They held a running of the bulls in Cave Creek, Arizona last month. Hokey costume-clad thrill-seekers from all over the region poured in to have a shot at a close encounter with a stampede of rodeo bulls. I happen to be an experienced runner in Pamplona. I had mixed feelings about the Cave Creek event. One part of me felt excitement at the potential of a home-grown run. The other felt apprehension at the possibility that this US run would mock the 800-year-old tradition of the encierro.
The Bull and Horse culture of the Western United States has many similarities to the one in Spain. In both the bull is king; its massive power, agility, and aggression set it above all other animals in its domain. Basically, it can kill all of them. The bull has long been a symbol of fighting ability, male fertility, valor, and magnanimity. In ancient Greek Mythology Zeus embodied Taurus (A white bull) in order to seduce and abduct the princess Europa. In other words Bulls have always embodied kicking ass and landing ladies. This American run is a thirteen years old, a pubescent tradition we’ll call it. There is an obvious ring of ridiculousness in the idea of costumed, toothless hicks and A.U. frat-boys running with these mythical beasts. At the same time there is something undeniably archetypal about encountering your cultures most revered animal on foot, in close quarters.
El Encierro (gruffly translated as the running of the bulls) is a pre-historic hunting technique known as corralling—where animals are herded to their eventual slaughter. Though there is far more to the encierro than a hunt. The bull-fight is an ancient, ritual-sacrifice. In Pamplona the sacrifice is in honor of San Fermin, the patron saint of the Fiesta. Why do they kill bulls in honor of a dead guy? I don’t know! But hey vegans, do Spaniards come into your kitchen and ask why you scarf down broccoli and beans and fill rooms with the dank aroma of flatulence? No. The Spanish just look the other way as thousands of live, innocent lima-beans are murdered for your pleasure.
The run is the first leg of this bovine sacrifice. The encierro is a Jungian rite and an opportunity to dip your fingers in the stream of a culture eight hundred years deep. The encierro at Cuellar a town just north of Madrid has documented roots that date back to 1215 A.D., though people had been climbing through the barricades to run with the bulls in Pamplona and Cuellar long before the towns decided to recognize them as actual events. The encierro in Cuellar is also more closely linked to the origins of the run. Originally, bulls were killed by men on horseback as part of wedding festivities. It was only later that the culture evolved into the modern Corrida with matador and sword in the arena. In Cuellar the encierro begins with hundreds of men on horseback corralling the bulls in the fields surrounding the town at the break of dawn. Later these men corral the herd and gallop them down a long sloping hillside and into the streets of the ancient town, where the runners take over and drive them into the arena. It’s nothing short of epic—take a look.
The Cave Creek run is the fourth event of its kind to take place in the United States. It’s primarily a business venture with the hopes to draw tourism to such glorious metropolises as Mesquite Nevada, Scottsdale Arizona, and now Cave Creek. There is also a financial element to the tradition in Pamplona. The city spends four million dollars on the free event each year and it receives an estimated 60 million in revenue from the Fiesta. Yes, douche-bags from all over the world come to Pamplona each year to get shitfaced, stumble around on the cobblestones, and go home with their been-there done-that nimrod t-shirts. This is ironically one of the major factors protecting El Encierro from cultural terrorist organizations like PETA in the failing European economy.
There is yet another layer to the encierro. In this deeply religious culture the bulls are sacred and in a sense Jesus-like creatures. There is a pass in the bullfight called a Veronica in which the matador kneels and holds the cape with their palms. As the bull passes the matador wipes the cape across the animals face. In this the Matador mimics Saint Veronica’s wiping of Christ’s face on his path to Golgatha. Essentially in the run we are leading these sacrificial creatures to their own Golgatha. When a mozo (runner) runs on the horns (runs just before a bull's snout) they lead the animal and ease their suffering in their final procession. That is the duty of serious mozos, to help the herd to its destination—the corrals inside the arena.
In Jungian terms the encierro is an act of self-realization. Young men since the epoch of humanity sought to test their courage in order to see what they are capable of, to step outside their bounds and find themselves. I can tell you from experience the run is an incredibly frightening thing to partake in. I mean, every morning before a run I’m literally shaking in my boots. Two runners have been killed in Pamplona in the past decade. Let’s be conservative and say there was one goring per run over that time-span. An average run lasts about three and a half minutes. That multiplied by eight runs per year in Pamplona equals 28 minutes per year. Let’s round it up to 30 minutes to make it simpler. (30 minutes) X (ten years) = 300 minutes. In five hours of bulls in the street in Pamplona, two men were killed and 80 were gored (speared by a horn). Several of those gored (without life-saving Red-cross medics and Pamplona-surgeons) would have died. These are nothing short of war-zone casualty numbers.
