According to Dr. Jorge Klor de Alva, the Nagual is like an alter ego, some other entity that represents one’s being. This is usually but not always an animal of some sort. The Tonalli, on the other hand, refers to the animal associated with the day one is born, rather analogous to one’s astrological sign. This animal may or may not be associated with your Nagual. This spiritual link between human and animal is common to many cultures, and is often referred to as a totem.
The Nagual, then, can be an animal familiar that lives a parallel life to your own. In Rodolfo Anaya’s beautiful novel Bless Me, Ultima, the elderly curandera character named Ultima has an owl as her “guardian spirit” that was born at the same time, and who will die when she herself passes over.
Interestingly, the nagual is often a creature of the night: the owl, the toad, the coyote. Some believe that when one dreams, it means one’s nagual is traipsing about on adventures.
Things can take a sinister turn, however: some communities believe that powerful (and maleficent) practitioners of witchcraft can transform themselves at will into familiar animals or spirits and adopt forms such as donkey, turkey, or dogs.
Nahualism is linked with ancient pre-Columbian shamanistic practices through depictions of humans with animal features, found in the surviving art and books of the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec peoples.
Emergencia del Nagual (the nahual coming out). Códice Nutall
In some parts of modern rural Mexico the position of the Nagual is an integrated part of society, as the local “witch doctor” or curandera. The community tolerates or fears and respects them, sometimes hiring their services in healing, spellcasting, or to remove curses from other naguals.
In other communities the accusation of nagualism may result in violent repercussions-- a modern example of the religious bigotry and hysteria that begat the witch-hunts of renaissance Europe. The 'nagual' is often considered synonymous with 'witch' or 'brujo', because they are thought capable of shapeshifting into animals at night. They are sometimes accused of sucking blood from innocent victims and livestock (see also Chupacabras), stealing and causing disease and disharmony.
[Dr. Jorge Klor de Alva is my ex-husband as I mentioned in yesterday's post!]