Clay sculptures have been a long tradition in MesoAmerica. Before the Conquest, the tree of life (or 'world tree') held deep significance for MesoAmerica, even though after the Conquest, these pottery sculptures became a key way to teach Christianity. I remember reading how the elders cried when the conquistadores burned religious books (codices), sculptures, and paintings.
In San Miguel de Allende, I learned the natives were put to work painting artwork for the Catholic Church in a small, nearby community. But the final murals were whitewashed and hidden from view for decades because they included what the church fathers deemed pagan images.
But the people remembered, and religious ideas were shared between native communities all through the Southwest and into South America.
Back in 2005, we visited Teotihuacan near Mexico City and stumbled upon a re-enactment of the ritual of the World Tree. I cannot pretend to understand its meaning, but to watch this ritual unfolding was a breathtaking experience.
First, somehow, a large artificial 'tree' had been erected.
Next, an elder ascended to the top of the tree, a flute in his hand.
Four young men -- one for each sacred direction -- followed him up the tree. They are called voleadores (those who fly), though I have learned since a few women serve this role today.
The five balanced on top of the 'tree' as the elder played music and danced. He faced each of the dancers, perhaps to honor the four sacred directions.
Then, at a key moment, the four men reached out and fell,
slowly circling the tree -- until they safely reached ground.
What a moment of faith and trust.
I was so thrilled to see this for myself, that I tried to take a video, but my camera was sideways, and the video unusable. So I offer these few photographs I took that you may appreciate the beauty of this moment.
Today, this ritual of the voladores has been named an Intangible World Heritage by UNESCO. More can be read at Wikipedia