General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 18 Apr 2021/2 Flower
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A deer nahual from the Codex Laud

Nahual or daemon?

Did Philip Pullman get his daemon idea from the Aztecs? Pullman’s daemon - a kind of unique guardian animal that defends, mirrors and shares the feelings of its “human” master in his famous trilogy His Dark Materials - is very similar to the ancient Mexican belief in a person’s nahual, an animal alter ego (other or companion self). (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

‘Tigre’ (‘Aztec’ jaguar) mask from Mexico
‘Tigre’ (‘Aztec’ jaguar) mask from Mexico

Each person was believed to have a companion animal - or bird - with whom he somehow “shared” his soul - and hence his fate (there’s a link here to the 260-day sacred calendar). In this way human and nature were intimately connected. Ancient Mexicans believed that a person (especially one with power) could have several nahual forms, and that the human could in fact transform his or her physical being into their spirit-self. The relationship between person and nahual is like that between mask-wearer and (ritual) mask: one “hides” behind the other. Timothy Knab (in A Scattering of Jades) suggests the nahual is associated with the third, more obscure and less well understood, aspect of the human soul for the Aztecs, the ‘ihiyotl’ - the first two being the ‘yollotl’ (the heart, source of movement and life) and the ‘tonalli’ (‘equated with heat, the sun, the breath, that spark of life that animated man and the universe’).

‘La Venadita’ by Frida Kahlo
‘La Venadita’ by Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo depicted her animal self as a ‘deer-being’ in ‘The Little Deer’, 1946, a painting full of symbolism; apparently Kahlo tried to change her Aztec calendar sign from Death to Deer in an attempt to alter her fate.

2-lizard mask from Tlacozotitlan, Guerrero
2-lizard mask from Tlacozotitlan, Guerrero

The close relationship between humans and animals is clearly shown in many Mexican masks, such as this extraordinary mask from Guerrero, with a lizard on each cheek. ‘In ancient Mexico the idea of the mystic unity of man and animals was widespread ... The Olmecs, for example, associated themselves with the jaguar and were “able” to transform themselves into men-jaguars and jaguar-men.’ The shaman - ‘a spiritual technician whose soul could travel to the spirit world and cause animal spirits to return to earth so that hunger and want could be averted’ - was held in very high regard in ancient Mexico (from Mexican Masks by Donald Cordry).

Finding an animal companion spirit: at the Story Museum, Oxford (L) and in an ancient ceramic ‘host figure’ from Teotihuacán, Mexico (R)
Finding an animal companion spirit: at the Story Museum, Oxford (L) and in an ancient ceramic ‘host figure’ from Teotihuacán, Mexico (R)  (Click on image to enlarge)

Update 2016:-
Philip Pullman has told Oxfordshire school children that his animal spirit could be a raven, rook or crow, since they go around ‘stealing things’ and as a story-teller he takes ideas from other people, places, conversations... He doesn’t recall ‘how’ he thought of the daemon idea, but he does remember ‘why’: to allow Lyra to talk to someone (when she enters a room where she’s not supposed to be). Another person in the room would change the nature of the story, whereas an ‘animal companion’ provided a meaningful alternative. Just as animals remind us of ourselves, so daemons are very much part of the individuals that host them...

• Codex image from the Codex Laud (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)
• ‘Tigre’ mask by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
• Lizard mask from Mexican Masks by Donald Cordry (1980) - with the kind permission of University of Texas Press
• ‘Finding an animal companion spirit’: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

Frida Kahlo

‘Los Nahuales - Animal Companion Spirits’

‘Animal – a safari through stories’ (Story Museum)
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