Academic Overview of Concepts of Tonal and Nagual Prior to 'don Juan'
Excerpts from "Nagual, Witch, and Sorcerer in a Quich?Village" continued


Industriousness is a highly valued virtue in the normative system of the Palmar Quich? A man should work to be materially secure (por necesidad, as several informants phrased it), to obtain for himself and his family such rewards as he can above the level of mere subsistence, and to receive the approbation of God and his fellow men. A person whose behavior is interpreted by others as manifesting a lack of proper respect for industry is likely to become an object of malicious gossip, and he may even be accused of possessing evil and preternatural powers. A hard worker, on the other hand, is likely to be admired, especially if he prospers materially and does not antagonize other people; a prudent person should neither boast of his accomplishments nor flaunt his wealth lest he excite the "envy" of others and thus become a candidate for black magic.

A person's industriousness or putative lack thereof, though by no means the only criterion by which others judge him, tends to be generalized by the Indians to betoken the presence or absence of other virtues. To accuse a person of being lazy, as in gossip, is to imply that he is remiss in his familial obligations, and such an accusation can be expanded to encompass charges of antisocial behavior of concern to the community. One such charge is that the individual in question may be a transforming witch.

The transforming witch, or win, is the polar opposite of the good man. He is at the same time a stereotype of loathsome evil and an example of the possible consequences of an indolent disposition. A win is a lazy and avaricious human being who magically metamorphosizes himself into an animal or bird at night and stealthily enters the houses of his sleeping neighbors to rob them of money and goods. In human form a transforming witch may be either an Indian or a Ladino, but he is characteristically conceived of as male rather than female. In animal form he may take sexual advantage of sleeping women--a heinous indignity since it combines bestiality and rape. He is also a malicious nuisance who interferes with the sleep of people fatigued from hard and virtuous labor by deliberately making noises near their homes at night.

A lazy and avaricious Indian or Ladino who desires to become a win is said to sleep for nine nights in the cemetery, where he prays to the Devil. On the ninth night the latter appears and engages the man in combat with machetes or swords. If the Devil succeeds in inflicting the first wound, the man will die within seven days. If, on the other hand, the man first wounds the Devil, the latter will confer on him the power to become a win. Thereafter he returns frequently to the cemetery to transform himself into his nonhuman form, to commune with the Devil, and to feast on the bones of the dead.

It is clear that a person becomes a win through his own deliberate initiative. My informants attributed the desire to achieve witchhood to laziness coupled with cupidity. On further questioning, they expressed mystification as to why the person was so indolent and grasping in the first place. They agreed that a win begins as a human being with some excessively grave character defect, but they were at a loss to explain from whence such a defect comes. When I asked if it might be predestined, perhaps through the agency of nagual, they treated the suggestion as something they themselves had not previously considered but would now ponder.

There are certain signs by which a person of discernment can recognize a win. In the form of an animal or bird, the transforming witch behaves in a manner alien to genuine members of the species, and any animal or bird encountered at night that acts in an unexpected manner can be suspected of being a win. It is also a suspicious circumstance if any animal or bird met at night appears unusually ugly for its species and/or has blazing red eyes. In human form, the transforming witch is reported to have blood-shot eyes, large and protruding canine teeth, sometimes a cross of lines or "letters that no one can read" on the skin of his upper torso, and, in addition, a propensity for sleeping rather than working during the daytime.

If one encounters a win in his nonhuman form, that which he assumes on his nefarious missions, his power to harm can allegedly be negated by reciting the "Our Father" nine times, especially if it is then repeated another nine times backwards (which no one I asked could do). In his nonhuman form a win cannot be killed with a gun, knife, or machete, but he can be beaten to death with a stick, kicked to death, or strangled with bare hands or a rope. Informants stated that it would be imprudent to kill a witch in his human form: "If I kill a person, the police will arrest me and put me in jail, but if I kill a dog or buzzard, it is not a murder."

