Monday, September 6

Cicada dirge ...

This weekend the trails in El Griego (see past post on my sierra hideaway) that I normally hike and mountain bike on were given over to a different type of trek. It is fiesta time in the sierra, and in this part of Spain fiesta means encierros, the running of bulls through the windy road and streets of the nearby mountain town of Ayna.

Here is a panoramic view of Ayna on a normal non-fiesta summer day ...

As with all photos, click to enlarge.

On September 1, the bulls leave the grange where they have been bred as toros de lidia, fighting bulls, and travel on foot to Ayna in the company of mansos or cabestros, as the tamer steer or bullocks are known. On the fourth and last day of the trek, and next to last day of their life, they pass through El Griego, a stone's throw or cicada's chant from my house.

The bulls (dark colored) and steer (lighter) grazing in El Griego.
Around 9:30 am, but the sun is already starting to burn and
stirring the cicada choir into their daylong songfest.

Although caution is always in order, when making the journey in the
company of the tamer steer, the bulls are relatively non-aggressive.

I much prefer the privilege of walking in the company of these noble creatures through these hills and woods than participating in the frenzied harassment that tends to happen when they are run through the town.

A couple of the bulls line me up in their sights. Believe me,
the chill I felt was not from the slim shade of the lone tree
standing between me and them.

Grazing and resting on the way to the corral where they will spend their last night.
The dry rasping cicada dirge was in full throb by this time.

Off to the corral, and past me hopefully ...

Good, thanks.

The next day, the town of Ayna bustles with activity and excitement as people pick out their preferred craggy perches for viewing, and not running in, the dash down the mountain road and into town...

In this next shot, the "falling rocks" sign should probably alert to the danger of "falling rocks, bulls and gawkers".

My good friend Manolo braving falling rocks and revelers.
Note the people atop the rock spike behind him, the same ones
as in the previous image, from a different angle.

The bulls speed by in a matter of seconds ...

But one stops and charges a young man. Perhaps the red shirt was
not the best attire for today. Don't know if he was badly gorged.

The mansos trot down a few minutes later to herd the recalcitrant bull toward the plaza, where he will be locked up until the afternoon bullfight.

Mansos to the rescue

One intrepid impromptu matador using a Spanish flag for a cape.
The worst thing that can happen in these encierros is when the bull turns around and decides to run back uphill into the swarms of people...

... which is what happened here and for the next 45 minutes or so.

After that it was all a bit of a blur ...

Cell phones to take a shot of a centuries-old tradition. Somehow high tech
and atavistic rituals still seem slightly out of sync.

Classic portrait of
Miguel Hernández
I'll close by introducing you to Miguel Hernández. I say 'introduce' somewhat hesitantly, and perhaps wrongly (he may be familiar to you); but though one of the country's major 20th century poets, he is not as well known outside of Spain as are his contemporaries, Federico García Lorca and Antonio Machado. Like them he was a victim of the Spanish civil war. Born in 1910 to a humble peasant family, Miguel Hernández was a poor and relatively uneducated goatherd and self-taught poet. The story of the obstacles he overcame to pursue his passion and talent for versifying his love of nature is exceptionally moving. And his distressing death perhaps exemplifies like no other the hideous tragedy of that war. This unique poet died in prison in 1942; his death sentence for past support for the Spanish Republic and anti-fascist activities had been commuted to 30 years in prison, but the horrid prison conditions and malign neglect led to his death of tuberculosis at the age of 31.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of his birth on October 30, 1910. I will try to post more on him and his poems over the next few weeks. For more information and some of his poems, in English, visit the Poetry Foundation's web pages on Miguel Hernández. There, if you can bear the heartbreak, you may read "Lullaby of the Onion". He wrote that stunning verse not long before his death, upon having learned that his wife Josefina, who was breastfeeding their newborn son at the time, had nothing to eat but bread and onions. For the Spanish originals, one good site is the A Media Voz site.

Josefina typing up Miguel's poems

I'll leave you with his Como el toro, he nacido para el luto — "Like the bull, I was born for doom and pain". First in Spanish and then my humble (and entirely indequate) and very loose translation.

Como el toro he nacido para el luto
y el dolor, como el toro estoy marcado
por un hierro infernal en el costado
y por varón en la ingle con un fruto.

