At the Cockfight
“For it is only apparently cocks that are fighting there. Actually, it is men.”
-Clifford Geertz, Notes on the Balinese Cockfight
Men cheer, birds squeal, and the evanescent smell of blood permeates the squalid air as the last glimmers of life are stoked out of an uncomprehending, instinctual ruined rooster. I am at a cockfight in Honduras, and the mania of men in cowboy hats and shiny boots battling their cocks in public is almost too much metaphor for my humor to bear. It is too real to be funny.
The men run, jump, and scream as their prize cocks peck and spur each other to death in fits of animal frenzy. The men too, become beast as their murderous howls cheer on the glorious victories of the winners, and their sorrowful wails accompany the dying breathes of the losers. Some cheer, some weep, but the money is always exchanged with the cold face of a better. A cockfight is a life or death battle that strikes the cords – which resonate to an astonishing volume – of some buried, primal human urge:
“The madness has some less visable dimensions, however, because although it is true that cocks are symbolic expressions or magnifications of their owner’s self, the narcissistic male ego writ out in Aesopian terms, they are also expressions – and rather more immediate ones – of what the Balinese regard as the direct inversion, aesthetically, morally, and metaphysically, of human status: animality.”
-Clifford Geertz, Notes on the Balinese Cockfight
Perhaps the cockfight is the great un-doer of man’s acculturation. But the men seem to enjoy the raw stripping down of their outer social layers and leaving their masculine components stark naked. Men are never more men than at a cockfight. It is said that it is culture alone that is the very thin line which separates the men from the cocks. But I think men would be more comfortable without it. The roosters do the deeds for man egos, they show us who is up and who is down. . . and they are cheaper than a sports car.
The cockfight makes us beast again. It certainly seemed this way as I stood up against the crowded ring. I found that I, too, was sucked up into the excitement of the fight. Beating wings and shanked off feathers and dust making clouds in the air. For some reason this combat excited me. The dire yells and screams that came from all directions momentarily awakened a singular strain of madness within me. I felt animal again.
A couple of American girls who seemed to harbor rather politically correct leanings walked into this melee of cocks and death. For all of the leanings of their moral compasses, they could not suppress their curiosity, and came to the cockfight knowing exactly what to expect. They were proved correct: cockfights are full of cocks. But perhaps, they too, wanted to watch something get hacked to death among blood curling woops and wails. But the first match quickly sickened their sensibilities, or perhaps their interest in such a vile event arose a sense of fear within them, and they left the ring. “We had our experience,” they spoke as they made their hasty retreat. I also knew that I was there for the experience alone. After watching the first rooster get torn to pieces and admitting defeat with a deathly lowering of his head, I knew that this blood-sport was but a novelty for me. It was something that I would not need to watch again.
So I figured that I would stay and watched the fights into the afternoon in order to make the best of the novel experience. I also paid a whopping $5.50 to get in, and was determined to get my money’s worth. I did.
I watched as two cocks, who were previously weighted and classed, were chosen from the kennels. These bold gladiator birds went to the ring without hesitation. I could only wonder if they could sense what was to come. The bets were now collected, and the men settled into their positions around the crowded ring. They seemed to be more nervous than the roosters who would soon be ripping each other limb from limb. Three inch razor sharp spurs were then attached to the legs of the roosters. These Hondurans, like cockfight enthusiasts the world over, seem to find excitement in the swiftness of mortality that the artificial spur allows. The cocks were then angered and otherwise prepped to fight by their handlers: who would blow on them, ruffle their feathers, pull their tails, and hold them within striking range of other roosters. This raises the plume of these Shanghai cocks sufficiently enough to kill, and they are now ready to fight.
The cocks were then taken to opposite sides of the ring, as it was left vacant except for the two handlers, two roosters, and a judge. There was not a sound anywhere around the ring. A bell goes off. As the tenseness of the moment was broken the roosters charge into combat. Spectators cooed with excitement. The cocks, spurring each other out of instinctual rage, did battle in the unescapable enclosure. This was a fight to the death. The only way for a cock to win is if it kills its opponent dead. As Clifford Gertz wrote:
“In the cockfight, man and beast, good and evil, ego and id, the creative power of aroused masculinity and the destructive power of loosened animality fuse in a bloody drama of hatred, cruelty, violence, and death.”
After a few bloody rounds a winner, or rather a loser – as both birds are usually battered beyond recognition – emerges. A once erect, proud, and vociferous cock now sits spent in a pile of blood and discordant feathers. The “winner” hobbles dizzily over his slain foe a moment before its handler picks it up with a cheer. The razor spurs racked injuries to both combatants, but only one was lucky enough to have been the dealer of the fatal blow. He was carried off as an unknowing hero amid a chorus of incomprehensible cheers. The ring is washed with bloody water, and two more cocks are chosen, another round of bets are cast, and two more sets of spurs are attached.
A nervous crowd pushes in close to the ring, a bell sounds, and men agan transform themselves into cocks.
An over-worn double entendre would not do.
Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
Copan Ruinas, Honduras
March 19, 2008