Excerpts from 1492 and all that!
The followers of the Persian God, Mithra (the Greeks and the Romans added an ‘s’ to make it Mithras) worshipped him as they worked their way through seven grades of initiation.
Mithras is usually portrayed by his Roman followers in their underground temples, or mithraea, as being born full-grown from a rock, hunting a sacred bull, slaying it and then sharing a meal of its meat with Sol, the Sun god. He then ascended to heaven on a chariot. These are termed the ‘Mithraic mysteries’.
The central relief in each mithraeum shows the slaying of the sacred bull. The Roman Empire routinely pitted man against beast in their stadia. Though the religion was centred on Rome it was certainly brought to the Iberian Peninsula by its followers about the same time as Christianity was spreading. In fact there were those who claimed Mithraism as the evil obverse of Christianity, sharing similar rituals but a heresy nonetheless.
The oldest depiction of a man facing off against a bull was found on a Celtiberian tomb in Clunia. It had been the home of the Arevaci tribe and became one of the most significant Roman cities in the north of Hispania.
It is therefore assumed that bullfighting in Spain derives from this early and secretive worship of Mithras.
It began in Spain during fiestas when local nobles would fight a bull for kudos and royal recognition; they fought from horses in the plazas of cities and large towns.
It was Francisco Romero in 1726 who created and established many of the traditions for the torero, or matador – fighting on foot, killing with a sword and the red cape, or muleta. The traditional dress of the matador is based upon 17th century Andalusian costumes.
The notion of a commoner facing a beast on foot drew greater and more enthusiastic crowds to the corrida de toros, the running of the bulls.
The oldest bullring in Spain dates back to 1765, with construction starting in 1749. Located in Seville it is La Maestranza, its full name being Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería. Charles III tried to ban the sport but its enthusiasts largely ignored his short-lived edict.
In the north of the Iberian Peninsula a different approach evolved – the Recortes, where the bull is not physically injured and teams compete for points. In Portugal a similar non-deadly approach was adopted. Horse-mounted men vie to insert bandeiros, small spears, into the bull’s back and then a team of forcados combine to grab the bull’s head and eventually wrestle it to the ground.