Every year in July, tens of thousands of runners gather in Pamplona from all over the world to participate in a death-defying adventure: the Encierro, also known as the Running of the Bulls.
While most people have a general idea of what the event is all about, few are fully aware of its vibrant history.
Here’s a quick look at the past and present of the annual Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.
Dusting Off the History Books
The origins of Pamplona’s Encierro dates back to the 11th century when bullfighting first became a pastime in Spain. Cattle transporters were responsible for delivering the bulls from their countryside corrals into city rings for the evening’s entertainment. This activity gradually evolved from a necessity into a tradition, expanding outward into other cities and gaining popularity along the way. Pamplona’s Encierro is Spain’s most celebrated bull running event, and has been broadcast on Spanish public television for over 30 years.
Honoring a Patron Saint
The Encierro takes place every year in Spain’s scenic northern Navarra region during the Sanfermines, or fiesta of San Fermin, which honors Navarra’s patron saint, San Fermin. While the religious celebration dates back centuries, it has become best known today for one of its traditions, the Running of the Bulls.
While many people think of the Running of the Bulls as an occasion to gather and party, remnants remain of its rich religious tradition. Every year runners gather in advance of the run at a statue of of San Fermin to chant together a benediction requesting the patron saint’s guidance, blessing and protection. They conclude with the heartfelt exclamation, “Viva San Fermin!, Gora San Fermin!” (“Long live Saint Fermin!”)
This chant is repeated in the exciting minutes leading up to the opening of the bulls’ corral and the start of the race. Additionally, runners typically don traditional clothing, including a white shirt, and white trousers with red accents at the waist and neck.
The Encierro’s Evolution
Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls–which occurs every year during the week-long Sanfermines (July 7-July 14)–now sees more than 20,000 runners make the dash every year, followed by 12 or so bulls. This 825-meter dash through the streets of old town Pamplona starts at the strike of the San Cernin clock, followed by a series of rocket launches which inform runners of critical information, such as when the run has started and ended. Typically, the Encierro lasts no more than four minutes, although it has taken up to 10, depending on the path of the bulls.
Safety in Numbers?
While it can be easy to get carried away by the thrill of this ages old event, it is a dangerous pursuit, and one best left to the fit and the fierce. Security measures are enforced to safeguard participants: entrants are required to be least 18 and must run in the same direction as the bulls, while refraining from inciting them; additionally, alcohol is forbidden.
The running route is blocked off by a double fence to keep runners and bulls in and spectators out. Pastores, or “shepherds,” offer another safety measure, remaining behind the bulls and using long sticks to keep both bulls and people on course.
Despite these precautions, hundreds of injuries occur every year–primarily due to falls. While goring is less common, it does happen, and severe injuries can result. Since record-keeping began in Pamplona in 1910, 15 deaths have occurred during the Running of the Bulls, mostly due to goring.
While bull runs and fights have become increasingly controversial topics in recent years, because of questions regarding animal rights, these events live on as a reminder of Spain’s rich history. The continued popularity of Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls suggests that as long as there are bull runs, there will be people lining up to accept the challenge.
Photo Credits: MadMack66, Oddsock