I collected 54 drawings of transforming witches made by boys between the ages of seven and fifteen. Twenty of them depicted the win as birds, nine as dogs, five as human beings, and three as pigs; there were also one cat, one rooster, and fifteen creatures that I was unable to identify.

Every Indian whom I questioned on the subject claimed to believe in the existence of the win, regardless of differences in levels of acculturation. This unanimity is noteworthy in view of the fact that there was a certain amount of disagreement in Santiago El Palmar with respect to a number of other beliefs. Even the elder of one of the two small Protestant sects in the pueblo, a man who has enjoyed firsthand contacts with missionaries from the United States for several decades, appeared convinced of the reality of the win. "Your countrymen," he informed me, had told him repeatedly that witches do not exist, but in this the good missionaries were mistaken. Not only are there witches, but when he left the Catholic faith, gave up the practice of calendrical shamanism, and became a Protestant, transforming witches persecuted him by flying over his house for a number of nights to prevent him from sleeping. The local Secretary of the Revolutionary Party, a Seventh Day Adventist and a champion of agrarian reform, also believed in transforming witches; though he has never seen them, he has heard them at night. An Indian who teaches school on one of the coffee fincas reported that, when he was outside of his house one night, he was attacked by buzzards who swooped down on him and extinguished the flame of his candle; he was of the opinion that the buzzards were witches sent against him by his father-in-law, a shaman whom he accused of being a sorcerer and with whom he had had a long and acrimonious dispute over land.

Transforming witches may figure in an individual's self-evaluation. A person who fears them--or, better still, is attacked by them--can derive a measure of conscious comfort therefrom inasmuch as witches normally threaten or attack only virtuous persons. Thus to fear that one is the object of the malignant at tentions of the win is in effect to reassure oneself as to one's own moral state. A case in point is the Protestant elder referred to above. He was one of the first Indians in the village to become a Protestant. In relating to me the events leading to his conversion, he spoke of his doubts about rejecting the old religion and embracing the new. He recognized that a sincere conversion would inevitably cut him off from many of the customs of his (Catholic) face-to-face group. Inasmuch as the referential dimensions of morality in his society are partially grounded in the traditional religion, the very thought of rejecting this religion precipitated anxiety. Once he had taken the step, indeed, he was subjected to the contempt and open threats of other Indians in the village. Anxieties stemming from these sources were reduced by a fervent identification with the new religion, reinforced by dreams in which God approved of his actions and demonstrated the falseness of the old religion, and by the "persecution" he suffered from witches, which he himself interpreted as additional proof that he trod the path of righteousness. Having already received the approbation of God, he found a further corroboration of his virtue from infernal powers.

The transforming witch, like many another image of evil discussed in the ethnographic literature, can be interpreted as a cultural formulation involved in processes of ego defense. With regard to the mechanism of projection, for instance, the win image can play a role in protecting an individual from the conscious awareness of his own proclivities to aggressive behavior and lack of industry. By attributing one's own antisocial tendencies to the transforming witch, hostility can be directed from the self to that object. The win is in a sense an ideal target for hostility. Because he transforms himself into a bird or animal, be in effect vitiates the human condition. Hence hostility to the witch is hostility toward something no longer fully human and thus does not directly challenge the cultural ideal of treating human beings with sympathy.

The win can also be considered with reference to the mechanism of displacement. Nash (1958: 78), writing about the Quich?of Cantel, gave it as his impression that "aggression is never very far from the surface. . . ." I formed the same impression with regard to the Quich?of Santiago El Palmar. Among the Palmareños, as among the Cantelenses, aggression is vented in a number of ways, some of the characteristic modalities being gossip, drunkenness, and litigation before the local justice of the peace over trivia. In addition, there are sometimes heated public quarrels among women occasioned by alleged adultery, failure to return borrowed objects, and real or imagined slights. These arguments infrequently degenerate into physical assaults. Interestingly enough, public quarrels and physical fights almost never occur among men unless they are drunk and therefore, in the Indian view, not responsible for their behavior. (In psychodynamic perspective, the greater public circumspection of men as contrasted to women may be related to the characteristic depiction of the witch as masculine rather than feminine.) While Indians of both sexes accurately characterize women in their society as being more overtly hostile than men, the cultural ideal is to contain one's hostility whatever one's sex. This ideal, however, is only imperfectly realized. In compensation for efforts to suppress overt hostility, aggressive tendencies find partial expression in being redirected from the objects and situations that stimulate them and displaced to an object of loathing, the win.


