Ritual Ceremony of the Flying Men, Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

The Dance of the Flyers is ritual that is related to fertility. Performed by four flyers and a musician named the “Corporal.” it has its roots in the pre-Hispanic period and presently best known as associated with the town of Papantla, Veracruz.

Origin and Legend

The exact origin of this ceremony is unknown, but we do know that upon seeing the costumes that were used by the Totanac people, made with real bird feathers such as macaws, eagles, owls, quetzal, crows, and others, the Spanish conquistadors thought that the dance was a game.

Legend has it that many years ago, a severe drought wrought considerable havoc among the peoples in the Señorío de Totonacapan Region (which today comprises parts of the states of Puebla and Veracruz). To remedy this trouble, a wise group of elders instructed some of the young men to locate and cut down the tallest, straightest, and most robust tree from the mountain for the purpose of satisfying the gods, so that they would grant them rain.

The ceremony was held on the upper trunk of the tree, so that the fervent prayers would be heard by the gods. After a successful outcome, the ceremony was hailed as a tribute that should be done regularly, thus becoming established as a long standing practice.

Today, the date of this continued ritual varies by region. It is conducted in different Indigenous communities during various festivals, cultural events like the Cumbre Tajín, as well as a tourist attraction, such as at the entrance to the archeological site of Tulum for example.

Description of the Volador Tree

The trunk is a mast about 30 feet high, anchored to the ground, and crowned by the “tecomate”, a narrow wooden platform with a rotating device that swings the flyers around, who throw themselves back  into the air held only by a rope that is tied to the flyer and the mask hooks.

Symbolism of the Papantla Flyers

Attire: The costume is used by the Totonac Indians over their traditional white cotton clothes.
Conical hat: The hat is put over a large handkerchief or scarf, and is decorated with colorful flowers to represent the fertility of the earth. It is crowned by a small multi-shaped plume that simulates the crest of a bird and also symbolizes solar rays, and has a small round mirror which represents space.
Ribbons: long ribbons drape down the back of the dancer, symbolizing a rainbow that is formed after the rain.

“Two half circles of red cloth or velvet, tied to the right shoulder in a diagonal direction, hang over the chest and back, representing the wings of the birds. Above them are embroidered figures of flowers, plants and birds of different colors and sizes, and embroidered with sequins, alluding to the spring, and on the lower part hangs a golden fringe imitating the sun’s rays.

At the flyer’s waist front and back, are again two semicircles as if wings. The red pants at calf height show beads and tassels,  and at the bottom we see a gold fringe, topped by leather boots with high heels. The use of the color red is considered representative of the blood of the dancers who have died, and of the warmth of the king star.” (Source http://portal.veracruz.gob.mx).

El Caporal or Musician

During the ceremony, this person balances on the “gourd” without a net or safety rope, faces the four cardinal directions, leans and opens his arms, and keeps balance on one foot, all while playing the melodies of the ceremony with a tambourine and a reed flute.

The Descent of the Flyers

Each Flyer rotates around 13 times, which multiplied by four Flyers comes to 52, a number that symbolizes the 52 year cycle of the Mayan Calendar (every 52 years makes up one solar cycle, and each year is comprised of 52 weeks, after which a new sun is born).

The Papantla Flyers, a World Heritage of Humanity

Since 2009, the “Ritual Ceremony of Flying” has been recognized by UNESCO and included on its list of “Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”