Flying men – the Voladores de Papantla
Humans have always dreamt of flying for centuries but it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that the Totonac Indians of Papantla, Veracruz, have been doing so for well over a thousand years. They are well-known for their daring feat of launching themselves backwards off a tall pole with just a rope tied around their waist or their ankle. They are the “Voladores de Papantla”. But there is a whole ritual behind this performance which we discovered the other day when we went to photograph them where they perform daily near the Museo Nacional de Antropología.
Voladores de Papantla performing their flying ritual
First things first, this group of Voladores spend two months here in the City and then return to their home town in Veracruz while other members of the group take their turn for the next two months. They have families back home so this helps them continue to have some kind of family life while they do their best to promote this ancient pre-Hispanic tradition of which they are very proud. They are not trained acrobats. Most have small farming holdings where they grow their corn and beans.
The five members of the group
Perhaps what most stands out is their attire…. bright red and white clothes, with beaded designs of birds and flowers, a small cup-like cap covered in plastic flowers and a multicolored crest representing the rainbow and mirrors representing the sun’s rays. Long streamers hang down from the cap. The bottoms of their trousers are decorated with horizontal strips of colorful patterns and all wear black shoes. They are not only brave fliers, but also craftsmen, for each one has made his own unique beaded design.
The headdresses with flowers, mirrors, a crest and streamers
Beautiful design made with beads
The performance of the dance begins at the bottom of the 32m-high pole (about 100 ft), which incidentally has no safety net below it. The five men, four fliers and one musician who plays a small flute and beats a tiny drum, stamp their feet and circle the pole. Then one by one they climb to the top. That in itself would be a daring feat. You can see the pole dizzily swinging from side to side. At the top the musician sits (or in some cases, stands) in the middle of the square at the top while the four fliers begin tying themselves to the rope and twisting it around.
About to climb up the 32 m high pole (over 100 ft)
The musician playing his tiny flute and drum
This ritual dance has its origins in a legend which differs slightly from place to place but all involve men performing the dance for the god of the universe. Some say it’s a fertility dance, for the crops to grow. Others for rain. The tall slender pole represents the connection between heaven, earth and the underworld. The four fliers represent the four elements – (earth, air, fire and water), the four cardinal points (north, south, east and west) and the four seasons.
When they are ready, the musician starts playing a haunting tune on his flute and drum and greets each of the four corners, and then the four fliers tip backwards and start to drift down to the ground. They fly gracefully round in ever-widening circles, head-first with the streamers flying from their cap, with the rope tied to their ankle or waist, exactly 13 times. Why 13? Because 4 x 13 (four fliers, 13 circles) = 52, which is the calendar cycle of these people. And when they are about to land on the ground, they turn themselves the right way up and the ritual dance has been completed. The favor of the gods has been invoked once again.
Launching themselves off and circling the pole
On this particular occasion, the musician was also one of the four fliers
About to come down to the ground level
We asked the head of the group to explain a bit more to us, which he kindly did. He himself learned the dance from his father so we asked about his family.
- Do you have any children to carry on the tradition?
Yes, my son is 17. He started flying when he was 10. It takes years to learn.
- Wasn’t it scary as a father to see your young son launch himself off the top of the pole?
Very scary, but after a while I got used to it.
- Does your son perform here in Mexico City?
No, he’s still studying at school. We want him to get an education first. He comes only if he has a holiday.
- You have to be very brave to climb up there. Have there been any accidents in Mexico City?
Fortunately, we have never had a single accident here. We take great care.
- Are there any women fliers in Mexico?
There used to be one group but they had an accident so they stopped.
Ritual dance preceding the flying part
So, next time you watch the brave Voladores de Papantla performing their risky ritual, you will understand a bit more what it’s all about. And give them a generous tip. They are the ones who are preserving pre-Hispanic tradition, now considered World Heritage, and making sure the next generation carries on the ritual.