Spanish Bulls and Catalan Donkeys

🕔 13 mins (total)
An iconic Spanish bull roadside billboard, and its counterpart the Catalan donkey
An iconic Spanish bull roadside billboard, and its counterpart the Catalan donkey

What is it with the Spanish and their obsession with bulls? How did the bull come to be one of the most recognizable symbols of Spain? And what’s the story with bullfighting if they really love bulls so much?

Way back when

Bulls have been hugely important in Spain since pagan times – since long before Spain even became Spain – and they were revered in many other ancient cultures too. The oldest known bull worship site is in what is now eastern Turkey and goes back to about 7,000 BC, and in Spain and France there are prehistoric cave drawings of bulls that date back to as far as 20,000 years ago. Taurus, the Latin word for “bull” (which became toro in Spanish, Catalan and Italian, spelt taureau in French, touro in Portuguese) is one of the constellations of the zodiac in the northern celestial hemisphere, and, same hemisphere, but over in Asia, the Ox is the second of the 12-year periodic sequence of animals in the Chinese zodiac. The last Chinese Year of the Ox was from February 2021 to January 2022. (The next one is in 2033.)

In many Asian countries it used to be taboo to eat beef and in several of them it still is. We’ve all heard of the “sacred cows” in India, where it is forbidden to slaughter any cattle at all in many states, although in some, bulls and buffaloes can be slaughtered, just not the cows.

In the Mediterranean and the Middle East, bulls feature in the mythology of many ancient civilizations, including Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece, amongst others. Bulls are also prominent in Celtic mythology – the Táin Bó Cúailnge is one of Ireland’s national epics, for example – and the Celtic, Celtiberian, and Iberian peoples of this Peninsula already revered the bull before the Carthaginians arrived in the 3rd century BCE – and that was even before the Romans!

Iberian-Celtic bull sculpture from Saguntum, Spain, 4th century BCE.
Iberian-Celtic bull sculpture from Saguntum, Spain, 4th century BCE.

Origins of bullfighting

It is believed that the ancient Romans had probably picked up on some forms of sport involving bulls in Greece, Turkey and the Middle East and adapted them to “human vs beast” spectacles for their gladiatorial arenas. Back in those ancient pagan times in Hispania, as the Romans called the Iberian Peninsula, the bull was already a very important animal in the cultures here and symbolized power, dominance and fertility, and since the indigenous people already used to stage ritual bull sacrifices or slaughter by combat, fighting bulls in the arena (as well as bears or lions) probably wasn’t too hard a sell for the Romans.

Even when Christianity took hold in the Roman Empire and the authorities did their best to eradicate the old pagan customs, the local population stubbornly resisted, and so the bull also came to represent freedom and independence. Over time, those old sacrificial rituals would evolve into events like bullfighting and the running of the bulls.

Bullfighting in Spain

The Roman Empire eventually came to an end but bullfighting remained in Iberia long after the Romans left, and by medieval times the Spanish version of bullfighting had evolved to involve a nobleman on a horse with a spear, and it was most definitely a sport for the aristocracy and not for commoners. During the Muslim rule of Iberia bullfighting was officially prohibited, as Islam prohibits causing animals to suffer, but this only served to make it a symbol of resistance and prestige for Christian noblemen.

Later, after the Moors were gone, bullfighting was also banned in 1567 by Pope Pius V who decreed by papal bull that Christians were prohibited under pain of excommunication from witnessing, taking part in, or giving a Christian burial to anyone who died in bullfights. (How ironic, a papal bull banning fights with bulls!). The ban was never really implemented though by King Felipe II, and he even put pressure on Pope Gregory XIII to relax the decree to only apply to the clergy.

In the 17th century bullfighting properly established itself, with codes of conduct for bullfighters being drawn up and bullfighting on horseback becoming the norm. Then, in 1704, King Filipe V, the first Bourbon (French) king of Spain, banned it again as a sport unbecoming of the aristocracy, but anti-French and anti-aristocracy sentiment meant that bullfighting instead became even more popular with ordinary Spaniards, and further attempts by the next two Bourbon kings to outlaw the sport were unsuccessful.

