TALES OF POWER first published 1974

The Tonal and the Nagual

"I'm going to tell you about the tonal and the nagual." said don Juan.

This was the first time in our association that he had used those two terms. I was vaguely familiar with them through the anthropological literature on the culture of central Mexico. I knew that 'tonal' (pronounced, toh-na'hl) was thought to be a kind of guardian spirit usually an animal, that a child obtained at birth and with which he had intimate ties for the rest of his life. Nagual (pronounced, nah-wa'hl) was the name given to the animal into which sorcerers could allegedly transform themselves, or the sorcerer that elicited such a transformation.

I told him what anthropologists knew about the two concepts. He let me speak without interrupting me.

"Well, whatever you think you know about them is pure nonsense" he said. "I base this statement on the fact that whatever I'm telling you about the tonal and the nagual could not possibly have been told to you before. Any idiot would know that you know nothing about them, because in order to be acquainted with them, you would have to be a sorcerer and you aren't. Or you would've had to talk about them with a sorcerer and you haven't. So disregard everything you have heard before, because it's inapplicable."

"The tonal is not an animal that guards a person. I would rather say that it is a guardian that could be represented as an animal. But that is not the important point."

"The tonal is, rightfully so, a protector, a guardian, but a guardian that most of the time turns into a guard."

"The tonal is the organizer of the world. On it's shoulders rests the monumental task of setting the chaos of the world in order. It is a guardian that protects our being. Therefore, an inherent quality of the tonal is to be cagey and jealous of it's doings. And since it's doings are the most important part of our lives, it is no wonder that it eventually changes, in every one of us, from a guardian into a guard."

"A guardian is broad-minded and understanding. A guard on the other hand is a vigilante, narrow minded and most of the time despotic. The tonal in all of us has been made into a petty and despotic guard when it should be a broadminded guardian."

"Is the tonal the creator of the world?" I asked.

"The tonal makes the world only in a manner of speaking. It cannot create or change anything, and yet it makes the world because its function is to judge, and assess, and witness. I say that the tonal makes the world because it witnesses and assesses it according to tonal rules. In a strange manner the tonal is a creator that doesn't create a thing. In other words, the tonal makes up the rules by which it comprehends the world. So, in a manner of speaking, it creates the world."

"If the tonal is everything we know about ourselves and our world, then what is the nagual ?" I asked.

"The nagual is the part of us which we do not deal with at all. It is the part of us for which there is no description - no words no names, no feelings, no knowledge."

"We sense from the moment we are born, that there are two parts to us. At the time of our birth and for a while after, we are all nagual. We sense, then, that in order to function we need a counterpart to what we have. The tonal is missing, from the very beginning we are incomplete."

"Then the tonal starts to develop and it becomes utterly important to our functioning, so important that it overwhelms the nagual. From the moment we become all tonal we do nothing else but increment the incompleteness."


"This is the end of our journey downtown," said don Juan and sat down on a bench. "Right here we have an ideal spot to watch people. There are some who walk by on the street and others who come to church. From here we can see everyone."

He pointed to a wide business street and to a gravel walk leading to some steps of a church. Our bench was located midway between the church and the street.

He signaled me with his head to watch the scores of people that went by.

"They're all tonal" he said. "I'm going to single some of them out so your tonal will assess them, and in assessing them it will assess itself."

He directed my attention to two old ladies that had emerged from the church. They stood at the top of the limestone steps for a moment and then began to walk down with infinite care, resting on every step.

"Watch those two women very carefully," he said. "But don't see them as persons, or as faces that hold things in common with us; see them as tonals."

The two women got to the bottom of the steps. They moved as if the rough gravel were marbles and they were about to roll and lose their balance on them. They walked arm in arm, propping each other up with the weight of their bodies.

"Look at them!" don Juan said in a low voice. "Those women are the best examples of the most miserable tonal one can find."

I noticed that the two women were small-boned but fat. They were perhaps in their early fifties. They had a painful look in their faces, as if walking down the church steps had been beyond their strength.

They were in front of us; they vacillated for a moment and then they came to a halt. There was one more step on the gravel walk.

"Watch your step ladies," don Juan shouted as he stood up dramatically.

The women looked at him, apparently confused by his sudden outburst.

"My mom broke her hip right there the other day," he added and dashed over to help them.

They thanked him profusely and he advised them that if they ever lost their balance and fell over, they had to remain motionless on the spot until the ambulance came. His tone was sincere and convincing. The women crossed themselves.

Don Juan sat down again. His eyes were beaming. He spoke softly.

"Those women are not that old and their bodies are not that weak, and yet they are decrepit. Everything about them is dreary - their clothes, their smell, their attitude. Why do you think that's so?"

"Maybe they were born that way." I said.

"No one is born that way. We make ourselves that way. The tonal of those women is weak and timid."

