Along with rising sea levels and extreme weather events, one of the biggest crises accompanying the Anthropocene is the advent of a sixth mass extinction. Species are disappearing at an unusually rapid clip: conservative estimates predict that one-third of all species will go extinct over the next hundred years. Even many of those that do not face imminent extinction have been experiencing rapid population decline. This defaunation adversely affects broader ecological networks: fewer animals to pollinate and disperse seeds contributes to the loss of plant life. How did we get here? Researchers point to proximate causes such as pollution, climate change, and habitat fragmentation, all of which are propelled by human activities and the organizing logic of capitalism, which requires Cheap Nature to drive the accumulation of wealth.
Underlying such practices is an assumption central to Western humanist thought: humans and nonhumans occupy separate, discrete realms of activity and knowledge. Since Aristotle, philosophers have endeavored to identify the key characteristics that set humans apart from other animals. The human abilities to speak, reason, create art, and feel shame or boredom have been put forth as discriminating qualities that elevate our species above others. These qualities uniquely endow humans with personhood—with individuality as well as political and ethical status. In this way, life is divvied up into an easily graspable hierarchy, which allows us to value and protect human life while deeming animal life anonymous and expendable.
Yet the onset of the sixth mass extinction prompts us to rethink these basic premises about who and what should be valued. It urges us to look for other models that conceptualize the relationship between human and nonhuman not as disconnected but as intimate and enmeshed. One such model can be found in the Indigenous practice of nahualism in Mexico and Central America. Dating back to pre-Columbian times, nahualism asserts that each human is born linked to an animal alter ego, her coessence or nahual (alternatively, nagual or nawal). The nahual accompanies that human over the course of her entire life. The human and animal pair shares a soul or consciousness; they have the same breath but adopt different bodily forms. Nahualism demonstrates an approach to ontology—the nature of being—that dramatically diverges from Western models. It formulates human and nonhuman life as inextricably intertwined. This connection is not just external (the connection we might feel when we see or encounter “nature”); it is also innate, contained within the very self. An individual life cannot therefore be understood to be bounded or autonomous because it is already a multiplicity; each self is not either human or nonhuman, but both.
The Maya K’iche’ leader and Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú dedicates an entire chapter of her testimonial text, I, Rigoberta Menchú, to the nahual. She explains that this belief is vital to K’iche’ identity:
Every child is born with a nahual. The nahual is like a shadow, his protective spirit who will go through life with him. The nahual is the representative of the earth, the animal world, the sun and water, and in this way the child communicates with nature. The nahual is our double, something very important to us. We conjure up an image of what our nahual is like. It is usually an animal. The child is taught that if he kills an animal, that animal’s human double will be very angry with him because he is killing his nahual. Every animal has its human counterpart and if you hurt him, you hurt the animal too.
Because numerous Indigenous groups throughout Mesoamerica practice nahualism, its details vary accordingly. Menchú explains that in the K’iche’ tradition, the calendar determines one’s nahual. Every day of the month corresponds with a specific wild animal, plant, or natural phenomena: jaguar, eagle, maize, wind, even lightening. The entity that correlates with a person’s birth date becomes his or her lifelong companion. They are the same spirit but inhabit different bodies. That is, the soul occupies two different material forms, one human and one nonhuman. These two bodies share the same essence, but there is no communication between them. They cannot access each other’s perspective without the help of a shaman (through the ritualistic consumption of plants like peyote), through dreams, or at the moment of death when they can briefly see through the nahual’s eyes. Because this pair is the same being, the term nahual doesn’t just signify the nonhuman alter but also the human herself. The nahual describes a unity of being that is also a duality, a self that is also an other.
The relationship with the nahual is understood in various ways, depending on the group or person describing it. It is one’s “shadow,” “double,” or “protective spirit,” one’s defender or vigilant guard, a coessence, or an “other I” that is “molten into the human being, perched onto his back.” The coastal Mixtec people describe those who possess a nahual or coessence as uvira, which translates as “two-man” and evokes “an abstract image of plural singularity or unity.” Zapotec poet Victor Terán directly links the nahual with the sensation of being in love, describing it as an intimacy that is invisible yet palpable: “It will feel like ants tickling at your soul, / but you will never see it.” In Terán’s poem, nagual is a translation of the Zapotec word xquenda. The translators note that another possible translation might be “one’s characteristic.” The nahual is a person’s constitutive trait, a foundational element of identity and self.