Eventually, Joseph Bonaparte, who was made king of Spain in 1808 by his older brother, Napoleon, removed any ban and even held a bullfight during his coronation to try and win over his new Spanish subjects. He only lasted five years as monarch, but bullfighting endured long after him. It carried on through the 19th and 20th centuries and bullfighting events were often held as a means of fund-raising – for example, by both sides during the Spanish Civil War, and even the Red Cross. The last three decades of the 1900s were its period of greatest commercial boom, but with the turning of the millennium so too turned the tide of public opinion.

Latin America

During the time of their empire the Spanish brought their traditions with them to the “New World” and today bullfighting continues in some of the countries in what we now call Latin America. It is still practiced in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, although in some other countries there are different versions of the original Spanish style where the bull is not killed or injured.


In Portugal, they have their own version which is not too unlike the original Spanish style where the bullfighter is mounted on horseback, from where he attempts to spear the bull three or four times before the animal is then subdued by eight weaponless men and herded from the arena. The bull may or may not then be slaughtered by a butcher. Sometimes, if his performance was deemed worthy, he may be patched up and cured and allowed to live out his days in pasture.


Across the Pyrenees in southern France, Spanish-style bullfighting still occurs in certain départments, but probably the most unique version has to be a certain type of bullfight called la course Camarguaise, named for the Camargue wetland region between Montpellier and Marseille where most of the bulls involved are raised. In the original Roman amphitheaters still in use today in the cities of Nîmes and Arles, an altogether different type of contest takes place on occasion. A dozen or so raseteurs attempt to pluck a ribbon from in between the bull’s horns with nothing to protect them except their own speed and agility, as they constantly have to leap over the arena’s fencing and up into the bleachers to escape the horns of the charging bull. There are prizes for whoever comes away with the ribbon and the bull gets to trot proudly out of the arena with its horns held high. The bulls are never killed but instead return to the ring, and many go on to have “careers” that may last up to a decade! It does seem like an altogether fairer type of bullfight it has to be said – if a bullfight has to happen at all that is.

Bans on bullfighting

In Latin America, countries such as Cuba, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay banned the “sport” there well over a century ago, and even in Mexico, one of the countries where it is most popular, bullfighting has now been banned in several states. Incidentally, the biggest bullring in the world is in Mexico and the second-biggest is in Venezuela.
Back in Spain, there have been no bullfights in Las Canarias since 1984 and in 1991 the government there passed a law protecting bulls against abuse in bullfights or fiestas. The law is a little vague as to whether bullfighting is actually banned there or not, but the difficulty of transporting bulls to the islands combined with a lack of interest locally means that it’s a bit of a moot point as it just doesn’t happen. As a curious aside, although bullfighting is (at least effectively) banned in the Canarias, cock fighting is not!


So, the tradition of bullfighting, in some form or other, goes back to ancient times throughout the Mediterranean, but nowadays it only survives in Spain, Portugal and certain parts of southern France. But, here in Catalunya it’s illegal though, right? Well, kind of.. but not exactly.

Tossa de Mar right here on the Costa Brava became the first city in all of Spain to declare itself anti-bullfighting in 1990, and in 2004 the Catalan capital, Barcelona, followed suit, as did Calonge and a number of other Catalan municipalities. In July 2010 the Catalan parliament finally passed a law banning bullfighting throughout its entire territory, a law which came into effect in January 2012. The final bullfight in Catalunya took place in September 2011 at La Monumental arena in Barcelona, for the last few unfortunate bulls.

In October 2016, though, the Catalan ban on bullfighting was overturned by the Spanish Constitutional Court which ruled that, though an autonomous region is allowed to regulate bullfighting, it is not in a legal position to fully ban an activity that is “historical, cultural, social, artistic or economic and part of the common cultural heritage, which must be guaranteed and preserved”. So technically speaking, bullfighting could be argued to not, in actual fact, be banned in Catalunya, but just like in Las Canarias, the reality is that bullfights no longer happen here. After all, they may have overturned the ban but the Spanish court could hardly force the Catalans to stage bullfights! And you will almost certainly never meet a Catalan wishing that bullfighting would make a return here.

The future

The Balearic Islands passed a law in 2017 regulating bullfighting stating that bulls could no longer be killed in the ring and minors could not attend bullfights, along with a list of other measures. The law stopped short of banning bullfights outright to avoid the legislation being challenged by the Constitutional Court, as happened in Catalunya. Nevertheless, the legislation was still referred to the Constitutional Court by the right-wing Partido Popular and was ruled to be unconstitutional on several grounds, and so bullfighting returned to Mallorca in 2019. The other Balearic Islands have no bullrings.

