Archive for the 'Paper' 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
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. <>.

[2] National Museum of the American Indian, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2016. <®id=43&culid=373&src=1-1&page=1>. Otomí collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Object: Dresden Codex Copy

Copy of Dresden Codex
Jorge Enrique Bonilla Mendez (this copy)
Maya (original)
Yucatan, Mexico (original)
ca. 11th -13th century (original) / ca. 1960s (this copy)
Materials: Wood, paper, & ink

This object is a handmade copy of the Dresden Codex, made by Guatemalan artist Jorge Enrique Bonilla Mendez in the 1960’s. The original Dresden Codex is one of the oldest known books written in the Americas and may have been a copy of an even earlier text dating back to 700-900 CE. Considered to be the most complete of the Mayan codices still in existence, it contains ancient Mayan almanacs, astronomical observations, astrological tables, ritual schedules, and calendars. The 74 page book know referred to as the Dresden Codex is named for the European city in which it was kept from the 1700’s onward. Little is known about how the so-called Dresden Codex made it to Europe, but it may have been one of a group of ancient texts collected by Hernán (or Hernando) Cortés in the early 1500’s. The first known record of its existence came in 1739 when it was purchased (in three pieces) from an unknown private collector by Johann Christian Götze, the Director of the Royal Library at Dresden. Next, in 1810 Alexander von Humboldt published a portion of the text (the first modern reproduction) in his Vues des cordilleres et monuments des peuples indigenous de l’Amerique. In 1829 Constantine Rafinesque-Schmaltz was the first to identify it as a Mayan codex, and in 1880 Ernst Forstemann was able to correctly reassemble the three sections of text. Translation and interpretation of the text has continued to this day, including a much hyped end of the world prediction loosely (and most would say incorrectly) based on Mayan calendars like those found in the Dresden Codex.

The following video excerpt describes the ongoing process of translating ancient Mayan texts. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Amate paper charms

Amate paper charms
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]

Object: Lance

Bullfighting lances or Picas
20th century
Materials: Wood, metal nail, paper

Bullfighting has been a favorite sport in Mexico for many years. Originally introduced to Mexico by the Spanish, Mexican matadores perform specific moves, occasionally using a piece of red cloth, to encourage the bull to charge them. As the bull charges, the matadore will try to avoid being trampled while simultaneously injuring the bull. The

lances, or picas, from the Sam Noble Museum‘s Ethnology Collection were meant to be stuck into the neck of the bull as it charges. The metal tips of the lances are made from nails and are sharpened to form small hooks that are meant to catch in the bull’s flesh. These injuries, and the resulting blood loss, will slowly tire the bull and in the end, the bull is killed with a sword. The pica originated in Spanish bullfighting as the weapon used by the picadores, one of three sets of fighters that would engage the bull. Typically, a Mexican bullfighting event includes other activities or shows leading up to the the bullfight as the main event and can easily last all day.

Thousands of bullfighting events occur annually in Mexico, Spain, and other parts of Central America. Despite their popularity, recently there have been increased efforts to stop the sport, now seen by many to be cruel and inhumane. Bullfighting is now banned from National Spanish Television, and the Spanish region of Catalonia has banned the practice. There are also a number of groups attempting to pass bullfighting bans in Mexico, Ecuador, and other areas of Spain.

The following link will connect you to a National Geographic video with more information on the bullfighting tradition in Mexico. Viewer discretion is advised however as this video includes footage of actual bullfights. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Religious Text

Persian: Page from the Qur’an
Levantine Area
ca. 11th century
Materias: Paper, ink

This page of the Qur’an includes verses 72-75 of sura 39 and verses 2-7 of sura 40 and is representative of many hand-written Qur’an manuscripts. Composed in the cursive style, the Arabic calligraphy serves as ornamentation itself, in addition to beautiful illumination.

The Qur’an is considered divine speech to adherent Muslims around the world, and its poetic, literary beauty is understood to be miraculous by believers and the supreme work of Arabic literature by scholars. This aesthetic value of the Qur’an is often overlooked, but is of utmost importance both religiously and historically. Indeed, Islamic art derives almost all of its inspiration from the beauty of the Qur’an, as exemplified by the prolific use of Arabic calligraphy – often verses from the Qur’an, the name of the Prophet Muhammad, or Allah – to decorate mosques and in visual art.

