Photo by Juan Pelegrín

Ancient rites in Madrid

The oldest of stories still attract us

Artillery Row

In the beginning, there were two men and a bull. The men were twin brothers, and their names were Manu and Yemo. Manu was the first priest, and Yemo was the first king. Manu sacrificed both his brother and the bull, and from their deaths came all the world.

So runs the original creation myth of the Indo-Europeans, reconstructed from the shards and fragments we find in later accounts. Just as scholars have reverse-engineered the Proto-Indo-European language, presumed to have been spoken in the 4th millennium BC, so they have reverse-engineered the accompanying lore. Sifting through Irish cycles, Indian Vedas, the Iranian Bundahishn and other ancient stories, they have worked out our ancestors’ Ur-myth. At its heart lies the ritual sacrifice of a bull.

I don’t want to go all Carl Jung here, but bullfighting is no ordinary art. Yes, it involves some exquisite composition, a kind of physical music. More than this, it has a votive aspect. We recognise its archetypes even when we cannot name them. We see, on the sands, a final, distorted glimpse of the stories of Theseus, Mithras and a hundred other mythic bull-killers. It is true that most aficionados are Catholics. Perhaps this is precisely why they are drawn, without being able to put it into words, to the re-enactment of a great sacrifice, a death so important that it feels redemptive.

Afición is felt in the gut rather than articulated with the pen. For a bullfight to transcend the here and now, three elements are required. First, and most important, the bull must be both regal and lethal. Second, the matador must be utterly committed to his art, ready to lose himself in the final consummation. The third element is often overlooked: the crowd must be properly discerning.

Primed by those two performances, Sevillians were willing the veteran on

All three elements were present in Seville on 26 April, when Morante de la Puebla cut the first tail in that city since 1971. Long-standing readers will recall that, after a sublime evening in 2021, I pronounced that Seville had (so to speak) turned its back on tails. Boy, did I get that wrong. In 2022, Morante gave what was arguably an even better technical performance before that exacting crowd, albeit with a dangerous and complicated bull, a bull that lacked the nobility that allows matadors to cut trophies. In 2023, though, primed by those two performances, Sevillians were willing the veteran on. Their emotional involvement was the final element.

What made Morante’s performance unforgettable was his artistry with the capote. A matador uses his capote during the earlier stages of a corrida. It is a two-handed cape, pink on one side and lined on the other, usually in bright yellow (Morante eccentrically uses green lining, a nod to the colours of the conservative Vox party). Often, by the time the bull is killed, spectators have often forgotten all about the capote, focusing instead on the matador’s more recent work with the one-handed crimson muleta when determining trophies. Not that night.

The capote is a stiff and heavy piece of cloth, yet Morante wafts his like the flimsiest mosquito net. Facing a fierce, fresh bull, he repeatedly drew the capote before it so daintily that the animal, hypnotised, slowed its charge. As God is my witness, no bridegroom ever raised his bride’s veil more tenderly. From that moment, his prize was assured. When, after some superb muleta work, the sword plunged, straight and true, the plaza exploded. It was the biggest taurine evening in Seville, maybe in all Spain, in half a century.

From that moment, the season was assured. Madrid’s feria follows directly on from Seville’s, and its capacious ring Las Ventas was full almost every evening. 92 per cent of the tickets were sold, compared to 80 per cent last year and 82 per cent in 2019. This was partly because Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the Thatcherite president of the Madrid region, had allowed tickets to be sold at their actual market value instead of being resold through touts. It was mainly because of the expectation created in Seville, though.

Ah, but the crowd in Madrid is not like other crowds. Madrileños see themselves as guardians of a certain type of toreo, demanding handsomer and heavier bulls than other rings, and complaining loudly if they judge that a matador is placing himself beyond the reach of the horn-tips (“fuera de cacho”).

