The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Nahual, Nahualli, Naualli, Nagual
Deriving from the Nahuatl (Aztec) language, the word “nahual” indicates different concepts in different regions of Mexico, all having to do with animal alliances. Because the same word is used to describe these linked but different concepts confusion exists. The word is also pronounced slightly differently depending upon region; attempts to transliterate the word into English have resulted in a variety of spellings. None of them is wrong.
Nahual has been translated as “shadow soul,” a human soul’s animal twin. It’s also translated as “mask” or “disguise.” The nahual is an animal ally, although the meaning is more profound than standard modern usage where animal ally may refer to a friend, companion or animal. The relationship is deeper: the nahual may be understood as one’s animal soul. It may or may not refer to a specific individual animal.
Souls and identities of humans and nahuals are bound together; they share each other’s destinies. This is a very shamanic concept, and it exists in Eastern Hemisphere magic, too, or at least once did. In Hungarian witchcraft-trials, cats, dogs, hens, and frogs are perceived as doubles or second bodies of witches.
There are various definitions of nahual.
The nahual is a person who can transform, a shape-shifting witch or sorcerer. These practices were a major concern for Colonial priests in Mexico. In 1600, Fray Juan Bautista warned of native sorcerers who transformed into chickens, dogs, jaguars, owls, and weasels. The seventeenth-century priest Ruiz de Alarcón mentions specific cases and explains the power as deriving from Satanic compact. (The Spanish Inquisition was in full swing in the Western Hemisphere.) However, the concept is of indigenous origin. Satan didn’t exist in the Western Hemisphere before priests brought him.
The Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca, the divine sorcerer, was believed able to transform into a jaguar. Nahuals tend to possess specific forms; in other words not every nahual transforms into the same shapes. Not limited to animals, some nahuals may also be able to transform into natural forces, like lightning or (especially) whirlwinds. Some nahuals (this human kind) can also allegedly become invisible and thus transport themselves secretly from place to place.
Nahuals were feared and respected for their power. Although the stereotype, as filtered through the Inquisition, identifies them as malevolent independent practitioner sorcerers, they also served as protectors of their communities. During the Colonial Era, nahuals lead native resistance, which may explain some of the colonizers’ hostility toward them.
Secondly, the nahual may be the animal part of this dyad. Every human being has a nahual. You have a nahual but if you don’t know its form, then you’re only half a person, not operating at your full capacity. Under the Aztec Empire, a priest presided over a ritual on the fourth day following birth to determine a baby’s nahual and bind the relationship. This nahual serves as the person’s guide and protector, offering various psychic gifts and magical or physical powers. Each type of animal is capable of offering different gifts. Every Aztec deity had a nahual. If you share a nahual form with a deity, you share a bond with that deity, too.
If you didn’t receive your nahual as a child, it’s never too late. Another Aztec method is a do-it-yourself ritual:
1. Go into the woods alone and go to sleep.
2. Your nahual will either appear in your dreams or you will be confronted by your nahual when you awake.
3. Once the nahual is identified, you are obliged to enter into a life-long contract with it.
Furthermore, in Toltec and Mixtec traditions, the nahual is an individual’s totem or fateguardian, or perhaps the personification of one’s deepest psyche. Nahual also names the reciprocal relationship between a person and their animal double.
In Oaxaca, the traditional concept is related but subtly different. Naguals, as the word is most frequently spelled there, are a form of animal ally. Every one has one; their identity is disclosed via ritual. At its most superficial level, the nagual serves as a magical assistant, it can help you accomplish your life’s goals if you know how to work with it. However, the nagual may also be understood as a person’s other half; they mirror each other or share a soul, or perhaps the animal is the person’s second soul. Lives of human and animal are bound up together. They’re not identical, not interchangeable, one is not merely the transformed shape of the other but should one die, the other one will too.
No need for a priest here: parents usually determine a nagual’s identity shortly after a child’s birth. Identification of the nagual reveals crucial information about the child’s nature and required upbringing, not to mention taboos, which are very easy to break if you don’t know about them. There are various slightly different methods of determining a nagual. Here’s one:
1. Sprinkle ashes outside the place where a baby was born.
2. The first animal footprint captured by the ashes identifies the nagual and sometimes the baby’s name.