Academic Overview of Concepts of Tonal and Nagual Prior to 'don Juan'
Introduction by Corey Donovan

Another book Castaneda would have had access to in writing The Teachings of Don Juan, and that might have helped shape his descriptions of "nagualism" and sorcery is a collection of essays entitled Magic, Witchcraft, & Curing, edited by John Middleton. Univ. of Texas Press (1967). Included in this collection are an essay by Claude Levi-Strauss entitled, "The Sorcerer and His Magic" and Anthony F.C. Wallace’s "Dreams and the Wishes of the Soul: A Type of Psychoanalytic Theory among the Seventeenth Century Iroquois."

According to John Middleton’s 1967 introduction: "The debate as to the borderline between ‘religion?and ‘magic?is an old one in anthropology . . . . We may say that the realm of magic is that in which human beings believe that they may directly affect nature and each other, for good or for ill, by their own efforts (even though the precise mechanism may not be understood by them), as distinct from appealing to divine powers by sacrifice or prayer. Witchcraft and sorcery are, therefore, close to magic, as are processes of oracular consultation, divination and many forms of curing. . . . .

"There is a vast literature of the ‘primitive?and the exotic dealing with witchcraft, sorcery and magic. Most of it is nonanthropological—in the sense of its not being related to other aspects of culture—and most of it is scientifically worthless. It is only in recent years that anthropologists have made serious studies of these matters. They have seen magic and witch beliefs not as stages in the evolutionary development of religion, as did Tylor and Frazer, nor as survivals of earlier cults, as did Margaret Murray, nor as sensational accounts of savagery. They have regarded them as important aspects of social life, in all societies. . . . [T]he most significant works in this field were Evans-Pritchard’s classic Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937) and Kluckhorn’s Navajo Witchcraft (1944). They showed that beliefs in magic and in witchcraft are integral parts of cultural life, and can therefore be understood only in their total social context. They have a coherent logic of their own, given certain premises as to the mystical powers of certain human beings (even though ‘scientifically?these premises may not be correct). These beliefs provide explanations for coincidence and disaster, they enable individuals to project their hopes, fears and disappointments onto other human beings, and by thus personalizing the forces of what we might call ‘fate?or ‘chance?enable those afflicted by them to deal with them by direct social action against the assumed evildoers. . . . . The plan of this volume of readings is simple: I have gathered ethnographic accounts of magical beliefs and behavior so as to cover most of the usual aspects described by anthropologists—magic, witchcraft and sorcery, divination, and curing. All the writers whose work is included have placed their analyses firmly in their social context. They are describing, not exotic bugaboos, but beliefs actually held by actual people who accept them and take note of them in their everyday lives."

The following excerpts, taken from an article that was originally published in 1964 in the journal Ethnology, provide a remarkable pre-don Juan overview of the anthropological literature on "nagualism."

--Corey Donovan


Excerpts from "Nagual, Witch, and Sorcerer in a Quich?Village"
By Benson Saler

One of the oldest war horses in the Middle Americanist's stable is a semantically skittish creature named Nagual. This curious beast has a respectably ancient pedigree in the literature on Middle America, references to it being encountered in early Spanish historical and ecclesiastical writings (for bibliographies see Brinton 1894 and Foster 1944). In the nineteenth century "nagualism" excited and to a significant extent was the product of the imaginations of Brasseur de Bourbourg (1859) and Brinton. The latter, indeed, opined (Brinton 1894: 69) that "nagualism" "was not merely the belief in a personal guardian spirit, as some have asserted; not merely a survival of fragments of the ancient heathenism, more or less diluted by Christian teachings, as others have maintained; but that above and beyond these, it was a powerful secret organization, extending over a wide area, including members of different languages and varying culture, bound together by mystic rites, by necromantic powers and occult doctrines; but, more than all, by one intense emotion--hatred of the whites--and by one unalterable purpose--that of their destruction, and with them the annihilation of the government and religion which they had introduced."

Brinton's colorful conjectures with reference to "nagualism," along with certain other (if more pedestrian) notions on the subject, have been exploded by the scholarship of George Foster, who demonstrates with ample documentation that "in Mexico and Guatemala the word nagualism has been used as a convenient container into which could be dumped a variety of magical beliefs and practices which among themselves show considerable variation and no necessary relationship" and that "As a trait or complex, there is no such thing as nagualism" (Foster 1944: 103; italics his). Accepting an Aztec derivation for the word nagual, Foster (1944: 89) is of the opinion that this term was originally applied to the "transforming witch":

The word appears to have spread to other south Mexican and Guatemalan languages, probably as the result of Aztec migrations that carried branches of this group as far as Nicaragua. The original application of the word to the transforming witch did not always remain, for in this region it encountered another basic American concept, that of the guardian animal spirit or personal totem, to which it came to be applied.

