The total number of people killed in public events featuring bulls in Spain has risen to 12, the highest number in 15 years. A man in his sixties!! was gored to death on Sunday during a local fiesta in Cuéllar.When reading these headlines I always wonder what is wrong with these people and where does this tradition originate from.
The global interest in participating in this madness seem to have come from attention that Ernest Hemingway gave to it. In fact, Hemingway was close enough to the action to witness a man being gored by a bull in 1924. This was actually the very first fatality in the modern history of the encierro, as the running of the bulls is called in Spanish.
Hemingway retells the story in The Sun Also Rises, where the main character in the novel is trying to come to terms with the death he has just seen, repelled and fascinated at the same time. Finally, a Spanish waiter – in the world of Hemingway waiters are usually the voice of reason – cuts his agonising short. ‘A big horn wound,’ the waiter says dismissively. ‘All for fun. What do you think of that?’ I don’t know what I think of that, but I imagine that most people would agree with the waiter – that running in front of a 600kg animal for no compelling reason must be crazy. Some people feel for the runners, and others for the bulls – concerns that rarely overlap. But everybody tends to agree on one thing: this most dangerous type of jogging must be something tribal, perhaps inherently Spanish.
Well, it isn’t. There’s nothing tribal about the running of the bulls, let alone “pagan”, as I’ve read somewhere. If you think there can be anything pagan about Spain, you’ve obviously never been there. In its present form, the encierro is in fact a relatively recent creation. When Hemingway saw it for the first time it was still taking shape and some of its most well-known features came much later still, such as the famous white costume, which as it seems took hold only in the late 1950s.
This does not mean that the encierro is not a tradition; only that it is a modern tradition and one soaked in literature at that. Its brutality and pointless courage do not correspond to some remnant of medievalism but to our own very modern obsession with the boredom of life and our fear of death. It has evolved into something different since them, but not by much. It fits well into the spirit of this age too: the youth cult of the unique experience, the recordable personal feat, the Selfie moment. The encierro is now seen as an extreme sport – adrenaline and nostalgia. What could be more 21st century?
Its success has been such that it has led to dangerous overcrowding. The much- dreaded bottlenecks are ever more frequent. Most runners are now foreigners – so much for the inherent Spanishness of the whole thing – the largest group being the Americans, a testament perhaps to Hemingway’s looming shadow. For locals it’s more like “Hemingway’s curse”. Foreign runners are also over-represented among the injured and the dead. Their ignorance of the course and the rules make them a danger to others.
No, I can’t agree with Hemingway’s waiter. It cannot be all just for fun. Maybe it is true, after all, that for good or ill, the encierro is a metaphor for life and death.