Michael Hofius

Versión en Español

I am originally from Central America. When I was a teenager I lived in Guatemala City and was a consumate hiker. Many weekends I would enter the ravine across the street from where I lived and would disappear from my family until late on Sunday.

Some of these hikes took me to the mountains surrounding the city, mountains which rise from the mile high plateau to about 7,000 feet above sea level. It is fairly isolated in these mountains, particularly when compared with the very densely populated Valley of the Angels.

Most of the native Maya people in these isolated areas are subsistence farmers and goatherds. Their culture goes back some 3,200 years and their Cosmology, or outlook on the Universe is probably older. Like most native people in all of the Americas, they are Naturalistic, that is to say, they believe in the sacredness and spirit existence of all aspects of Nature. I have always felt at home with this perspective. It is quite similar in a lot of ways to my Taoist experience of the Universe.

But to get to the point, they, like most Native Americans, believe that there is a particular animal with which each of us humans has a unique, spiritual link. This creature is often referred to as Animal Spirit or Animal Spirit Guide or Animal Guide. In most of the Maya languages it is referred to as Nawal which is sometimes written with the Spanish spelling Nahual (the "h" is silent).

In Maya tradition the life of the human is paralleled by his or her Nawal. This animal is born at the same time we are and dies at the same time we do. A person's Nawal is so Spiritually linked that during the Classic Maya period (200 AD to 900 AD) rulers were often named after their Animal Spirit. Still today, if this animal is hurt in some way, the person feels the same pain at the same time. And as you might expect, if the human suffers in some way, so does her Nawal.

Anyway, in my hikes to the mountains I came upon a clan of Natives who lived in 5 thatched huts surrounded by grazing lands. They kept goats, which the young boys and sometimes the girls would watch over. The adults tended to their small maize, bean, and vegetable fields. The women wove everyone's clothes. The men kept up the adobe and thatched dwellings and did the heavier farm work. Don Jose was the patriarch of this small community.

Don Jose was the oldest man around and he was the clan's Shaman. In his world, he was the interpreter of the spirit world to his clan and the priestly intercessor when the influence of the spirits was felt in this world or when it was not felt and required.

And on a drizzly, chilly Saturday evening I walked into this community with a knapsack on my back, a canteen of wine at my belt and my Colima (a type of machete) in my right hand. It isn't everyday that a white person walks into such an environment. They greeted me with typical native hospitality and with a little caution as well.

The location of this aldea (smaller than a village) was not so remote that these people were ignorant of the Spanish language. I have been in such places, but that's another story. Don Jose invited me to the bonfire in the center of the enclave.

It so happened that this day was a feast day; not a feast day for a Catholic Saint, but rather for one of their wind-jaguar gods. The celebration which was to take place this evening turned out to be a simple one. It consisted of Don Jose's telling the story of how the wind-jaguar gods came to be interested in people and how the different people of the known world (probably originally Mesoamerica) were guided by the different wind-jaguar gods. The people who lived in the western part of the cosmos were guided by the west wind-jaguar god. The northern dwellers were guided by the north wind-jaguar god. The people in the east, by the east wind-jaguar god. The southern dwellers by the south wind-jaguar god.

He told this myth in their native tongue. Though I couldn't understand the language, the atmosphere was holy; as holy as any experience I have ever experienced. When he finished the story he turned to me and asked me in Spanish if I understood Cakchiquel, his native tongue. I replied that I didn't and he smiled. He said, "You were with all of us during the telling. I thought you understood our tongue, but I see now that it was your spirit which was with ours."

I asked him what spirit is and he told me that it was that which could not be described in words or thoughts and which could not be touched with our skin, or seen with our eyes, or smelled with the nose, or heard with the ears or tasted with our tongues. He also told me that I knew what he meant because when I hiked I felt the natural spirits in my spirit.

We talked of many things in Spanish that night. I slept on a petate in his hut that night and when I awoke in the morning, it was just before sunrise. He was on his haunches, next to my mat and he said, "Come with me. There is something you need to know."

We walked to the edge of the grazing lands, a kilometer or so from the adobe huts. We entered a thick sub-tropical forest, like those I had hiked in many times in the Guatemalan highlands. A light breeze felt a little chilly and my capixay (pronounced "cah-pee-shy" - a type of poncho) was becoming cumbersome in the thickening underbrush.

As these things were going through my mind, we reached a small clearing where a fire was smoldering in the center. The strong odor of Copal (an incense) reached me and insinctively I removed my wrap and got down on my haunches next to the fire. The Copal filled my nostrils and lungs, almost painfully and Don Jose haunched down next to me. He told me that it was time I met my Nawal. I had heard the term before and intuitively understood what he meant.

He called the four wind-jaguar gods to us, one at a time, as he faced the four cardinal points. I recognized their names, even though I couldn't understand his language. After some encantations he whispered in my ear, "You will see an animal soon. It will stare into your eyes and you into its and you will each recognize himself in the other." He disappeared into the underbrush and I stayed squatting in the light fog and the smoke and the incense for quite a while.

The only sound I could hear was the breeze in the branches of the Cypress trees and the low brush below them. No voices, no animals in the thicket, not even birds chirping. In this type of forest, I had learned to hear the birds, the lizards, the rodents of various kinds. I instinctively knew when vultures hovered in the air high above, even when they were silent. But at this time and place, nothing.

I was soon to find out why. Through the fog, just on the edge of the clearing, I made out a brownish-yellow shadow, slowly walking, no, stalking me. It was rather large and at first I couldn't make out just what I was seeing. I smelled this shadow next. I can't describe the odor for it has had no equal in my experience. It was slightly sour, slightly musty, but unlike any mammal I had ever smelled or have smelled since. It gradually started to weave its pace back and forth toward the opposite side of the smoldering fire. And I saw its eyes, its markings on its face, its ears. There was no mistaking now that it was a Jaguar.

It stopped just across the fire from me and looked into my eyes. I stared back, knowing that the only way to not be attacked by a mad dog or any other menacing creature is to stare it down. But as I stared at this big cat's face, I began to feel at peace. It was like looking into a calm pool of water and seeing my own reflection. It's spots became mine. My ears became it's. Soon, I had the strange sensation that I wasnt't seeing a physical being but rather something of the spirit world. But this wasn't hallucination, it was a sense of recognition, of kindred. I remember smiling and then it was gone.

I was in awe. This vision was like nothing I had ever experienced. I stayed on my haunches a while longer and then put out the fire and the incense. I wended my way back through the forest to the pasture beyond and Don Jose was sitting on a large basalt boulder, looking out over the valley below. I started to tell him what I had seen and he raised his hand and said, "No! You must not tell me what you saw. Just tell me if you have met yourself in the clearing."

My reply was full of assurance. "I gazed into the eyes of my nawal and we were one." He smiled and said, "Today you have seen yourself. Try to always be who and what you are."

Don't look physically much alike do we?

If you wish to comment about my Nawal experience, E-MAIL me.

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