Meet The Nahuales, The Legendary Mesoamerican Shapeshifters

Meet The Nahuales, The Legendary Mesoamerican Shapeshifters

By: Oliver G. Alvar -

Around Mexico’s eastern mountain ranges, rural communities believe there are some individuals among them who can shape-shift into animals in the dark. I often heard terrifying tales when I was growing up in the region, as it was common for the locals to be scared of night and darkness, the time when Nahuales roam freely—fearful of their capacity for evil. “Don’t go to into the woods during a New Moon,” they used to tell me, “for there hunts a man, with the tail of a lizard and the head of a coyote, who will not hesitate to eat you.” Nahuales were supposed to be a kind of powerful sorcerer (brujo) who drinks human blood, kills livestock, steals or destroys property, and spreads disease. Needless to say, that’s rather scary for a small kid who lived on the edge of the forest.

Meet The Nahuales, The Legendary Mesoamerican Shapeshifters 1

(Nahual by payasoapocaliptico, via Deviant Art)

Not all Nahuales are evil, however. The legend of these mystical shapeshifters has many layers and variants, and each community has a different perception of what Nahuales are supposed to be. Broadly speaking, in Mesoamerican mythology ‘Nahual’ (also spelled Nagual) refers to any person with the power to transform him or herself into an animal, commonly a jaguar, a puma, or a wolf. As such, Nahuales are intrinsically neither good nor evil. Whether they use their powers for the benefit or detriment of others wholly depends on whether the individual’s personality, rather than the Nahual community, is benevolent or malevolent.

Mesoamerica is a cultural and historical region in North America that roughly extends southwards from central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, all the way up to the northern area of Costa Rica. Within this region several complex and culturally advanced civilizations developed before the Spanish colonization of the Americas, including the Aztecs and the Mayans. Mesoamerican cultures held profound cosmological beliefs and deeply symbolic views about the spiritual world—and the Nahuales are essentially spiritual beings, often seen as the gods’ guardians.

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(Photo by Derek Simeone)

Sure, not all Nahuales were suitable to be revered as divine guardians, but, good or bad, they all commanded fear and respect. You see, Mesoamerican cultures were faithful believers of tonalism, according to which every individual has an animal counterpart. The connection between the person and their spirit animal is tied to their life force.

The general relationship between a person and their spirit animal is somewhat distant: for example, if someone’s animal is a cenzontle (a kind of mockingbird), that person might possess a beautiful singing voice. But some connections are stronger than others. Talented individuals can supposedly control their animal’s abilities at will, gaining, for instance, extraordinary sight or a sublime sense of smell depending on the situation. And then there are those who grow to be such gifted sorcerers that they can alter their whole shape—the true Nahuales. 

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So, how does this power come about in the mythology? The matter is determined by the calendar system: whether you are or aren’t a Nahual depends on your birth date. Each day of the year is associated with an animal and all its strengths and weakness—the stronger the animal, the more powerful the individual.

The strongest practitioners of powerful magic were generally born during a period related to the jaguar or puma, and only those who could intimately know and channel their spirit animal could control their shapeshifting powers. So, you’re either born a Nahual or you’re not. It’s not about being worthy or morally decent; you just have to be lucky. Bummer. Still, the tradition is fascinating, and it is but a small part of an extensive mythology rich in such idiosyncratic figures.

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Nowadays, being perceived as a Nahual can have radically different implications depending on the region. In some communities, Nahuales are ultimately godly figures of revered authority, equally feared and respected for their power. In others, to the extent that Nahualism is seen as equivalent to witchcraft, anyone accused of being a Nahual can be the victim of violent physical attacks.

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It would be amazing to have the shamanic powers of Nahualism. After all, it’s not only about the ability to transform, but also (and above all) about the deep spiritual connection with the natural world and animals in general. So, I’ll leave you with two questions: which spirit animal would you like to have? And, what would you do if you could transform into it?


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