrificed, that’s a historic example of a sacrifice that had been occurring for thousands of years.
But there’s something bad in human nature that calls for sacrifice too. And it’s something that I’ve spent my entire career trying to figure out. I don’t even know how extraordinary it would be if we could figure out the essential enigma of human nature, which is our tendency to kill the thing that we love. Maybe it’s because we feel guilty about killing. We make up stories and sacrifice—that is, we sacrifice the killing and make it into a ritual in order to purify ourselves. That makes a lot of sense. And that is where the corrida or bullfight comes in.
I don’t like the term bullfighting.
It’s not really a proper term. Toreo—can we call it toreo? Toreo is what the Spaniards created instead of the modern novel. It’s a spectacle and it is theater. In fact, it’s a lot like Greek tragedy except that it’s pre-Greek tragedy because in Greek tragedy the sacrifice of an animal is no longer there. The sacrifice has been moved to a representational level, but in Spain they kept the sacrifice. And not only did they keep the sacrifice, but they honed in on the sacrifice. And they made the bull sacrifice, which was in its own way a revivification of the sacrifice of the bull god from antiquity.
Bulls were worshipped in all civilizations from India to Portugal, and especially in Spain. Because of the back and forth between the Christians and the Muslims for hundreds of years, in the so-called middle ages, you had huge areas in the middle of Spain and even into the south of Spain that were uncivilized. There were woods, they were wild, and there were wild bulls growing there. These were the descendants of the aurochs, the larger, woolly-mammoth looking bulls from the ancient world, and they were not wiped out.
Now, the last of the aurochs died out in Poland in the 1600s, but the survivors of the aurochs lived on in Spain. And the Spanish fighting bull is a descendant of those. The result is the bullfight, and it is more more dangerous than virtually anything that anybody would ever choose to do. It’s an intensity, a vehemence, a ringing the life out of things to the highest degree.
There’s no peer. The bull ring is real. It’s not make believe. You actually have to kill the bull or the bull has to kill you. It’s about reality. Real blood. Real bulls. Real death.
When the taurine world discovers the new kid who is going to be the savior of bullfighting they actually refer to him as the savior and the messiah.
That’s actual language. It’s a religious construct. It’s the placing on a pedestal of a child who can redeem the rest of us. He is seen as a redeemer.
What greater glory is there for the family but to offer up their son as hero. And victim. What is it John, 3:16? For god so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. That’s what the Spanish family is doing. They’re nurturing the sacrifice of their son. Not on a conscious level, but surely they know what can happen.
The Anglo Saxon mind doesn’t conceive of family the way the Hispanic mind does. They operate on completely different levels. For the Spaniard family, for the Mexican family, family is everything.
It all goes back to sacrifice, and the most important part of the worship. Think about the story of Abraham and Isaac. Isaac is the greatest sacrifice of all. God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and Abraham says, ‘Okay.’ And then at the last minute they find the scapegoat—the ram—in the thickets, and they sacrifice the animal instead.
A lot of anthropologists think that the sacrifice of animals was in lieu of the sacrifice of humans. In the beginning there was human sacrifice, and somewhere along the line this human sacrifice evolved into animal sacrifice. But the animal sacrifice was important, and it’s part of the same story that’s been told for a very long time. In the legend of Mithras, he kills the white bull of heaven, and Gilgamesh kills the white bull of heaven in two separate myths.
When they kill those bulls, those sacred bulls, the bulls’ blood turns into wine. And the bulls’ testicles give us all the grains of the earth. Now that’s a story about where the gifts come from. It’s a story about our communion with nature. And ultimately it’s the story of communion at the Mass or in the Christian church. It’s the same blood, it’s the same bread, it’s the same body, it’s the same story. We do it over and over again.
I’m not trying to offend anyone here. But in the same way that transubstantiation is the body of Christ when the matador kills the bull, he is reenacting that first sacrifice of the divine animal which gave us all the gifts of nature. By virtue of being a ritual, it is a recapitulation.
The corrida has a lot of catharsis.
In fact, the bull ring may be the only place in the Western World and in the 21st century where you can actually have a collective catharsis. When you get a great matador with a great animal and they share that timeless immortality, that feeling stays with you for the rest of your life when you understand it and know how to watch it. When you get 20,000 people in a bull ring all shouting ‘ole!’ at the same time, everybody is together, everyone is ecstatic.
That doesn’t happen very often. It happens in some religious circumstances that are usually called primitive or backward or reactionary and usually given bad labels by supercilious people who don’t seem to understand them or the human need and craving for them, which the bullfight supplies better than anything.
When the matador goes into the ring, he is all of us, we’re all in him. Another way is to look at the matador as a kind of reincarnation of those mythic heros: Gilgamesh or Mithras who managed to conquer the secrets of nature, the gifts of nature, the bounty of nature from nature. And he deals with fear and death and he provides meat, he becomes the cultural hero. He is our savior.
We become part of the cultural hero and we participate however vicariously with him in this struggle with nature and death. It’s the oldest story we have. We are going into this incredibly romantic theater of the bull ring to watch the oldest story ever told, again and again and again in a ritual. And as in all rituals, which are enactments of myths.
But in the bull ring, the blood is real. We want the great matador to bring the animal in closer and closer and closer, to dominate him more and more. To put himself in more danger, in effect. It’s playing with death. And why do we play with death? Because when the matador kills the bull, we overcome death. We, like our cultural hero, survive—albeit vicariously survive. There’s a repetitive ritual quality to it that’s unavoidable. Maybe it’s not easily explained or understood, but it’s there.
The detractors of the corrida are not, of course, going to be willing to agree with what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, that we need the corrida because the real purpose of the corrida is a kind of salvation. That through the exemplar that is the matador, we learn how to live. Every story that is told in every religious feature that I know of, is recapitulated one way or another, in the corrida. It is a religious experience for those of us that understand it that way.
Why celebrate death? That’s not the question. The question is the opposite. The question is why not celebrate death? Which is what we do. In our society, we don’t celebrate death, we act like it’s not there. We don’t live with death. Spaniards understand that if you don’t live with death, you’re not living properly. Life is based on death. All life lives on killing.
Everything eats everything else. That’s the way nature is. And we don’t admit it. We don’t want to deal with death because we prefer not to. By celebrating death you understand death. If you don’t understand death, you don’t understand life.