The nagual hiding in shadows: Metamorphic supernaturals, contested discourse, and the complications of fieldwork in the Huasteca Veracruzana of northeast Mexico

Edgar Martin del Campo
Dept. of Anthropology, State University of New York, Albany
July, 2006


The nagual is one of the most widely described supernatural creatures in the ethnology of Mesoamerica, and it is also one of the most confounding for its breadth of meanings. Traditional ethnographic descriptions of this being refer to two principal definitions: a magical creature able to assume animal forms or a companion spirit in sympathetic rapport with an individual. Its recurrent association with discourses of witchcraft and the diabolical reflects colonial and contemporary programs to demonize the nagual and other specialists of indigenous religious traditions. Although this entity has been principally described from the folklore of indigenous societies, it has been adapted to national Mexican media, whose representation of the nagual has in turn influenced mainstream images of the figure, linked to discourses on the ndigenous condition, especially from the stance of urban and Mestizo populations. My hypothesis for this investigation is that discourses on the nagual are fluid; its meanings are determined by social context and also shaped historically by patterns of hegemony. I conducted a case study on patterns of meaning determination for the nagual and the related tonalli among the Nahuas of Chicontepec, Veracruz, Mexico. The data are drawn from communicational observations and semi-structured interviews, and they represent various genres through which discourses on the supernatural are circulated. Additional data were also obtained from brief visits to Tampico, Tamaulipas; and Otomí communities in Ixhuatlán de Madero, Veracruz. Fieldwork for this investigation was conducted from September 2004 to May 2005.
The dissertation is structured to follow the course of the field season, to describe several key events in which discourses on the supernatural were involved. These events reveal a larger cosmos of supernatural entities and phenomena that are conceptually related to the nagual and to each other. My social position among the indigenous communities was subject to an ongoing dialogue that in turn influenced what could be communicated with me on subjects of the supernatural and on dangerous discourses on witchcraft. I have organized the chapters to reflect the evolution of my position through the season and its impact on the data I could obtain.