"Those two women are your first view of the tonal today. Life can be as merciless with you as it is with them, if you are careless with your tonal. I put myself as the counterpoint. If you understand correctly I should not need to stress this point."

I had a sudden attack of uncertainty and asked him to spell out what I should have understood. I must have sounded desperate. He laughed out loud.

"Look at that man in green pants and pink shirt," don Juan whispered, pointing to a very thin and very dark complexioned, sharped-featured young man who was standing almost in front of us. He seemed undecided whether to go towards the church or towards the street. Twice he raised his hand in the direction of the church as if he were talking to himself and were about to about to start moving towards it. Then he stared at me with a blank expression.

"Look at the way he is dressed," don Juan said in a whisper. "Look at those shoes!"

The young man's clothes were tattered and wrinkled, and his shoes were in absolute pieces.

"He's obviously very poor." I said.

"Is that all you can say about him?" he asked.

I enumerated a number of reasons that might have accounted for the young man's shabbiness: poor health, bad luck, indolence, indifference to his personal appearance, or the chance that he may have just been released from prison.

Don Juan said that I was merely speculating, and that he was not interested in justifying by suggesting that the man was a victim of unconquerable forces.

"Maybe he's a secret agent made to look like a bum." I said jokingly.

The young man walked away towards the street with a disjointed gait.

"He's not made to look like a bum; he is a bum," don Juan said. "Look how week his body is. His arms and legs are thin. He can hardly walk. No one can pretend to look that way. There is something definitely wrong with him, not his circumstances though, I have to stress again that I want you to see the man as tonal."

"What does it entail to see a man as tonal?"

"It entails to cease judging him in a moral sense, or excusing him on the grounds that he is a leaf at the mercy of the wind. In other word it entails seeing a man without thinking that he is hopeless or helpless. You know exactly what I am talking about. You can assess that young man without condemning or forgiving him."

"He drinks too much." I said.

My statement was not volitional. I just made it without really knowing why. For an instant I even felt that someone standing behind me had voiced the words. I was moved to explain that my statement was another of my speculations.

"That was not the case," don Juan said. "your tone of voice had a certainty that you lacked before. You didn't say, 'Maybe he's a drunkard.'"

I felt embarrassed although I could not exactly determine why. Don Juan laughed.

"You saw through the man." he said. "That was seeing. Seeing is like that. Statements are made with great certainty, and one doesn't know how it happened."

"You know that young man's tonal was shot, but you don't know how you know it."

I had to admit that somehow I had that impression.

"You're right," don Juan said. "it doesn't really matter that he's young, he's as decrepit as the two women. Youth is in no way a barrier against the deterioration of the tonal."

"You thought that there might be many reasons for that man's condition. I find that there is only one, his tonal. It is not that his tonal is week because he drinks; it is the other way around, he drinks because his tonal is weak. That weakness forces him to be what he is. The same thing happens to all of us in one form or another."

"But aren't you also justifying his behaviour by saying that it's his tonal?"

"I'm giving you an explanation that you have never encountered before. It is not a justification or a condemnation, though. That young man's tonal is weak and timid. And yet he's not unique. All of us are more or less in the same boat."

At that moment a very large man passed in front of us heading towards the church. He was wearing an expensive dark grey business suit and was carrying a briefcase. The collar of his shirt was unbuttoned and his necktie was loose. He was sweating profusely. He had a very light complexion which made his perspiration all the more obvious.

"Watch him!" don Juan ordered me.

The man's steps were small but heavy. There was a wobbling quality to his walking. He did not go up to the church; he circumvented it and disappeared behind it.

"There is no need to treat the body in such an awful manner," don Juan said with a note of scorn. "But the sad fact is that all of us have learned to perfection how to make our tonal weak. I have called that indulging."

He put his hand on my notebook and did not let me write any more. His rationale was that as long as I kept on taking notes I was incapable of concentrating. He suggested that I should relax, shut off the internal dialogue and let go, merging with the person being involved.

I asked him to explain what he meant by 'merging'. He said there was no other way to explain it, that it was something that the body felt or did when put in observational contact with other bodies. He then clarified the issue by saying in the past he had called that process 'seeing', and that it consisted of a lull of true silence within, followed by an outward elongation of something within the self, an elongation that met and merged with the other body, or with anything within ones field of awareness.

At that point I wanted to get back to my writing pad, but he stopped me and began to single different people from the crowd that passed by.

He pointed out dozens of persons covering a wide range of types among men, women and children of various ages. Don Juan said that he had selected persons whose weak tonal could fit into a categorization scheme, and thus he aquainted me with a preconceived variety of indulging.

I did not remember all the people he had pointed out and discussed. I complained that if I had taken notes I could have at least sketched out the intricacies of his schemata on indulging. As it was he did not want to repeat it or perhaps he did not remember it either.

He laughed and said that he did not remember it, because in the life of a sorcerer it was the 'nagual' that was accountable for creativity.