Inasmuch as the words tonal and nagual are both Aztec in origin, Foster (1944: 103) suggests that

the logical procedure would be to use the former in the sense of fate or fortune, and the derived idea of the companion animal; nagual, in its original sense of the transforming witch, would be applied to those individuals believed capable of metamorphosis.

. . . .

That the word nagual is assigned various meanings in the ethnographic literature is in large measure a direct consequence of the fact that the diverse Indian groups which were the objects of investigation themselves employ the term in different ways. Thus, for example, while Lewis (1951: 279) tells us that among the Nahuatl of Tepoztlan "The Nagual is a person who has the power to change into an animal, such as a dog or pig," Nash (1958: 71) writes of the Quich?of Cantel: "All know why four crosses mark the entrances and exits of the municipio--that with this symbol a nawal or guardian spirit keeps evil from entering the village."

In broad and general terms, the kinds of meanings most frequently associated with nagual in the ethnographic literature can be classed under two headings: the "companion" or "guardian" spirit and the "transforming witch." Some contemporary Middle American Indian populations may entertain beliefs about one or both of these constructs, whereas the belief systems of other groups do not incorporate notions about either. Some populations, while holding beliefs about "companion spirits" and/or "transforming witches," do not employ the term nagual; other Indian groups, however, do use that word. Furthermore, some populations make terminological distinctions between the "companion spirit" and the "transforming witch" while others, such as the Tzeltal of Amatenango (Nash 1960: 121 22), may not.

Basic to many beliefs in "companion" or "guardian" spirits in Middle America is the notion that the vital force and destiny of a human being are linked to some organic or inorganic object or natural phenomenon--the individual human being's alter ego. Should the alter ego suffer harm, it is widely believed, the individual whose destiny is linked to it is likely to suffer harm in corresponding degree. Among some populations the alter ego is known as a person's nagual; among other groups, however, terms other than nagual are applied to it in the local vocabularies. While the alter ego may sometimes be a natural phenomenon, such as wind or a comet (Wagley 1949: 65), it is most commonly reported to be an animal. Contingent on associated local beliefs, nagual in this sense, or some equivalent term in a given local vocabulary, has been variously translated as "guardian spirit" (Parsons 1936: 80; Wagley 1949: 65; Nash 1958: 71), "spirit-counterpart" (Siegel 1941: 70), "birth-spirit" or "birth-guardian" (Parsons 1936: 80), "soul-bearer" (La Farge and Byers 1931: 134), "companion-spirit" (La Farge and Byers 1931: 134; La Farge 1947: 151-53), and "destiny animal" (Bunzel 1952: 274). Subject to local variation, there are diverse methods for determining a person's alter ego, insofar as it is believed possible to do so: the perception of some animal, object, or natural phenomenon under conditions or circumstances that are construed as unusual (Wagley 1949: 65-66; Bunzel 1952: 274); identifying the tracks of an animal in ashes or sand (Parsons 1936: 80); calendrical associations (Mendelson 1957: 398); and observation of the coincidental harm that befalls some object or animal and a given human being at roughly the same time (Wagley 1949: 66; Bunzel 1952: 274-75).

Basic to contemporary beliefs in "transforming witches" in Middle America is the presumption that certain human beings have the power to change themselves into various forms--usually infra-human animals. A common corollary belief holds that individuals who activate their powers of metamorphosis normally do so in order to accomplish sinister ends. Examination of only a small number of sources indicates that belief in transforming witches, whatever the local terms applied to them may be, is widespread in Mexico and Guatemala. It is found among such diverse peoples as the Nahuatl of Tepoztlan (Lewis 1951: 279-80), the Zapotec of Mitla (Parsons 1936: 80, 226-27), the Tzeltal of Amatenango (Nash 1960: 121-26), the Maya of Chan Kom (Redfield and Villa 1934: 178-79), the Mam of Todos Santos (Oakes 1951: 170-77), the Kanhobal of Santa Eulalia (La Farge 1947: 151-55), and the Tzutuhil of Santiago Atitlan (Mendelson 1957: 405).

Replica Watches  Replica Watches

The possibilities of ethnological misunderstanding arising from the fact that different populations which make use of the term nagual do so in different ways are exacerbated by the practice of some ethnographers in employing the term generically even where, properly speaking, the native vocabularies themselves may lack it. Villa (1947: 580), for example, utilizes nagual as a convenient synonym for the lab of the Oxchuc, Tzeltal: ". . . certain spirits known as lab in the vernacular or nagual to the outsiders. . . . ."