Where are transforming witches in their human form to be found? My informants showed a significant amount of individual variability in answering this question. Taken as a group, however, they exhibited a general disposition to localize witches along a diminishing continuum from outgroup to ingroup. To come to some understanding of these facts, it will be necessary first to consider the spatial dimension involved. Four geographically identifiable population entities are recognized by the Indians of Santiago El Palmar as of primary economic importance in their lives: (1) the pueblo, (2) the montes, and (3) the coffee fincas which together comprise the municipio of El Palmar, and (4) the Pacific coastal plain where many village Indians rent land and go to raise corn. The highlands and their inhabitants are of less immediate economic importance to them.

[Description of the ethnic, economic and historical backgrounds of the four population areas omitted.]

The Coast

The pueblo Indians consider the Pacific coastal plain the worst of the four population groupings under consideration, and they associate it with negative stereotypes: The coast is a very good place for agriculture, and the people who live there are very rich, but they are also very outspoken. They do not much care for each other. If an Indian man of San Sebastián (Department of Retalhuleu) wants a girl but she does not want him, he makes magic to seduce her. That is their way; when they want something, they want it. The Ladinos of the coast are very rude. They are not like the Ladinos of (highland) Quezaltenango, where there are many lawyers. The Ladinos and Indians of the coast are always looking for money. If a poor person from El Palmar goes to the coast, they ask him, "Do you have any money?" If he says "No," they tell him not to bother them. There is much evil magic on the coast and many witches. The climate there is very bad; when we go there to make our milpas, we always come home sick. The people on the coast are accustomed to the climate, but we are not. The climate in El Palmar is better; it is not as hot. And the people of El Palm are more friendly.

In terms of these stereotypes, the fincas and Pacific coast are decidedly unpleasant places, places where many evil people can be found. The montes, though not precisely evil, are relatively isolated and "uncivilized," and dark things can happen there. This is not to say that any of the regions is entirely evil; "in whatever place, there are good people, and there are bad people." For the most part, my informants did not voice blanket condemnations, but they did manifest a general agreement as to the relative ranking of each place in terms of sinister associations.

[Table of informant responses omitted.]

As indicated in Table 1, all seventeen informants maintained that there were "many" transforming witches in the Pacific coast. The coastal plain lies beyond the borders of the municipio of El Palmar, and the Palmar Quich? perceive the coastal population as the out-group farthest removed from their own in-group, not only spatially but also in terms of the prevailing behavioral stereotypes. But what of the pueblo itself? This is the population grouping for which we might expect the informants to manifest the most intense solidarity feelings. Yet, while ten informants denied that there are witches among their neighbors of the pueblo, three asserted that there are "a few," and four stated that there are "many."

. . . .


The sorcerer (ajitz, "one who pertains to evil") is a person, characteristically depicted as a male Indian, who attempts to harm other individuals through magic. In other places, I was told, sorcerers are likely to be practitioners whose services are hired by others on a client basis, but local sorcerers, insofar as informants believed that such exist, were said to act primarily for themselves and to have few or no clients.

