History and Origins of the Pamplona Running of the Bulls

historic Pamplona Bull Run

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Why would anyone want to risk their lives running in front of a pack of angry bulls? Apparently many people think that running in front of a pack of angry bulls is fun. How did it all start? Presumably, someone long ago also thought that running in front of a pack of angry bulls might be fun!

Unlike in the case of the very modern Tomatina Tomato Fight, the San Fermin Running of the Bulls is a very old festival, dating back to at least the 15th century. The San Fermin festival, originally held in October, is actually a number of festivals which gradually merged to become one:

  • The religious celebrations of San Fermin, the patron saint of Pamplona and Navarra
  • bullfighting festival
  • A number of commercial festivals

As the original somber religious festivals took on more frivolous overtones, the celebrations were moved to July when the weather was more reliable (yes, despite what many believe, the weather in Spain is not always sunny and hot).

These many elements of San Fermin have continued from those days up to the present, but the actual running of the bulls came later. It is said that the ritual was born from a mixture of logistical necessity and a typical Spanish reckless desire to have fun: as the bulls were being led from their pen to the bullring for the evening's fights, some wiseguy or (guys) decided it would be fun to run in front of the bulls - you know, for kicks. Whereas in most countries such people would be arrested for endangering lives, the Spanish went and made it an integral part of their festival.

Who Was San Fermin?

San Fermin, or San Fermin de Amiens, to give him his full title, was born in Pamplona, then called Pompaelo, to a Roman senator. He traveled widely from a young age, preaching the Christian doctrine, and was made a bishop at the age of 24 before being martyred at the age of 31.

San Fermin was decapitated, though it is sometimes claimed that he was tied to a bull and dragged through the streets. While convenient for the legend of the San Fermin festival, it was actually Saint Saturninus, the bishop who baptized San Fermin, who was killed in this way.

Mentions by Ernest Hemingway

Hemmingway's novel The Sun Also Rises features the running of the bulls at the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona. It is not a book about the San Fermin festival, but it does have a graphic description of the running of the bulls which has helped popularize the event in English-speaking countries.

The Sun Also Rises was called ¡Fiesta! in the UK and Spanish editions.

Contrary to popular belief, Hemmingway's Death in the Afternoon isn't about the bull run - this is about bullfighting in general. Death in the Afternoon is a non-fiction book and so might be a better starting point if you want to read about Hemmingway's views on bullfighting.

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