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Mexicolore contributor on the Aztecs Grazia Tuzi

The Voladores (Pole Flying) Ceremony

We are most grateful to Dr. Grazia Tuti, Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Valladolid (Spain) for this informative and insightful introduction to the ancient ritual ceremony known as the Voladores (Pole Flyers). She has published several articles on cultural heritage, music and identity, music and gender and holds a research fellowship in ethnomusicology at the University of Calabria.

Pic 1: The Voladores ceremony has spread to many parts of Mesoamerica...
Pic 1: The Voladores ceremony has spread to many parts of Mesoamerica... (Click on image to enlarge)

Spread of the Dance of the Voladores
The Dance of the Voladores is spread over different areas of Mesoamerica: in Mexico (Hidalgo, Veracruz, Puebla, San Luis Potosí states) principally among the Totonacs and the Nahua, but also among the Otomí and the Huastec, in Guatemala among the Maya and in Nicaragua among the Pipil. It is an indigenous ceremony of pre-Hispanic origin which has continued to be practiced for over ten centuries thanks to its ritual and spectacular nature. Whilst sharing a common basic structure, some differences emerge (such as the number of dancers), which has led to a comparative study looking at the descriptions found in the ancient sources and comparing them to modern ethnographic observations of the dance as performed in the Muncipio de Cuetzalan (Sierra Norte de Puebla), in versions that bear many similarities to those of Papantla, the descriptions of which are considered the most authoritative of this choral dance/music tradition. Such work has made it possible to isolate the developmental stages of this dance.

Pic 2: The cover ‘La historia general y natural de las Indias’
Pic 2: The cover ‘La historia general y natural de las Indias’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The Volador in ancient sources
As already shown, it is possible to single out analogies between modern-day performances and illustrations or descriptions present in ancient codices and chronicles. The French Mesoamerican ethnologist and archaeologist Guy Stresser-Pèan is one researcher who has studied the Voladores in great detail. In his various reconstructions, Stresser-Pèan links the origins of this ceremony to post-classic 11th century Toltec culture from central Mexico. According to him, the first description of the most ancient form of the Voladores can be traced back to the chronicle of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés who, in the Historia General y Natural de las Indias (1535), describes the “sacred flight” performed in 1528 by two nicarao children in Tecoatega (today Nicaragua) as the final and spectacular stage of a farming festivity celebrating the cacao harvest. According to Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, on top of the pole was displayed the figure of the god of cacao, and just below it a squared structure on which a rope was fixed to which the two children were tied, their faces covered by a mask.

Pic 3: 6 Otomí Voladores (including one dressed as a woman - the only one to remain upright during the descent)
Pic 3: 6 Otomí Voladores (including one dressed as a woman - the only one to remain upright during the descent) (Click on image to enlarge)

According to Stresser-Pèan, it would be from this early model of “flight” that in the 14th century AD a different, classic or Aztec, form of the dance would develop in the Valley of Mexico, involving a leader and four other dancers just as it is performed today. In the absence of detailed evidence for this evolution, the French researcher limits himself to quoting 16th century sources, such as the Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España in which Bernal Diaz del Castillo describes a ceremony presented at the court of Moctezuma during which many dancers “vuelan cuando bailan por lo alto”.
The dance would later see further developments during the colonial period, with performances involving 6 [see pic 3] or 8 voladores.

Pic 4: The pole ceremony relating to the feast of Xocotl Huetzi; Codex Borbonicus, fol. 28 (detail)
Pic 4: The pole ceremony relating to the feast of Xocotl Huetzi; Codex Borbonicus, fol. 28 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The origins of the dance
According to Gertrude P. Kurath and Samuel Marti in their 1964 study of the pre-Cortes music and dances of the Totonacs and the Huastecs (‘Dances of Anáhuac’), the first examples of “pole flying” can be traced back to the descriptions of the celebrations of the Xocotl Huetzi, the “fruit which falls” feast dedicated to Xiuhtecuhtli (god of fire). Although in such sources there is no direct reference to the Volador, the descriptions of the pole used in the feast seem to suggest a certain analogy with this tradition. As Bernardino Sahagún records in Chapter 29 of Book II of his Historia de las cosas de la Nueva España, the feast of Xocotl Huetzi was celebrated during the tenth month of the “farming calendar”. The fact that one may talk of a ritual to propitiate the land and also to celebrate the spirits of the dead constitutes for Stresser-Pèan one of the possible reasons for establishing a connection between the ritual of the Volador and the ceremony of Xocotl Huetzi.

