Monday, July 12, 2010

Running with Bulls #1: San Fermin Festival in Pamplona

The San Fermin Festival - celebrated for centuries in Pamplona, Spain, by running through the streets with real live bulls in the morning and holding bullfights in the evening - has now come to New Orleans in a much tamer version, which I observed in the French Quarter on Saturday, July 10.

This is the first of two posts that describe and reflect on the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona and in New Orleans. In this post, I will provide information about the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona and reflect on why people might choose to run with real live bulls there.


We may as well start with some information about the saint for whom the festival is named. San Fermin was a Christian martyr. His life story is related to and sometimes confused with that of San Sernin (or Saint Saturninus), so let me begin with San Sernin.

San Sernin was the first bishop of Toulouse, France. San Sernin was martyred in Toulouse in 257. He was tied to a bull and dragged through the streets to his death, so we have a connection with a bull.

Two churches in Toulouse are related to San Sernin:

  • San Sernin, which houses San Sernin's relics.
  • Our Lady of the Bull (Notre Dame du Taur), which is said to be built upon the spot where the bull dragging San Sernin came to a stop. Our Lady of the Bull - I just love it!

San Fermin was born in Pamplona to a Roman Senator who had converted to Christianity. San Fermin is said to have been baptized by San Sernin. Later, San Fermin was ordained a priest in Toulouse and eventually became the first bishop of Pamplona. While preaching the gospel in France, San Fermin was beheaded at Amiens in 303.

Sometimes people confuse San Fermin with San Sernin and think that San Fermin was dragged to death by a bull in Pamplona, when really San SERNIN was dragged to death by a bull in Toulouse in 257, and San FERMIN was beheaded in Amiens in 303.

San Fermin is the patron saint of Pamplona.


The San Fermin Festival in Pamplona occurs every year, from noon on July 6 to midnight on July 14. The festival dates back to the twelfth century, but was originally held in October. Like so many festivals, it combines religious and secular elements. On the religious side, we have the Feast of San Fermin from Christianity and possibly some connection with the Sacred Bull from Paganism. On the secular side, we have the entertainment of the bull runs and the bullfights as well as various commercial promotions.

Below are some of the components of the festival.

  • Opening Ceremonies. Fireworks open the festival at noon on July 6 and a rousing party is held that night.
  • Bull Run. Every morning, from July 7 through July 14, people and bulls run through the streets of Pamplona.
  • Bullfight. Every evening, from July 7 through July 14, a bull fight is held.
  • Giants and Big Heads. These figures are paraded through the streets of Pamplona every day during the San Fermin Festival. The Giants are large figures of kings and queens - a pair each from Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas - made of papier mache heads and long flowing costumes. The Big Heads are smaller figures with big heads, forming the entourage of the Giants. On July 7, the Giants and Big Heads are joined by the statue of San Fermin in the most elaborate procession of the festival.
  • Poor Me. This song, called Pobre de Mi in Spanish, is sung by candle light at midnight on July 14 to close the festival. The words mourn the festival's end, and the sense is something like "Poor me, the festival is over."


A bull run occurs daily at 8 a.m. during the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona. The bulls who will fight that evening, along with additional bulls, are let loose along a corridor of streets that will move the bulls from their corral to the bullring. This is a distance of a half mile, and the bulls take about three minutes to run from start to finish - so the event goes very quickly.

The progress of the bulls is signaled by fire-rockets. Rocket #1 signals that the corral has been opened, Rocket #2 that the bulls have left the corral for the street, Rocket #3 that the bulls have arrived in the bullring, and Rocket #4 that the bulls are in their pens and the bull run is over.

Humans may run through the streets of Pamplona with the bulls. Runners wear a white shirt and pants and a red kerchief and waistband.

Running with the bulls is a dangerous activity, and every year people are injured in the bull runs. Over the last century, sixteen or so people have been killed by the bulls. The last death occurred in 2009, and the one before that in 1995. The large number of participants, the presence of inexperienced runners, and drunkenness add to the danger.

Ernest Hemingway is connected with the running of the bulls in Pamplona through his novel The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. This novel gave wide publicity to the Pamplona bull runs.


Why do people put their lives in danger by running with real live bulls in Pamplona? Well, some people thrive on dangerous activities. People race cars. People climb Mount Everest. People sky dive. People run with real live bulls. I think that some people simply enjoy the thrill of the adrenaline rush.

Also, in the case of real live bulls, we're talking about awesome and powerful animals. To be so near that unleashed awesomeness and power - to be right next to the bulls with nothing between you and them - must be awe-inspiring, terrifying, wild, and primal. Some people love this feeling.

My next post will describe and reflect on the running of the bulls in New Orleans.

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