Quaker Theology -- Issue #7 -- Autumn 2002
The Making of "The Tree Of Life"
Bruce "Pacho" Lane
As I understand it, the ritual is a symbolic presentation of the Mesoamerican view of humanity’s place in the universe. We receive the blessings of the sun, and we offer ourselves in return so that he may continue his life-giving journey, just as the gods sacrificed themselves to make the sun to feed us. So our role is to keep the universe in balance by sacrificial actions. We are not only part of nature, we are also the stewards who keep the system going for the benefit of all.
But then why the Spanish costumes? My explanation – admittedly speculative – is that the Totonacs identified the ritual with Christ. The reason has to do with the importance of human sacrifice in both the Mediterranean and Mesoamerica.
In Mesoamerican cosmology, human sacrifice was necessary to feed the sun and keep the universe in motion. Humans have two souls, one of which is pure Tonal, the energy of which the sun is composed, and which it burns to give us life. (The other soul is the Nahual, or animal spirit-double.) The Tonal was located in the heart. So heart sacrifice liberated this Tonal soul to join the sun, and by uniting with the sun, keep it on its daily journey across the sky.
While this concept was common to all Mesoamerican cultures, and seems to have been developed by the Olmecs three thousand or so years ago, the Aztecs, the people of the sun god Huitzilipochtli, refined it into their central mythology. Huitzilipochtli constantly needed more Tonal to keep him going, so the Aztecs needed to conquer more and more peoples to supply a growing quantity of sacrificial victims.
By the time the Aztecs conquered the Totonacs in the fifteenth century, what had once been an occasional sacrifice became an onerous burden. The Aztecs demanded, and collected, a constant tribute of young men and women to sacrifice on the altars of Huitzilipochtli. So when Cortes landed in the year One Reed, 1519, only a few miles from the Totonac capital, Zempoala, the Totonacs welcomed them, and quickly allied with them against the Aztecs.
The Spanish priests brought with them statues of a white bearded god on a wooden version of the symbol of the four directions. They told the Totonacs that this god had sacrificed himself so that no further human sacrifice would be needed, and that they should accept him as their god, in place of all others. Since Quetzalcoatl, represented as white and bearded, had prophesied his return in the year Cortes landed, my guess is that the Totonacs identified the white, bearded Christ image as Quetzalcoatl . There may be no way to prove or disprove this hypothesis. But there is circumstantial evidence. The patron of the Huehuetla Voladores is San Salvador, the risen Christ – a logical manifestation of the returning Quetzalcoatl. And since Cortes and his men claimed to be the followers of the returning Quetzalcoatl, it would make sense for the Voladores to dress in European costumes. Similarly, the Flowering Tree could easily be identified with the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Four Directions to which the second Quetzalcoatl was nailed. This explanation appears to account for the symbolic transformations in the Voladores ritual.
Finally, and perhaps strangest of all, Christ was in fact the perfect mythological answer to the Mesoamerican dilemma: a god who sacrificed himself to end all sacrifice.
Besides explaining the Volador ritual, for me this interpretation for the first time made a kind of sense out of the otherwise baffling central idea of Christian theology: that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity. But it also raised new questions, which I am still struggling to answer. How could a theology born in the Levant possibly "resolve" a mythic dilemma halfway around the world? Discarding the Mormon fantasy of a lost tribe, the answer must surely lie in a broader conception of the role of human sacrifice in the development of human societies. Why was human sacrifice so widespread, and why does it seem to occur in early agricultural societies?
It should be obvious that making this film changed my life. My Quaker faith had been put into practice in a completely unexpected way, and it had worked in a way I would not have imagined possible.
It seemed I had become a vehicle through which the Light had chosen to work, and that by using all my faculties in obedience to the leadings I had made something that would never, ever, have been made by applying my conscious mind. Indeed, I realized that if I had come armed either with a pre-conceived Christian theology, or with a hypothesis based on an anthropological research model, I would not have been able to be open to what the ritual actually meant. It was by coming without preconceptions, in obedience to a leading, that I was able to make The Tree of Life. I have called this process "Zen film-making" because that makes more sense to people. But really it’s just good old basic Quakerism.
Making the film has not only defined the way I approach film-making, but has refocused my life. My involvement with Mexico continues, with Mexican Indians in general, and with Huehuetla and the family of my compadre. I have made five films so far on Mexican Indians, and have worked on another about Peruvian Indians. And there are more in the works. I’m putting one Nahua girl through nursing school in Mexico, and am working on bringing my Totonac godchildren to study in the US. In Mexico I currently live in Tepoztlan, an indigenous community which has managed to keep most of its lands – and I’m renting from an indigenous family.
Although I did not realize it at first, it is becoming apparent that moving to Tepoztlan is another step on the same leading that started with The Tree of Life. The inhabitants of Tepoztlan pay homage to El Tepozteco, a Christlike hero and sometime god, son of Quetzalcoatl and a virgin. Currently, I am making a film about his legend and its meaning today. Recounting how this came about will have to wait for another installment.
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de Sahagun, Fray Bernadino Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana (Codice Florentino), Consejo Nacional de Cultura, Mexico, 2000.
Ichon, Alain La Religion de los Totonacas de la Sierra, Instituto Nacional Indigenista, Mexico 1990.
Kintana, Angel Maria Garibay Poesia Nahuatl, Vols I -III, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Mexico 1964.
Seler, Eduard; E. Forstemann; Paul Schellhas. Mexican and Central American Antiquities, Calendar Systems, and History. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1975 (Reprint of 1909 edition.)
Seler, Eduard. Collected Works in Mesoamerican Linguistics and Archaeology. Six volumes, Labyrinthos, Culver City, Calif 1990-1998.
QUEST, P.O. Box 1344, Fayetteville NC 28302 USA