I had caught a glimpse of these flying ‘bird men’ once in Cholula, but they had grounded by the time I got close enough to have a good look. So as you can imagine, I was very excited to see them again in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City, just as they were about to take off.
The ceremony entails five men in brightly coloured, heavily-embroidered, traditional dress climbing to the top of a tall thin pole between eighteen and forty metres high. Four of them attach ropes to their ankles and launch themselves off while the fifth stays at the top and plays a flute and drum like a snake charmer, coordinating the mesmerisingly slow and controlled pace at which the men spin around the pole as they descend to earth.
The ritual dates back to Mesoamerican culture, when it was performed widely throughout Mexico and as far south as Nicaragua. The profession was passed from father to son, and it was performed only once every fifty-two years at the change of the Aztec century. The voladores (fliers) circle thirteen times each, making fifty-two in total, which represent the fifty-two years of the Aztec ‘calendar round’. The four voladores correspond to the four cardinal directions as well as the four elements of earth, wind, rain and fire, and the fifth, the orchestrator known as the caporal, symbolises the sun.
The origin myth of this captivating and beautiful ceremony is found in a great drought in the state of Veracruz some 450 years ago, which led to villagers to seek a way of sending a message to Xipe Totec, God of Fertility, to ask for help in restoring growth and nourishment to their lands. Five Totonac men from the village of Papantla ventured into the forest to find the tallest, straightest tree. There they spent the night fasting and praying to the tree’s spirit before blessing it, cutting it down, and carrying it back to the village. They then created the fertility dance to express harmony with the natural and spiritual worlds.
The tradition was partially lost after the Spanish conquest and, despite continuing to be performed in secret, it has nevertheless undergone inevitable changes over time. It has become less important as a spiritual offering to the Gods and more about the public spectacle (the voladores request a donation from non-Totonaca onlookers), education, and preserving cultural heritage. Some women are now allowed to participate, but this continues to cause controversy in places where they adhere more strictly to the original tradition (when women’s contribution was believed to be unlucky).
In 2009, the Ritual Ceremony of the Voladores of Papantla was recognised by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage, which came with the responsibility of safeguarding the tradition and keeping it alive. The School of Volador Children was established, which teaches the Totonaca indigenous language and trains children in the art of ‘flying’ for ten to twelve years before they are ready to perform. There are now approximately six hundred voladores in Mexico; it continues to be considered by many as a lifetime vocation and primarily a tradition continued within families.
If you can’t make it to Papantla in Veracruz, where the ceremony still has a lot of meaning for the preservation of indigenous Mexican culture, it is performed each weekend outside the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. For more information from the perspective of the modern-day Totonaca Voladores, here is a really lovely three-and-a-half minute video: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24439200