The festival's origins are not clear. When certain relics of the saint were brought back to Pamplona in 1196, the city decided to mark the occasion with an annual event. Over the centuries, the saint's festival, the ancient annual fair and the running of the bulls and subserquent bullfights have all melded together.
Archives document the bull runs only as far back as the late fourteenth century, but even if one does not know that the bull is a sacred animal in the Mediterranean world, or is unaware of the bull-dancers in Minoan frescos, an unprejudiced outsider still may detect the remnants of an ancient pre-Christian ritual. At Pamplona the martyrdom of Saint Fermin who was martyred at Amiens, is now sometimes said to have met his end by being dragged through the streets of Pamplona by bulls. Up to the 15th century, the festival was held on Saint Fermin's feast day, September 25. The Pamplona fiesta was transferred to July in 1591.
The Encierro involves running in front of bulls down an 825-metre stretch of cobbled streets of a section of the old town of Pamplona. The biggest day is 7 July, when people in their thousands accompany the effigy of Saint Fermin along the streets of Pamplona, accompanied dancing and street entertainers, such as carnival giants.
Each morning's event starts at 8 A.M. Competitors are clad in white, with a red handkerchief tied about their necks. The racers gather in an area beneath a church, where they sing three times an ode to Saint Fermin:
The fiesta begins with the letting off of a rocket, an event known as the “Chupinazo”. A firecracker announces the release of the bulls from their corral, and a second firecracker advises that the last bull has left the corral.
The event is dangerous. Since 1924, 14 people have been killed (the most recent, a 22-year-old American in 1995), and 200 have been injured. Most injuries nowadays, however, are caused by the stampede of participants seeking to run from the powerful bulls. The organisers release multi-lingual guides (with safety tips) to running the event: it is strongly recommended that this be read beforehand.
It must be said that in more recent years, beginning with the publication of Ernest Hemingway's novel in 1926 about the event called The Sun Also Rises, a large percentage of runners are tourists. Tourists have made the event much more dangerous due to them lacking the understanding and skill needed to run safely in the Encierro.
Stray bulls become extremely agitated (they are herd animals who do not like to be separated from the pack), and so the organisers arrange for a "second wave" of calmer and older steers to run through the streets after the "first wave," on order to collect any stragglers. The shops and residences along the course are boarded up to prevent damage by either bull or human during the race. One particular stretch of the course, called Mercaderes, is particularly notorious for injuries: on rainy days the bulls cannot turn well on the cobblestones, and often collide into the wall; Tear marks from the sharpened horns against the pulp wood barriers give an indication as to the events of days before. While locals are always keen to avoid this corner, it is not uncommon to see tourists getting trampled and serioulsy injured there.
The course concludes at Pamplona's Plaza de Toros (bullfighting stadium), and the bulls are herded inside the Corralillos to participate in the afternoon's Corrida.
The participants of the Encierro are left in the stadium, and smaller bulls (with wrapped horns) are released into the arena and toss the participants, to the general amusement of the crowd. Once all of the bulls have entered the stadium a third rocket is released while a fourth firecracker indicates that the bulls are in their bullpens and the run has concluded.
At night, the town erupts into an enormous party, and the thousands of tourists find themselves asleep in parks. The Comparsa de Gigantes (Company of Giants) parade the streets— enormous puppets accompanied by brass bands. The streets are filled with drunken revellers. The city hall is offered by the town as a storage facility for backpackers' gear.
After nine days of partying, the people of Pamplona meet in the Plaza Consistorial at midnight on July 14, singing the traditional mournful notes of the "Pobre de Mí” ('Poor Me'), in a magical, candlelit ending Nowadays on the 15th of the month, after the fiesta is over, some diehards assemble once more at 7 a.m. and run one last time, pursued this last time by the early-morning commuter bus.