Because of the variety of applications of nagual in the ethnographic literature, any simple, parsimonious definition of the term would be problematical at best. Foster (1944: 103), in an effort to obviate further confusion in the literature, soundly advises that:

The investigator should . . . always make clear what particular practices and beliefs are being described, and he should specify whether the words nagual and tonal are included in the native vocabulary, or whether he is applying them in the generic sense.

In my own field work [footnote omitted] among the Quich?of Santiago El Palmar, I encountered conceptions approximating the ideas of both "companion spirit" and "transforming witch" given above. The Palmar Quich?make terminological and categorical distinctions among the companion spirit, witch, and sorcerer, and these distinctions are tacitly expressive of certain pervasive postulates in their world-view. It is to the exposition of their conceptualizations of nagual, witch, and sorcerer that the remainder of this paper is addressed.

[Background material on the demographics and ethnic makeup of Santiago El Palmar omitted.]


The Quich?of Santiago El Palmar employ the term nagual in varying ways. The range of application of the term, insofar as I was able to trace it, may be subsumed under five categories.

(1) Several informants, when questioned as to the meaning of the term, reported that "some people" believe that there is an affinity between a human being and a single, living animal, which is the person’s nagual. Integral to the assumed affinity between a person and his nagual is the belief that the character traits of the animal are likely to find an echo in those of the human being whose destiny is linked to it. Should, for instance, an individual's nagual be a balam (tigre in Spanish), the person is likely to be "brave," "outspoken," physically "strong" and adroit, and possibly even a bit "savage." It was also said that if a person's nagual were injured or killed, the person himself might suffer harm, but informants were vague as to the particulars and probabilities. No informant, however, went so far as to insist that the relationship between an individual and his nagual is such that harm to the latter must inevitably be mirrored in harm to the former.

Although several informants thus approximated in their reports the definitions of nagual as companion animal spirit encountered in the ethnographic literature, none appeared to subscribe seriously to this conceptualization. They maintained that nagual in this sense is a creencia, a belief that some people entertain and others do not. Yet while none of my informants seemed to give emphatic credence to the notion of a companion animal spirit, neither were they prepared to reject it entirely, to place it beyond the pale of the possible.

Replica Watches  Replica Watches

(2) Many informants associated the word nagual with the signs of the zodiac. Soon after a baby is born its parents, or some other relative, or, more rarely, non-kin friends of the parents, may search out the baby's birthday in an almanac or request someone to do it for them if they are illiterate. (A number of Indians own almanacs; those who do not can consult one in a neighbor's house or in the municipal building.) The almanac, thus utilized, reveals under which of the twelve signs of the zodiac the baby was born. The zodiacal sign is said to be the baby's nagual and to have some predictive value as to the character the baby may manifest as it develops. If the nagual is a bull (Taurus), the baby may grow into a person who is physically strong and resolute; if it is a balance (Libra), the baby may develop into a fickle person, etc. But while the zodiacal nagual is thus imbued with some value as a predictive device, it is far from being regarded as a pre-eminent and inevitable causal factor in the development of personality dispositions. The Palmarefios take cognizance of other determinants of personality, and they do not ascribe even major causality to the zodiacal nagual. As is the case with horoscopes elsewhere, correlations of an ex post facto nature are sometimes made, reinforcing the identification between prediction and actuality.

(3) Several informants referred the term nagual to that day of the 260 days in the Maya-Quich?calendar round on which a person was born. While recording a man's army experiences, for instance, his mother interrupted the narrative and said that her son was able to endure the rigors of army life "because his nagual is four horses" (cuatro caballos). That is, she went on to explain, her son had been born on the day 4 kiej. Translating kiej as "horse," she maintained that her son had great strength--the strength, metaphorically speaking, of four horses. A calendar shaman with whom I discussed this particular case, however, found the woman's interpretation of 4 kiej to be uninformed and unsophisticated. A person's nagual, the shaman asserted, is the day name of the day on which the person was born --- not the day number. In the case under discussion, the man's nagual is kiej, but not 4 kiej. Kiej, the shaman went on to point out, can be translated variously as "horse," "camel," or "deer," but this is not to say that the man's nagual is a real horse, camel, or deer. The day-name nagual signifies something; it is a symbol which must be interpreted in accordance with the canons of calendrical. divination. Kiej is a day name especially associated with shamans; to be born on a day with this name suggests that one may become a shaman. But the day number of the day on which one was born must also be considered. The numbers, from one to thirteen, are held to represent a continuum, the lower numbers being "weak" and the higher ones "strong." For divinatory purposes, the weaker (i.e., the lower) the day number, the less probable are the implications in the day name; conversely, the stronger (i.e., the higher) the day number, the more probable is the interpretation of the day name. The calendar shaman interpreted 4 kiej as follows: kiej suggests that the person might become a shaman, but 4 is a weak number, and consequently there is no great probability that the individual will actually become a shaman. With reference to the differing interpretations of 4 kiej by the shaman and the woman, the distinction made by Radin (1927, 1953) between "the thinker" and "the man of action" is possibly relevant. [Footnote: I shall discuss Radin's distinction at some length in a monograph on Palmar Quich?calendar shamanism now in preparation.]

