Otomí Religion

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OTOMÍ RELIGION . The Otomí Indians of central Mexico, who speak a language of the Oto-Manguean phylum, number approximately 250,000. They occupy a vast territory located between 19° and 21° north latitude and 98° and 100° west longitude. This area, characterized by stark geographical contrasts, stretches from the steep mountain masses of the Sierra Gorda to the semiarid Mezquital plateaus, and from the Toluca Valley to the rolling hills of the Huastecan piedmont. In addition to the different sociocultural patterns that have emerged from this mosaic of environments, the blending of Indian culture with folk Catholicism from the colonial period to the present day has yielded a syncretic religion that is dominated by Christianity but includes specific forms of dualism that set the Otomí symbolic universe apart from its colonial influences.

There is little information on the origins of the Otomí, and their role in shaping the great Mesoamerican systems of thought remains unexplored. Subjects of the Aztec Empire from the fifteenth century to the conquest, the Otomí came under its sway everywhere except in the outlying eastern regions (Tutotepec, Huayacoctla). Since then, Otomí religious activities have been constrained to a clandestinity favored by the dispersal of their settlements. They have come to center primarily on local patrilineal cults (agrarian fertility rites and ancestor worship), while their ceremonial and liturgical calendar continues to reflect patterns of thought similar to those of the Aztecs on the eve of conquest.

Throughout the colonial period and down to the present, their particularly fluid social organization, built on a network of patrilineagical shrines, has allowed the Otomí to resist evangelization. Yet, devotions to Roman Catholic saints coexist with native rituals and sometimes, as in the Sierra Madre, serve to camouflage them. The focal points of this dual religious life are the home, the shrines, and the sacred mountain, on the one hand, and chapels and village churches, on the other. These different ritual spaces are arranged in a hierarchy that parallels a cosmic vision of different "skins" (si ), or sacred places (from the uterine cavity to the celestial vault), symbolically enclosed within each other.

At each level of the cosmic hierarchy there are correspondences based on fundamental male-female polarity. Thus, at the uppermost level of space, the sun and the moon form a complementary and antagonistic pair. The moon (Zâna), however, presents a complex and disquieting image to the Otomí. While in her syncretistic form Zâna is feminine and is associated with the Virgin of Guadalupe, in the indigenous cosmological system the moon displays a complex of complementary characteristics, including dual gender: It represents feminine characteristics (childbirth, sensuality, weaving, computing of time, death) as well as masculine ones (erection, mastery of women and their fertility). While the moon is the antagonistic counterpart to the masculine sun, it also embodies within itself the complementary forces. Further, as the heavenly counterpart to the earth goddess Hmûhoi, Zâna helps govern both creation and destruction.

The conception of a nighttime creation continues to power the Otomí imagination. One of the oldest Mesoamerican deities, the Otomí fire god known in the Aztec pantheon as Otontecuhtli ("the Otomí lord") is believed to govern, as he did in times past, the order of things. He is Šihta Sipi ("the ancestor who devours excrement"), the purifying principle whose presence marks the emergence of culture (associated with cooked food). He is also the preeminent lord of nocturnal spaces and grottoes, the realm of an imaginary world that mirrors in miniature the world of humans.

To understand the logic of the oppositions that inform Otomí cosmology, it is helpful to understand the model on which they are based: the human body. As a receptacle for the field of forces animating the universe, the body reveals the difference between a diurnal, masculine, "warm" world and a feminine, nocturnal, "cold" one and the process by which energy flows between the two (in the transfer of "energy" from the man's body to the woman's).

Otomí ritual is, in essence, a manifestation of a process of fusion between polarities of which the sexual distinction is the prototype. This is seen in rituals from fertility rites (costumbres ) to the Feast of the Dead, which is both a mourning of ancestors and a celebration of the life force contained in their bones. The interdependence of life and death is revealed most completely in Carnival. During this time the major gods are represented by an ancestral couple, such as Old Father (Šihta) and Old Mother (Pømbe), whose function is to reenact the primordial creation. From their broken bodies they kindle life and youth in a supernatural society governed by devils, demons of vegetation, and lascivious women. Paradoxically, in Mezquital, where the erosion of indigenous tradition has been most complete, Carnival remains, despite its European origins, one of the last areas of resistance to cultural hybridization. Indigenous elements are also plainly evident in a number of rituals in the Catholic liturgical cycle, such as the Feast of the Finding of the Cross (Sierra Gorda) and the Feast of the Three Magi (Rio Laja Valley).

