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Quaker Theology -- Issue #7 -- Autumn 2002

The Making of "The Tree Of Life"

Bruce "Pacho" Lane

Experiencing the ritual, even as an observer, is awe-inspiring, particularly in its traditional setting, with a crowd of Totonacs, in front of the church. Of course, the watchers are concerned that there may be an accident. and of course visually it is very beautiful, but there was also a kind of magic, a sense of something that had deep symbolic meaning but which was also very mysterious. Trying to figure it out, I asked Salvador and Juan, their answers didn’t make sense in terms of my upbringing.

One thing was very clear, however. While the ritual is awe-inspiring to watch, the experience of actually performing it is far more powerful. One of the Voladores told me that when he danced on the hub he felt that his spine was a continuation of the pole, that he could not fall because he had become a part of the pole.

Soon enough I was back in Austin, with all this beautiful film, and no earthly idea what it meant, or how to put it together. Of course, this was all backwards! As Ben and David insisted, I should have had a script. As an anthropologist, I should have done my research in advance – read everything ever written (very little!) about the ritual, interviewed the Voladores, and then made a film or written an article. Instead, I had filmed not knowing what I was shooting, but knowing what I was being led to shoot. Now the point was to make sense out of it!

I edited the film until I got frustrated because it wasn’t working. Then I finally headed to the UT Latin American Collection – probably the best single resource in the world for the purpose – and started reading. Gradually, the pieces began to come together.

What finally made the picture whole was, surprisingly, a collection of Nahuatl poetry from the fifteenth century court of the Nezahualcoyotl, the poet-king of Texcoco, a city allied to the Aztecs. The poems had been passed down orally, and were dictated by survivors of the Spanish Conquest to Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, a Franciscan monk. His work, of which the poems were only a small part, had languished for centuries in the Spanish archives. The poems had just been published in Nahuatl with a Spanish translation. Reading them, it was evident they were talking about the same thing – and in the same symbolic language – as the ritual.

The key turned out to be the candle-making sequence, which I had filmed "by mistake." The poems were full of references to the Flowering Tree (el arbol florido in Spanish). Other reading explained that there are five flowering trees – one for each direction, and one in the thirteenth heaven, from which Ometeotl and Omecihuatl ("two god" and "two goddess"), the dual male/female gods, rule the cosmos. Human beings are conceived as flowers on this tree, and descend to earth to be born.

Warriors who are sacrificed on the altar, or die in battle, are reborn to live in the Eastern tree, in the paradise of Tamoanchan. They are reborn as hawks and other predator birds (remember my chat in the Arkansas woods?), and each day they follow the sun to the zenith, when they descend to receive the offerings and to bring the sun’s blessings to earth in exchange.

The sources also disclosed that when the Indians first saw statues of Christian angels, they naturally identified them with the messenger birds of the Sun – since the angels were winged messengers too (angellos in Greek means "messenger"). Further reading convinced me that these ritual candles were identified with the Flowering Tree on the one hand, but also with the Judeo-Christian Tree of Life.

Returning to the footage, this time things began to fall into place. The circular candelabra were covered with birds and flowers, and in the center was a wire representation of the Volador pole, with its hub and frame.

When I took these deductions back to the Voladores, they confirmed them in part – which was all I could reasonably expect. They agreed they represented birds in the ritual, that the candelabras were trees, and that they used the same Spanish word for the wire pole on the candelabra as they did for the hub and frame on the Volador pole. They got very excited, and made a drawing of it.

Asked how the dance began, Salvador and Juan said, "many years ago, a man was working in his cornfield when he heard music in the air. He looked up, and saw angels descending. They taught him the dance – the steps, the ritual, and the music. They told him he must do this as a vow to God, and find others. Before they left, they promised that if he and the others overcame their fear, they would hear the music in the air again."

Even aside from the need to work through Clementina for the translations, it was very hard to communicate these ideas. It was now obvious that I was asking questions in a framework that made no sense to them, and they were answering in a way that made no sense to me. I was speaking the language of academia, and they were speaking in the symbolic language of the poems. I gradually came to realize that the dance itself was a story, told in symbols, music, and dance steps, all of which made a single statement.

Yet the Voladores themselves did not know, or could not express in words, all the meanings of the symbols. I had to find ways to interpret what they were saying, and then re-explain to them to verify that they understood what I thought they were saying. And, inevitably, I had to make some logical leaps to fill in the gaps.

The story of the angels is an example. On the surface, it looks like a post-Christian story. But after reading of the connection between angels and messenger birds of the sun, it seems likely, but unprovable, that at some point the story was modified to conform to a new interpretation of the ritual. But if so, why?

The costumes seemed to provide clues. If the Flowering Tree had been syncretized with the Tree of Life, then surely it was no accident that the Voladores dressed in eighteenth century Spanish costumes, wearing shoes and sunglasses. Clothing for Totonacs is a mark of identity, so wearing Spanish clothing is making more than a fashion statement: it is also a statement of identity. Totonacs usually wear sandals, not shoes. And Totonacs don’t wear sunglasses. All of these are identifiably symbols of Luhuan (European or mestizo) identity.

At least originally, the costume must have been chosen to represent Europeans. The Voladores agreed the costumes were of "Luhuanan," and that they were representing them, but they didn’t know – or couldn’t explain – why.

There are two other elements in the costume. The Voladores wear colored translucent handkerchiefs attached to their wrists, and a "dunce cap" with a sort of ruffle on the tip.