Although bullfighting is still popular in Madrid and in much of the south, and you will often see it on television in bars – paid tv, no less – in the rest of Spain, interest is waning. In many places nowadays the bulk of the spectators are tourists rather than Spaniards, and the younger generations just about everywhere outside of Andalucía and Madrid are increasingly opposed to bullfighting. Surveys of tourists having just witnessed their first bullfight suggest that about 90% said they would never attend another.

Maybe the bulls should be replaced with wild boar in the arenas? Just kidding really, and we don’t mean to be giving the wild boar such a hard time, but since humans have eradicated their only natural predators (wolves and bears) in most of Spain, their numbers have gotten out of control and they have become a pest to agriculture and a danger on the roads – especially here in Catalunya. Wild boar fighting anyone?

Bull-fighting in Spain by province. Notice it is marked as “banned” in Catalunya and Las Canarias.
Bull-fighting in Spain by province. Notice it is marked as “banned” in Catalunya and Las Canarias.

The arenas

While most non-Spaniards tend to abhor bullfighting as barbaric, it has to be said that the arenas themselves are very often pretty spectacular buildings. So, what became of them after the “ban” on bullfighting in Catalunya?

Les Arenas de Barcelona has been transformed into a snazzy shopping centre.
Les Arenas de Barcelona has been transformed into a snazzy shopping centre.
A view from the top of Les Arenes towards the Catalan National Art Museum and the Magic Fountain
A view from the top of Les Arenes towards the Catalan National Art Museum and the Magic Fountain

The most famous, Les Arenes de Barcelona on Plaça Espanya in Barcelona, is now a shopping centre that is worth visiting nowadays, even if only for the spectacular views from above – especially of the impressive Magic Fountain if you get your timing right.

The Magic Fountain in action is a sight well worth seeing.
The Magic Fountain in action is a sight well worth seeing.

Designed by Catalan architect August Font i Carreras, who also finished the facade of the Cathedral of Barcelona, Les Arenas was originally inaugurated in 1900 and had a capacity for nearly 15,000 spectators. As well as for bullfighting, it was used for cycling and boxing events, circuses, and concerts during its history, and also served as a barracks for the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. Bullfighting became increasingly seen by Catalans as the “sport of the Castilian oppressors” and its popularity declined until, in 1977, the last bullfight took place in Les Arenas.

In 1990 it closed completely and was left virtually abandoned until 2007 when work began to convert it into the shopping centre we see today, which opened in 2011. The interior was completely gutted, but the entire circular facade was preserved, and the bullring raised up by 400 hydraulic jacks to 4m above its original height. The style of Las Arenas is Neo-Mudéjar – a 19th-century renaissance of the architecture of the Mudéjars (Muslims allowed to remain and practice their religion in territory reconquered by Christians).

La Monumental is a fine example of neo-Mudéjar architecture.
La Monumental is a fine example of neo-Mudéjar architecture.

On the other side of the city are a couple more examples of neo-Mudéjar design, at the Arc de Triomf and, a short distance away, La Monumental – the smaller bullring that we mentioned earlier as the site of the last bullfight to take place in Catalunya. This arena is still in excellent condition and is nowadays used to host concerts, shows and cultural events.


Bull-running is an altogether different tradition to bullfighting – although it is connected as it supposedly originated with bulls being “run” from fields outside a city into the bullring for the upcoming bullfight. Local young show-offs would run amongst the bulls and over time this bravado developed into a competition between cattle herders as to who could get their bulls to the city the quickest.

Nowadays almost everyone has heard of the famous fiesta of San Fermín in Pamplona, the highest profile bull-running festival in Spain that draws thousands of visitors every year, but what many people don’t know is that similar festivals take place all over Spain – including here in Catalunya. The “running of the bulls” takes different formats in different regions and has different names accordingly. “Bous al Carrer”, “correbou” or “correbous” are some of the names it goes by in the Catalan language and events are most common in Terres de l’Ebre in Catalunya, Fornalutx in Mallorca, and in multiple locations throughout Valencia.