These are healthy tendencies but, like other healthy tendencies, they become unhealthy when taken to extremes. The extremists in Madrid are gathered in section seven of the stands — Tendido Siete. Madrid, like other plazas, prices its tickets not just by how close they are to the front, but by whether they are in the sun (cheap) or the shade (expensive). Tendido Siete offers the best views available from the cheap section and has, for decades, been occupied by curmudgeons who believe that they can immediately intuit the quality of a bull from the moment it steps onto the sands.

The half-clever thing to say, the thing that you hear from Madrileños who like to attend rather than watch bullfights, is “If el Siete didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it”. In fact, the supposed invigilators of what is a “proper” bull often fail in their own terms, protesting at the outset bulls that later turn out to be magnificent. In the meantime, their yowling and screeching make life unbearable for the top matadors — the matadors, in other words, who tend to appear before the breeds of bull that Siete regards on principle, and often wrongly, as easy.

This year, Madrid’s feria attracted more than its usual proportion of top-flight matadors — figuras. Naturally, they appeared largely before bulls of the castes they find most agreeable, above all domecqs. This, plus the price rises, enraged the oafs of Siete, whose yammering wrecked many afternoons. The most anticipated encounters barely whelmed.

Aficionados have a complicated relationship with Las Ventas. Yes, a triumph in Madrid is qualitatively different from a triumph elsewhere — even Seville. The ambience is so heavy that bulls which, in another ring, would be such stuff as dreams are made on, can fail to come alive in that grand neo-Moorish plaza.

At the end of May, many aficionados (this one included) give away their Madrid tickets for one evening and make the short journey to Aranjuez, where the bulls are lighter, and so is the atmosphere. This year, as usual, it was a joyous evening. Perhaps the three best bullfighters in Spain — Morante, El Juli and Roca Rey — were performing. Though the first reminded us how temperamental he can be when he doesn’t like the way a bull looks at him, the other two triumphed, cutting two and three ears respectively.

The following evening, back in Madrid, turned out to be the finest of the feria. On paper, it was nothing special. The bulls were by Santiago Domecq — a generally solid strain of what is nonetheless the main commercial caste, domecq: the caste dismissed by a certain kind of aficionado as “McDomecq”, meaning that it is bland and ubiquitous. Two of the three matadors were largely unknown.

The ape-men of Tendido Siete were at their most vituperative

In the event, those six bulls were the bravest and most serious of the entire festival, and all three men ended up being buffeted. The performance of the feria came from Fernando Adrián before the fifth bull, a handsome, heavy creature called “Contento”. Don’t pretend you’ve heard of Adrián. Hardly anyone had until that night. He set out to make a name for himself, greeting his bull on his knees and passing him both in front and behind his back without rising. In those early passes, he sensed its exceptional quality. From that moment, his passes became longer, lower, smoother. For a few moments which, as in some hallucinogenic trip, seemed eternal, we were flooded with that awe that keeps bringing us back to the ring. How did T.S. Eliot put it? “The intersection of the timeless with time”.

An addendum. On 11 June, Roca Rey appeared again at a memorial corrida in honour of El Yiyo, whose death in the ring at the age of 21 was televised, shocking 1980s Spain. The ape-men of Tendido Siete were at their most vituperative, somehow convincing themselves that the bull was easy and the matador insufficiently committed, protesting right up to the moment when Roca Rey got a spectacular goring. The fearless Peruvian went on to kill, bravely and truly. Despite an almost universal petition everywhere else, El Siete managed to intimidate the president out of awarding the ear. The rest of the plaza was apoplectic. Finally, after years of seething quiescence, the majority asserted itself against the minority. The next day’s newspapers called it a civil war.

It was a reminder of how serious all this is — “the last serious thing on Earth” as the poet Lorca put it. Roca Rey’s manager has now suggested a joint appearance with José Tomás — one thing that might be a bigger deal even than a tail in Seville.

Two years ago, despairing at the wreckage left by Spain’s severe lockdown, I feared that the fiesta was coming to an end. I needn’t have worried. In a trivial, screen-obsessed age, ancient rites still draw us.

Last year, the number of taurine events finally recovered to where it had been before the financial crisis, and this year looks to be better still. No, the oldest of stories has not yet been told.

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