As the men walk in a single file with their heads bowed down as a sign of respect to the gods, spectators watch in astonishment the 30 meters long wooden (almost 100 feet) pole which the Birdmen are about to climb. The chief or caporal plays a melodic tune with his hand-made instruments consisting of a simple flute and a small drum. The flute represents the singing of a bird and the drum resembles the voice of the gods; almost like the sound of a thunderstorm.
People watch in amazement and fear for the lives of the five men who courageously climb to the top of the high pole and after a short while “let themselves go” into the air fastened only by a thin rope wrapped around their waist.
To the local residents this is a very common and ancient tradition. However, to outsiders (such as tourists or visitors) this may seem outrageous! These outsiders may ask why anyone would do this. Is this just a show for the tourists or are these men really trying to show off their courage?
The Dance of the Birdmen or the Papantla Flyers is an indigenous tradition from Mexico, which has its birthplace in Papantla, Veracruz; there is even a stone monument of a Papantla flyer at the top of a mountain, an area known as the Campanario. Papantla is a city located in the state of Veracruz, Mexico and it is considered the “cradle of the flyers.” The town of Papantla was also designated as a Pueblo Mágico by the Mexico Tourism Board. To read more about other Pueblo Mágico adventures read my blog post on Xilitla.
This important ceremony is performed by a group of five men; men who have been trained since childhood to perform this ritual. The ceremony is a long process, which could last more than an hour. What tourists get to see in popular beach resorts such as Cancun, Mexico is only the final part of the ceremony. The actual ritual is much more involved and more meaningful than the one that it’s usually staged for tourists.
Not only is the tree and the bird the most important aspects of this ceremony but also the square frame or platform which has four cardinal points –the number four is significant to indigenous cultures in the Americas. From the minute the caporal starts playing the music he makes sure that he turns to the four sides starting from the east as the east is connected with the origin of life, according to ancient wisdom. Furthermore, each Birdman or flyer has to turn 13 times around the tree pole. This number multiplied by 4 is 52 and 52 is related to the Pre-Hispanic calendar which every 52 years marks a new solar cycle in which a new sun is born and a new life begins.
This is what this video captures and which I recorded last year during one of my visits to Mexico.
The “letting go into the air” part of the ritual of the Birdmen signifies freedom just like a bird is freely flying in the high sky. Every piece of regalia the Birdmen wear is also meant to resemble a colorful bird flying into the air giving praise to their gods. The ancient Birdmen flyers used to make their headdress with real eagle, owl, raven, parrot, quetzal, and mockingbird feathers. Birds are such an important element in this indigenous ceremony that even the music that the caporal plays is meant to resemble their singing.
The Dance of the Birdmen goes back to ancient Mesoamerican times before the arrival of the Spaniards. Just like with other indigenous traditions, the Spaniards did not understand the meaning of this indigenous ritual. The Spaniards confused the Totonac’s colorful attire with a costume worn as part of an entertainment game, not realizing that this was part of an important ritual for the indigenous peoples of Mexico.
The Dance of the Birdmen is tied to an ancient legend which took place in Totonacapan, a town located in northern Veracruz, Mexico. This area was also the ancient birthplace of the Totonac indigenous peoples before they became to present-day Veracruz.
The legend says that many years ago, there was a severe drought in Totonacapan which caused much havoc and cost the Totonac many lives. A group of elders from the Totonac village gathered together to decide what to do. Since giving sacrifices and offerings was a common practice among indigenous tribes, the elders decided that they would give a special offering to the gods to appease them and make the drought stop. The offering called for a group of five celibate young men to go on a journey to locate the tallest and strongest tree they could find. This tree would be used for a special ritual which along with music and dance would be served as an offering to the gods. In exchange for the offering they would ask the gods for rainfall and thus return fertility and balance to the land.
According to the elders, the ritual was to be performed on top of the tree pole so that the powerful prayers were to be heard by their gods and thus be more effective. The result was quite a success and was ordained by the elders to be performed periodically to make sure balance in the earth was maintained. This is the story of how The Dance of the Birdmen became a tradition which is still practiced today. Even though the ritual initially became a practice which was performed at the beginning of every spring hoping for good fertility, the ritual in present times varies according to the region in which is it practiced.
It is important to mention that this indigenous ceremony is very dangerous and one that it is not taken lightly by the indigenous communities who understand and engage in this practice. Unfortunately, this ceremony has become a form of entertainment for tourists and visitors in beach resorts in Mexico.
The real Birdmen who perform this ritual have been trained since early childhood and they must adhere to certain rules and regulations that they must practice before and during the time they’re about to engage in this ceremony. These rules include sexual and alcohol abstinence as it is believed that the ancient practice required that the five men be celibate.
Just as with any other indigenous practice, respect must be given to this important tradition. It has been practiced for hundreds of years and it is part of not only the Totonac community from Veracruz but of other indigenous peoples such as the Nahuas from Mexico and the Totonac community from Puebla as well as some communities from South America.
If you have the opportunity to watch this jaw-dropping ceremony always remember to be respectful. Also, be wary of some shows which are usually staged for tourists in beach resorts. If you want to know where to go to see the complete ceremony, the states of Veracruz and Puebla in Mexico as well as El Quiché in Guatemala have indigenous communities who still practice this ceremony. The ceremony itself has been named an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
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