In pre-hispanic Mexico, cultures interacted with gods, their cosmogony was a main root on how they lived their lives; being such spiritual people their way of communication with the gods was very sacred and important.
Named as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the world by UNESCO, the ritual known in spanish as “Los Voladores de Papantla” is still performed by many groups and communities throughout Mexico.
The Legend begins in the middle region of Mexico with the Nahuas, Huastecos and Otomíes, eventually it gained it’s popularity in the southern and eastern region between the Totonacas and the region of Papantla, therefore the name given in actuality.
Around 1,500 years ago, central Mexico was facing a serious period of drought and a group of brave men set out on a quest to give an offering to the gods that would make it rain, they believed that by performing rituals, and though art, dance and music, the gods that were always watching, would get their message.
They set out to look for the perfect tree, a tree that would be strong and tall enough to get them closer to the gods, they cut it to bring it home, they disposed of the branches, leaving only the log and planting it in the ground.
In the beginning of the ritual, 5 men climbed the tree (approx. 160 ft tall), dressing themselves with wings and feathers to appear bird like.
While the men climbed the tree, a ritual of music with flute and drums was trying to emulate the sound of birds, once on top of the tree, the melody kept rising to get the gods’ attention.
For a moment the music stopped and then it started again with more intensity and a faster rhythm. While one man standing on the top of the tree (the priest), played the sacred melodies, the 4 remaining men began their descent. They threw themselves into the air face down, tied with ropes to their waists, moving their wings, offering this sign of respect for life, for nature and the skies.
These men risked their lives for an opportunity of fertile crops and new life for their people. During the descent, each man flew around the tree 13 times.
13 times per men made out the sacred number 52, meaning that the group had created a dance with 52 circles around the tree.
In the mayan calendar 52 is the number of years that make up a solar cycle, each year has 52 weeks, after which a new sun is born, therefore a new life on Earth is born.
After the descent was over, the rain followed and gave away a very prosperous crop season. In exchange the people started performing this offering every year.
This is why this particular ritual is also associated with fertility, the fertility of the Earth and therefore the beginning of all life and it also explains why it was one of the most important and sacred rituals amongst the Totonacas (a matriarchal society).
Nowadays, in many indigenous communities in Mexico, it’s still a sacred ritual of such importance, that a school has been instituted to train young ones and prepare them to perform this ceremony.
Although today it is also performed in other parts of Mexico outside the indigenous communities like cities and beaches, the ritual is still performed pretty much in the same way.
Now the flying men wear an ethnic costume; the bright red color, is a symbol of the blood for all the men that have fallen performing the ritual, and their hats are a way to represent the original costumes of birds, they are like a crest or a tail with vibrant colors of Guacamayas or Quetzales.
Although today the ritual in cities is a representation and a way to teach tourists about mexican culture, in the remaining indigenous communities where they don’t even speak spanish, the ritual is still perfumed with the same sacred nature to ask for a prosperous season and to renew life on Earth.
Photos of “Los Voladores” in Playa del Carmen, México, Feb, 2013