The ceremony of the Voladores de Papantla is a cultural tradition of the Totonac people of Veracruz state. The tradition dates back to ancient times and has been passed down through the generations. The voladores, "fliers," sometimes called hombres pajaro, "birdmen," launch themselves from the top of a pole of up to 150 feet in height, and slowly descend circling the pole. It is a breathtaking spectacle performed at a great height.
The ritual begins with five men circling a tall pole. One of the men plays music with a flute and a small drum. They then climb the pole and position themselves on a small wooden rotating platform at the top. The man playing the music is called the caporal. He stands in the center, playing his flute and drum, and does a dance, facing each of the four cardinal directions in turn. This is one of the tensest moments for the audience, as he performs his dance standing at the top of a pole without a harness or any protection.
The platform begins to spin and the four voladores launch themselves off and begin rotating the pole upside down. They are attached by a rope around the waist, but they twist a leg in the rope to maintain an upside down position. The caporal remains at the top of the pole as the others descend. In their descent, each volador circles the pole 13 times—thirteen times for each of the four voladores, for a total of 52 rotations, representing the number of years in the Mesoamerican calendar cycle.
Legend and Symbolism of the Voladores
According to tradition, there was a severe drought in the Totonacapan area of Veracruz, and food and water became scarce, so a group of elders met to find a solution. They decided that a ceremony should be performed to ask the gods to return the rain and fertility to the soil.
They instructed some young men of the community to locate the tallest and straightest tree in the forest and bring it back to the village. So the young men set out to find the tallest tree. When they found it, they prayed and performed a ritual to the tree and then they cut it down and brought it back to the village. They stripped the tree of its leaves and branches, dug a hole to stand it upright, and blessed the site with ritual offerings.
Then they performed a ritual to the god Xipe Totec, god of agriculture and springtime, so that the rains would return and nurture the soil and their crops would flourish. The men adorned their bodies with feathers so that they would appear like birds, thereby attracting the god's attention to their request. They climbed to the top of the trunk, and with vines wrapped around their waists, they secured themselves to the trunk and launched themselves off of it, spinning in circles around the trunk.
The Symbolism of the Voladores
The four voladores who descend to the ground represent the cardinal directions, and the caporal at the top of the pole represents the fifth direction (vertical), the center of the universe. The voladores perform in honor of the elements: sun, wind, earth, and water—thus honoring the earth, the passage of time and their place in the universe.
The Costume of the Voladores
The original performers of the Voladores ceremony would have worn costumes made of real feathers, representing eagles, owls, crows, parrots, and quetzal birds, but nowadays the voladores wear bright colored costumes that recall the brightly colored birds, and the rays of the sun.
The costume of the voladores consists a white shirt and red pants trimmed in bright colors with a yellow fringe. On their heads, the voladores wear a handkerchief, over which they place a round hat with a multicolored tuft representing the head of a bird. They wear a colorful sash shaped as two semi-circles over the right shoulder, over the chest and the back, which represent the wings of the birds. The voladores wear black leather boots with a heel.
Where to See the Voladores
The Voladores performance can be viewed at many Mexican tourist sites and events. Here are a few places where the Voladores perform on a regular basis:
Voladores: Intangible Cultural World Heritage
In October 2009 the Ritual ceremony of the Voladores was chosen by UNESCO as an element of intangible cultural heritage of humanity, along with the Places of memory and living traditions of the Otomí-Chichimecas people of Tolimán. Mexico's Day of the Dead festivities is also considered part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
According to UNESCO:
"Intangible cultural heritage is the practices, expressions, knowledge and skills that communities, groups and sometimes individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. Also called living cultural heritage, it is usually expressed in one of the following forms: oral traditions; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship."
Mexico has 25 cultural and four natural sites that are on UNESCO's list of world heritage sites.