I started hunting nahuales before I even knew what they were.
In 2005 in the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombiano, I encountered Our Flayed Lord. A deity garbed in sacrifical skin, dead hands hanging from his wrists, dead lips encircling his lips; he was pretty hard to forget. At the time I barely even paid attention to where he was from. I assumed he was South American. It turns out, though, that he is most definitely Mexican.
Our Flayed Lord is typical of what I like about ancient Mexican art. The combining of the animal, the human, and the divine or demonic. I like the fluid metamorphoses, the ways gods give birth to mortals and the way mortals could carry the gods in their hands. The ways the human consciousness could enter an animal and the way animal savagery could enter a human.
While in DF, researching the painting I’d seen at Tacos Gus, I came upon a name for this shapeshifting. The nahual or nagual or nahualli is, I think technically, I kind of spirit animal. Our Flayed Lord isn’t a nahual by this definition, although he may have one. What really got me, though, was the spin put on this idea by Saner, the guy who painted Tacos Gus, and who has carved a reputation for himself and his work by painting people masquerading as animals and deities.
Take this wider perspective, and you can find nahuales everywhere. The Lost Boys in Disney’s Peter Pan are nahuales. Max from Where the Wild Things Are is most definitely a nahual. These are kids lost in animalism, that go feral but can be brought back by the love of a good mother. The nahual never loses himself completely. He is mischievous, a wolf in sheep’s clothing (he is also, it seems, usually a he).
If you count not just masquerades, but men hidden deep within an animal form, then you could call Beauty and the Beast a nahual story. Not all nahuales become so voluntarily, and even if they do there has to be an element of pain and sacrifice in any metamorphosis (maybe that’s what Our Flayed Lord was getting at). Look at all those wolfman tales. Look at those lost boys that couldn’t grow up.
Precolombian Mexican culture is also full of nahuales. The Aztec eagle warriors and jaguar warriors wore the skins or plumage of their patron animals. The Olmecs saw themselves as a jaguar people, and their sculptures were full of metamorphosis. The Toltecs, whoever they were, left behind this proof that the nahual is not only about the savage animal emerging from the man, but also about the human emerging from the animal.
It’s not only the capital that makes for good nahual hunting, either. A while ago I found a great take on the nahual in Guadalajara, just off of Hidalgo among the tattoo parlours. These nahuals, painted by Jeremy Fish and Sam Flores (who dabbles in images of female nahualism) are a little different, in that they are animals masquerading as very different animals. They are tigerbunnies.
Now that I have a name by which to call my quarry, the hunt is well and truly on. I’m snouting about, trying to catch a scent of more ancient Mexican nahuales, more nahuales in children’s literature, more nahuales painted on the streets, more nahuales living among us.