In pagan Spain, Part I

I was thinking about autumn today as I was walking my dog and enjoying the cooler temperatures (“cooler,” of course, is relative in Southern California). Fall has always been my favorite season here in the US, but in Spain my favorite season is spring.

Spanish spring is a heady mix of contagious eroticism, religious fervor, and electric physical vitality. Now, spring was also a big deal when I lived in Minnesota, but there it was more a matter of relief, tempered with disgust at the vast quantities of mud and months-old dog poop newly revealed from beneath the thawing snow. I should specify that when I say “Spain” here I am really referring to the southernmost region of Andalucía, and in particular Sevilla, where I lived in from ages 15 to 18. It’s a pretty warm part of the world, no snow except in the mountains, so the verve of spring in Sevilla is not that winter-is-finally-over feeling you get in Minnesota. It’s…different. A young St. Theresa of Avila, begging her superiors for a transfer to a convent in some other time, reputedly explained, “To live in Sevilla in the springtime and not sin it is necessary to be a saint.” Well, she should know.

I’m not just thinking about this because of the change of seasons, or rather, that’s exactly what it is, but more on a metaphorical and metaphyiscal level than the literal one. My life in Spain was an experience intimately tied to my relationship with my mom. My mom had been traveling to Spain to visit friends she’d met in 1971, when she went there to do a pilot study for anthropological research. The research ended up never happening for various reasons, but the friendships turned out to be lifelong. When we moved there, it was because one of her acquaintances offered her a teaching job at a college he ran. Part of my mom’s salary would be free tuition for me, and I was bored as hell in high school, so we took the leap. As far as we knew at the time, it might be a permanent relocation; though, as it turned out, it was only three years. For me they were very formative years as you can imagine if you have ever been 15-18 years old.

Being just five weeks past my 15th birthday when we moved, I was full of teenage pissiness. I’d been hearing my mom’s Spain stories my whole life, and they were interesting, but for reasons I still don’t understand and can only put down to hormones and being a weirdo, I hated that we were on such unequal footing there. She’d been going to Spain for more than 20 years, she had friends and acquaintances and a boyfriend there, whereas I was leaving behind all the places and people I was familiar with.

That said, it took me all of about 24 hours to decide that it was going to be an excellent adventure.

Anyway, long story short, I observed some things that I thought might be of interest. These are not things I’ve seen talked about much in the magical community–and that could just be my ignorance, but if that’s a real thing then my observations might prove (as the anthropologists say) “good to think with.”

I’m not the first person to observe that Andalucían Christianity looks like a very thinly veiled paganism. While I think that’s the case, I don’t put full stock in arguments that what one sees there is some unbroken line of continuity from the Bronze Age. It strikes me as more like a tapestry where individual threads break, but the loose ends are picked up again; the pattern gets a little messed up, its original designer long forgotten, but is never completely lost.

In trying to organize my thoughts, the themes that seem to me to most clearly embody the paganism of southern Spain are bullfighting, sacrificed Jesus, and Virgins. I have already written a bit about the Virgins, but I want to be more speculative here. These themes are all intertwined and I hope I can do justice to their interrelationship, but once I got started writing this post got super long, so I decided to break it up.

bullfight

The first thing to understand about bullfighting is that it’s not a sport. I don’t know why that idea seems to be so hard for people from non-bullfighting cultures to grasp. I get that most Westerners are really uncomfortable with the subject, as am I, but does that mean we can’t at least understand it accurately and on its own terms? I used to have a little test I would submit travel guides to, but checking their bullfight section. The number of inaccuracies seemed to be a good index of how poorly researched the book would be overall. I never did find a single accurate description of what goes on in a bullfight, which tells me something about how invested we are in not understanding it. The same is true of most descriptions coming from animal rights organizations. Do we really think that understanding something means condoning or enjoying it? Bullfighting is bloody enough as is to excite the sympathies of any animal lover, there is no need to exaggerate or misrepresent the case.

