Mysteries of the bull

Dear Poseidon,

This year’s vigil is at an end.  All that remains is to print out the rituals and hymns to preserve in my book of practice.  All that’s physical, at least.  There is much I need to ponder, as well.

I know you exposed me to some of your mysteries.  For a writer, that’s not difficult to discern; I tried writing down what you taught me, and then I tried to make sense of the words after the fact.  Curiously, while I recognize that nothing coherent can be made of what I scrawled upon the page, that gibberish rekindles the fire you lit in my mind.  The full understanding washes over me, triggered but not described by the letters I penned in the moment.  Perhaps that was the purpose of the ear of corn to initiates of Eleusis.

Not all you revealed slips entirely free of language.  I now have some inkling of your consort Posedeia, and recognize that her being all-but-forgotten may have been by design.  Others may know something of she who was lost to history, or the impossible child which she did — and did not — bear you.

[Michelle Young.]

Frankly, I expected none of this.  This is the Vigil for the Bulls, after all, and bulls are about which I was prepared to ponder.  On that topic, I am gobsmacked.

Well I know the myth of the Tauros Kretaios, the magnificent bull which Minos asked of you to ensure his kingship.  Had he but sacrificed it as he was expected, many significant events would never have been spun out by the Moirae.  Now I hold a new version of that tale in my head, one which adds depth to Minos’ betrayal, and a bittersweet dimension to all which resulted from his desire to own that beast, rather than cede it back to you.

I was led to believe that this is a vigil at the intersection of politics and practice, an opportunity to bear witness to the grief you feel over the terrible choices humans have made.  I did not understand that joining a god in grief opens pathways to other regrets.  I did not understand that to share your sorrow is to bear my own.  I did not understand that I might gain from this service.

The ocean is heavy, and the earth heavier still.  Never could I bear the full weight you carry, Poseidon; Atlas himself might shy from that burden.  That you allowed me to even glimpse the scope of what is upon your vast shoulders is both an honor and a challenge.  I pray I am worthy of both.

Your humble priest,

Offering of the bull

I’ve been preparing for the Vigil for the Bulls for about ten months now, as compared to the week or two I’ve invested in years past.  I already know the vigil will have far-reaching consequences in my life.

Even as I was wrapping up last year’s vigil, I had a sense that I wanted to offer something more than my time, my energy, wine and incense.  A couple of months later I hit upon the perfect thing:  a bull.

a wooden model approximating a bull skeleton standing before a large, blue-bound book emblazoned with a trident

Book and bull.

Part of why I sit this vigil is because of the senseless spectacle of death which takes place in Pamplona each day after the bull run.  These are animals being chased through a screaming crowd to the corral from which they will face near certain death in the bullfighting ring.  It is essentially the opposite of the purpose sacrifice fills.

Sacrificing a bull in an ancient Hellenic city-state meant that there was a lot of meat passed around, mostly to people who didn’t get much of it.  The meat from a bullfighting victim is sold to high-end restaurants, and commands a premium price because of its rarity.  Moreover sacrifice is an offering — a big one — which is all about the gods.  Bull running and fighting is a spectacle designed to celebrate danger, violence, and bloodshed, and which is all about the people.  If a god dwells in those temples, the participants seem unaware.  Certainly no god is being given a share of these deaths.

These other bulls meet there end in a way which is anything but holy. By making a votive offering of a bull during the vigil, I stand for a right relationship with the gods, as well as with these animals and other beings.  Yes, the bull and I hang from the same food chain, but as an animist I seek a more respectful relationship, even with those beings I must eat.

This will be an offering that stands counter not only to bullfights, but to factory farms, and the unnatural disconnection from that food chain their presence has fostered.  When I burn it has yet to be determined; I’ll be staying in a hotel the last couple of nights of the vigil, and setting midnight fires in the courtyard might be frowned upon.

Taking the vigil by the horns

Even a year ago, I knew that I would be performing the Vigil for the Bulls again.  This was the first observance I performed in my home temple, as part of my studies to become Poseidon’s priest, and I internalized the vigil as part of my own liturgical year, blending with the celebrations proscribed by my temple as well as festivals uniquely my own.

There are lessons learned by doing deep work again and again.  Going into it this year I was reminded that there are some Poseidon devotees who believe the running of the bulls, and subsequent bull fights, to be exciting or thrilling.  I cannot say that someone who feels this way is doing it wrong; I don’t know that they are.  What I do know is that this vigil focuses on the fear and death which descend upon those bulls each day, meaning that it may not be a good fit for someone who is a fan of the whole bullfighting scene.

