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Flying With the 'Bird Men' of Papantla, Mexico

Giulian Frisoni


 

They fly through the air with the greatest of ease, these Totonac "bird men" re-enacting ancestral traditions in their home town of Papantla, located on forested hills a four-hour drive or one-hour flight from Mexico City in this country's northern Totonacapán region of Veracruz state (it's four hours by bus from the city of Veracruz). It's truly a great show - and furthermore a true slice of authentic Mexican culture with pre-Hispanic origins dating back to 600 AD.


This Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) originated with the Nahua, Huastec, and Otomí peoples of what is today central Mexico and spread throughout Mesoamerica. These days, the Totonac remain its main practitioners, and 90 percent are to be found in this city of 153,000, which before it was founded by the Totonac was a site of the ancient Olmec and Huastec civilisations (the impressive ruins of El Tajín nearby are thought to have been the work of the Huastec).


This ancient ritual stemmed from the need the ancient Totonac felt to appease their gods and in particular beg forgiveness for any perceived offense given, resulting in a period of prolonged drought. Every Saturday in front of the city's Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, after a ceremonial dance on the ground, five young men attired in red trousers, white shirts, and flower-adorned hats ascend a wooden pole - 30 metres (98 feet) high and a mere 25 centimetres (one foot) in circumference - all the better to better approach the celestial gods.

 

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