Residents of Mexico have many things to be frightened of, so they are never happy when another item gets added to their worry list. Unfortunately, that is what happened this week in a small town in the southern state of Morelos where houses are suddenly displaying white crosses drawn with lime on their doors. Why? It appears word has spread that a shapeshifter has taken up residence in the town, and the white chalk crosses are an ancient method of warding off the violence that the shapeshifter known as the nahual might bring upon them. In so many of these ancient fears and traditions, there is often a piece of truth in their origin and reasons why modern people still cling to them in hope of help. What is the shapeshifting nahual and why are the residents of Cocoyoc in fear of one in their town?
"It started with some noises that began to be heard during the night, at dawn. First, it was a few neighbors who started the topic and later, as the days went by, more people claimed to have heard the same thing, until the comment came up that it was a nahual and that protection had to be provided."
Cocoyoc resident Luis Salgado told El Sol de Cuautla how the rumors of a nahual in the neighborhood began and spread. At first it was just the strange noises, but then Salgado said the residents began experiencing acts of violence – he did not share details on what they were. However, they were happening so frequently that local authorities set up a 10:00 pm curfew for the town.
It is understandable that Cocoyoc residents, after the local police were ineffective in stopping the ever-escalating noises and violence, would believe the cause was something more than burglars, terrorists or pranksters and turn to a more spiritual form of protection. Cocoyoc itself is an ancient town founded in the 11th century by the Tlahuicas. After about 200 years, it was conquered by Huitzilihuitl, the second tlatoani or king of the Aztecs. By the 16th century, Cocoyoc was under control of Spain and its fertile land was exploited by the sugar cane industry. The name Cocoyoc comes from the Nahuatl word which means ″coyote″ … and that is where the natural begins to merge with the supernatural.
"Sometimes we forget that, with everything and the urban contexts, Cocoyoc is a town, of a Nahua tradition. This cultural influence prevails from ideas and beliefs of healing rituals. Let us not forget that Cocoyoc is a redoubt culture where even until relatively recently there were practices of magic and healers."
Historian Gustavo Garibay explained to El Sol de Cuautla that local residents have one foot in the present and one foot in their ancient traditions and beliefs, which is why many were offended when photographs of their doors showing the lime crosses were picked up by social media and subjected to the usual social media ridicule and derogatory comments. (Photos of the doors can be seen here.) The homeowners on Buenos Aires Street, where most of the noises and violent acts have been reported, were protecting their property and themselves in a way they were comfortable with, because, without a logical explanation, they feared their adversary was something they were uncomfortable with – a nahual.
The word nahual or nagual comes from the Nahuatl word nāhualli and refers to a shaman, a religious practitioner. The Spanish translated it as magician or sorcerer, while English speakers translated it to "transforming trickster" or "shape shifter." In Cocoyoc -- which means coyote, the animal often called the ‘trickster’ – the belief in the nahual in all of its forms as a shapeshifter, good or evil spirit, shaman is still very strong and is tied to a person’s birth date in a manner similar to an archeological sign.
According to the Mesoamerican calendar system, birth dates determine if a person can become a nagual. Each day is associated with an animal that has strong and weak characteristics, so a person born on that day will have both sets of that animal’s characteristics. For a person to become a nahual, they would have to be born on the day of a strong and mystical animal, like a jaguar or puma or coyote, and would have to have absorbed the strong aspects of the creature. The locals believed that magicians learned to shapeshift into their animal, and some could cause others to shapeshift. Modern people who believe in the shapeshifter but don’t want to use the term nahual will call this person a brujo or wizard, and there are many modern stories of brujo changing into nocturnal animals – like dogs, owls, bats, wolves or coyotes – and then drinking human blood, stealing property, spreading diseases and other terrible things. With the rise in crime, the pandemics and the unrest in Mexico, it’s no wonder that those seeking answers might fear a supernatural cause like the nahual, and turn to a supernatural multi-religion talisman like the lime cross on the door.
“We do not believe that these actions are necessary, but we highly respect the decision of the parishioners, whether they are Catholic or of another denomination, however, we do not consider it necessary. You can have crosses inside the houses, but painting them outside is not necessary."
Radio Formula reports that local Catholic leaders issued a carefully worded statement letting fearful Cocoyoc residents know that having a cross inside their house works just as well against non-Catholic evil spirits. In fact, they would prefer believers to use crosses of any kind rather than falling prey to profiteering magicians charging to remove evil nahuals.
Finally, it is worth noting that the practice of nagualism is also associated with the use of hallucinogens, including peyote, ololiuqui, and psylocibin mushrooms, during rituals to enhance the powers of perception in the practitioners -- perceptions that could include seeing people or themselves changing into animals. In these psychedelic substances, the ancient and the modern intersect again.
Are the residents of Cocoyoc being tormented by a shapeshifting nahual? If they believe they are, nothing is going change their minds. Will the lime crosses help? If they believe they will, it will at least bring them comfort and a feeling of accomplishment. Are nahuals real? In a place of ancient rituals, psychedelic substances, and modern evils like poverty and mysterious diseases … who knows?
If only there was a lime cross that could protect us from social media trolls.