Pic 5: The Xocotl Huetzli festival as depicted by Durán, fol. 276r. Aztec youths try to reach a bird image made of amaranth dough at the top of the pole
Pic 5: The Xocotl Huetzli festival as depicted by Durán, fol. 276r. Aztec youths try to reach a bird image made of amaranth dough at the top of the pole (Click on image to enlarge)

The 16th century description given by Bernardino de Sahagún allows us to identify some of these similarities.
The first one concerns the process of choosing and cutting the tree used to fashion the pole for the ceremony of Xocotl Huetzi. As happens today, the tree was carried and positioned in the centre of the town. For the celebrations of Xocotl Huetzi, an effigy of the god was then put on the top of the pole, and two wings of white paper were then stuck to it, depicting two eagles. The execution of dances and songs preceded the ascent of some young men, one at a time, towards the top of this sort of tree of “plenty”. The first youth to reach the top was given the honour of grabbing the effigy and throwing it down.
An analogous description of the feast of Xocotl Huetzi and the pole is to be found in Chapter 12 of Volume II of Historia de la Indias de Nueva España e Islas de la Tierra Firme de Fray Diego Durán. In this manuscript by the Dominican missionary, some of the elements encountered in Sahagún are repeated: the construction of the pole, the dance, and the performers dressed like the idol in the shape of birds. However, in this text it is made clear that Durán does not connect the ritual of Xocotl Huetzi to that of the Volador which he refers to in a different work.

Pic 6: A Voladores ceremony by the Totonac site of El Tajín
Pic 6: A Voladores ceremony by the Totonac site of El Tajín (Click on image to enlarge)

According to Luis Leal, the Spanish missionary had interpreted the Volador as a mere game (as did, a few decades later, in 1615, the Franciscan Juan de Torquemada) without attributing any hidden meanings to it. Furthermore, Leal emphasizes how the description given by Durán allows for a certain continuity in modern-day performances.
Other researchers such as Walter Krickeberg have attributed the origin of this dance not to the Aztecs but to the Totonacs (pic 6). Their thesis is based on a series of academic arguments stressing the ambiguous nature of the references to the Voladores in the principal documents on Aztec culture, such as the Historia of Sahagún and the Cronica Mexicana of 1598 by Hernando de Alvarado Tezozomoc.
This thesis is disproved by the explicit reference to the volador pole found in the 19th century Icazbalceta edition of the Calendario y Arte divinatoria by Sahagún.

Pic 7: ‘Dance of the Aerialist’ - illustration by Luis Covarrubias
Pic 7: ‘Dance of the Aerialist’ - illustration by Luis Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

In fact, in the text of the Spanish missionary one reads Usaban una cifra de estos años, y pusieron la en el palo volador que hasta ahora se usa, donde está figurado y misteriado el numéro de estos cincuenta y dos años, porque en él si multiplican cuatro por trece, que son todos cincuenta y dos. En lo alto de palo o viga se pone un argadijo cuadrado que se anda al rededor, y de cada esquina cuelga un maroma, y a ella se ata un mancebo, de manera que son cuatro mancebos atados a cuatro maromas, y las maromas están cogidas y revueltas al palo que está come espigón del argadijo cuadrado que encaja en él; y cuando aquellos mancebos han de comenzar a volar, comienza al argadijo a andar al rededor, movido por el peso de los que can colgados, y las maromas se van descogiendo, y los que can colgados a ellos van dando vueltas entorno de la viga, y las maromas son medidas por la longura del palo y un poco más, de manera que cada uno de estos que vuelan da trece vueltas al rededor, del palo o viga que está hincada en el suelo (sobre que se mueve el argadijo cuadrado) antes que llegue al suelo. Estas vueltas significan la cuenta de los años que hay de jubileo a jubileo, y también allí se pone memoria de lo que se ha de hacer en el jubileo, acabado este número de años, que es la rectificación del pacto idolátrico con los falsos dioses, y la obediencia de obedecerlos y servirlos, y el de sacar el fuego nuevo, todo lo cual es cosa pestilencial y resurrección de la idolatria.

Pic 8: The representation of the Voladores in Clavijero’s ‘Historia...’
Pic 8: The representation of the Voladores in Clavijero’s ‘Historia...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

It is interesting to note how such symbolism, which we also find in later chronicles, such as the Monarquía Indiana by Juan de Torquemada (1612) and in Book II of the Historia Antigua de México of Francisco Javier Clavijero (1780), represents one of those aspects that characterizes the mystique that today surrounds the dance of the Voladores, evoking as it does a seamless link to Aztec ancestry: Rosemary Gipson, in her article “Los Voladores. The Flyers of Mexico” analyses the connection between some of the numbers present in the Aztec calendar and the ritual of the Volador. Starting from Torquemada’s text, she reconstructs the symbolism of the numbers 4, 13 and 52, which according to the author, Torquemada considered most symbolic of the Volador.
In Book VII (46) of his Historia Antigua del México, the Jesuit talks of the palo volador as a famous “game” in the context of the chief feasts of the year and outlines its various stages. Once again we meet the constituent elements of the ritual already described in the preceding accounts. However whilst Clavijero draws attention to one of the purposes of the game – finding the symbolic meaning in both the numbers and the dance, as we often find in the reports of dancers today (Lo principal de este juego consistia en proporcionarle de tal suerte el árbol y las cuerdas, que con trece giros llegasen los voladores a la tierra, para representar en ellos su siglo de 52 años compuesto, como ya dijimos, de cuatro periodos de trece años) – he stresses the impossibility of forming any definite connection.