To nonindigenous peoples, the idea that our self does not belong solely to us but also exists in another body—not to mention the body of a different species—is hard to grasp. This is particularly the case because in the Western philosophical tradition, the self is assumed to be a unified, contained being that is fundamentally separate from other beings. Nahualism scrambles this logic and undermines the supposed autonomy of the self by suggesting that a single self or soul can take on various material forms. To further clarify this concept, it is helpful to look to the novel Men of Maize (1949) by the Nobel Prize–winning Guatemalan author Miguel Ángel Asturias. While Asturias was not himself Indigenous, his novel draws from foundational texts of Mesoamerican mythology including the Popol Vuh and the Chilam Balam. In one chapter, the character Gaudencio Tecún explains the parallel deaths of a deer and a local curer (a shaman, or spiritual guide and healer) to his brother Uperto:
“The curer and the deer, for your information, were one and the same person. I fired at the deer and did in the curer, because they were one and the same, identical.”
“I don’t get it. See if you can explain it to me. The curer and the deer,” Uperto raised his hand and put his two middle fingers together, “they were like seeing one fat finger made up of two fingers.”
“No, not that. They were the same finger. Not two, one. The curer and the deer were like you and your shadow, you and your soul, you and your life breath. . . . Like two drops of water in one swig.”
To think that the deer and the curer were one single being was so difficult for him that at times he held his head, fearful that his own common sense might be turned. That dead body had been a deer, and the Deer of the Seven-Fires had been a man. As a deer he had loved does and had had fawns, baby deer. His male nostrils [had been] in the algebra of stars, the bluish coats of the does, soft fur toasted like the summer, nervous, shy, susceptible only to fugitive loves. And as a man, when he was young, he had loved and pursued females, he’d had little human children full of laughter, whose only defense was their weeping. Which had he loved more, the does or the women?
The curer and the deer outwardly manifest divergent material forms and experiences. Yet the apparent differences between these two bodies hide the nahual’s ontological undifferentiation. There is spiritual unity with bodily diversity. The deer is not “just an animal, but an animal that was a person,” a “deer who [is] not only deer.” This framing of man and deer as one and the same deconstructs human exceptionalism. Uperto’s lingering question of “which he had loved more” leads the reader to realize that human love is no more real than cervine. Both experiences are equally consequential to the curer/deer’s life.
What becomes clear after this passage in Men of Maize is that every nonhuman creature might also be human. Put another way, every animal, plant, or natural formation (like a river, mountain, or cave) exists in a latent state of possible personhood. Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has studied this facet of Amerindian cosmologies. He explains that Indigenous animist worldviews approach “every object [as] a subject in potentia.” Therefore, “every being encountered by a human over the course of . . . his or her own life may suddenly allow its ‘other side’ (a common idiom in indigenous cosmologies) to eclipse its usual non-human appearance, actualizing its latent humanoid condition.” For the K’iche’, the nahual is that “other side,” that humanoid soul that can dress or disguise itself in different external garbs. The external body does not define identity but is a removable cloak that conceals the unchanging essence underneath.
If the West has traditionally separated animals from humans on the basis of what they supposedly lack—be it reason, soul, art, or language—Amerindian societies proceeded in the opposite direction. They propose that personhood, typically attributed exclusively to humans in the West, is a position that can be occupied by other species as well. If humans think about themselves as persons, in the Amerindian tradition, then so do animals. As Brazilian literary scholar Idelber Avelar puts it, “When a jaguar sees you, he is the one who is a person.” The animal assumes the position of the perceiving subject, and therefore its behavior is not dictated by instinct but shaped by cultural norms. Viveiros de Castro elaborates this point: “Being people in their own sphere, non-humans see things as ‘people’ do. But the things that they see are different: what to us is blood, is maize beer to the jaguar . . . what we see as a muddy waterhole, the tapirs see as a great ceremonial house.”
Nahualism is part of a broader worldview positing that humans and animals coexist within a shared ecology. Menchú explains, “Man is part of the natural world. There is not one world for man and one for animals, they are part of the same one and lead parallel lives.” This affirmation of human/nonhuman inseparability is, after all, not so distant from findings in modern science that affirm that over half of the human body is made up of nonhuman DNA: the latest estimates suggest that for every human cell, the human body contains 1.3 bacteria cells. Such revelations mirror the belief in coessence: from life to death we coexist with other creatures, whether or not we are aware of their existence. Our self is also that of an other.
