Monday, August 21, 2017
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Taking the Bull by the Horns - an Historical Perspective

Corrida de Touros, Feira Taurina, Tourada – the Portuguese Bullfight, under this or any other name, evokes mixed emotions. Love it or hate it, if you live in Central Portugal you won’t be far from one such spectacle. Not to be confused with its Spanish sister and her sullied reputation, the Portuguese ‘bloodless’ bullfight (so called because the bull is not killed in the ring) is a festa rich in history and tradition, where human, equine and bovine combine in a unique art form.bulls3

The importance of the bull, with it’s characteristics of strength, power and virility, can be traced back to Minoan Crete. The sport of the bullfight also has Roman antecedents, while the sacrifice of the bull has religious connotations. However, perhaps a more direct historical connection for the Portuguese bullfight can be derived from the Moorish invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. History tells us the Moors set fire to the tails of bulls, creating stampedes to initialise their attacks. Portuguese horses and riders were the principal defendants of such attacks. For a people who had previously spent recreational time running bulls on horseback before lancing them, the combination of recreational pastime and wartime necessity resulted in a skilful bonding between horse and rider, an equestrian art today exemplified in the Portuguese Bullfight.

Whereas the wars with the Moors ended, the bullfight grew in popularity, and became a feature of events such as coronations and royal births, a pastime lauded by nobles. Yet the bullfight was equally applauded by the lower classes, with the meat of the sacrificed animal being distributed as sustenance to impoverished locals, thus gaining a degree of moral acceptability and a reputation as a festa for the people. A tradition to be celebrated?

The Key Players

Cavaleiros :  cavaliers, men on horseback. A feast for the eyes, dressed in traditional 18th century costume, on stunning Lusitano steeds. The cavaleiro is generally of noble birth, or has gained such standing in society.

The Lusitanos :  Portuguese pure bred horses, dating back to ancient times, now famed throughout the world.

Bandarilheiros : the cavaleiros helpers; akin to the Spanish matador, working on foot, taunting the bull with a pink cape.bulls4

Forcados : traditionally from the lower classes, the courage and the humility of the forcado is a major part of what makes the Portuguese bullfight unique.

Novilheiros :  not always encountered, the novilheiro is a newcomer. He encounters the bull on foot, in the manner of the matador, aiming to insert a bandarilha in order to gain professional standing.

The Bull :  bred for muscle, stamina and bravery; breeders of such hold high status within Portuguese society.

The Main Event

On a balmy summer’s eve, the crowds gather near the Praça de Touros. The timing of the bullfight may vary. For a late afternoon fight, choosing your seat to avoid the glare of the sun is important; for a later event your main concern is proximity (or lack of) to the ring. The actual location is relatively unimportant; the atmosphere is equivalent, be this Lisboa, Santarem, or a town near you. Festa fever abounds. In addition to the customary food and drink vendors, expect to see stalls selling flowers and hats, gifts the crowd will later toss to the performers. Once seated within the praça, the murmur of the crowd is overtaken by the pomp and circumstance of the filarmonica, and the festivities begin. Enter the passeio and the cavaleiros.  An intricate performance of dressage ensues, whetting the appetite. The cavaleiros are accompanied by the bandarilheiros and forcados, and the music increases in intensity as the air is filled with adrenalin and testosterone. As the passeio retreats, the crowd reach forward in their seats, and a single cavaleiro remains in the ring, awaiting the arrival of the touro.

