A Leap of Faith
19 February 2017
February 19, 2017
It is a centuries-old tradition. A prayer in gratitude for the earth. The Papantla flyers are from Northern Veracruz, on the east coast of Mexico, but have brought the ceremony to the Malecon in Puerto Vallarta to share with visitors.
What we witness as tourists begins when five men (some days there are only four, but traditionally it is five) climb a pole approximately three stories high. Almost at the very top is a square platform - just wide enough for the men to sit - with four points. The pole continues up through the center of the platform about another three feet, or so. Four of the men spread out on each of the four axles, each one representing one of the four elements. They tie a rope around their waists and then slowly wrap their lines around the pole, while moving themselves counter-clockwise with their feet. Meanwhile, the fifth man, or leader, climbs to the top of the pole and begins to play the flute and beat on a drum, playing the Son del Vuelo (The Flight Song), as he teeters on this pole that, seemingly, is no more than two feet in circumference and 130 feet high. The ceremony has begun.
His movements become erratic and jerky, and we all stand below, staring up, praying to our own god that he won't fall. Eventually, the leader symbolically connects with Chi'Chini, the sun God, and they become one. Then, in a true leap of faith, the four men perched on the platform, fall backward and fly like birdmen around the pole as the rope unwinds in the same rotation as the earth. The men move their arms and legs in a graceful dance as they descend. (If there are five men, the leader will stay on the top of the pole, playing his music. If there are only four, he joins the other three, and continues to play the flute and beat his drum as he flies through the air.) They spin exactly 13 rotations, times the four men, which accounts for the 52 weeks of the year. When all have reached the ground, they become mortal, once more.
There is more to this tradition, however, and truly begins prior to the cutting of the tree that will be used for the pole. (The one on the Malecon is cement.) There are only three species that can be used for this purpose, as they have to be strong enough and grow straight and tall. Two of them are called, appropriately, flying pole trees. Several days before the tree is cut, the high priest, as well as the men who will partake in the ceremony, cleanse their spirit and body by avoiding earthly pleasures.
Before the tree is cut down, the high priest begins to play the flute and drum. This music is a call to soothe the Lord of the Mountain, Quihuko, and to ask forgiveness for killing one of his children. Before placing the tree, offerings, such as a black hen and eggs, tobacco and sugarcane firewater, are put into the hole. Again, this is to appease Quihuko for the sacrifice of his child.
Every part of this ceremony has a deeper meaning. Even the clothing they wear. The flowers and plants represent spring; red, the sun's heart; and the ribbons flying from their headdresses represent rainbows. It is a beautiful tradition and one that reminds us to be conscious and considerate of our earth and the natural order of life.
More photos in Gallery.