The hub was another problem. It is shaped very carefully to look like the glyph Ollin, the symbol for the concept of dynamic change, which in Mesoamerican cosmology has a place as important as Yin and Yang in Chinese thought. Ollin is the process which makes our universe work. Everything is in constant flux, and it is this constant flux that is the fundamental principle of the cosmos.

Why did the Voladores make the hub that way? They said that was the way it had to be made. They called the hub "light," because everything turned around it, which makes sense, but they could not relate the hub to the symbol of Ollin, so I can only guess at the reason for the shape.

During one visit to Huehuetla, Salvador asked me to be the godfather of his youngest child, so we became compadres. One morning I picked up one of Salvador’s sons by the arms and began twirling him in a circle. Salvador laughed and said to hold him by the legs. When I realized what I was doing – holding the boy as he would be if he were "flying" from the pole – I almost dropped him. I asked Salvador if they did this with the kids, and if they had other "little league" training techniques. Sure enough, they arranged a show of all the ways they trained the children to be Voladores. I filmed them, and that was the last live-action piece for the film.

With a reading of the symbolism of what I had shot, it was easy to edit the film in a way that made sense – if the viewer can read the clues! Since it had also become clear that the ritual was secret in the sense that the Voladores deliberately did not explain what they were doing except to new dancers – I decided to respect their confidence and not add a "voice of god" explanation of my own.

But I wanted people who could, to understand what was happening. So I decided to narrate the film solely with the poems Sahagun had collected. While they were not Totonac, and had been composed five hundred years earlier, they used the same symbolic language – the language of flowers, as the poets called it. The entire film was edited based on this interpretation of the ritual’s meaning. For example, the construction of the candelabras is intercut with the training of the children, so that after the wire representation of the pole is attached to the candelabra, the film cuts to the children as they start to fly from a scaled-down version of the real pole, thus visually making the connection.

When the film was finally edited, I realized there was almost nothing left over. I had "intuitively" shot exactly the footage I needed to tell the story as I now understood it! Yet at the time I had not known what I was shooting, only that I needed to shoot it. Again, there was a sense of how much the film was not mine – that I had been led to make it just that way, been given just the events needed to shoot, and had then had to make "rational" sense out of what I had intuitively perceived without words or understanding.

In one sense, I was somehow able to tune in to what was happening and "felt" the symbolism in the same terms as the Voladores. That is, to some extent I stepped inside the ritual, and was shooting from the inside. At the same time, I had to maintain "objectivity" – to recognize constantly that I was making a film for an audience who were not Totonac, and to think about how to translate this experience in a way that would resonate with them, even if they did not understand it.

I have watched the reactions of thousands of "Luhuanan" – Mexicans, Americans, and Europeans – to the film. Even though they do not understand the ritual, there is a level of comprehension, a universal awe. The film "works" without any rational comprehension of what is going on. Based on the questions and comments people have made it seems to work in part because we can all relate to the sight of someone dancing on an eighteen-inch hub eighty feet in the air, and also because it is visually gorgeous.

But there is clearly something more in people’s reactions. Like the Voladores, viewers may not be able to put their feelings into words, but at some nonverbal level the ritual communicates to the viewers. There is, I believe, a language beyond words, a language of symbol and gesture, which we all perceive, and which speaks at a deeper level than the conscious mind. And of course, that was what I felt myself while making the film. In later films, I have tried to find ways to apply this same "intuitive" approach.

So here’s my best guess at what the ritual meant, and how it has been changed over time to fit the new circumstances. The guess is based on observation, on the relevant literature, notably the work of Eduard Seler and Bernardino de Sahagun, as well as conversations with the Voladores. But it is, finally, only a best guess. We can never know for sure.

The ritual is universally acknowledged both in the literature and by the Voladores to be sacred to Quetzalcoatl, the "feathered serpent," a white, bearded god who brought civilization to Mesoamerica. Quetzalcoatl was (or is?) the god of mystical knowledge, who refused human sacrifice, and accepted only butterflies. In the legend, Quetzalcoatl sails eastward into the Gulf of Mexico, promising to return in the year "One Reed" in the Mesoamerican calendar – which just "happened" to be 1519 A.D., the year Cortes landed on the Gulf coast of Mexico. When Quetzalcoatl’s boat reaches the horizon, Venus, the Morning Star, rises from the sea, followed by a flock of birds. The Voladores told me that their patron is the Morning Star.

The "dunce cap" that the Voladores wear is a variant of the hat which Quetzalcoatl, wears in the drawings of him in the pre-Conquest codices, or ritual picture books.

When the Capitan leans back to salute the four directions, he is in the position in which victims were sacrificed, with his arms back and his chest exposed to the sun. He is offering his heart to the sun. When he stands up to dance on the hub, he has become the sun, and traces its yearly journey across the ecliptic. At the zenith, he is at his most powerful, and it is then he sends his messenger birds – those hawks – on their flight to earth. These birds receive the offerings on the altars (of human hearts, and/or the lifeforce embodied in the hearts) and carry them back to nourish the sun.

Normally there are four flyers, who make thirteen turns on their descent, for a total of fifty-two – a mesoamerican century. That is, we count in centuries of one hundred years, the Mexican Indians count in centuries of fifty-two years.

In the center of the ritual is the tree. At the bottom it is firmly embedded in the sacred ground of the churchyard, while it is crowned with the glyph for dynamic change. It is the axis mundi, the center of the world. From the hub hangs the frame, which seen from above points to the four directions, while the hub is the center of the universe. Originally a sacrifice was placed in the hole where the base of the pole was to be put: a live turkey, tobacco, and alcohol. This was prohibited by a priest some years ago. It is more than probable that the original sacrifice was a human being, perhaps a child.

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