Archive for ‘Amate Paper’

September 24, 2006

Amate Papermaking

The art of papermaking in Mexico dates back to pre-columbian times. In the early 1900’s it was thought that papermaking had died out. In fact, no one outside of Mexico had recorded seeing amate made since the 1600’s until Frederick Starr, an anthropologist, while searching for traditional Indians in east-central Mexico found evidence of papermaking & its uses.


The Tepehua, Nahuas & Otomi Indians made and used paper in their religious rituals, and as a means of recording information. Starr was shown paper which was made from the inner bark of local trees (ficus/mulberry) & witnessed the women pounding the bark fibers into paper. He also discovered that there were small statuettes made of this paper which he was told were used in cultural & religious rites by village Shaman.

Hundreds of paper figure designs, as well as paper dolls made by the village shamans representing every type of spirit, person, animal, plant were being created for these rituals. The concepts represented by these paper cuttings have existed since & been used in rituals since pre-columbian times. The word amate means ‘paper’ in the Nahuatl language.

Amate use during the 16th Century & Spanish Conquest:

During the time of Cortez & Spanish conquest, paper was respected as a sacred substance & used for commerce and recording of information, much the way we use paper today.

P8110067.JPGThe Codex Mendoza an ancient amate document which is still in existence, shows there were 42 towns or villages where the 480,000 pieces of amate paper was made during a one year period – an enormous amount, considering the time. Celebrations, dreams & spirit matter, genealogy, wars, disease, divination, cures, rulers, plants/animals & details of cultural life were recorded on this paper.

Besides being used to keep records & information, amate was used in Codices (books made of long sheets in accordian fold, with figures & characters to represent data & information). Due to the nature of its organic matter, very few of these documents & ritual pieces exist today.

The elders & spiritual leaders were responsible for the safekeeping of this information & knew how to read them. According to Alan Sandstrom in his book Traditional Papermaking and Paper Cult Figures of Mexico “Virtually every Aztec rite included the adorning of statues of sacred objects with paper…..these paper adornments were cut to proper shape & often dyed & decorated to correspond to symbolic colors of a particular deity.”

Now, as in early times, amate paper is commercially traded and is a main income source for the Otomí people. This paper has been sold mainly to artists in the state of Guerrero, who paint the colorful paintings that are sold throughout outdoor markets in Mexico.

For the last 30 years

artists have been painting historias of village life in colorful images representing spiritual & cultural village life. The scenes depict births, deaths, marriages, planting & harvest, fiestas, celebrations, as well as simple everyday chores such as washing laundry in the river, carrying water, wars & skirmishes.

Early amate paintings were painted in simple, natural colors & dyes, using animal hair & plant fiber brushes. As modern paints & materials have become available, artists began using the wide array of acrylic & neon colors currently available.

Machine stamping is quite common these days in the amates that you see in outdoor markets throughout Mexico. They are sold to vendors who then hand paint in the pre-stamped design, much the way we use paint by number kits. It is unusual in these marketplaces to find unique hand drawn & painted Amates.

Amate Paper used in Religious Rituals -Spirit Figures

The Otomí people create elaborate & artful designs from the bark paper they create. These cut out paper figures are used in elaborate rituals performed by the village shaman. Being animistic in nature, they attribute these spiritual (god-like) energies, to village & world events, health, fertility, weather, harvest etc..

The designs of these spirit representations include gods, saints, animal companion spirits, malevolent spirits, human, animal & plant spirits. These spirits inhabit the sky, earth, and the underworld. Each spirit realm is important and is recognized fully in ritual events.

Three day rituals are held to cleanse & align the spirit world in households & communities of the Otomí. On day one, the malevolent spirits have center stage. Although these spirits represent negative energies, disease, ill will etc. they are considered as important as the good spirits & are recognized, fed & honored in the initial phase of a 3 day ritual, as well as in daily life. After the spirits are nourished,the shaman gathers the paper spirit representations & gives them to a runner who runs miles out of the village to bury the spirits beneath the soil, appeased.

The Shaman then cuts a new set of spirits representing the gods, saints, animals & plants. There could be over 25 or more of these, each hand cut & placed on the altar (usually a dirt floor). Singing, dancing, food, flowers, water and other offerings are made to these living spirits to ensure the desired outcome of the ritual.

To this day, there is an annual community ritual at the end of each year to cleanse the community & bring good energy for the coming year. There are also rituals throughout the year for rain, health, crop production & harvest, as well as other life events & activities.

Otomi Amate Spirit Art

While the colorful amate paintings are common throughout Mexico, the spirit figure amate by the Otomí as seen in our store are less common & are rarely found outside of the Otomí villages.

Each figure represents an aspect of life and energy that must be respected in order to live a life rich in spirituality & ritual. In the villages, entire families are involved in papermaking, as well as using the paper in artistic ways to bring life to the unseen energies around us.

What makes these Otomí pieces unique for your Mexican Folk Art Collection, are the ritual & sacred practices that are still being practiced in its indiginous, traditional forms.

We’ve yet to see, as the modern world encroaches into the lives of these people, how it will change the ritual and artistic aspects of the culture.


Village members work in outdoor courtyards.The strips of bark are

criss-crossed over sheets of plywood, then gently pressed with a porous

stone to mash the strands together to make paper .

The bark is peeled in strips, boiled with lye & ash to soften the bark. Natural or synthetic dyes are addedto this process

Brother, sister and entire families workside by side, pounding the wet strips into paper, creating an artistic piece.


Along with papermaking, the women of the village also embroider and bead intricate designs on their clothing which represents the village & family story.




© All rights reserved, August, 2002, Dos Mujeres Mexican Folk Art