The Making of “The Tree Of Life”

By Bruce “Pacho” Lane

Quakerism and Mexican Indian Religious Beliefs

This is a story about learning to put Quaker faith into practice in a way George Fox never anticipated, while making a film about a Mexican Indian religious belief and ritual.

I’m a “birth-right” Friend. My father, Ralph Lane, was convinced while in college at the University of Illinois. I was too young to remember attending 57th St. Meeting as a child but do vaguely remember the Oak Park Meeting, which my parents founded. In 1948, when I was ten, my father took a position in Mathematics at the University of Texas, and we moved to Austin. There too, my parents were founders of the Austin Meeting.

Texas was another country for me. We lived in a white neighborhood, but only a block from the black ghetto. As time passed, I gradually became aware, also, of my Mexican classmates — admitted to, but not accepted in, to the white schools. I began to learn Spanish in the ninth grade, and later traveled to Mexico with my prep school, Verde Valley School, a Quaker-influenced offshoot of Putney School, near Sedona, Arizona. It was there also that I first experienced Indian ritual. The school traveled for two weeks every year to the Navajo reservation. I went to several Night Chants, and can still recall them clearly.

With college at the University of Texas (UT) in the 50’s came the challenge of military service, and the first questioning of what I had accepted without much thought in First-Day School. I applied for and got my CO status, but more importantly, the need to think about my beliefs made me much more aware of the injustices in American society. With the Austin AFSC office, I helped organize weekend workcamps in the black and Mexican neighborhoods and then spent a summer in an AFSC workcamp in San Antonio, honing my Spanish working with new migrants.

In 1958-59 I took an impromptu “junior year abroad,” enrolled as an auditor in the Goettingen University, attended the German Yearly Meeting in East Berlin, and became very interested in Eastern Europe. In the second semester, I switched to studying Russian (in German) at Heidelberg University.

Back at UT, majoring in political science, I was picked to participate in the 1960 Texas-Chile exchange program and spent the summer of 1960 in Chile, in intense political discussions with Chilean students – many of whom later worked with the Allende government –and “disappeared” when Pinochet took power (with US support). In the spring of 1961, I was a student delegate from UT to the conference the new Kennedy administration called to found the Peace Corps, and was selected for the very first group of Peace Corps volunteers to go overseas, to Colombia, from 1961-63.

Our group was assigned to work in rural community development. As a city kid, living in a small Colombian town, ten hours by car from an urban area, was a big change. I loved the face-to-face communication, and the sense, even as a temporary resident, of belonging to a community. I was lucky to be posted to towns close to major indigenous groups, first on the northern Venezuelan border, and then in the Amazon basin. My off-duty time was spent visiting Guajiro, Kogi, Motilon, and Desana Indian groups.

As for so many others, the Viet Nam war changed my life. After Colombia, I wanted to continue working with third world development, and particularly with indigenous peoples. Foreign Aid seemed like the logical approach, so I entered graduate school in development economics, at the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor had a strong chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). As US intervention in Viet Nam expanded, I joined the SDS protests.

In the summer of 1965, I applied to work as a “summer intern” with AID in Latin America. Instead, I was offered a slot in Viet Nam, and jumped at the chance to see what the US was doing firsthand. The experience there convinced me my government was wrong, and that I could not morally support it. That made it impossible to think of a career with a government agency – especially the Foreign Service.

Not knowing what to do next, I decided to take my recently-widowed mother and two younger sisters to Europe for an extended stay. When we returned to Austin in 1967, I tried to return to graduate school at the University of Texas for a PhD in political science. But I could no longer concentrate on course-work. Since UT was a center both for the anti-war movement and for the counter-culture, it was natural to continue my activism. But what was really new was the addition of psyche-delics – psilocybin, mescalin – as well as marijuana, which put me in touch with visionary experience in a whole new way.

At the end of the fall 1967 semester a friend told me about the new film school at UT, and suggested I take a course. Since I was “seeing” more and “reading” less, it sounded interesting. I was immediately hooked, but knew at once I was not interested in fiction films, or commercials, or television. I was looking for a way to share my interests in foreign countries, in Latin America, and particularly in traditional cultures. With this newly-awakened interest in visual, rather than verbal, communication, film-making seemed the perfect medium for sharing what I had learned in the Peace Corps in Colombia, traveling in Europe, and as an activist.