The richest complex of rituals is found on the eastern periphery of the Otomí region, in the foothills of the Sierra Madre. A distinctive feature of the religious life here is the use of hammered bark figurines that are fashioned and given their power by shamans. These figurines, rare evidence of pre-Hispanic iconography, are a precious source for interpreting the indigenous cosmological system. They are part of the essential paraphernalia of the healing and fertility rituals organized by shamans. As adepts possessed of specialized knowledge, shamans manipulate unseen forces and are thus able to cure (by restoring the body's equilibrium) and to afflict (by casting spells at a distance).

The cargo systemthat is, the system of ritually based obligations to participate in the functioning of the community's civil and religious lifevaries significantly from one community to another. This system is a primary cohesive force binding villages (pueblos ) and their dependent peripheries (hamlets). Such cohesion is also promoted by regional pilgrimages to sacred mountains or Catholic sanctuaries (San Agustín Mezquititlán, Chalma, Tepeaca in Mexico City).

Through their many variants, Otomí rituals reveal certain obscure aspects of Otomí cosmology that are hardly brought to light by the myths themselves. Though known in a version little changed since pre-Hispanic times, the story of the creation of the sun and moon, the foundation of the dualistic order of the universe, is not often told anymore, except in villages deeply rooted in the Indian tradition. Yet the symbolic structure of this text remains, dimly outlined, in a number of tales that pit Christ against the Devil. Similarly, the theme of the Flood, in its variations, reveals how Mesoamerican symbols combine with biblical ones according to the importance each community gives to the two traditions.

In Otomí mythology today, the Devil appears as a predominant figure everywhere. Through a process of adjustment and reinterpretation, the medieval European figure of Satan has merged with indigenous representations of evil, fertility, and impurity. The Devil now sits enthroned at the apex of the pantheon, holding sway over a band of nocturnal deities and merging with the enigmatic lunar figure of Zâna.


Carrasco, Pedro. Los Otomies: Cultura e historia prehispánicas de los pueblos mesoamericanos de habla otomiana. Mexico City, 1950. A comprehensive account of the ethnohistorical sources available on the subject.

Dow, James. Santos y supervivencias: Funciones de la religion en una comunidad otomi. Mexico City, 1974. A very detailed analysis of the religious obligation system in Santa Monica, a Sierra Madre village.

Galinier, Jacques. Nʾyuhu: Les indiens Otomis. Mexico City, 1979. An ethnographical study of the eastern Otomí area.

Manrique, Leonardo. "The Otomí." In Handbook of Middle American Indians. Austin, Tex., 1969. A brief synthesis of the main cultural features of the Otomí-Pame groups.

Soustelle, Jacques. La famille Otomi-Pame. Paris, 1937. The first study concerning the geographical distribution and linguistic characteristics of the Otomí, Mazahua, Atzinca, Pame, and Chichimeca languages, containing also valuable ethnographical data.

New Sources

Dow, James. "Symbols, Soul and Magical Healing among the Otomí Indians." Journal of Latin American Lore 10, no. 1 (1984): 321.

Dow, James. Shaman's Touch: Otomí Indian Symbolic Healing. Salt Lake City, 1986.

Galinier, Jacques. Moitié du monde: le corps et le cosmos dans le rituel des Indiens Otomi. Paris, 1997.

Pérez Lugo, Luis. Visión del mundo otomi en correlato con la maya en torno al agro y al maiz. Toluca, Mexico, 2002.

Sandstrom, Alan R. Traditional Curing and Crop Fertility Rituals among Otomí Indians of the Sierra de Puebla, Mexico. Bloomington, Ind., 1981.

Jacques Galinier (1987)

Translated from French by Robert Paolucci
Revised Bibliography