In the Evolian Metaphysics of War solders find spiritual self-realization through combat. This definitely plays out each encierro. At first the individual is petrified, pure animalistic instincts compel them to panic. Then the individual has a moment of transcendence through the way they conduct themselves in order to survive, using a mixture of split-second reasoning and instinct.
I recently interviewed Julen Madina (arguably the greatest runner of all time) for Outside Magazine Online. Madina spoke of the mythic quality of the Spanish Fighting Bull and the potent transcendent euphoria he experienced when he was able to somehow dominate the animals in leading them to the arena. Julen is also no stranger to death in the run. He's witnessed several and in 2004, he himself was gored five times and nearly killed.
It’s no stretch to say the encierro was quite war like for him. I can also say that in my experience I’ve felt many moments of pure animalistic fear and panic in the run and a few moments of that self-realization and transcendence. It’s those self-realized transcendent moments and the euphoria associated with them which draw serious runners back each year. That is also what draws new generations of Spaniards. It’s even what lures (whether they know it or not) all of those globalized douche-bags.
This all may have an even broader commentary on the state of modern Western Society. The new norm is to have a quiet life in a quiet neighborhood; for men to be less confrontational, to suppress their anger. All these things are superficially positive strides for a more peaceful society. Yet, as these notions take hold on a wider scale there is a strong backlash against this new metrosexual, emasculated male. The popularity of Mixed Martial Arts has grown exponentially in recent years. Extreme sports have flourished in this era; thrill seekers have more ways than ever to find that rush and explore their more primal urges.
At the same time there has been an ugly upward trend in mass murders conducted by young men on the verge of entering adult-society, e.g. Columbine and Virginia Tech. Jung says that if a young-person does not proceed toward self-knowledge neurotic symptoms may arise. They include phobias, psychosis and depression. All these symptoms are linked to the perpetrators of those school massacres. I’m not saying they’d all have been cured by a nice little prance with the bulls. I do feel that in this society there is a stronger need than ever for these types of traditional, ritualistic, rites of passage for our young people.
In Pamplona there are six sharp-horned Spanish fighting bulls accompanied by several bell-oxen. In Cave Creek there were 21 scared-shitless rodeo bulls (specifically selected for their docility) followed by two cowboys on horseback. It is illegal for Spanish fighting bulls to see a human on foot their entire lives until they reach fiesta. Rodeo Bulls see and are fed daily by walking, skipping and dosey-doe-ing people. Thus Rodeo bulls see us as food-providers. Spanish fighting bulls instinctively perceive us (with our close-set eyes) as predators; which we are—like it or not you PETA-pansies. I should note here that all the slain fighting bulls are eaten during and after fiesta in one of my favorite dishes, a spicy and hearty concoction—Bull Stew. Delicious.
I wasn’t able to discern much in the footage of the Cave Creek run. What I did notice was a bunch of frightened, small-to-medium-sized animals with sawed-off horns, trotting through a laughing mob of half-drunk nincompoops. The bulls probably thought to themselves, man, why are these food-providers acting so weird? That said there were two very serious mozos in attendance. David Ubeda of Madrid—one of today’s finest Spanish runners and Dennis Clancey of Phoenix. Clancey is a top foreign mozo in Pamplona and currently working on an in-depth documentary of El Encierro.
“The bulls were really slow and afraid of us,” Clancey said. “We ran on the horns the whole way the first time. I was trying to coax the lead bull to follow me but he was just scared. The second run we decided to get inside the herd but when we got there, they dispersed away from us! One got so frightened it darted to the side and got trampled by the other animals.” Clancey sighed. “It was like being an NFL player, playing in a junior varsity game.”
In the end these zany South Westerners weren’t mocking anyone but themselves. And from the look of those joyful, shit-eating grins, they seem to be having a lot of fun in doing so. I don’t know what to really make of last weekend’s stampede but I do remain hopeful for a more dynamic bull run on American soil. Hopefully with some bulls that still have their testicles intact. In fact why don’t we let our courageous American Bull Riders choose the bulls to be run and have it coincide with the PBR tour? At least then PETA won’t have to cross the pond to pick and pry at people in search of self-knowledge through a close encounter with their culture's most noble beast.