While I was learning how to make films at UT, my sister, Karen, was studying anthropology. In the spring of 1969, Karen got a small grant for us to go to Mexico over the Easter break to make a film. A Mexican anthropology professor said there was supposed to be an interesting Easter celebration in Huehuetla, in the northern mountains of the state of Puebla, not far from the Gulf coast. So we drove down to Poza Rica, and flew in to Huehuetla in a Piper Cub – the only alternative to walking nine hours.

We were all charmed by Huehuetla. It was like traveling back two hundred years, not just to a different time, but to a different reality. Only about five per cent of the population were mestizos — native speakers of Spanish. The rest were monolingual Totonac Indians, who lived as they had for the last 500 years, and in many ways as before the Spanish conquest. Besides, the countryside was gorgeous, subtropical mountains with coffee trees and cornfields on the steep slopes. No cars, no running water, no electricity, and of course, no television. We were probably the first U.S. Americans ever to show up in Huehuetla, and were welcomed as curiosities by the mestizos. On this first visit, we had no real contact with the Totonacs, because of the language barrier.

When we got back to Austin, we showed our little Super-8 Easter film around, and told our friends about the town. Other friends made the trek over the next year. Meanwhile, I had gotten married, but the marriage was not going well. In fact, my wife was having an affair with my best friend. So I decided to disappear for a while and drove to the woods in Arkansas to think things over.

I camped out in an isolated spot, and thought about where my life was supposed to be going. For some reason, a hawk hung around, and called. Perhaps I was camping near his (or her) nest, or hunting ground. Be that as it may, I started calling back, and we had a sort of dialogue, or so I imagined. Gradually it became clear that something was calling me to return to Huehuetla and make another film. I didn’t know what the film would be about, only that I had to go and make one.

It wasn’t until several years later that I learned that Mexican Indians believed (and some still believe) that hawks are the reincarnations of warriors who died in battle or were sacrificed – and that the film I ended up making was about exactly this.

So I returned to Austin filled with new purpose. I scraped together enough money to buy a Beaulieu camera, capable of holding a two and a half minutes of 16mm film, a tripod, and film, borrowed a Nagra recorder from the Folklore Center, and left for Mexico.

Back in Huehuetla, I looked up Clementina, a mestiza (native Spanish-speaking) woman with whom friends had stayed. On her own initiative, she took me out into the country to visit a Totonac family, her compadres (co-parents). They welcomed us, and I immediately liked them very much. With Clementina’s interpreting I learned they were the leaders of the Volador (or “Flyers”) dance group.

Because our first visit had been with mestizos, I had not heard about the Voladores. With Clementina’s help, they explained the ritual, which involves climbing an eighty-foot pole and then “flying” off it. The pole had already been cut and raised in the church plaza. Still, without having seen the ritual, I had trouble envisioning what this would look like, but knew immediately this was what I had come to make a film about.

The first thing I filmed was the preparation of the beautiful ceremonial candles. There were several dozen individual candles, about two feet high, each lovingly made of beeswax and adorned with elaborate wax decorations The most striking things were two large “candelabra,” each with six yellow beeswax candles in a circle and one in the center, all adorned with wax flowers and birds, and with a wire circlet attached to the central candle. It only became clear later that the candles had nothing to do with the Voladores. Salvador, who with his brother Juan was one of the two Capitanes (“Captains”) of the group, had accepted the obligation of providing the candles for the church fiesta as a mayordomo charged with the expenses of one day of the fiesta.

At some point I realized I was being guided, and my job was to discern what I was being led to film. In retrospect, I am fairly sure the “inspiration” to return to Huehuetla came “from” the hawk in the Arkansas woods. But in fact, my whole life had led me to that point. I was unconsciously practicing being open to the Light, and following where it was leading. Without analyzing it, I was applying Quaker process to film-making.

Once I committed to making the film, Way opened before me. Things happened I could not have planned, indeed that would not have happened if I had tried to make them happen. If my friends had not met Clementina, and if I had not stayed with her, she would not have taken me to visit the Voladores. If Clementina had not previously taken another friend, a biologist specializing in frogs, to visit her compadres, and if he had not taken stills of the family and mailed them back to the families, they would not have cooperated when I started filming. And if I had not “intuitively” filmed the candle-making, I could not have made sense out of the Voladores ritual. I’ll come back to that.