Como el toro lo encuentra diminuto
todo mi corazón desmesurado,
y del rostro del beso enamorado,
como el toro a tu amor se lo disputo.

Como el toro me crezco en el castigo,
la lengua en corazón tengo bañada
y llevo al cuello un vendaval sonoro.

Como el toro te sigo y te persigo,
y dejas mi deseo en una espada,
como el toro burlado, como el toro.

*  * *

Like the bull, I was born for grief
and pain, like the bull I am branded
by hell’s iron rod in my side
and the fruit of man in my loin.

Like the bull, my heart swells and heaves
dwarfing all around and in me,
and like the bull I haunt and stalk
the kissed semblance of your love.

Like the bull, I feed and grow on my punishment,
my tongue drowning in my own heart
as the shrill wind stabs at my throat.

Like the bull, I circle and charge you
and you leave my desire impaled on a sword,
like the bull, mocked and foiled, like the bull.


  1. lorenzo - firstly thankyou for linking back to your earlier post. i love the photo of you braving the snowy elements on your bicycle!! i was riding around a large lake when that one popped up and so missed it. it helped give context to this one which (incidentally) is gorgeous and ripe with visual and textual images - of the land you call home. the space between a measurement based on a cicada's chant and that drawn between a cellphone and a bull on its final journey is so vast that in my own understanding it draws a line as large as a cross-section of this iteration of the universe. steven

  2. My heart's in my throat, first from the images you took showing the bulls turning back and people running. Then from Hernández's elegy to Sijé and the lullaby to his baby boy. His "stifled sorrow" that poured into his friend's grave, and his lullaby prayer to his son to laugh, while he rotted in prison, and then his own early and tragic death . . . well, I don't really have anything to say, except I feel gored through the middle. But all that pain and aching feeds my heart, because he managed to stitch beauty out of it with that pencil of his. I'm humbled by such obstacles, and by such perseverance.

    Thank you.

  3. great pics of the bulls...think they might have given me a shiver as well...interesting about the poet...think i will chase down that onion poem...hope you are hvaing a wonderful day lorenzo

  4. Thank you for a little glimpse of this ancient Spanish event on what is for me a rainy west coast day. I especially love the photos of the people on that crag and the guy taking a photo with his cell phone. The "incongruous juxtapositions". :)

  5. Powerful post Lorenzo.

    The value of such an old ritual is difficult for me to comprehend with my limited cultural perspective and understanding. I do find that the poem you translate by Herandez sums up my reaction with his last line: "... the bull, mocked and foiled..." Sorry, I know it has deeper meanings in Spain, I know my perspective might be narrow - it just seems like animal cruelty to from my point of view.

    Lullabye to the Onion is as raw as the bull run ritual and I feel like I have had my heart gored. Amazing how he made something of such beauty out of such raw pain.

  6. the running of the bulls anywhere saddens me but not as deeply as the bullfights which should be outlawed.

    Your translation is beautiful. I read to myself in Spanish and tried to translate but my Spanish is rusty and I could only grasp a slight meaning. Powerful words and images.

  7. Lorenzo, could you please explain why it is the next to the last day of the bulls' lives?

  8. What a great post. The Pictures were great-you captured the landscape very well at rest and at play.
    I thoroughly appreciated your translation (my Spanish consists of less than tweny words!)

  9. A beautiful posting, Lorenzo. My heart goes out to the bulls and to Miguel Hernandez for the suffering he endured. I'm looking forward to further posts on Hernandez. From goat-herding to moving poetry is such an amazing transition!

  10. Glad you enjoyed the link, Steven. Perhaps I can tempt you out here some day to enjoy biking some of these trails and roads. I appreciate your thoughtful comment on the post.

    * * *

    Hi, William, beautiful to see you here on the blog.

    * * *

    Yes, Ruth, I completely agree that no matter how tragic a landscape a poet or other artist conveys to us, the very fact of creating something of beauty from such situations is uplifting in itself. I look forward to seeing more of your reactions to Miguel Hernández. Am I correct in assuming he is not that widely known in the English speaking world? Compared to Lorca, for example? He is much beloved here, and with good reason, and I will try to do more on him in the run up to his centennial.

    * * *

    Thanks, Brian, hope you, too are having a beautiful day. Let me know if you do read the onion lullaby poem. The elegy for his dear friend Sijé is also quite powerful.