To return to Menchú’s testimonial text, she chooses not to reveal what her nahual is to her readers. Her decision not to disclose this aspect of her identity tells us two things. First, it tells us that the nahual represents the most personal and sacred expression of one’s self. K’iche’ poet Humberto Ak’abal similarly cautions against sharing this most intimate of secrets: “To tell someone about one’s nahual is to remove one’s clothes and allow everyone to see one naked.” Second, this secrecy is central to Menchú’s broader approach to explaining indigenous culture to Western audiences. To counteract exploitation and appropriation, she chooses to reveal certain aspects while keeping others confidential. Menchú states, “We often find it hard to talk about ourselves because we know we must hide so much in order to preserve our Indian culture and prevent it being taken away from us. So I can only tell you very general things about the nahual. I can’t tell you what my nahual is because that is one of our secrets.” Because of the violent and intertwined histories of colonialism, neocolonialism, racism, and genocide in Guatemala, outsiders have proven themselves to be unreliable recipients of Indigenous knowledge. As such, silence is an important tool. Ak’abal’s poem “Stones” beautifully condenses this sentiment: “It is not that stones are mute; / they keep silent.” In this interpretation, the absence of speech is not a privation but a plenitude. The nonhuman world speaks, but it chooses not to speak to us.
The intimacy between a person and her nonhuman alter also gives shape to a different mode of affectively and ethically relating to animals. Whereas in Western thought it is common to foster emotional and ethical attachments with domesticated animals, nahualism is not restricted to the pet economy. Menchú explains that in Mayan communities the nahual has a pedagogical function; it teaches kindness across species from an early age. The intimate identification with animals validates their status as subjects, and subsequently their ethical consideration. By understanding each human self (the spirit) as also existing in an animal or nonhuman form, nahualism redirects our ethical relationship with nature from one that is determined by an individual’s moral code to an ethics that is based on relationality, structured around the recognition that the nonhuman also possesses personhood or a point of view.
Rather than shore up a notion of the sovereign human subject, the belief in the nahual formulates a vision of transsubjectivity. From birth, each individual is aware of a connectivity to nonhuman life. Everything is connected, even if that connection cannot be seen. This transsubjectivity is felt and imaginatively embodied. It is an alliance that is both material and abstract, that crosses but also maintains boundaries. This philosophy prefigures and anticipates the move made by contemporary posthumanist scholars such as Stacy Alaimo, Karen Barad, and Rosi Braidotti, who argue in favor of a more porous conception of the human subject, one in constant becoming with other, nonhuman forces.
It is important to note that historically nahualism has been twisted to fit racist interpretations of Indigenous peoples as more “natural” and “irrational” than their Western colonizers or ladino (nonindigenous) counterparts. Nahual is derived from the Nahuatl word nahualli, which roughly translates as “magician.” Unlike Menchú’s identification of the nahual as a universal trait, in this etymology, it is the magician or shaman who has the privilege of shape-shifting between human and animal form. In colonial sources, the shaman is negatively construed as a “witch” or “wizard” who is therianthropic (part human and part animal). In spite of colonists’ attempts to eradicate non-Christian practices, these spiritual guides used the peyote plant to allow others to momentarily see through their nahual’s eyes. The consumption of the hallucinogenic plant during spiritual ceremonies “was regarded as a method of throwing the individual out of himself and into relation with thesupernatural.”
The fact that nahualism continued in spite of the colonial introduction of Catholicism led it to be perceived as a transgressive and even diabolical practice. Many sources written in English double down on the assertion that nahualism is a dark art. Scottish folklorist and occult scholar Lewis Spence explained in his 1930 book The Magic and Mysteries of Mexico that after a baby was baptized by the Catholic Church, some would take their infants to a shaman, “who, by some sleight of devildom, nullifies the sacred power of the holy water and bestows on the child a nagual or beast-guardian, a spiritual guide and mentor in animal shape.” The association of nahualism with dark sorcery or “devildom” illustrates how alternatives to Western modes of thought have been disparaged, censored, or repressed through violent and discursive means.