The festivities are typically organized by youths hoping to display their courage and, for many, the tradition is considered a masculine initiation rite to adulthood. Unfortunately, the mix of adrenalin with alcohol and drugs can lead to fatalities, and in 2022 by the time the last bull runs had ended, there were 10 deaths at bull-running events across Spain, seven of them in Valencia alone, leading to renewed calls for all such bull-related events to be scrapped. In Valencia alone, 30 individuals lost their lives at bull-running festivals between 2015 and 2022. The issue has become political too, with left-wing parties mostly in favour of the abolition of these centuries-old events, while the right typically defends bullfighting and all related festivities.

The Spanish Bull

So, bulls have been big in this part of the world going back as far as pagan times, but did you know that the iconic silhouetted bull symbol associated with Spain actually only came about in 1956 through an advertising campaign for a brand of brandy? That same bull nowadays adorns all sorts of souvenirs, from t-shirts and mugs to towels and flags, but it was originally designed for billboards by an Andalucian artist called Manolo Prieto as part of a roadside advertising campaign for a brandy from the Bodegas Osborne company, founded in Cádiz back in 1772.
Since drivers don’t have time to read a lot of text, the billboards needed to be iconic, and they needed to appeal to men especially as there were few women drivers back then, and thus was born the black, silhouetted Osborne bull (Toro de Osborne). The design didn’t include a glass or bottle, or anything to indicate what the product was, just the words “Veterano Osborne”. The first billboards were 4m tall and wooden, but by 1961 new 7m bulls were being made of sheet metal for more durability and erected on the sides of roads and highways across Spain. In 1962, new laws required advertising billboards to be at least 20m from the side of a road, and so the Osborne bulls grew in size to 14m. Later, more laws were passed restricting the advertising of alcohol, so the Toro de Osborne became larger again and all words were removed, but, by then, the silhouette had already become so iconic that the brand name was no longer necessary. In 1994 another crackdown on roadside billboards meant that the, by now, over 500 Toros de Osborne faced being pulled down, but public outcry and a “Save the Bulls” campaign convinced the government to make an exception, recognizing them as items of cultural heritage.

The flip side to this decision was that the Osborne bull was officially entered into the public domain. When, in 2005, the Osbourne Group took a case against a number of souvenir manufacturers that had been adding the bull to a range of products, thus violating Osborne’s copyright, the court’s decision was that the symbol was now national property, and could be used and recreated by anyone. The judge said the bull “has been converted into a national symbol that can be used without the company’s permission and is an artistic heritage that belongs to the Spanish people, integrated into the countryside”.
Although the Osborne Group lost the copyright, the Toro de Osborne is one of the most important and distinctive Spanish designs ever and is forever associated with their brand. Around 90 of the original 500 bulls remain on Spanish hillsides today, with only two of them, both in Cádiz, still bearing the Osborne name.

The Catalan Donkey

Given that the Toro de Osborne is such an iconic symbol of Spain and all things Spanish, it’s not all that surprising that there are none still standing in Catalunya, with several incidences of vandalism against the bulls by both Catalan and Basque separatists having been recorded. In 2003, a couple of Catalan friends came up with an alternative and satirical reaction to the Spanish bull car stickers that they were seeing all over (the rest of) Spain: the ruc català, or Catalan donkey.

The ruc català is a species of donkey, about 1.5m in height, native to the region and found nowhere else in the world. Typically black or brown, with a white circle around the eyes, white nose and belly, they are known for being solid and yet agile, but also quite stubborn – traits that the creators felt embodied the Catalan people themselves. The Catalan donkey is strong-willed and persistent, but peaceful – adjectives that could also be used to describe the Catalan independence movement.

At first, only 50 Catalan donkey car stickers were made, but, due to their popularity, they were soon being produced on a much larger scale. Not everyone gets the satire though and some see the donkey as a weak symbol compared to the Spanish bull. Others see it as nothing more than a way of ridiculing what they see as a symbol of machismo, the Spanish bull.

The ruc català, or Catalan donkey, has become a satirical symbol of Catalunya.
The ruc català, or Catalan donkey, has become a satirical symbol of Catalunya.


In the Basque Country, by the way, where some of the Osborne Bulls were knocked down, the perpetrators put up billboards of Basque sheep instead. We’re not sure if they’ve gone into the bumper sticker business yet though!


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