As the crowd hold their breath, the music intensifies. The gates open, and the bull thunders his entry, head flailing from side to side. The cavaleiro upholds a strict code of honour, awaiting the advance of the bull. Spotting the cavaleiro, the bull snorts, and as befits his nature, makes his attack.  bulls2Looming dangerously close to the horse’s flanks, the bull charges, and a daring display of equestrianism follows until, in a stroke of marvel, the cavaleiro places a bandarilha (a dart held in a spangling receptacle of streamers) in the shoulder of the bull. The bandarilha is carefully placed, where muscle is strong, where less irritation is caused to the animal, and bleeding is slight. Horse and rider pull away to the roars of appreciation of the crowd. The bandarilha serves as a source of irritation to the bull, who charges once more. The horns of the bull miss the horse by millimetres, and again the cavaleiro succeeds in attaching a bandarilha. A further charge results in one more. A bandarilheiro enters the ring, on foot, flourishing his cape and taunting the bull. As the bull attacks, the bandarilheiro skilfully jumps the fence to safety. The bull looks for more – as a spectator, expect to see the bull engaged in what seems to be an act of pleasure, appearing to enjoy  the challenge. One wonders if the saying “waving a red (or in this case pink) rag to a bull” has been misinterpreted. Several bandarilheiros demonstrate their skill before the music of he filarmonica increases once more in intensity, and the action returns to the cavaleiro. As the cavaleiro places a series of much shorter bandarilhas in the shoulders of the bull, requiring much closer proximity to the animal, again we are in awe of the partnership of cavaleiro and Lusitano. Each bandarilha is accompanied by the ‘Ole, ole, ole, ole’ of the crowd, before the cavaleiro exits the ring and the crowd breathe a sigh of relief and contentment.

And then it happens. The taking of the bull by the horns. Enter the forcados, a group of 8, on foot and weaponless, for the ‘pega de caras’ (face catch). Dressed in costumes of velvet or damask, wearing the long knit hat traditionally worn by the bull herders of the Ribatejo, one can be forgiven for envisaging the forcados as having exited a Disney film. The vision continues as they line up, one behind the other, with the front runner standing hands on hips, stamping his feet and taunting the bull, shouting ‘Touro’. Nada. The forcado takes a step forward, hands still on hips, and further taunts ‘Touro!’. The bull’s hooves hit the ground, and the dust rises as the bull charges. The forcado stands his ground, taking only one small step back as the bull approaches, before leaping upwards and grabbing the bull by the horns. His team mates rush forward in support, grabbing his legs, attempting to stop the bull tossing their fellow forcado over its head. 

bulls1

As the bull is slowed, the final forcado grabs the bull’s tail and twists it, bringing the bull to a stop just before it crashes onto the ringside fence. The crowd rise to their feet, a standing ovation. The gates open, and the entrance of a herd of steers helps calm the bull as he exits the ring. The cavaleiro re-enters, circling the ringside with the successful forcado, both receiving the gratitude of the crowd in the form of hats, capes and flowers.  

On checking your programme, you are likely to find that the show features 6 bulls. Enter cavaleiro number 2, and a bull somewhat larger and altogether fiercer than the first. And so the show goes on. Feature 3, perhaps a novilheiro with bull no. 3. More reminiscent of the Spanish bullfight, the novilheiro fights the touro on foot with his cape, but the final slaughter of the bull by sword practiced ringside in Spain is replaced by the novilheiro inserting a bandarilha. Yet the atmosphere of the crowd suggests this is the least preferred part of the evening’s entertainment, with this bull looking weary and likely to face slaughter outside the ring. It is here we need to remember the history of the bullfight, providing meat to those who otherwise would have none. Nevertheless, it is with a touch of relief when cavaleiro no. 1 and bull no. 4 enter, and we embrace the thought that this highly skilled touro exits the show in good health, perhaps to end his days roaming the pastures of the Ribatejo, as stud for the bulls of future touradas. By the time bulls no. 5 and 6 have faced their opponents, the moon is high in the sky, and the crowd has embraced an evening of Portuguese tradition, where ethics and codes of honour retain their importance.

Having viewed the spectacle of the Portuguese bullfight, it becomes apparent that the bull may be equally well trained as the Lusitano, responding to every movement of the horse and every word uttered by the cavaleiro. Yet this is not to reduce the tourada to something akin to a circus performance. The tourada is a display of outstanding equestrian skill, of agility and horsemanship, a demonstration of devotion between man and his steed. The tourada is a demonstration of the courage of the forcado, loved by the crowd, Portuguese and estrangeiro alike. The tourada is not an act of barbarity for a bloodthirsty crowd; heaven forbid the cavaleiro or novilheiro who places a bandarilha out with the accepted location on the shoulder of the bull and causes un-necessary angst; the wrath of the audience will ensure their fate in a sport where reputation is of utmost importance.The Portuguese bullfight is a demonstration of an art form; a demonstration which has been, and continues to be, a resounding part of Portuguese culture and tradition. 

Article and photos by Jackie Reed

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