By Rob Pos
5 Feb 2013
According to Totonac myth, at least 450 years ago there was a severe drought that brought hunger to the people. The gods were withholding the rain because the people had neglected them. The ceremony was created, to appease the gods and bring back the rains. In some versions of the story, the ritual is created by the old men of a village, who then chose five young men who were chaste. In other versions, the five men themselves create the ritual. The tallest tree in the nearby forest is cut down, with the permission of the mountain god, stripped of branches and dragged to the village. The trunk is erected with much ceremony. The youths climb the pole and four jump off while the fifth played music. The ritual pleased the rain god Xipe Totec and other gods, so the rains began again and the fertility of the earth returned.
The exact origin of this ritual/dance is unknown, but it is thought to have originated with the Huastec, Nahua and Otomi peoples in Sierra del Puebla and mountain areas of Veracruz.
The ritual spread through much of the Mesoamerican world until it was practiced from northern Mexico to Nicaragua. Evidence for the ritual stretches back at least as far as pre-Classic period according to ceramics found in Nayarit. In pre-Hispanic times, the ritual was far more complex, involving taboos and meditation. The participants were thought to impersonate birds and in some areas were dressed as parrots, macaws, quetzals and eagles. These birds represented the gods of the earth, air fire and water. By the 16th century, the ritual was strongly associated with solar ceremonies, such as the spring equinox. The ritual is most closely tied with rain and solar deities such as Xipe, Totec and Tlazotlteotl.
In Maya mythology the creation of the world is associated with a mythical bird deity (Itzamna) residing at the World Tree (the center of the world). Five "birdmen" at the top of a pole represent bird deities. The main dancer stands in the center and plays a flute, which represents the sound of birds singing. The four other "birdmen" (representing the four directions) spin around the pole to represent the recreation of the world (and the regeneration of life) In the early form, instead of one five men there are six men dressed as birds with each member climbing on top and performing a dance and at the end tied ropes around their waste and who all jump in unison and descend downwards. Many villages in Mexico banned this version of the practice due to injuries and even death.