Unlike the transforming witch, the sorcerer's evil abilities do not derive from a covenant made with the Devil. A sorcerer is reputed to be a master of magical formulas and rites, which he has learned from another sorcerer or from "books of magic" (occasionally described to me as "books of the Jews"). In point of fact, however, it is very doubtful that there is any formal instruction in sorcery, let alone manuals on the subject. Certain beliefs about the methodology of sorcery are widely held, and anyone who desires to try his hand at black magic has a number of common knowledge instrumentalities upon which to draw. During the course of my field work, for instance, a young man from the montes, with the help of male friends, opened the grave of a Ladina in the cemetery, removed a few bones, and reburied them on land belonging to an Indian woman, with the objective, most informants said, of rendering the Indian woman witless to the point where she would sell her land cheaply. Unfortunately for the alleged sorcerer, however, he was seen in the act, apprehended by the Ladino police, and quickly removed to Quezaltenango, the departmental capital. The young man had been observed drinking before the event in question, and there was considerable discussion in the village after his arrest as to whether he was actually a sorcerer or merely a drunk who had been carried away momentarily by rum and cupidity. The fact that he had utilized a sorcery technique, I was told, did not necessarily mean that he was a "legitimate sorcerer."

A genuine as contrasted to a spurious sorcerer, apparently, is one who seriously and soberly performs a magical act against another human being. The commonest of such acts are doll burial, the exhumation and reburial of human remains, the burial of other objects (e.g., photographs, nail clippings, hair, or a piece of the clothing of the individual against whom the action is directed), prayers recited over copal fires or burning, black candles, and incantations delivered in the cemetery. In all cases, the act is believed to be potentially most effective if performed at night.

While a sorcerer may likewise be a transforming witch, informants did not think such an association was necessary or even likely. The two categories of evildoers are terminologically and conceptually distinct; "apart the afitz, apart the win." Interestingly enough, all the informants who maintained that there were "many" transforming witches in the village also asserted that there were at least some pueblo residents who might occasionally attempt sorcery, and all but one of the ten informants who declared that there were no witches in the village also said that there were no individuals in the village who would seriously attempt sorcery. Even those who thought that some of their neighbors might incline toward sorcery, however, were for the most part skeptical as to whether their magical actions would be successful.

Replica Watches  Replica Watches


Some of the relevant data for comparing the witch and the sorcerer are presented below in tabular form.




Motivations for initiating evil actions (in decreasing order of probability)

Material gain; revenge; envy; accommodating another evil being; sexual gratification. Coupled with the above is a sadistic satisfaction in the suffering of the virtuous.

Revenge; material gain; envy; sexual gratification; accommodating a client. Derivation of sadistic gratification from the suffering of the virtuous is not necessarily true of all sorcerers.

Objects against which evil action is likely to be taken (in decreasing order of probability):

Anyone (excluding members of the witch's families of orientation and procreation) who is virtuous and has something worth stealing; anyone (normally excluding members of the witch’s family of procreation but including members of his family of orientation) who has offended the witch, anyone (probably excluding members of the witch's families of orientation and procreation) against whom a sorcerer or other evil being has enlisted the witch's aid; sleeping women (excluding those with whom a sexual relationship would be incestuous).

Someone (excluding members of his family of procreation but including members of his family of orientation) who has offended the sorcerer; someone (excluding members of his family of procreation but including members of his family of orientation) of whom he wishes to take material advantage; someone (excluding members of his family of procreation and his parents but including his siblings) who is wealthier, more industrious, more handsome, or in other ways more lucky and successful than himself; women who have rebuffed his sexual advances. The above refer to evil actions performed by the sorcerer on his own behalf.

Types of evil action likely to be attempted (in decreasing order of probability)

Nocturnal thievery; nocturnal annoying of victim (as by making noises near his house to keep him awake); nocturnal rape.

Murder by magic; rendering the victim (or some close kinsman of his) sick; rendering the victim witless or favorably disposed; very low probability of any attempt to harm the victim's crops or livestock.

Public vs. private nature of the attempted evil action

The witch, though he singles out specific victims, is perpetually and relentlessly at war with the society of the virtuous.

The sorcerer is normally at odds with a private person rather than the society at large.

Source of special capacity to accomplish evil

Power derived from a compact with the Devil.

Knowledge of special rites and formulas learned from other sorcerers, books, or common gossip.

