Religious Beliefs. Religious beliefs have been affected by three major philosophies: Mesoamerican Indian, Catholic, and evangelical Protestant. The Mesoamerican Indian beliefs are influential and, are undergoing a revival in some areas. Tradition has it that a life force, zaki, animates all beings—plants, animals, humans, and superhumans. The world of beings is arranged in a hierarchy. A benevolent god, Sacred Father, and Sacred Mother are at the top. Below them are more approachable beings, all of whom influence the lives of humans: Lord Sun (Maka Hyadi), the Lady of the Waters (Maka Xumpø Dehe), Grandfather Fire (Maka Xita Sibi), and Lord Earth (Maka Häi). A pantheon of lesser lords ( zidąhm ų), which includes Catholic saints, are beneath these "principal" lords. The life force of humans is weaker and vulnerable to sorcery. Rą Zudapi is an intercessor god to whom humans can appeal for influence with the higher gods. The lives of lesser beings—animals and plants—must be cared for by humans. The Sierra Otomí also believe in companion animal spirits, a special order of higher beings.
Most people believe that sorcery is possible. Evil airs are believed to cause sickness. The Sierra Otomí use the term nagual to refer to superhuman vampires and the companion animal spirits of sorcerers. Evil lords, such as Rainbow, Santa Catarina, and the Queen of the Earth, cause harm to humans. Some lords have a dual character, working evil at some times and good at others.
Sierra Otomí people who live near the towns that have priests often subscribe to Catholic doctrine. Many villages have been influenced by evangelical Protestantism, which rejects all other beliefs and provides an ideology for rejecting cargo service.
Religious Practitioners. Shamans are religious specialists who deal with personal and familial problems with other beings—superhuman, human, plant, and animal. They are called vadi or badi, meaning "sage" or "one who knows." Besides providing personal consultations and cures, they also participate in and preside over public ceremonies for pagan deities. Thus, they have priestly functions as well, but they are not organized in a bureaucratic hierarchy.
Advised by elders, village cargo holders carry out the ritual duties specified by their offices. These vary with local tradition. "Godfather" is the most prestigious ritual office. Lesser titles, not as prestigious because they involve fewer expenses, are "first mayordomo" ( tabtoni ) and "second mayordomo" ( tedabetoni ). Even lesser titles are tąmbekhą, dądaju, and dągwenda.
Ceremonies. The ritual flower ceremony ( costumbre ) is a model for the majority of the rituals. Carefully prepared flower offerings are delivered to a cross. This creates sacred space and time through a symbolic reference to the sun, the cross, giver of life. Sacred music and sacred dances are performed in an oratory. Offerings of food are left for whatever supernaturals are being summoned. The flower offerings are lowered from the cross, and the participants eat together. Flower ceremonies usually, but not always, take place during the night. Offerings may be left for the Lady of the Waters, Lord Sun, Rą Zudapi, or Lord Earth at other times and in other places.
Ceremonies include rites of passage, calendrical ceremonies, cargo rituals, cleanings ( limpias), and curing. The primary rites of passage are for birth, marriage, and death. Grammar and secondary-school graduations are also important ceremonies. Calendrical rituals are both pagan and Christian. An important traditional ritual is the Fiesta of the Cross, during which seeds are taken to the top of a sacred mountain to be blessed by shamans and imbued with the life force of the sun god. Cargo rituals are performed for images in public churches and public oratories. A village usually has two fiesta seasons, one during the growing period and one at the end of the year. All the cargo holders perform rituals at these times. Every oratory has an annual religious fiesta.
Curing rituals are performed by shamans. They practically always make use of paper figures that represent the life forces of the beings that the shaman manipulates. Typical rituals cleanse a house and occupants of evil winds, restore the life force of a sick person, counter sorcery sent against a client, control envy, and restore love between couples.
Arts. Art is not practiced for art's sake but appears in the various crafts that the Sierra Otomí practice. One of the most colorful and popular art forms is embroidery, which originated as decoration on women's blouses.
Medicine. Diseases are classified into infectious diseases sent by God, for which there is a medicinal cure, and evil diseases, in which there is a supernatural element. In the latter case, a shaman is consulted to neutralize the supernatural element. Whenever supernatural elements are involved, there is the ever-present possibility that the evil is manipulated by a sorcerer working with enemies of the patient.
Minor aliments are treated in the home, either with commercial pharmaceuticals or with a wide variety of herbal cures. Poultices, teas, and purgatives are the most common forms of herbal treatment. Because of federal and private programs, modern biomedicine has reached most of the Sierra Otomí; however, this alternative is sought only after less expensive native remedies have been tried.
Death and Afterlife. After a person has died, the body is washed and a vigil is kept for a day, during which friends gather and make offerings of food, liquor, and cigarettes to the departing soul. The body is buried at dawn the next day in the village graveyard. Godparents of death are sought. A nine-day vigil is kept during which a prayer maker ( rezandero ) sings prayers. The godparents deliver the cross on the ninth day, and it is taken to the graveyard at dawn. In the Tutotepec area, an altar called a "tomb" is erected in the house during the nine days.
Dead children receive the light-hearted music of "the little angels" played by a guitar and violin. Their souls go directly to heaven.
The souls of women who die in childbirth, people who drown, people who are killed by snakes, or people who die violently go to live with Thunder. The souls of persons who have died a natural death ordained by God journey across a river to find rest in heaven. Some souls who have been set loose by a particularly violent death may wander the earth like rabid dogs and bring sickness to the living. They are often conceived of as evil winds.
The souls return to their homes during the annual celebration of the Days of the Dead, first the little angels, then, on the following day, the adults. Altars are erected in the homes and sometimes in the graveyards. In Tutotepec during the Days of the Dead, a special ceremony recognizing the twelve months of the year is held in the graveyard of the ruined Augustinian monastery.