    * * *

    Hi, Andrea. Nice to see you here. Yes, those contrasts, seeming contradictions and ‘incongruous juxtapositions’ are always stimulating.

  11. Hi, Bonnie, I really appreciate your thoughtful remarks and especially the respect you show for another culture in the way you voice them. You say, almost timidly that it seems like animal cruelty and I have to say you are right. Bullfights do involve a certain cruelty. I have mixed feelings about them. I saw a couple around 25 years ago when new in Spain and have not returned. All the same, I do have a tremendous amount of respect and fascination for how important they are to Spanish culture, both in terms of popular culture and more high-brow, literary and artistic culture. Whether it is poetry, literature, theater, music, painting popular sayings and refrains and the very language itself, the millenary world of bulls and bullfighting has been of huge importance. Indeed, I am tempted to say that Spanish culture would be unrecognizably different without it, but will leave it at “almost” unrecognizably different.

    Still, the actual bullfights are something I personally do not care for. Despite all the splendor, pageantry, music, drama, dance and art that can be found in those events, it still basically revolves around a ritualized and stylized (highly stylized) torment and slaughter of an animal.

    And what animals they are! I hate to use anthropomorphic terms for animals here, but noble and regal are the words that come to my mind. Seeing bulls up close, especially these mighty bulls that are bred specifically for bullfighting can be terrifying and inspiring at the same time. But I prefer to see them on the grange or on a wooded path as the trek I tried to describe in this post, than in the death dance of the bullring I once had the good fortune of having the owner of a bull breeding farm whom I know stampede a herd of 40 or so fighting bulls right by me and my family (safely behind a wooden fence) when we visited his farm. One of the most magnificent sights I have ever seen. The only other animal “spectacle” that I could compare it to in my life was the joy and awed wonder of seeing whales breaching off the coast of Massachusetts on a whale watching excursion.

  12. Hi, California Girl. You may want to read my reply to Bonnie’s comment above. I share some of your sentiments on this, although I personally would not support a ban on bullfighting (or specifically on bullfights where the bulls are killed in the ring—in Portugal and Mexico, for example, the bull is not slaughtered). The main reason is that I think it would be counterproductive. The fact is that interest in bullfighting has waned in the last couple of generations in Spain, although it is still strong (very strong in some parts of the country). Prohibiting it would almost certainly produce a counter reaction and reverse this trend. It would rile up the beast of Spanish nationalism and cultural identity and the outpouring of support for bullfighting would far outstrip the number of people who actively watch it.
    So I think it is just best for the people who find it objectionable to stay away. That is what I have done for the last 20 plus years. It may well continue to decline in popularity. So, I guess my position on this is that I think that bulls and bullfighting should both be allowed to die natural deaths. I liken it to boxing, for example. I think there are valid arguments for prohibiting it, but I do not think that is the solution. You won’t likely see me at a boxing match though.

    Well, I could go on and on about this … and perhaps will on another post. I appreciate your comments as it has helped me think out and refine some of my own jumbled feelings and views on this.

    * * *

    Hi, again, Ruth. The last day of the trek from the breeding farm to the town is the next to last day of their lives, because the bulls are killed the following day. The purpose of the encierro, running them into and through town, is to get them to the bullring and ready them for that afternoon’s bullfight. I did not go to the afternoon bullfight or even watch the whole encierro. My strong preference is for accompanying the bulls on the wooded trails and grazing lands. There is no harassment or frenzy involved. In fact, there were no more than 25 of us or so, people who simply wanted to have the somewhat unique opportunity to accompany these magnificent creatures. There is a big difference between that and the encierros and a larger difference still with the bullfights.

    A few years ago, in Ayna they stopped killing the bulls in the bullring. Instead the torero, bullfighter, does his thing, but without the sword. When the ‘show’ is over the bull is taken to the corral, immobilized and killed. The body is then taken away by a butcher contracted for the occasion (bull’s meat is highly prized here in several dishes). The actual death is probably no crueler than how many sheep, pigs, hens, chickens and cows are slaughtered, but at least this way, it is not done as part of a public spectacle. The reason for the change was because as a small town, Ayna, cannot afford top name toreros for their fiestas. The ones they bring in are therefore somewhat more inept with the sword, and instead of killing the animal quickly and cleanly with one thrust, they would tend to make a gruesome and protracted affair of it. So the town hall decided to do away with this grisly spectacle. Truth be told, they were probably just as concerned with preserving the quality of the meat as with averting undue suffering by the animal and the unedifying spectacle for the people in the bullring.

