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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 a donkey, turkey, or dog, 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".
The word nagual derives from the Nahuatl word nahuālli [na'waːlːi], 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, nagual is sometimes synonymous with brujo ("witch"): one who is able to shapeshift into an animal at night, (normally into an owl, bat, or turkey) drink blood from human victims, steal property, cause disease, and the like.
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.
Subsequently many studies have described Nagualism in different Mesoamerican cultures such as the Zoques and the Jakaltek, K'iche', Q'eqchi', and Tzeltal Maya. Among the Jacaltec, Naguals reinforce indigenism by punishing those who collaborate with non Mayas.
Discussion continues on which degree nagualism represents a pre-Columbian belief system or is modelled on European popular religion. Gustavo Correa, suggests nagualism is not pre-Columbian, arguing that it was wholly imported from Europe, where he compares it to the medieval belief in werewolves.
However, Indigenous sources of pre-Columbian origin such as the Popol Vuh describe concepts clearly related to modern Nagualism.[dubious ]. Nonetheless, the only version of this document which has survived was transcribed well after the Spanish Conquest and may contain concepts introduced by European missionaries.
Kaplan concludes that, in Oaxaca, the belief in Naguals as evil shape shifting witches is common in both indigenous and mestizo populations. According to Kaplan, the belief in animal spirit companions is exclusively indigenous. These is certain for some groups and communities, but for others, as the mixes, chinantecos, triquis or tacuates, the people that can control their nahual or alterego are also protectors of the people and the natural resources and culture of the community, and highly revered but also feared.