On the other hand, it’s not beyond rationale thought to imagine this vigil, if followed by such an individual, might not change how they see the world.  All I can say for certain is that Poseidon was pleased that I joined him last year.  Even as a temple priest who is sometimes sought out for counsel, I can’t presume to guide someone based solely on my experience of Poseidon.  He is vast as the ocean, with moods as varied as all the fish which swim.  He may well have need of people who think quite differently than I do in order to complete his work.

That’s something for me to sit with as a priest.  I recognized something else last night, something I don’t recall from last year at all:  the weight of the grief.  It’s really too much to bear, and I admit I started to distract myself to get out from under it all.  A year ago I think I was more focused on the split-shift sleeping pattern I use to make the vigil possible:  down for a nap, awake just before 2 a.m. to do the work, then back to sleep for the rest of the night.  It would be a lot easier in Hawaii, but then again, being able to afford to live in Hawaii would have a lot of other benefits, too.

Off to bed.  This vigil won’t sit itself.

It ends

It ends in the light
once the last bull has run
through the gates of the ring
where the killing is done.

Great Poseidon, we mourn!
Sacred beasts, all mistreated
have been dispatched from this realm
in the end, all defeated.

We remember the light
and soul in their eyes
and the unanswered question
we can quickly surmise.

The vigil is over,
but the need is not sated.
For the bulls, for Poseidon,
We stand witness unabated.

I determined to observe the Vigil for the Bulls, and I made it out the other end.  What shape I’m in has not yet been determined.  Yesterday I thought it was today, and today I thought it was tomorrow, so it’s possible I either lost or gained a day somewhere along the line.  Once I catch up with myself, it will be easier to assess my condition.

During the time of the vigil, out in the world, a lot of people were gored by bulls, including a matador in another part of Spain who was killed.  During that same period of time, 48 bulls were run through the streets, then exhausted, tormented, and stabbed into submission until they were finally killed in a display of machismo that many Spaniards oppose passing on to the next generation, and 73% of Mexicans oppose.  During the vigil, I chose to look at this specific cruelty, rather than look away.  There is so much pain and suffering and injustice in the world, that it can be easier to turn aside rather than to let it all in.  This one, this time, I let it in.

During the time of the vigil, as is all-too-common during this festival, sexual assaults skyrocketed in the 24-hour party atmosphere.  During the vigil, while I did not feel able to fast, I practice abstinence, which was my personal counterpoint to the abandon with which some men threw themselves into the role of predator.


During the time of the vigil, the bull market in stocks passed a record, now second only to the one that ended in 2000.  One thing that ties bull markets together is the sense that they will never end, and to the fevered investors seem harbinger of a new economy where the rules are different; they always, in the end, are proven wrong.  During the vigil, eyes barely focused on the page I scrawled down the idea that the running — and the fighting — of the bulls is an act of hubris, for instead of reserving the first portion for the gods as it proper for a sacrifice, the entire life essence is sucked out to test the manhood (always, it seems, the manhood) of the human participants, who ignore the simple fact that with odds so stacked in their favor no possible honor or glory can come of such brutality.

I know Taureos better than I ever have before, and I also have a better understanding of the kthonic aspects of Poseidon:  Psychopompos and Kthonios.  In some ways, I have always known these aspects of his, but at the same time they are entirely new.  The sea gives life, and the sea takes life back into itself.  Such it is, such it ever shall be.

The only thing of which I am confident is that these pieces will come together in due course, even if it requires sitting vigil for the bulls again.  Tomorrow, I need ot redo the temple to lift that which descended upon it, but tonight I shall, for hte first time in over a week, be free to sleep through the night.

Vigil, interrupted

Today’s personal observation about the Vigil for the Bulls:  I find myself reflecting upon my personal experience as I review news reports from Pamplona, and there seems to be a relationship.  I hit a situation that blocked me from observing yesterday (July 11), and the spate of stories about gored runners and matadors in Pamplona and elsewhere around Spain seemed to stop.  I was back at it overnight, and now the news is of sexual assaults.


It is unfortunately nothing new that women expect to be groped during the St Fermin festival, and that shameful truth exposes how broken the practice has become.  Bulls are and have been celebrated as an expression of masculinity, but that’s been twisted into shameful and heinous acts against the unsuspecting.  How can we abuse these symbols of virility and not expect it to have an effect?  This can be metaphysical, but it also can be psychological:  in the festival atmosphere where one tests one’s mettle against an uber-masculine animal, it might not be such a large step for some men to try expressing their man-selves with their man-bits.