  13. Wow! That's all I can say, Lorenzo--what a wonderful post, as always. First of all, those shots of the spectacular scenery and bulls and the people witnessing their run are all amazing. Thanks so much for bringing me along for the ride. And the introduction for me to Miguel's poetry is a thrill. I have heard of him before, but I'm not familiar with his work, and now I will wander off to seek him out. I'm on the road, at O'Hare airport, now, but when I get to the hotel and have a good connection, I will be investigating this in greater detail.

    Thank you--beautiful! You really live in a stunning place.

  14. Hi, Gwei Mui. I am glad you liked the photos. My translation is very loose and there are better ones out there published. One, at least manages to keep the rhyme structure and meter. But I wanted to personalize it as this was one of the first poems I read, and heard, here in Spain and I remember how moving it was for me.

    Thanks, George. I promise to do my share so you can see more Miguel Hernández, a poet to be cherished and returned to again and again. The trouble is that I think he is also extremely difficult to translate, but I'll see what I can dig up or come up with myself. By the way, my lack of comment on your TS Elliot Quartets post does not denote a lack of interest. Quite the opposite. I first read them years ago back in college and I am sure I will gain so much more by returning to them. It may take me some time, but I will get there!

  15. Thank you for the in depth reply to my [rather dense] question, Lorenzo. It should have been obvious that they were heading for a bullfight and certain death, but I marveled that there were so many bulls and enough fights for them all, and well, I needed to know. You are gracious to humor this American so thoroughly.

    As for Miguel Hernández, you are correct that at least for me in my limited experience, I had not heard of him, whereas I do know Lorca. But shhh, please don't tell anyone in my department that I didn't know of Hernández, for certainly they must.

    So, on both counts, I have been very happily educated at The Alchemist's Pillow once again.

  16. Lorenzo, thank you so much for introducing me to Miguel Hernández--the poem you so elegantly translate here, his elegy for his friend, and the ode to his son and wife are powerful, powerful pieces. I will return to them.

    Your pictures and commentary on the running of the bulls taught me much. Like you, I'd rather sit in a field quietly with those beasts than force them into a frenzy and certain death. Man is a cruel species...
    A most enlightening post. Again, thank you.

  17. WOW! Wow. The pictures were stunning and the poem at the end a perfect close. Always you introduce your readers to beauty.

  18. When I read sierra in the beginning of your post, I was looking forward to what you had to say about the Sierra-Nevada mountains here on the West coast of the USA. Then I realized you were talking about the sierras on the other side of the pond.

    I love the twists and turns of this post. Beginning with the bucolic scene of the bulls and steer grazing to the chant of the cicadas, then their winding journey to face their final destiny, but not before they terrified a few along the way. I would like to be one of the spectators perched on the rock.

    I don't speak Spanish at all, but I loved reading your translation. It has such a strong, throbbing, pulse to its rhythm.

  19. Lorenzo, I am in awe. Again, you teach me much about a culture I would love to see firsthand. I'm so glad to have the privilege of being able to view it through your eyes.

    Your pictures are magnificent, and your descriptions bring them to life even more. "The dry rasping cicada dirge was in full throb by this time" sums it up so well. I can hear the rasping of the cicadas and feel the sadness of the last night of the bulls.

    I share the emotions about the bulls. They are beautiful and amazing creatures. But at the same time, I think we shouldn't be so quick to judge another culture's customs. I come from a fishing culture. Fresh fish and crabs die while twitching in piles on the bottom of a boat. We are thankful when they do. We have food and livelihoods. Other people say it is cruel. Maybe it is. But the critics don't know or even try to understand the culture of their fellow human beings.

    I'm not saying that's what anyone here is doing, and I'm probably not making any sense. I don't mean that I think it's good to torment or kill bulls. I just want to be open to learning about people. Thank you for the education!

    I love the Miguel Hernández poem and your translation. Like a bull, it is beautiful, powerful and majestic.

  20. Thanks for visiting my blog, Lorenzo!
    Always had heard this traditional event of the bulls, but never seen int in images -thanks you so much for sharing!
    Heartbreaking account of the life of Miquel Hernandez, but also inspiring for following what he believed in!

  21. Possibly the GREATEST thing that I read this week!?!



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