The illumination of Qur’an manuscripts is intended to reflect the beauty of the Arabic itself, the beauty of the content of each verse, and the visual beauty of the calligraphy. The written composition and illumination of Qur’an manuscripts, then, is understood to be a religious art, conducted not only by the most masterful calligraphers and artists, but also the most pious. Since the Qur’an is considered unsurpassed, and unsurpassable, in beauty by Muslims, simply to reproduce the words of the Qur’an is the highest artistic achievement. Indeed, given the skill required to produce these incredibly ornate manuscripts, it is not surprising that the epitome of Islamic art is Qur’anic manuscripts such as this one (see picture on right).

The verbal, or spoken, Qur’an also has an aesthetic value of its own. Prayer in the mosque, or outside the mosque, consists exclusively of Qur’anic recitation. The recitation of the Qur’an in prayer is very structured, with prescribed rules for every detail of the performance from the length of the verses to the pronunciation of vowel sounds. The rhythm of Qur’an recitation is quite musical, though Muslims are adamant regarding the non-musicality of recitation. This rhythmic quality is produced in part due to the complex rhyme structure of the Qur’an itself, but also due to the regulations for how Arabic sounds are to be produced during the recitation. To hear a prayer recitation click here.

[Allana Taylor]

Object: Figurine

Hindu: Figurine of Dancing Shiva
20th century
Materials:  paper-maché, plaster

This object is a dancing figure of Shiva, the “Lord of the Dance” in Hindu religion.  This figure is a rare example of the figure with the right leg raised as opposed to the left leg in more common Dancing Shiva figures.  The headdress is gold with red trim.  The entire paper-maché figure is covered with gold paint.  The figure is mounted on a black plaster base.  The figure has four arms which represent the four cardinal directions. Each hand makes a specific “mudra” (gesture).

Hinduism is an ancient religion with no known founder or known date of origin. The term “Hinduism” simply derives from the word “India” and refers to a wide variety of religious traditions and philosophies that have developed in India over thousands of years.  The name for Shiva, or Siva (as is commonly seen), is of Sanskrit origin and can be translated “Auspicious One.”  Shiva is a god of contradictions as he is known also as the destroyer and the restorer, as well as the benevolent herdsman of souls and the wrathful avenger.  Shiva is part of the Hindu trinity along with Vishnu and Brahma.

Shiva’s dance is referred to as the  “Anandatandava,’” meaning the “Dance of Bliss.”  It symbolizes the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction, in addition to the daily rhythm of birth and death.  The Anandatandava said to take place in the “hall of consciousness” within the heart of man. The dance is a pictorial allegory of the five principle manifestations of eternal energy — creation, destruction, preservation, salvation, and illusion. A video of the dance can be seen here.

[Debra Taylor]

Object: Cards

Spain: Deck of Cards
Central America
20th Century
Materials: Paper

This deck of cards may seem incomplete, but this style of deck is called a Spanish deck (“naipes” in Spanish) and consists of only 40 cards, rather than the usual 52 cards. The suits of the cards also vary from the standard deck. The Spanish suits have a direct relation to divinatory tarot cards, which consists of cups, wands or batons, coins, and swords. The three court cards, whose imagery comes from older Arabic decks, are the knave, the horseman, and the king. The border around the outside of the deck helps identify the suit for the player. The cups have a single break in the line, the swords have two breaks, the batons have three breaks, and the coins have a solid line.

This particular style of deck is called “cadiz” by collectors, though the manufacturers did not call it such. Traditionally, the cadiz style has printed words on some of the card faces. The horseman has “Ahi va”, which means something like “Good heavens!”, though the expression is enigmatic. The two of cups has “Naipes de una hoja”, which indicates the cards were printed and cut from a single sheet. Manufactured by Heraclio Fournier in 1896, this deck is marked as “El Leon” which signals the printing cycle of the cards.

The Spanish deck is used in numerous card games popular throughout Spain, Portugal, and Central America, including tute, la escoba, and el mus.

[Daniel Gonzalez]

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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