Academic journal article Ethnology

Ritual Prestation, Intermediate-Level Social Organization, and Sierra Otomi Oratory Groups

Academic journal article Ethnology

Ritual Prestation, Intermediate-Level Social Organization, and Sierra Otomi Oratory Groups

Article excerpt

The Sierra Otomi live in the mountains of the eastern part of the state of Hidalgo and in adjacent municipios of the surrounding states of Puebla and Veracruz. Their way of life is peasant farming on lands that are not rich and where transportation is difficult. The custom of maintaining oratories (small buildings housing religious images) is found there and among the Otomi and Mazahua cultures of the highlands (Soustelle 1935; Dow 1974; Galinier 1976; Margolies 1975:127-33; Cortes Ruiz 1972). Oratories are typically made with more care than the nearby family dwelling of the owners. An oratory, usually somewhat smaller than the dwelling, is built of more permanent materials. They are large enough for several dozen people to enter for celebrations.

Sierra Otomi oratories are found in small hamlets (rancherias), villages (pueblos), and in capital towns (cabeceras) of municipios. A Sierra Otomi oratory is a focus of pride and security. An owner will use it on auspicious occasions. Important visitors may be received with proper protocol by an elder of the community in his oratory. There they will sip rum and talk quietly and politely in the presence of the revered image or images. The owner may recite their history and explain how they have brought peace and prosperity to the neighborhood.

An important difference between an oratory and a family altar is that the image in an oratory has a separate building. The name for a Sierra Otomi oratory is nguja (god house or sacred house). Putting an image in its own house makes the cult less of a private or family affair and more of a community matter, with increased scope for political organization. While these oratories owned by families are private, their celebrations are always open to other people. A cult can widen when an image moves from a private oratory into a public oratory or into a church. Public oratories are owned collectively (Dow 1974; Lagarriga and Sandoval Palacios 1977).

The images kept in Sierra Otomi private oratories may be images of Catholic saints (santos) or of pagan deities, called antiguas (Dow 1986; Soustelle 1935; Galinier 1976). The antiguas are figurines found in the ground or by streams, or are manufactured. Each has a myth telling how it arrived and other myths telling of its powers. People keep the antiguas only in the private oratories and_not in public oratories or churches, where they might offend a visiting priest. (Churches have been established by Catholic missionaries and are used by priests for Catholic rituals as well as for traditional native rituals.) In Spanish, people distinguish between antiguas and santos, but in the Otomi language no such distinction exits. People call both types of images zidahmu (translated as revered great lord, not as deity).

Galinier (1976) writes that Catholic images in the municipio of Santa Ana represent pagan deities, such as water, earth, and fire. Santa Ana is an Otomi town on the edge of the sierra but still in the highlands of the Tulancingo basin. Culturally it is closer to the Sierra Otomi group than it is to the Mezquital Otomi in central Hidalgo. In the high sierra, Water, Earth, Sun, and Fire are revered as Principales, are addressed as maka, and are never confused with the zidahmu (Dow 1974). The maka are on a higher level of animistic power than the zidahmu and could be called deities.

The founder of an oratory acquires an image, builds an oratory, selects a godfather for the image, and holds a large fiesta to celebrate the first visit of the godfather to the image. Although many of the images are Catholic, the fiesta day is often not the official day of the Catholic saint. Each oratory develops its own tradition for an annual fiesta. When an owner dies, the image and oratory are inherited by whichever son is willing to sponsor the ceremonies. The oldest son has the greatest obligation and usually becomes the owner; however, all the sons and daughters share the obligation to continue the worship of the image. …

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