To See Death as an Art: The Spanish Bullfight

The Spanish bullfight

The Spanish bullfight is a time-honored tradition. There’s a lot to be said about the ideas behind bullfighting, both pros and cons. I get into that here, but first it’s important you have a general idea of how the bullfight works.


Today, the Spanish bullfight is in three stages:

Tercio de Varas (part of lances). The matador’s assistants test the bull’s strength, personality, and weaknesses. While the cape (muleta) waved in front of the bull’s face is dyed bright colors, be aware that bulls are color-blind. They’re chasing the movement, not the red/pink, which is why a bullfighter must stand frozen in order to not distract the bull. Next, a picador appears on a padded horse, which the bull is encouraged to ram. While the bull rams against the horse (never fear, folks – the horse is safely outfitted with pads and blinds), the picador draws the first blood, weakening the bull.

Tercio de Banderillas (part of banderillas). Banderillos (little flags) are planted into the bull’s shoulders, weakening the bull even more. Bulls bread to fight have more muscle in this area. Once these little flags are embedded, the bull is encouraged to charge the cape again. If the president (the chief assessor of the bullfight) believes the bull to be weak, he will order the use of black banderillos, a disgrace to the breeder.

Tercio de Muerte (part of death). To end the bullfight, a matador will run the bull through a few more passes of the cape, to demonstrate his control over the bull; a matador will stand inordinately close to the bull, demonstrating his bravery. The bull is killed with one swift stab (an estocada) between the shoulder blades and through the heart. If the estocada fails and the bull doesn’t die swiftly, the audience boos and the matador stabs once more, right through the spine.


A bullfight can end in a couple ways. First, if the crowd decides the matador was valiant, the president will cut off the bull’s ear, both ears, tail, or a mixture, to gift the matador. If the president is impressed by the bull’s performance, the matador is instructed to imitate the kill, and the bull is taken to a field where it is allowed to graze and live in peace. This bull is chosen to breed for future bullfights.

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