Sunday, July 22, 2007

Gearóid Ó Colmáin on the Spectacle of the Bull and its Symbolism

If there is one thing that is synonymous with Spanish culture that distinguishes it from the other nations of Europe, it has to be bullfighting. Corrida de Torros or bullfighting is unique to Spain but the spectacle of the bull and its symbolism is not. The symbolism of the bull runs throughout Indo-European history and is probably pre-Indo-European, going back to the very origins of human civilization in the nebulous past known to us today as the Neolithic period around 9000 BCE when agriculture was developed but probably stretching back to the origins of symbol-making around 25000 BCE. The depictions of bulls in the caves of Lascaux in France are proof of the centrality and symbolism of the bull in pre-historic societies. In ancient societies the bull was perceived as a symbol of fertility and regeneration; it was also associated with the moon, its horns representing the crescent moon. It stands to reason in an agricultural society that the bull or ox would be revered as the key to the survival of the group, as it was used to till the land and provided meat and clothing for the tribe.

In ancient Egypt a black bull known as the Apis bull was kept for special ceremonies. It was associated with the fertility and creator god Apis; it was also identified with the sky-god Amon and Osiris the god of death. Osiris was said to be borne on the back of the black Apis bull, being ritually slaughtered and resurrected according to the seasons. The horns of the bull were often associated with the crecent moon while the its fiery temper invoked the regenerative power of the sun. The sacrifice of the bull was common in ancient societies such as Sumeria 3000BCE. Previously, primitive societies had sacrificed their king in order to fertilize and regenerate the earth. The sacrifice of ritual regicide was common throughout the ancient world. The king was ritually slane and his body-parts either eaten or strewn throughout the land .It is quite possible that the story of Christ, the sacrificial lamb, is drawn from the same tradition, as many key elements of this story are drawn from previous ancient religions such as Zoroastrianism. This would explain why people symbolically ‘eat’ the body and blood of this god- king at mass. The king as sacrificial victim was subsequently replaced by an animal such as a bull or horse. There is still a movement in Bullfighting today known as the ‘Veronica Pass’, which mimicks the wiping of Christ’s brow said to have been performed by Veronica as he made his way to Golgotha. The Persian god Mithras, a precursor of Christ, was also worshiped in the form of a bull. In Isreal the Canannaite Baal and his consort Astarte were incarnated as bulls. In Babalonia the gods Hadad and Enil were also bull-gods. Israelites often referred to God as the ‘bull of heaven’.

Ireland’s famous megalithic site is known in English as Newgrange. But the Irish name is ‘brú na bóinne’ which means the Boyne Valley. The word ‘boyne’ comes from the Irish ‘bó’meaning bull or cow; this is cognate with the Latin Bos whence ‘bovine’ and the Greek ‘bous’. Linguists claim that the root of this word approximates to the Sanskrit ‘gauh’ which mutated into ‘cow’, ‘Kuh’ and ‘krowa’ in Germanic and Slavic languages, while the ‘gu’ was replaced by ‘bo’ in the Celtic and Italic languages. In pre-historic Ireland the bull also played a major role in society. The great Irish epic An Táin Bó Chuailigne, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley, was said to have been caused by the desire of Queen Maeve of Connaught for the beautiful brown bull of Cooley, precipitating conflict with the province of Ulster. It is likely that the symbolism of the bull in Irish mythology is pre-Celtic but that our name for it is Celtic or Indo-European.

In India the bull is identified with fertility and fire. In the Rig-Veda Rudra the celestial bull fertilizes the earth with his sperm, while Agni, the god of fire is also incarnated as a bull. Shiva the destroyer rides a white bull called Nandin. Indra, too, is described as a bull god and there is the bull-god Vrishabha who spins the cosmic wheel. The very Urmyth of Europe itself begins with an encounter with a bull in the form of a god. Europa is abducted and impregnated by Zeus,(from the Sanskrit ‘dyu’ meaning ‘to shine’) in the form of a white bull; and, of course, there is the story of King Minos of Crete whose wife Pasphae copulates with a bull creating the infamous Minotaur. It is clear that Queen Maeve of Connaught and Pasiphae of Crete were overcome by a mysterious, sexual and ritual-symbolic taurophilia, whose origins probably preceded the formation of the Celtic and Minoan civilizations by thousands of years.

I recently attended a bullfight in Toledo. Spanish bullfighting stretches back to Celtic Iberia, whence the Irish are said to have been descended from the line of King Milesius. The ritual of bull slaughter was made into a spectacle by the Romans, who loved watching blood-shed. Animal rights activists regularly express their disgust at this ritual slaughter of our fellow animals. They certainly have a point, for the moral question with respect to animals other than ourselves is not whether they can think or speak but whether they can suffer. But I have to admit I enjoyed it. My mind looped from Brú na Bóinne, through Egypt across to India and back via Crete to a stadium in Spain, where the mysteries of light and darkness, life and death, the sky and the earth, in other words, the fundamental components of the human imagination were being enacted before me. In contemplation of the antiquity of this practice and its primordial relationship with man, my sympathy for the suffering animal was overcome by a visceral and primitive sense of the world-historical, the terrifying ecstasy of mythic ritual, the cold, dark, ineffable wonder of it all.

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