Anyway, a sport is a contest between two more-or-less evenly matched opponents, where either can win. From a Spanish perspective, bullfighting is a highly ritualized art form. If you want to find out what went down at Sunday’s fight, you look it up in the Arts and Culture section of the paper. First of all, while most bullfighters (I used to live in a house full of them) would agree that the man and the bull are more-or-less evenly matched, nobody “wins” a bullfight. An especially brave bull may be given an “indulgence” and allowed to live but that is rare indeed. In that case the bullfighter still has to go through the motions of stabbing the bull through the heart, but using his bare hand, which is even more dangerous. Probably 99% of the time, the bull dies, because that is the point of the whole endeavor.

Bulls are the only animals believed to have courage and nobility like a human man. Although these characteristics are considered quintessentially male, bulls are believed to inherit them from their mothers. Just as the most honorable way for a man to die would be in righteous battle, that is also the only honorable way for a bull to die–in ritual combat with the only being who can truly understand and relate to the bull. Man and bull are equal polarized forces, light and dark, civilized and wild, life and death.

Bullfights are riddled with the number three. There are three bullfighters (each fighting two bulls), and each fight is divided in three parts. Each of those three parts is in turn divided in three, for a total of 9. I don’t have to tell you people how magical those numbers are. I’ve heard various explanations for the purpose of the three parts; for example, some argue that the point of having a guy on horseback stab the fatty deposit on the bull’s shoulders with a short-bladed lance (the first third of the fight) is to weaken the bull, but bullfighters tell me it’s to test the bull’s nobility. (“Nobility” here means that the bull keeps charging in spite of his pain and without thought to his own safety.) If the bullfighter is particularly skilled and brave, he may be awarded three trophies, the bull’s ears and tail.

There is a bullfight “season” in Spain which begins on Easter Sunday. Coincidence? Yeah, right.

It seems patently obvious that a bullfight is a ritual animal sacrifice. In fact, it used to involve a lot more sacrifice: Today the horses ridden by the guys with lances are heavy, placid draft breeds, blindfolded on the side that faces the bull to spare them anxiety, and swathed in impenetrable body armor. But 50 years ago they were just light carriage horses with no armor, and they were routinely disemboweled by the charging bull. Three jabs with the lance per bull times six bulls per afternoon meant up to 18 horses being killed along with the six bulls. I saw some old footage once on TV, and if you think bullfighting now is brutal, you just cannot imagine the carnage back then. But I digress. Just as when a chicken is sacrificed to a lwa or a lamb is offered to a Greek deity, after the fight the bull is butchered and eaten. However, there’s a disconnect in that the meat isn’t eaten by celebrants at the rite, but by whoever happens to buy it from the butcher. And most people don’t prefer bull meat because it’s tough. But then, the meat is not the point. A further disconnect is that, if this is indeed a sacrifice, the recipient is unspecified. In modern times, I think the bullfight has functioned as a sort of sacrifice to the people, sort of like a scapegoating where the death of the bull relieves the people of their burden of sin. But that’s just my interpretation and is certainly not explicitly articulated.

Some believe that bullfights descend all the way from Bronze Age Minoan tradition, referencing the paintings of “bull-leapers” from Crete. Others say that bullfighting simply evolved from a military-training-cum-bloodsport of Moorish times, where warriors on horseback would hone their skills against bulls. If bullfighting really is the remnant of an ancient religious ritual, what does it mean for that ritual to lose its context, or perhaps more accurately, for the religious context to change?

I think bullfighting fits within a widespread pre-Christian Mediterranean custom of bull reverence and feats of death-defying derring-do revolving around bulls, but I’m not sure that requires 5,000 years of unbroken tradition. But this brings me to my next topic, which is for next time.

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5 thoughts on “In pagan Spain, Part I

    1. The Mithras bull sacrifice does seem an obvious parallel, but I hadn’t considered the dragon! Interesting food for thought there.

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      1. I’m sure the symbolism has been fluid across the years, but the triumphant rider/warrior with a monstrous foe seems to be a popular motif. I guess the thing to do would be to look at popular saints in the bull-fighting regions? To see if there are any parallels with the art?

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  1. I blame Gordon for SO much, haha. All good things, though. 🙂 I was thinking about how the juxtaposition of bulls and mother goddesses has always struck me as weird, insofar as bulls are muy macho and mother goddesses are quintessentially female. When I think of Indo-European mother goddesses, I always associate them with cows, never bulls. But I know somewhere back in the mists of time I read about bulls and goddesses in the eastern Mediterranean, and I wonder if it’s pre-Indo-European. Like dragons.

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