As demonstrated by the cave paintings in Altamira, Spain, and Los Trios and Lascaux, France, the bull, or at least its ancestor, the aurochs, has played a vital role in the history of Homo Sapiens. Such is reflected in Greek mythology and in organized religions.
A common sight in Greek mythology and ancient Catholicism is that of the Virgin Mary, sitting upon a half moon. The half moon, the early Grecians believed, symbolized the horns of a bull. They believed that the lightning was the sun, glinting off the bull’s horns; the thunder was his bellow; and the rain was his seed, spilling upon the earth, to fertilize the crops.
From the earliest measurable human eras, men have been dueling with and killing bulls for their food and clothing. And, they painted depictions of aurochs on the cave walls to symbolize their importance to Paleolithic society. But, the paintings were more than mere art; they were religious icons. By reproducing the bulls on cave walls, early man believed that he could capture the majesty and spirit of the bulls, which were worshipped for their power and fertility.
Such was likewise evidenced in dance rituals, when a tribe member would disguise himself as a bull and engage in a symbolic hunt.
Bulls were also central characters in Sumerian culture. One notes that throughout Mesopotamian art, there are numerous depictions of half man, half bull creatures.
Even in battle, warriors would frequently wear horns on their heads, as they hoped to emulate the brave spirit of the bull.
In about 2,000 B.C., The Epic of Giglamish tells the tale of a man/bull who spurned the romantic intentions of Ishtar, the goddess of fertility.
Seeking revenge, the bull-god Anu sent a heavenly bull to slay Giglamish, but Giglamish slew it with a sword.
To the early Grecians, the supreme test of manhood was to vanquish a bull. The Hittites, Phoenicians, Levantians, and Hebrews prayed to bull-gods. And, on the Isle of Crete, the Minoans captured wild bulls and pitted them against acrobats. To touch the bull’s horns was to receive fertility and sexuality.
Later, during the days of Christ, in Mithraism, religious dates were marked by the sacrificing of bulls. New converts would bathe themselves in the blood and thus attain immortality. The Mithraic leader, Constantine, eventually converted to Christianity and agreed to slay lambs, rather than bulls. Thus, comes the religious symbol of the blood of the lamb.
The god Zeus changed his form to that of a bull and seduced Europa, who subsequently gave birth to Minos, the bull-god of Crete. His wife, Pasiphae, hired a craftsman to construct a hollow, wooden cow, in which she hid. The ersatz bull was then impregnated by a bull. The wooden cow then birthed the ferocious half man, half bull, known as the Minotaur, to which annual human sacrifices were made.
Even Julius Caesar introduced bulls to kill Christians in the Roman Coloseum.
Thus, is it so hard to believe that even contemporary religions fear the horned devil beast, the devil? A theological definition of the devil was issued in 447 A.D., by the Council of Toledo: “a large, black, monstrous apparition with horns on its head, cloven hooves, fiery eyes, terrible teeth, an immense phallus, and a sulfurous smell.”
It was the Moors who introduced bullfighting to Spain. Frequently, combats between men and bulls would be held on the same grounds on which plazas de toros exist, today. A prime example is the plaza de toros in Ronda.
The Catholic Church has run hot and cold, regarding bullfighting, depending upon who is the Pope, at the time.
A popular pastime among sons of royal blood was the hunting, from horseback, of the fighting bulls in their natural habitats and slaying them with spears. If a horse were knocked to the ground, the serfs, armed with blankets, would lead the bull away. But, as royal blood was rather precious, and so much of it was being spilled as the result of this bull-baiting activity, royal fathers convinced Pope Pius V to outlaw bullfighting and excommunicate any man who was killed by a bull.
This rather stifled the enthusiasm of the sons of royal blood, but the serfs continued the hunts, which eventually evolved into that which we know, today, as rejoneo.
So, the next time that somebody denies the religious significance of bullfighting, have them do their homework. A good place to start would be John Fulton’s outstanding book, “Bullfighting”, from which much of the material for this column was gleaned.