Back home in Austin, my wife and I made up, and started an import business selling hand-embroidered Mexican Indian clothing. As soon as I had enough money ($400), I had ten minutes of the film developed and printed, and managed to show it Bob Schenkkan, the manager of KLRN, the Austin PBS station. It turned out he was a Mexico buff, and was so impressed by the footage he got me enough money to develop and print the rest, and to pay for basic editing equipment. Over the next year, I edited the footage. When Schenkkan saw the half-finished film, he found enough money to pay for a second trip to finish the film.

When the money came, I made an advance trip to make arrangements with the Voladores, so we could be there in time to film the felling of the tree, and found two other film graduate students at UT to work on the project. David was to do camera, and Ben to take care of the sound, while I directed.

We arrived in Huehuetla the night before the tree was to cut. The Voladores were waiting for us, and we arranged for them to come for us at 5:00 am the next morning. Before sleeping, we checked the equipment, and everything was fine.

The next morning we made the three-mile trek along the “camino de herradura” (horse-shoe road) to the tree. Ben awoke with the “Aztec two-step,” and had to stop by the side of the path every few minutes, but made the journey. Since this was a faena, or communal labor project, over three hundred Totonac men joined us on the path. By tradition, faenas could only happen on Saturday mornings, so they planned to cut and trim the tree, then drag it back to the churchyard near Clementina’s house, where we had started that morning.

Once at the tree, we set up the camera and tape recorder, and stashed the film safely away from where the tree was supposed to fall. As soon as we were ready, Salvador made the sign of the four directions at the base of the tree with an offering of refino, the local white lightning. Then the faeneros attached ropes to the tree so they could pull it down when it had been cut far enough.

As the first axe blow fell, our Nagra recorder stopped dead. While David kept filming, Ben and I checked the recorder and found that the alkaline batteries, new that morning, had mysteriously gone dead – theoretically impossible. So we sent a kid on the six-mile hike back to town to get more batteries. Ben, meanwhile, collapsed, glad to be able to focus his attention exclusively on his bowels.

As I tried to direct David with the camera, it became clear he didn’t understand what I wanted. In frustration, I told him to stop, that I would film because we didn’t have time to argue. So David sulked as I filmed the chopping of the tree. I finished a roll, and started running with the camera to where we had left the film, to change the roll.

Then I felt a pressure on my back, and heard the tree begin its fall. I realized that the tree was falling directly on me! Suddenly my mind went into automatic pilot — fully conscious, running, but my Self was sitting in a small room in the back of my skull — that’s what it felt like — calmly watching my body run, and my conscious mind experience pure terror.

At that moment, words appeared. It wasn’t a moving finger or a Voice, but somehow the words were there: “I’m going to hit you but I’m not going to kill you.” Then the tree hit the top of my skull and I blanked out.

When I awoke, three hundred Totonacs were crowded around me, and David was feeling my pulse. Blood was pouring from my head, but my first concern, of course, was for the camera. The body was unhurt, but our zoom lens had snapped off as I fell on the camera. I looked around and saw that I had been hit by a branch. The tree trunk was only a couple of feet to the left. I felt very grateful for the tree’s decision not to kill me!

Once they saw I was all right, the Totonacs went back to work, lopping off branches and getting the tree ready to drag down the mule trail. We now had no recorder and no camera, and two of us were out of commission. The faeneros wouldn’t wait, so I asked David to take stills with his Pentax. David shot two rolls of 35 mm, and then realized that the film had not been advancing through the camera!

By this time it was clear to the three of us that something more than just accidents was at work. But there was nothing left to do but follow along as the three hundred Totonacs dragged the tree trunk down the trail. As the tree turned a corner, the tip hit a wasp nest. Out of the three hundred-odd souls within range, the wasps stung only David – about a dozen times.

Fortunately, a few minutes later it began to rain. The faeneros dropped their ropes, and everyone headed for shelter. I ran into a tienda (store) with Salvador and Juan, and asked them what had happened. They were very apologetic. They said they knew the tree had “a bad heart” because the owner had not wanted to sell it at the confiscatory price the town mayor had set. So they said they had been especially careful to ask the tree’s permission in the ceremony we had filmed. They wondered if we should make an offering, too, but decided nothing could happen to us, since we were gringos!