Menchú’s insistence on maintaining the secrecy of her nahual adds an important note of caution as we consider nahual as a loanword for the Anthropocene. Her silence is a form of resistance that indexes the continuing struggles of Indigenous peoples, which is as relevant today as ever. In addition to facing racial discrimination and high rates of poverty, Indigenous environmental activists continue to be murdered at alarming rates throughout Latin America. Honduras is one such example; from 2010 to 2016, over 120 activists were killed for resisting the efforts of corporate and state interests to meet the global demand for palm oil, timber, and minerals.
To think with Indigenous cosmologies as nonindigenous peoples is to challenge ourselves to be like Uperto, the character in Asturias’s novel who holds his head in bewilderment as he learns about the nahual. It is to push ourselves to stretch our minds beyond anthropocentric paradigms of personhood, such that we become uncomfortable or even lose our common sense. To think with the nahual is to take the plunge of considering that the body—whether human or animal—might not determine identity but rather may be a removable garment or piece of clothing. It is to think about the coexistence of unity within difference (one self/consciousness inhabiting many bodies) and conversely of difference within the seemingly singular self (one body containing multiple selves).
Stacy Alaimo notes that in Western thought, neither ethics nor politics has “allowed space for concern over nonhuman lives.” Nahualism offers an important counterpoint, a way of conceiving of the human self as inherently connected to nonhuman life. Nahualism coincides with contemporary animal studies’ interest in extending personhood to nonhuman animals and problematizing the dualistic conception of nature and culture as distinct domains. Because Amerindian thought articulates a paradigm in which every nonhuman thing is seen as a human in potentia, it challenges Western solipsism and promotes a horizontal ethics. In this way of thinking, human and nonhuman lives carry the same worth. Indeed, they are entangled such that the death of the animal double means the death of oneself. As we look for sources that model nonhierarchical, nonexploitative ways of relating to the nonhuman world, nahualism offers a provocative point of departure. By imagining ourselves inside the body of an other, we can begin to feel the urgency necessary to respond to the ongoing sixth extinction.
Another Path: ~*~
1. Philip Cafaro, “Three Ways to Think About the Sixth Mass Extinction,” Biological Conservation 192 (2015): 387.
2. Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Rodolfo Dirzo, “Biological Annihilation via the Ongoing Mass Extinction Signaled by Vertebrate Population Losses and Declines,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 114, no. 30 (2017): E6089–96.
3. See Jason Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (New York: Verso, 2015).
4. For more on the animal in Western philosophy, see Matthew Calarco, Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).
5. It is helpful to briefly clarify the difference between the nahual and the totem in Mesoamerican worldviews. Whereas a nahual is a living animal attached to a living human being, a totem, by contrast, is an animal that is recognized by a group to be a sacred ancestor or protective spirit. Claire Pailler, “Tótem o nahual: El bestiario nicaragüense en la afirmación de una identidad nacional a partir del Movimiento de Vanguardia,” Centroamericana 21 (2011): 55.
6. For her leadership in the decade-long campaign to end the ongoing genocide of Guatemala’s indigenous population, Rigoberta Menchú was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Menchú’s testimony, I, Rigoberta Menchú, became embroiled in controversy in the U.S. academy in the 1990s, primarily over the question of its veracity. For a comprehensive account of this debate, see Arturo Arias, ed., The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).
7. Rigoberta Menchú and Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, I, Rigoberta Menchú, trans. Ann Wright, 2nd ed. (New York: Verso, 2009), 18.
8. Other ethnographies offer different accounts of how the nahual is determined. For instance, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán describes a Nahua ritual in which a newborn is left overnight in a sacred site surrounded by ash. The following morning, a shaman examines which footprints have been stamped into the ash, and that creature becomes the infant’s nahual or protective guide for the rest of his or her life. Idi M. Flores Durán, “Apropiación mágico-religiosa del medio ambiente natural. Los nahuales, sabios con el poder de transformarse en animal,” Gazeta de Antropología 22 (2006): article 4, http://digibug.ugr.es/handle/10481/7084.
9. John Monaghan, “The Person, Destiny, and the Construction of Difference in Mesoamerica,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 33 (1998): 142.
10. Menchú and Burgos-Debray, I, Rigoberta Menchú, 18.
11. Mario Molina Cruz, Xtille Zikw Belé Ihén bene nhálhje ke Yu’ Bza’o/Pacho Culebro y los naguales de Tierra Azul (Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 2007), 352.
