Tepehua - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Christian religions have made only moderate impressions on Tepehua culture. Tepehua villages generally did not have Catholic churches until after the 1950s. The native religion is the most important. It is part of a religious complex that is found also among the Otomí and Nahua people of the same region. It involves the worship of nature gods, ceremonies that address soul forces represented by paper figures, and musical flower rituals carried out in homes, at shrines, and in native oratories.

The supreme Tepehua deity is the Sun (Wiicháan). When he sets at night, he leaves the stars to guard over the world. The Moon (Małkuyu) is a troublesome character associated with the Devil (Tlakakikuru, derived from the Nahua word tlacatecólotl, meaning were-owl). The Lord of the Earth (Xalapanlakat'un) is offended by urination and buried afterbirth and so must receive periodic offerings of appeasement. He is nasty and eats the bodies of humans after they have died. Earth is the father of fire because cooking fires are made on the ground.

The Lord of the Water (Xalapána-k Xkán) has a male and a female guardian, the sirens (Sereno and Serena). Both are dressed in green. The first is the Lord of the Animals, and the second has duck's feet and lives in a hidden place of human pilgrimage from whence the wind and rain are sent. The Lord of the Air is called Xalapanakún.

The gods and beings worshiped by the Tepehua are all called antiguas. They live in a mythical place called the Golden Mountain. At a great table on the Golden Mountain sit the Sun and the Stars. At other tables sit lesser deities. There they judge the activities of humans.

The Tepehua believe in a life force called by outside observers, at various times, the spirit ( espíritu ), soul ( alma ), or shade ( sombra ). The spirit can separate itself from a living person for a short time. Such a separation places the person in danger, and, if it goes on for too long, the spirit must be restored by a shaman to keep the person from dying. When the person does die, the spirit remains on the earth, normally for a short time. The spirits of humans, and of other beings, are represented by paper figures cut by shamans.

Religious Practitioners. Midwives and shamans are the main religious practitioners. Other religious officials, such as the mayordomo, are in charge of rituals; however, the Tepehua do not regard these religious officials as specialists, like shamans and midwives, who have an understanding of the superhuman world.

Shamans are usually people who have suffered in life and who have received visions directing them toward a curing profession. Novice shamans are encouraged by—and trained by—other shamans. Shamanic visions teach them how to cure. The shaman cuts magical paper figures, places them on a paper mat, and wraps them up to use in curing rituals. These figures symbolize the spirits of beings involved in the rituals. Shamans also acquire pottery figurines and other pieces taken from the earth to keep on their altars. Such spiritual objects are also called antiguas. They are images of the tutelary beings who appear to the shaman in dreams and visions. A shaman and his wife often work as a couple.

Midwives and shamanesses are all considered to be a single type of female religious curer called nat'aku-nu'. Great semidivine shamanesses and are called lak'ainananín. Midwives are usually widows. They may work alone or in conjunction with a shaman.

Ceremonies. Costumbre is the name given to the general ritual form through which the antiguas are worshiped. Costumbres are led by shamans, whose role in this context must be seen as a leader of public worship rather than as a magical healer. During a costumbre, musicians play sacred music on a guitar and violin. The shaman (or shamans) cuts paper figures representing the spirits of various beings. A sacred time opens as the actual superhuman invisible beings arrive to attend the costumbre in the evening. Offerings are made. As dawn approaches the beings leave.

Agricultural plants are important beings. Their spirits are attended by shamans in a major annual costumbre held at the public oratory (lacachínchin). The figures of the seeds are cut by shamans on mountaintops. Afterwards they are returned to the village and placed in chests in the lacachínchin. Music, dance, and a ritual meal are part of the lacachínchin celebration.

A planting ceremony is also held in family homes. During this ritual, turkey blood is sprinkled on a basket of maize seeds containing flower decorations, bottles of rum, and palm leaves.

Arts. Religious dances are performed during village fiestas. These are learned and maintained by groups of villagers who dedicate themselves to this sacred art. Among the dances are: Los Viejos de Todos Santos, Los Santiagos, Los Tambulanes (23 and 24 December), Palo Volador, and Los Pastores. Storytelling is a popular form of entertainment, particularly while men are performing routine tasks in the fields. The Tepehua have their own set of classic folktales.

Medicine. Medical treatment is given by shamans and midwives. Costumbres are held for curing as well as for public worship. The Tepehua believe that illness can be caused by anger or negative feelings toward a victim. The cure in these cases is for a shaman to restore the spirit of the victim. "Fright," a childhood illness that is caused by sudden falls or scares, is also cured by restoration of the spirit.

Death and the Afterlife. After death, a Tepehua goes to the Golden Mountain where he or she is judged before the tables of the gods. Those who have been faithful to the gods remain there on the Golden Mountain, whereas the rest are sent to La'nín, where they remain under the power of the Lord of the Earth. La'nín is not a place of punishment, however. Priests, midwives, musicians who play sacred music, and dancers of the sacred dances always remain on the Golden Mountain. Women who die in childbirth go to live with the Lord of the Water, who also has his residence on the Golden Mountain. The spirits of people who die tragically are condemned to wander the world of the living with evil spirits commanded by the Devil.

The body of the deceased is dressed in new clothes. A procession with musicians carries the body in a coffin to the graveyard. Men and women take different roles in the funeral rituals. The godmother of burial adorns the graves of children and adolescents with paper decorations. Adult graves are left plain. It is believed that the spirits of the dead remain in their homes for a week. At dawn on the seventh day after the death, a cross is erected over the grave.


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