Running of the Bulls History: Uncovering the Origins


Ever since I learned about the Running of the Bulls as a high school student, I’ve been enthralled with Pamplona and the topic of cultural celebrations in general.

The annual festival of San Fermin is an adrenaline-pumping tradition with a rich and storied history that dates back centuries. While many people associate the event with the San Fermin Festival, its roots run deeper, and I’ve decided to explore the story behind this unique tradition.

As I delved into the beginnings of the Running of the Bulls, I discovered that the practice of bull-running in Europe can be traced back to at least the 13th century, with Pamplona’s event thought to have been a part of the San Fermin Festival since 1591. 

It turns out that the original purpose of running with the bulls was practical rather than a thrilling spectacle.

Spanish cattle herders needed to transport their animals from the countryside to the city centres for sale or bullfights, and running alongside the animals was an efficient way to guide them to their destination. 

The annual bull runs in Spain were surprisingly utilitarian, with no initial association with the ‘Fiestas de San Fermin‘.

While it’s unclear exactly when revellers started participating in the runs, the fact remains that Running of the Bulls in Pamplona has become a significant cultural touchstone, drawing crowds of both participants and spectators from around the world. 

Knowing the origins of this age-old tradition only adds to its allure, as it’s evolved from a humble necessity to a renowned, daring spectacle.

After learning about its history, read our full guide on the Running of the Bulls.

🌱 Origin and History

Ancient Roots

The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, has its origins in a religious ceremony, and it started as a way to commemorate the martyrdom of San Fermín in the 12th-century, eventually the running was integrated into the Festival of San Fermin, which began in 1591.

In the early years, cattle herders used to race in front of the bulls to guide them to their pens or ring before the festival began.

It’s unclear when exactly the general public became involved in the runs, but the story goes that during the 18th century, spectators began running with the animals. However, that’s an unofficial story.

Modern Development

As the spectacle gained popularity, the event started to attract a global audience, and the festival grew to its present-day scale of nearly a million visitors. 

The San Fermin Festival now spans nine days in July each year and features a variety of activities beyond the bull runs, such as concerts, fireworks, and traditional dances. 

The bull runs themselves occur each morning, with participants racing down an 825-meter course through Pamplona’s narrow streets, chased by six bulls.

While it remains an important tradition in Pamplona and for many people around the world, it has faced increasing controversy, and there are calls for a ban due to concerns over cruelty to the bulls, and the danger posed to participants

Over the years, many people have been injured, and some have even died participating in the bull runs.

Despite this controversy, the Running of the Bulls continues to be a significant event in Spain and a worldwide attraction.

🐂 The Event

Pamplona’s San Fermín Festival

Bull running itself began in northeastern Spain in the early 14th century as a practical solution for cattle herders to transport animals from the countryside into city centres for sale or bullfights. 

The event later became a part of the annual Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain, where participating runners demonstrate their bravery by dodging the angry bulls en route to the city centre.

The Pamplona Running of the Bulls is held every year from July 7th to July 14th during the week-long Fiesta de San Fermín. 

It involves releasing six bulls into the cobblestone streets of the city, corralled to the local bullring. The tradition has become famous worldwide, attracting daredevils from all corners of the globe. Learn about the practical side in our guide on how to run with the bulls in Pamplona.

Other Locations

While the Running of the Bulls is most famous in Pamplona, similar events can be found in other locations across Spain and Portugal, mimicking the original practice of cattle herders. Some notable events include:

  • Bous al carrer: This event takes place in the Valencian Community in Spain, involving bulls running through the streets, often accompanied by fireworks.
  • The Azpeitia Bull Run: Held in the Basque Country of Spain, this event occurs during the festival of San Ignacio and includes bull runs through narrow streets.
  • Moita Bull Run: This Portuguese bull run happens during the annual Village Festivities of Moita do Ribatejo.

Each of these events originates from the same practical necessity that began the tradition in Pamplona, and they continue to evolve in their cultural significance and local traditions.

🏟️ Culture and Traditions

As a centuries-old tradition, the Running of the Bulls has become an iconic representation of Spanish culture. The festival honours St. Fermin, the patron saint of Pamplona.

Costumes and Symbols

Participants and spectators alike don traditional costumes to celebrate the event. One of the most iconic symbols of the festival is the white clothing adorned with red accessories, such as scarves and belts. 

This colour combination represents the martyrdom of St. Fermin, who was allegedly dragged by bulls and beheaded as a martyr.

In addition to the red and white attire, many participants wear the faja, a sash tied around the waist, and the pañoleta, a neck scarf, symbolising the bonds of unity and camaraderie among festival-goers. 

The clothes and accessories provide a visual connection between the participants and the festival’s historical significance, enhancing the overall experience for attendees.

Other Cultural Elements

While the actual running of the bulls is the main attraction, the San Fermin Festival offers a variety of other cultural activities that showcase the vibrant nature of Spanish customs. 

Street musicians, singers, and dance performances entertain the crowds, while traditional bullfighting events take place in the afternoons. 

These additional activities contribute to the overall sense of community and cultural pride that the San Fermin Festival embodies.

💥 Economic Impact

The week-long San Fermin Festival, which includes the bull runs, swells the town’s population from 200,000 to more than a million visitors each year.

This influx of tourists brings with it a substantial boost to the local economy. As a result, hotels witness a massive surge in demand, so booking a well-located hotel early is recommended.

Restaurants, bars, and shops experience a considerable increase in customers and sales, generating significant revenue.

Local transportation services such as buses and taxis experience a notable increase in demand, as do tour operators and travel agencies.

In light of this, the fiesta also creates temporary job opportunities to cater to the increased demand. This has a trickle-down effect on the local community, as the income generated by these temporary jobs is then spent in the local economy.

Overall, the economic impact is significant, providing various benefits for Pamplona and Spain, from job opportunities to revenue generation across multiple industries.

🙋‍♂️ FAQs

Why is San Fermin celebrated in Spain?

San Fermin is celebrated in Spain to honour Saint Fermin, the co-patron of Navarre, who spread Christianity in the region during the 3rd century. The most famous event of this festival, held in Pamplona annually from July 7 to 14, is the Running of the Bulls.

Why are bulls important in Spain?

Bulls are important in Spain due to their historical and cultural significance. Bullfighting has been a traditional sport in Spain for centuries, representing a battle of man versus nature and is seen as an art form by some. Furthermore, bulls are part of many local festivals and traditions. They are also symbolic in Spanish literature and arts.