Once recovered from my shock, I asked them what we should do in order to be able to continue filming. They said I had to placate the spirit of the tree, and told me the steps in a ritual to do at the altar in Clementina’s house.

When we got back, I performed the ritual and started packing to go into Mexico City to buy a replacement lens. Since the faeneros would finish dragging the tree the following Saturday, and it took a day each way to Mexico City, we had plenty of time – three days – to find the lens.

But it didn’t work that way. David and I looked everywhere, but couldn’t find anything that would work. I was depressed, and felt like Joe Btfsplk, the character in the old comic strip “L’il Abner,” who carried a rain cloud over him wherever he went.

Finally, the last day, I decided to go back to our first stop, a photo store near our hotel, run by an old German emigre. About a block from the store, I felt the rain clouds part over my head: there in the shop window was exactly the lens we needed. I pointed out the lens to the owner and said how glad I was that he had just gotten the exact lens. He said that lens had been in the window for months. He must have been right, but we had not seen it on our previous visit nor had he pointed it out. We and the lens made it back in time to film the arrival of the tree at the churchyard, where it would be raised a few days later.

Meanwhile Ben had spent the week with the Voladores. Apparently because they felt guilty about the tree falling on me, they had decided they wanted to participate actively in the film. They volunteered to cut another tree so we could film it. They had also come up with a list of things to film, and suggestions as to how to film them – this from people who had never seen a film! From that point on, the film became a cooperative endeavor in which they participated fully.

Ben and David, however, were having trouble with my “intuitive” approach. They felt they didn’t know what we were doing, and they asked me to write a script, as we had been taught to do in film school. I did, but it felt so wrong that I told them I couldn’t follow a script. I couldn’t explain what we were doing and they would just have to trust that it would work somehow. So not only were they in a place totally unlike anything they had ever experienced, but they were with a madman whom they couldn’t understand! They decided they couldn’t continue, and returned to the US.

Fortunately by this point another friend, David Taylor, had showed up with his camera, and my wife, Susan, and sister, Karen, had arrived, so we were able to finish shooting the ritual. Of course both Susan and Karen had been to Huehuetla on our first trip, and were much more comfortable with the community, which helped David feel more at ease.

This is probably as good a time as any to explain what actually happens during the Voladores ritual. I’ll get to an interpretation further on.

When the tree is raised in the churchyard, it has been wrapped with vines as a rough ladder. On top – eighty feet in the air – is a hub, about 18″ in diameter, from which is suspended a frame. Ropes are wound around the pole and through the hub.

On the day or days of the town fiesta, from Sept 5 through 8th, the Voladores dress in special costumes which are clearly derived from eighteenth-century European menswear – knee breeches, frock coats, Spanish shoes (the only time they ever wear shoes), sunglasses, and “dunce caps.” They dance at the entrance of the church, participate in any church procession, and dance again around the pole.

When they have finished the preliminaries, the Voladores climb the pole. The Capitan sits on the hub, and as he plays a three-hole reed flute he leans back until he is horizontal, four times, for the four directions. He then stands up on the hub, and dances a complete circle, East-North-West-South-East.

Meanwhile, the other Voladores have tied the ropes around their waists. When the Capitan completes the circle, he sits down and plays the flute and drum as the others fall backward off the frame, eighty feet from the ground, attached to the ropes threaded through the hub. As the ropes unwind, the Voladores slowly descend, circling head down with arms outstretched until they flip over for landing just before reaching the ground.

The first flight must be at noon, when the sun is at the zenith, and the Capitan must perform the ritual on the hub for the first flight. Thereafter, the dancers can fly as often as they wish, with or without a dancer on the hub.

On the first flight, with a new pole, and new ropes, the Voladores are very nervous. There are many stories of accidents, which, however, are always attributed to improper behavior during the ceremony. For example, a previous Capitan had allowed two drunken Indians to fly off the pole (during the ritual period, the Voladores may not drink alcohol and must abstain from sex). The Capitan was watching from the ground, and one of the drunks fell on him – and walked away unhurt. But the Capitan was crippled for life, and was unable to fly again. So this year the Voladores were particularly concerned, since the tree had already almost killed me. But everything went perfectly!

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.

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.


Chenaut, Victoria Aquellos que Vuelan, Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropologia Social, Mexico 1995 .

Clavijero, Francisco Javier Historia Antigua de Mexico, Imprenta de Lara, Mexico 1884.

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.

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