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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 April, 2004, 20:31 GMT 21:31 UK
Spain's battle between man and beast
By Verity Murphy
BBC News Online

In Spain some say that while the trains and buses may be late the bullfight never is - announced by a clarion call of trumpets the corrida, or bullfight, traditionally begins at 5 o'clock in the afternoon.

Some argue that the combatants do not fight on a level playing field
By this time the sun is low in the sky and so the audience members decide between an expensive seat in the shade or cheaper one in the sun before they settle down to enjoy the spectacle.

But what is it that they have come to see? A beautiful ballet of death that pits man against beast, or a ritualised slaughter?

Even in Spain the issue provokes controversy.

Barcelona voted on Tuesday to ban bullfighting, a sport which has those for and against it lined up on either side of the animal cruelty debate.

Ancient practice

Duelling with a bull is certainly nothing new; at the Minoan palace of Knossos in Crete there are frescoes dating back 4000 years which depict men and women confronting and leaping over bulls.

It was the Romans who turned fighting animals into a major source of public entertainment, their crowded amphitheatres running with blood.

I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after
Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
But bulls also played an important role in the religious ceremonies of the Iberian tribes who lived in Spain in prehistoric times. Scholars believe that it is their Celtic-Iberian temples, where those ceremonies were held that, that are the forerunners of the plaza de toros (bullrings) that we see today.

In 711 AD the Moors conquered Spain. Keen to show off their superb riding skills, the aristocracy soon changed the bullfight from the rapid, savage confrontation favoured by the Visigoths into a more stylised contest between a man on horseback and a bull.

This sport is barbaric and has no place in the modern world
David Craggs, UK

For hundreds of years it remained very much the sport of the nobles, a diversion only open to those able to ride and train the highly skilled horses.

The aristocracy were even responsible for breeding the bulls - the toro bravo - a species of bull descended from an ancient bloodline that is preserved in Spain.

New rules

But in the 18th century the tradition changed once more when the poorer population invented bullfighting on foot.

These new matadors became key figures in the ring, using their flamboyant capes to lure the bulls into better striking positions for the fighters on horseback.

Cristina Sanchez
Cristina Sanchez is one of the few women to have made it as a matador
Around 1726 Francisco Romero from the town of Ronda cemented their position by laying down the rules for the new sport. He introduced the estoques, or sword, and the muleta, the small cape used in the last part of the fight.

With the codification of the rules and the appointment of Pedro Romero, the greatest matador at that time, as the head of the Escuela de Tauromaquia de Sevilla, the country's first bullfighters' college, the sport really took off.

The bullfight remains very much unchanged since those times. Clad in their traje de luces, or suit of lights, the traditional costume of bullfighting, the matadors enter the ring flanked by their teams.

A famously superstitious bunch, they never wear yellow, which is regarded as unlucky.

A traditionally male sport, it is only in recent years that we have seen the appearance of women fighters.

Unfair advantage

Matadors have been killed in the ring, including Manolete, the most famous bullfighter of all time, who was killed in 1947.

But those against the sport argue that the odds are heavily stacked against the bull and that they suffer unnecessary torment.

There are reports of the bulls being given tranquilisers, laxatives and beatings to debilitate them before the fight.

Petroleum jelly is rubbed into their eyes to blur their vision and they are kept in darkness for hours before being released into the ring, so that they are dazzled by the afternoon sun.

Ernest Hemingway spoke of the morals of bullfighting in his famous book on the subject, Death in the Afternoon.

"I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after," he wrote.

How long the bullfight survives as a lynchpin of Spanish life probably depends on whether the majority of the population thinks it makes them feel good.

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