Pic 9: Voladores performing today in Cuetzalan
Pic 9: Voladores performing today in Cuetzalan (Click on image to enlarge)

The strong similarity between the description of Clavijero and the performance of the modern day volador is certainly surprising; less surprising is the fact that the Spanish Jesuit’s description is today one of the texts which most frequently circulates within the Voladores milieu.
It is interesting, then, to note that in the description of a dance of clearly “ritual” derivation, today performed for tourists or ethnographers by some Voladores in the Cuetzalan region, both mestizo and native performers present the symbolic connection of numbers described by Sahagún. Many Voladores from the Cuetzalan region are used to repeating to anyone coming from the outside world, whether tourist or ethnographer, that every dancer completes thirteen turns around the pole during the descent. The total number of turns executed by the four dancers would therefore be 52, corresponding to one xiuhmolpilli (“tying together of years”), that is, the number of years it takes for the Aztec solar calendar of 365 days to return to a point of correspondence with the ritual calendar of 260 days (the length considered equal to the completion of the human life cycle).

Pic 10: A performance by the Voladores of Papantla, photographed in the 1930s
Pic 10: A performance by the Voladores of Papantla, photographed in the 1930s (Click on image to enlarge)

Yet my own ethnographical observations do not reveal any link to this abstract model, nor have I found that any attention is paid to these numbers by the majority of dancers: the number of turns they take in coming down varies greatly and depends, among other things, on the length of the pole.
The transformation of the dance into a form of spectacle as described by Clavijero was achieved, according to Stresser-Pèan, during the evangelization of the indigenous people, in order to avoid the prohibition of the Volador ritual. According to Stresser-Pèan, such a shift resulted in the loss of the ritual character of the numbers involved and in an increase in the number of performers from 6 to 8. It is remarkable, as Torquemada stressed, that the “flight” continued to be performed even after the Conquest.

Pic 11: Close-up view showing the revolving ‘tecomate’ and leader performing on top of the platform, Cuetzalan
Pic 11: Close-up view showing the revolving ‘tecomate’ and leader performing on top of the platform, Cuetzalan (Click on image to enlarge)

The Dance of the Voladores today
The dance exhibits numerous local variations but it retains one essential element: a pole of variable height (up to thirty metres high), usually placed at the centre of the main square, generally in the space next to the church.
On the top of the pole is placed a square wooden platform (where the four dancers sit before the “flight”) at the centre of which we find the tecomate, a kind of cylinder or rotating drum around 40 cm high, on whose upper surface perches the “leader” (of both music and dance), who performs standing up (pic 11).
Around the tecomate are tied the ropes which dancers knot round their belts in order to be able to ‘fly’.
The “leader” is, however, untied, and up to the moment of the descent of his companions, he performs a ritual dance on the upper surface of the rotating cylinder – accompanying himself with a three-holed reed flute (two in the front and one behind) and a very tiny wooden drum, with double membrane. He plays the two instruments at once, but at some moments of the performance, especially those that are more acrobatic, he hands over the musical rendering to one of the dancers sitting on the platform.

Pic 12: The leader performing on the platform, holding flute and drum in one hand
Pic 12: The leader performing on the platform, holding flute and drum in one hand (Click on image to enlarge)

The flute (tapitzalli in Nahuatl) and the drum (huehuetl) are held with the left hand (the drum rests on the back of the musician’s hand and is tied to his wrist with a lace) while the right hand holds the narrow wooden baton which strikes the little drum.
As the dancers reach around the half way point of their descent, the leader seizes one of his companions’ ropes and, still untied, starts his descent, at certain points performing acrobatics. Dancers execute their flight head downwards and arms outstretched (as many of them say in imitation of the opening of birds’ wings). When they have almost reached the ground, they perform a fast somersault and land on their feet.
The performance of the volador involves different phases, some performed on the ground and others during the “flight”.

