It’s July 7th, do you know what that date is? It’s the holiday of Saint Fermín, the patron saint of Pamplona in Navarre, Spain.
Pamplona is world-renowned for hosting the famous “running of the bulls”, known in Spanish as encierros or “lock-ups”.
What most people don’t know is that not just Pamplona but every city and small town in Spain has a running of the bulls ceremony of their own, each during their respective fiestas or holy-days.
And of all the old-wives tales I heard growing up about the origin of this peculiar custom, the one I most favor reads as follows:
In the olde days it was the custom that every year, during town fiestas, the young gentlemen of the higher classes would ride their horses to the pastures where the cattle ruminated, round the bulls up, bring them into town and lock them up before the bull-fighting events that would take place every evening. The festivities typically lasted anywhere from three days to a full week and this process had to be repeated each morning for each afternoon that had a toros performance booked.
If you recall from my earlier post A Thing About Horses, back in the day, only the better-off classes could afford horses so any young stud on horseback was sure to belong to one of the ruling elites. As these things go down, there came a particular time when the ruling elites came into conflict with the lower, working-class strata —probably about some labor disagreement and, as legend has it, the “cavaliers” (or “men on horses” or caballeros threatened the populace with not bringing down the bulls that year for the fiestas.
To this the Spanish hoi polloi, always resourceful when it comes to figuring out a way to party, responded with a solution of their own that did completely without the señoritos and their rides. They would simply tease the bulls into chasing them all the way down to the corrals. This practice became so successful it turned into a ritual adopted by neighboring villages and eventually spread throughout the country, or so the folk-lore tells us.
And this, girls and boys, is how the Spaniards came to get up at the break of dawn every morning during fiestas and taint a bunch of bulls across town. Smaller villages or city neighborhoods use calves or younger bulls and larger cities or districts will bring in actual toros bravos (“brave bulls”) or toros de lidia (“bulls of fight”). Regardless of the size of the bull this is a practice adopted throughout the Spanish territories.
Incidentally, there’s a reason why every year mostly (if not only) Germans, guys from the U.S and the occasional idiot from Madrid are reported trampled during an encierro. There are two things that these guys tend to ignore that everyone else in the fiesta seems to know:
- Don’t run drunk – it’s not a really good idea but since lots of youngsters stay up all night partying prior to the events it’s an inevitable consequence of the fiesta. San Fermín himself is supposed to be looking after those little buggers from wherever he is but somehow this never quite helps.
- No matter what you tell yourself, you cannot outrun a bull. –humans are just not built that way. “Professional” runners (ie: those that know what they’re doing) tend to have planned-out routes which are only a segment of the entire trajectory, ducking in and out of street crevices they’ve cased in advance and taking relays one from another. Most tourists don’t know this and many pay the price…
And this is what I’ve heard growing up. Although I’ve never been to San Fermín in Pamplona proper, I’ve had fun in encierros of fiestas all around the country and they are a fascinating, if controversial item of the Iberian culture part of a bigger set of customs that are probably better suited for a different post.
Stay in the shade :)