Archive for the 'Otomi' Category

Object: Witchcraft Papers

Figures 1 and 2: Handcrafted Otomí paper made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree and the fig tree, respectively. From the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

E/1967/16/001, E/1967/16/002
Witchcraft Papers
Otomí
San Pablito, Sierra de Puebla, Mexico
Unknown date: Likely produced before March 1963
Materials: Inner bark of fig & mulberry trees

When entering the small town of San Pablito, inhabited primarily by the Otomí people of Sierra de Puebla, Mexico, a distinctive clapping sound can be heard from a good distance away – the sound of Otomí women handcrafting paper. The samples stored in the Ethnology Collection at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History were crafted from the inner bark of fig and mulberry trees. Otomí women boil the inner bark in ash water, place the boiled fibers on a wooden board, hammer them into thin sheets, and leave them out to dry until they can be peeled off and used. [1] These samples in the Ethnology Collection only represent the earliest stages in the lifespan of one of these Otomí papers, however. The Otomí have a well-established tradition of crafting these papers into intricate dolls and effigies for a variety of purposes, ranging from sacrificial offerings to gods, to devices of sorcery and witchcraft.

 

Although they vary greatly in terms of design and purpose, Otomí dolls crafted from this paper are generally either “good” invocations or employed in various practices of black magic. These two types of dolls are readily distinguishable by their physical appearance, the figures or deities they represent, and their use in various circumstances by the Otomí.

The first type of doll, crafted from the inner bark of the fig tree, is marked by its light hue and used to primarily invoke protection and favor from the spirits. The Otomí believe that a wide variety of spirits control the natural world and every conceivable aspect of life. To win the favor of these spirits, the Otomí engage in a variety of ceremonies often culminating in the offering of paper dolls representing these deities. To placate the Spirit of the Rain (known as the Siren among the Otomí) and ensure proper weather for their crops, the Otomí embark on a pilgrimage to a lagoon where the Siren resides and engage in two days of feasting and celebrating. This ceremony culminates with the Otomí making an offering of foodstuffs, candles, cigarettes, and white paper dolls sprinkled with blood by throwing them into the waters or burying them on the shores of the lagoon. [1] Other figures commonly represented using this form of paper are Pajarito de Estrella (Little Star Bird) and Pajarito de Dos Cabezas (Little Bird with Two Heads.) These dolls represent intermediary figures, spirits that act as messengers between the Otomí and the spirit world. [2] Perhaps the Otomí constructed these figures to serve as offerings to these messengers, ensuring the continued communication between the Otomí and the many spirits they strive to please through their ceremonies.

Additionally, the Otomí craft these light paper dolls to procure protection and aid in a variety of life challenges. A man going to trial for a crime may carry a light doll with its lips sewn shut to prevent the judge from declaring a sentence for him. In other scenarios, a medicine man will craft two light dolls with their arms around each other for a woman whose husband has left her. In what is known as a love ceremony, the medicine man will pass the dolls through the fumes of burning incense and exhale into the dolls’ mouths before giving them to the woman. He will then tell her to follow a variety of instructions, such as to burn a candle before the dolls every day and to take them to bed with her at night in order to ensure that her husband will return to her. [1] The Otomí also buried their dead with these white paper dolls to protect them for whatever lay beyond death. [1] Interestingly, a large number of these light dolls were animal-headed effigies, constructed only for women who had died in abortion; it remains unclear as to why so many of these dolls were made, although it can be speculated that they were buried with and used to provide spiritual protection for these deceased women. [2]

The other variety of Otomí paper doll, constructed from brown paper made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree, primarily sees use in a variety of practices related to witchcraft and sorcery. In particular, the Otomí believe that illnesses are caused by a curse being cast on them, causing an evil spirit to take possession of their bodies; medicine men craft these brown paper dolls in order to cure the ill and cast a curse on the person believed to have originally inflicted the illness. [1] The brown dolls used for curing illness may take on the form of an evil spirit (i.e., the person afflicted by the curse) with the spirit of another evil person attached (representing the person who cast the curse.) [2] When casting a curse or hex, the Otomí bury a brown paper doll pierced by a thorn of Vachellia Cornigera (commonly known as Bullhorn Acacia or Bull’s Horn Acacia), alongside an object from the intended target, such as a lock of hair or a photograph. As such, many Otomí prefer not to have photos taken of them, as they provide the photographer with the ability to inflict a curse. [1]

Even though the two pieces of handcrafted Otomí paper in the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History seem like simple objects, they can actually tell us a great deal about the Otomí people and their beliefs.

[Daniel Quintela]

 Works Cited:

[1] Christensen, Bodil. “Bark Paper and Witchcraft in Indian Mexico.” Economic Botany 17.4 (1963): 361-67. Springer Link. Springer International Publishing. Web. 11 Apr. 2016. <http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF02860145?LI=true>.

[2] National Museum of the American Indian, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2016. <http://www.nmai.si.edu/searchcollections/results.aspx?catids=0&areaid=12®id=43&culid=373&src=1-1&page=1>. Otomí collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Object: Amate paper charms

E/1980/3/6-12
Amate paper charms
Otomi
Central America: Mexico: Puebla
Unknown (likely 20th century)
Materials: Amate paper

Amate paper is a type of bark cloth that has been produced in Mexico for hundreds of years. While many tribal groups in Mexico have produced this type of paper, dating back to the Aztec Empire, today the Otomi people are best know for their amate paper production. The Otomi tribe lives primarily in the Mexican state of Puebla, though smaller communities can be found in Veracruz and Hidalgo. Today charms like these from the Sam Noble Museum‘s Ethnology Collection are frequently sold as tourist items however, the Otomi originally produced paper charms like these for a ritual purpose. There are traditionally two types of paper produced, one light in color and another dark. Cut out figures made from light colored paper are thought to be good spirits or blessings and figures made from dark paper are thought to be demons or curses. These figures were cut out by shamans of the tribe during a special ceremony. The figurines could then be used in rituals and presented as offerings to the spirits. The rituals were usually performed to cure and prevent disease or to ensure good harvests and healthy livestock.

Several different types of trees are used to produce amate paper. This type of paper can be made from various types of ficus and mulberry trees, known as Amate, Jonote, or Xalama Limon. The different types of bark produce different colored paper. The paper is made by harvesting thin strips of bark which are then boiled in water and lime for an extended period of time. After the bark has been boiled to the appropriate texture it is cooled and rinsed. The bark is then laid out in a grid pattern on a hard surface and the fibers are pounded together using stones. Finally the paper is allowed to dry and is then ready for use. A video of the process can be found below.

Other examples of traditional amate paper charms can be found at the University of Missouri’s Museum of Anthropology, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of International Folk Art, and others. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]


Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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