(4) An old woman, with whom I was discussing the saints, spontaneously referred to St. James the Apostle, the patron saint of El Palmar, as "the nagual of El Palmar." I questioned several other people regarding this usage, and they all maintained that it was acceptable, but I never heard anyone else employ the term in this way.

(5) An Indian medium who is said to suffer possession by the Earth Essence, "El Mundo" or "Santo Mundo," is known as an aj-nagual mesa, which title I translate as "one who pertains (aj) to the spiritual essence (nagual) of the Table (mesa)." The medium allegedly becomes possessed while sitting at a consecrated wooden table (see Saler 1962a for further details), which immediately suggests that El Mundo, the Earth Essence, is the nagual of the table. In point of fact, however, nagual mesa is best appreciated within a wider context. The calendar shaman (aik’ij, "one who pertains to the days") also employs the term mesa, but in his case it does not mean a specific, consecrated wooden table. For the shaman, the mesa of the World is any place on which people burn copal to El Mundo, the Master of the World and the spiritual essence of the material earth from which man draws his food. And the mesa of a shaman is a special power, symbolized by the possession of a wooden cross, which distinguishes a minority of shamans "who have received the mesa" from the majority who have not. The potsherd altars which surround the village are the consecrated "burning places" or "tables" of El Mundo, and a shaman, when divining, will often invoke the altars by name, in effect invoking their spiritual essences to come to his aid. Since each altar is a material manifestation of the Holy World, El Mundo is the spiritual essence of each altar. The shaman's conception of El Mundo as the spiritual essence of the material earth, and particularly of certain consecrated landmarks thereof, is paralleled by the contention of the aj-nagual mesa that he receives the Earth Essence at the locus of a consecrated wooden table.

As is apparent from the above, no single, simple lexical definition of nagual can approximate the total psychological reality of the term for all the Quich? of Santiago El Palmar. The term is employed in varying ways by different individuals, depending on context. Even an apparently idiosyncratic usage--the reference to St. James the Apostle as "the nagual of El Palmar"--was judged acceptable by my informants, presumably because it fell within the semantic range of tolerance with which the Palmareños have invested the term.

All the varying meanings, however, attest to certain pervasive themes and associated attitudes in the Quich?world view. In the first place, the Indians hold that there are a variety of extra-human forces at work in the cosmos which affect the unfolding life histories of human beings. Every man is under the influence of his special fate, and one may sometimes gain a predictive understanding of such influences from the zodiacal nagual or the Maya-Quich?day nagual. But human life is not exclusively shaped by extra-human forces. Man is not passive and without responsibility. Human and extra-human agencies interact in structuring the course of one's life. Some of the extrahuman forces which influence human life are favorably disposed, or can sometimes be persuaded to be favorably disposed, toward individual persons. Thus the Earth Essence which possesses the aj-nagual mesa, according to those who believe in such possession, is held to possess the medium in order to help the latter's clients. The emphasis is on aid and assistance to the individual qua individual. But the woman who called St. James the Apostle "the nagual of El Palmar" seems to me to have generalized on this theme, extending it to the level of the societal. Just as the Earth Essence may favor and succor an individual, so, too, a patron saint may be supposed to favor and succor the community at large.

Though there are extra-human forces in the cosmos which may directly or indirectly influence human life, man lacks a perfect knowledge of them. It is a cardinal tenet in the Palmar Quich?world view that the universe and its principles of action are imperfectly understood, Knowledge is limited. Hay algo más all? there is something beyond. Though one may doubt a mystery, a prudent person realizes the limits of his own understanding and does not doubt completely. It is probably only a "superstition" that you will suffer harm if some living animal whose destiny is allegedly linked to yours should suffer harm, but who can say so with certainty?

Excerpts from "Nagual, Witch, and Sorcerer in a Quich?Village" continued