12. The coinage of the term “coessence” to describe the nahual in English is attributed by John Monaghan to Ester Hermitte. Monaghan, “Person, Destiny,” 141.
13. Pablo Antonio Cuadra, El hombre, un Dios en el exilio (Managua, Nicaragua: Fundación Internacional Rubén Darío, 1991), 1.
14. Monaghan, “Person, Destiny,” 142–43.
15. Víctor Terán, “Six Variations on Love,” in Words of the True Peoples: Anthology of Contemporary Mexican Indigenous-Language Writers, ed. Carlos Montemayor and Donald Frischmann (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 2:65.
16. Terán, “Six Variations on Love,” 65.
17. In spite of the fact that Asturias was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1967, his work has had a fraught reception in Latin America. Several prominent Maya intellectuals, including the K’iche’ poet Humberto Ak’abal, attacked Asturias for presuming to speak for the Maya people, as well as for the racism in his undergraduate thesis on the “Indian problem.” Menchú, on the contrary, revindicated his work, praising its “respect for difference.” Arturo Arias has written extensively on this debate, noting that ironically this rejection of Asturias validates essentialist notions of Indigenous identities. While some critiqued his literature for not being authentically Indigenous, other Latin American intellectuals (e.g., Ángel Rama and Emir Rodriguez Monegal) rejected it for copying Indigenous sources too closely (i.e., as being too much like Indigenous sources). Arias argues that this uproar reveals Latin American cosmopolitan prejudices: racial bias against Indigenous subjectivity, geographical bias against Central America, and machista prejudice against queerness. Arturo Arias, “Constructing Ethnic Bodies and Identities in Miguel Angel Asturias and Rigoberta Menchú,” Postmodern Cultures 17, no. 1 (2006), http://pmc.iath.virginia.edu/issue.906/17.1arias.html.
18. Miguel Ángel Asturias, Men of Maize, trans. Gerald Martin (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995), 56–57.
19. Asturias, Men of Maize, 63.
20. Asturias, Men of Maize, 68.
21. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Immanence and Fear: Stranger-Events and Subject in Amazonia,” trans. David Rogers, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2, no. 1 (2012): 41.
22. Viveiros de Castro, “Immanence and Fear,” 31.
23. Whereas Western culture perceives the unity of nature (universality of substance) and the multiplicity of culture, Amerindian multinaturalism inverts this equation, perceiving spiritual unity and corporeal diversity. For more on this, see Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cosmological Perspectivism in Amazonia and Elsewhere: Four Lectures Given in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, February–March 1998 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
24. Idelber Avelar, “Amerindian Perspectivism and Non-human Rights,” Alter/nativas 1 (2013): 13.
25. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4, no. 3 (1998): 477–78.
26. Menchú and Burgos-Debray, I, Rigoberta Menchú, 22.
28. Irene Piedra Santa, “Humberto Ak’abal, the Guatemalan Weaver of Words,” Skipping Stones 19, no. 5 (2007): 33.
29. Menchú and Burgos-Debray, I, Rigoberta Menchú, 22.
30. Piedra Santa, “Humberto Ak’abal,” 33.
31. Franciscan Spanish friar Bernardino de Sahagún’s pioneering enthnographic text of Aztec beliefs, the Florentine Codex, notes, “The nauallí, or magician, is he who frightens men and sucks the blood of children during the night. He is well skilled in the practice of this trade, he knows all the arts of sorcery (nauallotl) and employs them with cunning and ability; but for the benefit of men only, not for their injury” (book 10, chap. 9). Sahagún’s interpretation leans in two opposing directions: the nauallí is wicked but also skilled and benevolent. Bernardino de Sahagún, General History of the Things of New Spain: The Florentine Codex, trans. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur Anderson (Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research, 1975).
32. Daniel G. Brinton, “Nagualism: A Study in Native American Folk-Lore and History,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 33, no. 144 (1894): 9. Shamanic rites related to nahualism are still practiced today by groups in Mexico and Guatemala, as can be seen in Nicolás Echeverría’s excellent 2014 documentary Eco de la montaña (Echo of the mountain).
33. Lewis Spence, The Magic and Mysteries of Mexico, or The Arcane Secrets and Occult Lore of the Ancient Mexicans and Maya (London: Rider, 1930), 165.
35. Stacy Alaimo, Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 10.