Apr 14, 2017

Pole Flyers’ Flight of the Dead

The higher we soar the smaller we appear
to those who cannot fly.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Middle of the descent - arms wide, rainbow ribbons flying. 
It was a grey day!
In some parts of Mexico, you can see Palo Volador (Pole Flying) or Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers); men who traditionally ‘air-dance’ their way down a tall pole to communicate with the Gods to end drought, receiving crop yielding rains or fertility on earth.  It is now a fairly large ceremonial attraction during Semana Santa or spring equinox.

A ‘young’ one picking up recyclables while walking around before the show.
Although fewer and fewer are learning the trade, you can still see some Voladores at isolated pockets of Mexico.  We saw them at the ruins of El Tajin near Papantla, Mexico.  There, they are known as the Papantla Voladores of the Totonac region.

Calmly reading the paper before the show…
It is believed to be an ancient Mesoamerican ceremony/ritual performed today in modified form.  The ritual consists of an ‘air-dance’ on a very tall pole.  Many refer to the pole as being 30 meters but what we saw was probably more in the 20-25-meter range. 

Forgiveness dance before the climb
Five men climb this post and four of them launch themselves, tied with ropes around their waist that they guide via their feet, to safely get to the ground.  The fifth participant (the sun) stays on top of the pole, dancing and playing a flute and a drum.  These men are dressed in very colorful costumes decorated with long ribbons that float through the air as they descend.  Some are pretty static on their way down, others take different postures, almost yoga like, each with their unique way of communicating.  A combination of air, music, and movement.

Second to climb.  First one sent ropes down for later use.
It is said that they go around the pole 13 times to represent the 52 years of the Aztec calendar.  I was too enthralled by the show to count how many times they circled the post before landing.

Four are up - only need the flute/drum player
Even though this ritual did not originate where we saw it (Totonac people region), today, it is strongly associated with them.  This ritual was named as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2009 in hopes to help the ritual survive in this modern world.

All there readying for the descent.  Tight quarters up there.
Women generally do not participate but we read the story of one who did.  Her incursion in that male dominated world was blamed for the death of the male voladores who instructed her.  At 70, he fell to his death during a Flight of the Dead.  Following that, women were shunned from this ceremony nearly everywhere.   

In its inception, the tallest tree of the nearby forest was cut down for the event.  Its branches would be taken off and the trunk would ceremoniously be erected in town.  Today with high levels of deforestation, they use permanently installed metal poles (usually donated by the oil industry) with steps easily leading them to the top. 

After several minutes of music, dancing,
and checking ropes, they take flight
Youths were usually chosen for this ritual in its earlier days.  I spoke with two of the Papantla Voladores we saw and one was 56, the other 60 years old.  It is no longer just for the young and few of them are interested in continuing the tradition.

The musician now alone at the top
Early on, participants were thought to impersonate birds.  These birds represented the gods of earth, air, fire and water.  This may be the reason today’s voladores are dressed very colorfully with fringes and ribbons, imitating feathers.  Later, the ritual became associated with solar ceremonies (equinox in the spring).  The man at the top, playing the flute, represents the sounds of the birds.  The other four men-birds represent the four directions.

Nearing the ground.
The Totonac costumes we saw consisted of fringed red pants, a simple white shirt, a multicolor handkerchief rolled around their neck, a red and highly decorated embroidered cloth across the chest and a hat filled with flowers and what looked like small reflective circles.  We were told the cloth across the chest represents blood, the flowers on the hat fertility, mirrors the sun.  They also had very long ribbons attached to their hats, the color of rainbows.

Made it safe
Costumes are made by the voladores themselves and can cost up to $400 each (a huge sum for Mexicans).  I even noticed that once way up the pole, the voladores made sure to straighten each other’s costumes, no sagging, no creases.  They are very proud of these outfits.


Music and dancing began at ground level, before climbing the pole, for the flight of the dead that we saw.  In some cases, there is only music and dancing once on the pole.  That dance asks for forgiveness before escalating the tall pole and communicating with the gods.


Time to clean up
There are fewer than 600 voladores in Mexico today, less than 100 teams.  Their territory used to extend from northern Mexico to Nicaragua.  Now, it is mostly found in Veracruz and Puebla. 


With the help of UNESCO, Escuela de Niños Voladores (School of Volador children) was created.  They have between 70 and 100 male students who learn the history, significance and values associated with this ritual.  Entry students range from 6 to 8 years of age and learn for about 10-12 years.  One of the requirements of the school is that the students know the Totonac language.  Most voladores still learn the ritual from their fathers and grandfathers starting at about the same age.  Many consider it a life vocation and are very honored by it.

Number 6 collects money before the show.
It is difficult, from these pictures, to get a sense of how tall this pole is.  I wouldn’t want to be up that far off the ground, especially on a windier day.  The pole was rocking quite a bit as the men were moving around at the top, getting ready.  I am happy to let them communicate with the Gods this way, I’ll stay on the ground. 



Videos give a much better idea of what voladores flights look like.  You can pick from many YouTubes on line. 


Resting after the show.  Two more to do today.
Shiny black boots crack me up.  This guy is 60!
Even next to the Papantla church, above the main square,
is a volador pole higher than large trees


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