In Mesoamerican folk religion, a Nagual or Nahual (both pronounced [na'wal]) is a human being who has the power to magically turn him- or herself into an animal form, most commonly donkeys, turkeys, and dogs, but also other and more powerful animals such as the jaguar and puma. Such a Nagual is believed to use his powers for good or evil according to his personality. Specific beliefs vary, but the general concept of nagualism is pan-Mesoamerican. Nagualism is linked with pre-Columbian shamanistic practices through Preclassic Olmec depictions which are interpreted as humans transforming themselves into animals. The system is linked with the Mesomerican calendrical system, used for divination rituals. The birth date often determines if a person will be a Nagual. Mesoamerican belief in tonalism, wherein all humans have an animal counterpart to which their life force is linked, is also part of the definition of nagualism. In English the word is often translated as "transforming witch," but translations without the negative connotations of the word witch would be "transforming trickster" or "shape shifter".
Nagual derives from Nahuatl nahual, an indigenous religious practitioner, identified by the Spanish as a 'magician'. The nagual is acquired along with the other characteristics of a person's birth day at birth. Each day is associated with an animal which has strong and weak aspects. A person born on "The Dog Day" would have both strong and weak 'Dog' aspects. In Nahuatl the word Tonalli was used to refer both to a day and to the animal associated with that day. The nagual is different, where the Tonal is the day spirit proper, the nagual is the spirit familiar of the day. It is probable that the Tonal represents the daytime aspect and the Nagual the nighttime aspect of the Tonalli, 'the things of the day'. Because practitioners of powerful magic were normally born on certain days related to animals with a strong or harmful aspect they would often have specific tonals such as the jaguar or puma. In Aztec mythology the God Tezcatlipoca was the protector of nagualism, because his tonal was the jaguar and he governed the distribution of wealth.
In modern rural Mexico the nagual is often the same as a "witch" or "brujo" who is able to shapeshift into an animal at night, (normally into an owl, a bat or a turkey) suck blood from innocent victims, steal property from others, cause disease etc.
In some indigenous communities the position of Nagual is integrated into the religious hierarchy. The community knows who is a Nagual, tolerating, fearing and respecting them. Nagualli are hired to remove curses cast by other nagualli.
In other communities the accusation of nagualism may result in violent attacks by the community towards the accused—much like the witch processes of renaissance Europe.
The Western study of Nagualism was initiated by noted archaeologist, linguist and ethnologist Daniel Garrison Brinton who published "Nagualism: A Study in Native-American Folklore and History" which chronicled historical interpretations of the word and those who practiced nagualism in Mexico in 1894. He identified various beliefs associated with nagualism in some modern Mexican communities such as the Mixe, the Nahua, the Zapotec and the Mixtec.
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