Each day on the Malecón in downtown Vallarta a colorful ritual takes place, the Flying bird-men of Papantla. Colorful, spectacular, dangerous, but there's so much more beyond what you can see, there are centuries of tradition, prehispanic Gods. Learn more about this event, considered to be one, if not, the oldest in Mexico.
To fly, the sweet dream for all mortals, is an ancient reality for the Flying Totonac dancers of Papantla, a small town in northern Veracruz, on the Mexican Gulf of Mexico coast.
To be a macaw, an owl, a crow, a butterfly or an eagle is a privilege for the few men who from time immemorial have celebrated their gods in this spectacular dance filled with ancient civilization symbolism, in what some experts consider the most ancient ritual dance in all of Mexico.
A dance, a prayer
The Ritual of the Papantla Bird-Men was created with a very specific purpose: to offer their gratitude to Chi'chini (the Sun God), Xipe Totec (God of Spring & Fertility) & to Tlaloc (Rain God). It is much a dance as it is a prayer, a ritual expression of love for the Earth, its bounty and its natural forces.
Initially, the ceremony was held during the spring equinox, in the third week of March, but with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors & missionaries, the natives were forced into a religious compromise, so the dance was transformed and integrated into the Roman Catholic Corpus Christi celebration, held during the first week of June.
Ritual preparation begins long before the actual Papantla Bird-Men event, with a ceremony called the planting of the pole. A few days before, the dancers begin to abandon all worldly pleasures, then, with a clean spirit and body, they can begin to search for the ideal tree. Only three native tree species, all of which are currently on the list of threatened species, are considered suitable for this ritual. Two of them are known as flying pole trees and are especially prized as they are very tough, have hardwood and also because they grow very straight, reaching heights of around 130 ft, all of these are essential qualities if they're to withstand the weight of the five ritual dancers.
As the tree is cut, a high priest, called caporal, plays on his reed flute, or puscol, and his small drum, or litlaqni. This music follows each strike of the ax. During the ceremony, these 2 small instruments represent the Sun God's voice asking Quihuikolo, Lord of the Mountains, to forgive them for killing one of his children.
Inside the hole dug out in the earth, where the pole will be planted, the priest makes an offering of one black hen, seven eggs, sugar cane firewater, plus a handful of tobacco. He implores the Gods for abundant crops and rich harvest soil and lands. This offer is also made to appease Quihuikolo for the sacrifice of his child, the tree, lest he takes the life of a dancer in revenge.
Before planting the pole, the tree's bark is removed and the pole is corseted or covered with a rope wrapped tightly around it, with space enough to offer foot and handholds. The upper end of the pole is then prepared by placing an apple and a pixtla, the small wooden base on which the dancers to rest their feet while sitting on the frame. The apple is a circle made of wood, it is attached to the top of the pole and is what makes the frame spin. The Caporal, considered the Sun's priest, will be dancing on top of the pole, sixty feet above the ground. When the pole is planted, the spinning mechanism, or frame, is placed on top, forming a platform that'll be used by the 4 birdmen on their flight.
Climb up to the sun & the fly, fly
After some ritual dance blessing their flight, the five Papantla bird dancers, walking in solemn procession, they approach and then climb the pole, groping for footing and handles in the narrow folds of rope around the pole. A sense of fear tinged with reverence in the air, an atmosphere of danger and respect for the ritual that's being consummated.
Dancers' colorful costumes are decorated with intricate and beautiful symbols. Red representing the sun's heart, the semi-circles on the chest and back are the feathers that in the past covered all the bird-man's body on their ritual flight, embroidered flowers and plants honour the spring season, small mirrors reflect the sun's rays, while the bright colored trailing ribbons evoke rainbows and their glory.
One by one, the dancers climb the pole approaching Chi'chini, the Sun God. When they reach the summit, the Flyers take their positions, the four cardinal points that also represent the four elements. Flute and drum music begins to sound: The Caporal, which stands on the top of the apple is now playing his instruments while performing complicated and dangerous spins in all directions following the Earth's rotation, which represents the Sun shining down on Earth. His leaps and whirls become frantic and evermore risky, and the pole becomes the mystic center where his spirit and Chi'chini have become one. Almost without us realizing it, the other four men jumped head first into the void. Their feet tied to the haunting melody of "Son del Vuelo" (the Flight Song). The Papantla Bird-men arms stretched out on their sides like wings are now rushing and circling through the air.
During their flight, they look like birds spinning round and round in honor of the Gods of Sun and Rain. Slow turning them down to Earth, staying in the air only until all of them have spun the magical number of thirteen spins, fifty-two in total, that represents the number of weeks in a year and the years in their prehispanic cosmic cycle. Flyers softly land on their feet, the Caporal climbs down a rope in a firm grip on the ground by one of his companions, his body seems to float as he holds on the rope only with his arms and abdomen, an act that requires great concentration and also stamina. The bird-men have become mortals once again.
Very close to the sacred pole, quiet and barely moving in the wind, is the great pinwheel frame in which the men perform huahua, a dance of gratitude and satisfaction that goes hand in hand with the flyers dance. Although not as famous, huahua is exceptionally beautiful and perhaps even more ritualistically intricate than the one before. Dancers wear their glorious Sun headdresses and still guided by the Caporal, slowly move toward the primitive wooden device. Sitting on the wheel with their torsos dangling over the edge, their bodies are the multicolored pinwheel spokes of the human whirlwind that's driven by their own weight.
This is their way of giving thanks that the ritual is completed without incidents. But first and foremost, that once again the sacred covenant between men and their gods, between man and the universe. Has been renewed.