The Voladores in Cempoala
Cempoala, Veracruz

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

Early Voladores
Early Voladores
AT Cempoala, Veracruz
"Los Voladores de Papantla"
The Voladores are well known in Mexico and give presentations all over the world, known internationally for their dangerous ceremony.

There is no safety net. It takes real dedication and they only ask for small donations, or sell their little flutes or drums after their performance.

The origin of the performance is centuries old, and is an old tradition amongst the "Totonaco" people whose cultural center are the pyramids at El Tajín, between Papantla and Poza Rica.

I witnessed the performance with friends from a front row seat at the pyramids in Cempoala, Veracruz, but the Voladores of Papantla perform all over Mexico and in different parts of the world today.

Man on the Ground
Cempoala, Veracruz
A Front Row Seat
The area at the pyramids in Cempoala is large enough so that you can have a front row seat.

Sometimes it seems like the Voladores are practically in your lap!

The true origins of the ceremony are unknown, but both El Tajín and Cempoala were important ceremonial centers for the Totonaco Indians of the Gulf Coast of Mexico.

When El Tajín was abandoned in the 11th century, the Totonaco civilization was reestablished in Cempoala.
A Solar Cycle of 52 Years
It should be remembered that the Precolombian solar cycle lasted 52 years.

At the end of each solar cycle of 52 years, there was a lapse of 5 or 6 days to adjust the the calendar and start out the next calendar right.

It was rather like our "leap year" of having a February 29 every 4 years.

There were many different customs as part of these "New Year´s" celebrations during the days at the end of each cycle,
A Special Celebration of the New Cycle
For example, all cooking utensils were broken and brought to be tossed onto the pyramids.

There were other elaborate celebrations at ceremonial centers with pyramids, such as Cempoala to celebrate the new life cycle.

And, the performances of the Voladores was an important demonstration of the spiritual aspect of this new solar cycle.
The Voladores Performance was Important
It was a time for specially chosen people to rise into the heavens to ask for the blessings of the gods controlling the solar system for plenty of rains for the crops, fertility, prosperity, and protection for the inhabitants of the area.

Today´s performance of the Voladores de Papantla is to commemorate this celebration of the ancient close out of an old solar cycle and begin new lives in the new cycle.

Final Preparations
After the Conquest
In Cempoala people say that after the Conquest in 1519 this and many other rituals were silenced or perhaps practiced in secret.

Much of what is known is from oral tradition of the Indians, and in the writings of the first Europeans to come to Mexico.

Later, it is said that Christian elements were added to the ritual, and the ceremony of the Voladores de Papantla became more of a spectacle in the later during the colonial period in Mexico from 1520 to 1810.

The Performance Starts
As a preliminary, the Voladores play their little drums and flutes as they dance around the base of the pole.

This first song is called the “Song of Forgiveness.”

It´s as if the performers are asking for forgiveness because they are about to climb high above the earth where man belongs, and enter into the sacred area closer to where the gods of the heavens live.
First Tune
The First Tune
The Leader Climbs the Sacred Pole
The leader climbs to the top first and sits down, steadying himself, and begins playing the second song on his flute.

The leader of the group will be the last man down.

It should be mentioned that Cempoala is about 8 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and you can feel a slight breeze blowing through the palm trees.

The wind must be a lot stronger on top of the pole!
All Together
All Together at the Top
Then, the other four men begin to climb the pole and the leader sits on top waiting for them to arrive.

From where the leader sits at the center there is a square frame.

At this time, the leader plays another song on his flute and now plays a small drum.

At this time, the four other men carefully begin to wind the ropes around the pole, and tie themselves to the ends,
First Tune
The Song to the Four Winds
Paying Respect to the Cardinal Points
First, the leader stands to pay respect to the four cardinal points. North, East, South, and West.

He begins with the east because it is believed life comes from this direction.

Then he proceeds to acknowledge the north, then west and south.
The Pole, Full Length
Arranging the Ropes
During this part of the ceremony the other four men continue to arrange the four ropes hanging down towards the ground.

Each is carefully wound around the pole thirteen times, which times four is fifty two, which corresponds to the number of years in the Solar Cycle.

The leader while playing the drum and the flute, then bends fully backwards to acknowledge the sun.

This is for Real!
Now we are all holding our breath!

Then while playing the flute and little drum, the leader begins to stamp his feet and do a little hop!

This is not an easy task especially at that height, and in a rather strong breeze.

This photo to the left will give you an idea of the height. (With no safety net. This is for real!)
The Graceful Saildown Begins
When the leader finished playing the flute and drum and his performance of the hops, it´s like a signal to the other members of the group.

The four Voladores seated on the platform facing the leader suspended by the wound ropes suddenly seem to tip over and fall backwards all at the same time to begin their slow spiral, sailing gracefully toward the ground.

Perhaps they symbolize man´s return from heaven slowly coming back to earth after their visit to the most sacred area in the high in the heavens.

As the ropes unwind, the Voladores spin, creating an almost moving pyramid shape.

It is a majestic moment for everyone watching in silence.

As the four Voladores descend, the leader plays the “Song of Farewell”, and continues to dance on the narrow platform.
Sail Down
The Saildown
The Saildown takes several minutes, and you can almost hear a pin drop!

As the men, sail slowly down, it is a time of silence, punctuated perhaps by and occaisional "Ooh" or "Ahh" from those of us in the audience.

It is indeed graceful and something to enjoy watching.
Upside down
Upside Down
Upside Down!
Then, for a minute it looked like one of the performers might have gotten his leg slightly tangled in the rope, and toward the end was sailing down upside down!

To our relief later we realized it was part of the performance of one of the most skilled performers.
Touchdown at last
Final Touchdown
By this time they are speeding along at a fast clip, and touchdown with very little help.
Last Man Down
The Last Man Down
The Last Man Down
The leader was still at the top, and the four men at the bottom held their ropes firmly to steady the platform at the top.

Then carefully the leader climbed over the platform and slid down one of the ropes, stopping briefly to show "no hands", and then was received by his fellow Voladores" on the ground.
Last Man Down
A Final Tribute
Final Salute
At the end of the performance, the men bow to us, and wrap things up to our enthusiastic applause.
An Invitation to Train
One Great Performance!
Afterward the performers timidly circulated among the audience and accepted contributions of 10 and 20 pesos with timid little smiles.

They were glad the people had appreciated their performance.

Some people took pictures standing next to them.

One of the men invited me to Papantla to train with them, even with a safety net, but I declined.

I think I´d rather watch from the ground!

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