Pic 13: The ‘arrastre’ (dragging of the pole) through the streets
Pic 13: The ‘arrastre’ (dragging of the pole) through the streets  (Click on image to enlarge)

In the Sierra Norte de Puebla the music which accompanies the dance is structured according to links between different sones (melodic phrases which in some cases can reveal the complete melody), each corresponding to a specific moment in the dance and the ceremony. The main ones are the son del perdón (performed during the cutting down of the tree and in church), son del arrastre (performed while the recently felled tree is carried into the centre of the town square - pic 13), son de la fertilidad, son de la Gloria usually played in church, son de los 4 puntos cardinales and son del sacrificio (these last two performed by the leader on the tecomate), and finally the son de la rotación o del descenso, also called son del vuelo or son de los rayos (performed while the 4 dancers carry out the “flight”). The number and type of sones and the rhythmic-melodic structures vary depending on the geographical location and on the groups of Voladores. Nevertheless, we should stress that some of these sones are always present during every ceremony, among them: son del perdón, 4 puntos cardinales and descenso.

Pic 14: Voladores de Papantla processing round the pole prior to ascending; Origins Festival, London, June 2015
Pic 14: Voladores de Papantla processing round the pole prior to ascending; Origins Festival, London, June 2015 (Click on image to enlarge)

The dance performed on the ground is generally circular, whether performed around the tree before the corte (cutting down), before the climbing of the pole, or in church. The principal steps are performed at “walking pace” in procession or while entering the church (usually accompanied by the son del perdón), some cruzados and some zapateados, namely those in which dancers vigorously tap their heels on the ground.
A circle dance normally requires a succession of different steps, previously described, carried out first in a counter-clockwise, and then in a clockwise direction, with some short turns taken by the dancers and the execution of a series of little bows by the Voladores as a sign of respect and deference.

Pic 15: Origins Festival, London, summer 2015
Pic 15: Origins Festival, London, summer 2015 (Click on image to enlarge)

Today’s performances continue to show detailed similarities with the old sources relating to the so-called Aztec past. Among these, the cutting of the tree and its positioning; the special place of its erection (generally in the centre of the town or in a place considered sacred – e.g. adjacent to the church); the presence of the rotating structure; the presence of a musician/dancer on a platform on the top of the pole; the musical instruments employed; the number of dancers, 4 + 1 (musicians and leader); the dance performed on the ground before climbing the pole; the performing of the dance on the tecomate, with the leader facing the four cardinal points; the flight of the four performers; and often, in some groups, the symbolic reference to numbers and birds, with particular regard to the eagle. It is worth noting here that in the interpretations supplied by some Voladores of Cuetzalan, among them Jorge Baltazar Ramirez and Arturo Diaz, each performer represents a different element: fire, water, air and earth. Such interpretations are the fruit of repeated contacts with mixed race intellectuals and with outside researchers.

Pic 16: The Voladores of Papantla: the view from below...
Pic 16: The Voladores of Papantla: the view from below... (Click on image to enlarge)

UNESCO recognition
In 2009 UNESCO recognized The Ritual Ceremony of the Voladores as Intangible Cultural Heritage, attributing its origins to the Totonac community. There were two chief reasons put forward by the commission to justify such recognition. Firstly, the ritual as performed by Totonac groups was considered most “faithful” to the original. Secondly, the high presence in the Totonacapan region of volador groups (264 at the time of the recognition) and of volador poles (38 of the 56 officially recorded in Mexico) was also taken into account.
As a result, Papantla was nominated the modern “cradle” of the ceremonial practice of Volador, and the inscription on the UNESCO Representative List has allowed politico-cultural institutions and different groups of Voladores to present the ritual as a clear statement of the strength “of a tradition from the pre-Hispanic era handed down from generation to generation”, one of the “essential elements of the identity of these communities.”

Pic 17: ...and from above!
Pic 17: ...and from above! (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: illustration by Luis Covarrubias; Mexicolore archives
• Pic 2: image from Wikipedia (‘Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés’)
• Pix 3 & 10: photos by Rodney Gallop, scanned from The National Geographic Magazine March 1937
• Pic 4: image from the Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris) scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 5: image from Durán’s Book of the Gods..., public domain
• Pic 6: photo public domain, from http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/en/RL/ritual-ceremony-of-the-voladores-00175
• Pic 7: illustration by Luis Covarrubias, scanned from our own copy of Mexican Native Dances by Luis Covarrubias, Eugenio Fischgrund, Mexico City, 1979
• Pic 8: photo by Alessandro Lupo
• Pic 9: image (original lithograph in Clavijero’s Historia Antigua de México, Italian edition, 1780) scanned from our own copy of Imágen de México by Electra L. Mompradé and Tonatiúh Gutiérrez, Salvat, Mexico City, 1976, p. 43
• Pic 11: photo by and © Arturo Díaz
• Pic 13: from https://culturaenpapantla.blogspot.co.uk/p/acerca-de.html
• Pix 12, 14, 15, 16 & 17: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 22nd 2017

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‘Ritual ceremony of the Voladores’ (UNESCO)

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