Probability of accomplishing evil intentions




The reader will note that the most probable offense of a witch is theft, whereas that most likely to be attempted by a sorcerer is magical homicide. Yet the witch is considered far more reprehensible and loathsome than the sorcerer. If we were to assume that the offender is judged exclusively by the character of his offense, we might conclude that the Palmar Quich?consider theft a greater offense than murder. This, however, is not the case, for all informants agreed that murder is more serious and reprehensible than theft. How then do we account for the differential evaluation of the witch and sorcerer? Why is the witch considered the more evil? Several factors seem to me of especial moment in formulating an adequate answer.

In the first place, the witch is a dramatic construct in the Palmar Quich? world view. He represents, among other things, an extreme in unsocialized egocentricity and a symbolic warning that antisocial proclivities, if allowed full rein, may result in a loathsome debasement of the human condition. He is, I believe, a cultural expression of the view that immoral man may, through perversity, even become non-man. Significantly, however, man cannot achieve the infra-human state solely by his own volition; he requires the help of an infernal power. In order to obtain such help, however, he must take the first positive action himself. Furthermore, he must defeat the Devil in combat, thus proving to satanic satisfaction that his human strength, resolve, and evil character are deserving of transmogrification to the infra-human state. The witch has obtained superhuman help, whereas the sorcerer has not. The witch is so evil and loathsome because, among other things, he transmogrifies the human condition. The sorcerer, though evil, still remains a man.

A second factor of consequence, I believe, revolves around the public-private distinction. The sorcerer singles out specific victims, as does the witch, but his canons of selection are likely to have a different focus. The sorcerer is usually motivated by personal feelings directed against specific individuals, some of whom may even, by local standards, be adjudged deserving of punishment because of their own immoral or imprudent actions. The intended victim is, in any case, his or his client's private enemy. The witch, on the other hand, is animated by a perverse delight in harming or harassing any person of virtue and is thus at war with society at large. From a social point of view his transgression is manifestly the greater.

The witch and the sorcerer may also be compared with respect to the likelihood of their accomplishing their respective sinister intentions. A witch is quite likely to succeed unless his potential victims counteract him by defensive maneuvers, e.g., hiding valuables that he might covet or reciting the paternoster. A person who attempts sorcery, however, is very likely to fail regardless of whether or not his intended victim takes defensive measures. The sorcerers of San Sebastián (Department of Retalhuleu) are said to be powerful, and those of Samayac (Department of Suchitepéquez) that same "Zamayac" which Brasseur (1859: 823) and Brinton (1894: 3637) cited as an ancient center of "nagualism" are alleged to be very powerful indeed, but the Palmar Quich?do not accredit their own sorcerers or would-be sorcerers with much potency. Formerly, a number of informants related, Palmar sorcerers "knew much" and were powerful, but contemporary would-be sorcerers are deficient in the knowledge of powerful rites and spells and are therefore little to be feared. The witch, however, is feared because he depends not on traditional knowledge, which may become ineffectual with the passage of time, but on power granted him by the Devil.

. . . .


My primary aim in this paper has been to describe Palmar Quich?beliefs about nagual, witch, and sorcerer and to relate those beliefs to certain assumptions in the Indian world view. As a secondary goal, I have attempted to relate those beliefs and assumptions to selected social realities of life in Santiago El Palmar. . . . .

To an extent, this paper represents a selective response to an assertion made by Wisdom (1952: 122), who, after identifying nagual as companion animal, went on to say that "Nagualism has by now got confused with the animal transformation of sorcerers and witches. It is relatively unimportant anywhere, and seems to be confined to Mexico and the Guatemalan highlands." I am not of the opinion that the beliefs usually subsumed under the rubric "nagualism." are "relatively unimportant anywhere." [Footnote: Among the studies demonstrating the importance of "nagualistic" beliefs in communities less acculturated than Santiago El Palmar, one of the most emphatic is that of Villa Rojas (1947), who indicates clearly how, among the Oxchuc Tzeltal, such beliefs relate to kinship and social control.] Without embracing an extreme functionalism, I would say that beliefs of this sort are quite likely to be important if only because they exist. Though sometimes their meaning may be obscure and their importance oblique, it is the task of the anthropologist to penetrate the obscure and to appreciate the oblique.