There are no occasions upon which rape, sexual assault, or any sort of non-consensual sexual contact are acceptable.  These types of things happen in many other places and many other times, but I am particularly unsurprised that they happen during a festival which abuses the sacred relationship between human and bull.  The entire situation is broken, and Poseidon is surely not the only bull god who takes a dim view of the proceedings.  I’m looking at you, Dionysos Taurophagos.  These depredations are simply another aspect of the festival that I am now being asked to focus on during the vigil: miasmic sexual energies.

I knew this might be difficult, but I didn’t expect it to be filthy.

Is this real life?

To be fair, I never paid much attention to the running of the bulls before.  I remember learning some time ago that, despite the dramatic pictures, there are only six bulls involved in each run; the danger to humans is in fact quite overrated if one considers the sheer number of them in the streets.  I didn’t even know that it was associated with bull “fighting” until a year ago.  That’s why I have to wonder if it’s really always such a violent time.

Quick, run! Here come the bulls!

Two more men were gored as the vigil continued overnight, and a bull killed a matador in Teruel, the first such death in 31 years.  (None of the reports I’ve read indicate if the audience threw flowers to the bull on occasion of his victory, but somehow I doubt it.)

So far as I know, my participation in the vigil this year doubles our number, and frankly I wonder if that has anything to do with it.  I definitely don’t think I’m all that, but maybe Poseidon is getting juiced that this issue is getting more sacred attention.

In addition to writing blog posts — something which I am actually a bit surprised to find time for — I’ve been writing more hymns.  A new one to Poseidon Kthonios came out, for honoring the dead bulls not sacrificed, as well as all the other dead which he claims.  No interest in debating if Poseidon could even possibly have a kthonic aspect or if that’s just his brother; the answer is definitely “yes” to that.

The circles that I have noted as emanating outwards are also bouncing back within, and they are threatening to shake things loose, break walls down, tear barriers apart, likely to mold me again when the process is complete.  This is a surprisingly emotional experience for me, because it’s stripping away those protective layers of “don’t want to think about it” which protect me from the pain all around.  I’m not a bleeding heart environmentalist any longer because I hardened my heart to suffering that’s not in my face.  Sure, I recycle and compost more than most and I recycle far more than most people would be bothered to, but when I allow myself to feel what we collectively do to the denizens of this world, the sadness and anger tend to make me . . . let’s call it “anti-social.”  Shielding that sensitive part of me allows me to function and move forward in my own small way towards a planet that is populated by compassionate beings that don’t bring suffering to all of their neighbors.

I may have to find another way, because there’s four more nights of this ahead, and I don’t know what there is of me that isn’t going to get swept away.

It’s not just bull

Sitting vigil last night, I lingered on the final stanza of the hymn I wrote to Poseidon Taureos:

All who feast upon the meat
or profit from the sale
or leverage the strength
or dance between the horns
or flee the trampling hoof
or seek freedom ‘pon its back
owe you a debt Zeus himself cannot forgive.

A debt is owed to the bull.  A debt is owed to all the bulls.  A debt is owed to the cattle.  A debt is owed to all of the animals.  A debt is owed to all that lives.

Peruvian matador Andres Roca Rey is gored by a Fuente Ymbro’s bull. [Getty]

Even as this vigil unfolds for me, violence explodes in Pamplona and well beyond.  People getting injured in the running and the subsequent bullfights there, and one man dying during another bull run, are but the first circle.  In my own country, there has been a resurgence of reports of black men being killed by police, followed by a retaliatory attack that left fiver officers dead and seven others injured.  American troops will not be pulling out of Afghanistan this year, extending the country’s longest-ever war; meanwhile the war in Syria continues to lead to refugees, bombed hospitals, and terrorist attacks throughout Eurasia.

We owe a debt to those who die.  We owe them the assurance that their deaths are not without purpose.  We owe them a guarantee that those who kill will answer for their deeds.  We owe them a system to prevent unwelcome death, honor necessary death, and remember all the dead.

No bull should die in fear to test the mettle of a matador.  No black man should die by a bullet because a police officer’s fear overcame training.  No officer should die because distant colleagues act from fear or hate.  No observant Muslim should die simply because he offered to break fast with a stranger.  No death should ever be brought lightly, and without respect for the fundamental sacredness embodied by all life.