An Ancient Ritual: Los Voladores de Papantla
Remembering The Dance of the Pole Flyers Performed in Cholula, Puebla, Mexico
It was a warm afternoon at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, dozens of middle school scuttled around the sculptures while the staff tried to teach them about Mexico’s pre-Columbian heritage.
“Shhh, be quiet” said one of the teachers, allowing the guide to continue his explanation on the importance of the museum’s collection. His voice was calm and his detailed knowledge shone, as though he came from the past to vividly describe the many cultures that inhabited the Mexican Territory at different times in history.
Mesmerized by the size of the sculptures I got separated from the group and, for a few minutes, all I could hear was a reverent silence. Soon though, the sound of a mysterious drum and flute playing something I had never heard started to fill the emptiness of the gallery.
The hypnotic rhythm found me advancing toward it. When I realized that I was outside the museum, the spell was interrupted to search for a familiar face, and there it was: the face of my handsome classmate Antonio. Also captured by the music and curiosity, he had wondering outside as well.
It felt like the drum was squeezing my heart when Antonio recognized me from the crowd and invited me to sit next to him, just in time to watch the spectacle of “Los Voladores de Papantla” (Papantla Flyers).
Los Voladores de Papantla is a ritual ceremony practiced for years in certain areas of Mexico. It involves five people climbing a mighty 30-foot pole. One of “Voladores” remains at the top of the pole, playing a flute and drum while the others, attached to ropes, spin around the pole slowly descending until they reach the ground.
Each element of this ritual is a symbol; the four “voladores” or flyers represent the forth cardinal points (North, South, East and West) and the fourth elements (fire, water, air and earth). They rotate 13 times around the pole before landing in representation of the 52 weeks of the year (13 times around the pole x 4 voladores = 52). The performance takes about ten minutes, and the attire features feathers and hats. The acrobatic poses they adopt while in the air makes them look like birds. The production is an attempt to recreate the Mayan mythology of the creation, in which the main deity is a bird.
Though the tradition originated with several ancient Mexican tribes, it is now attributed to the Totonacs, who resided near the city of Papantla in the state of Veracruz, thus their name. The ceremony began at least 450 years ago, and was created to appease the gods and bring rain during droughts. Traditionally the tallest tree in the area was cut and mounted in the village. Young boys would perform the ceremony, much like how it’s done today
Regardless of its origins, the ceremony has been performed for generations earning the recognition of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, which obligates the country of Mexico to make continuous efforts to preserve and to promote this spectacular custom.
Many years later, I was in Cholula, a beautiful town just outside the city of Puebla, when I heard a flute and a drum inviting everyone in the town to witness the ritual.
This time I wasn’t looking for a familiar face under the spell of an unknown rhythm. My heart immediately recognized the sound and instead, I quickly grabbed my husband’s hand and ran across the plaza where the two of us found the best spot to watch the ceremony.
Sitting next to him with my past memories, I found happiness: a flute and drum, dancers flying above, a perfect spot under the warm sun, while eating Mexican candy and listening to the music of my childhood.