Animal Wisdom: Connecting People and Animals

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Shadow Animals: Nahualli and Heyoka

Shadow Animals: Part Three

In my series on types of Shadow Animals, I am introducing two terms that may seem unfamiliar to many Pagans: “nahualli” and “heyoka.” People may have heard these terms as they are common to New Age beliefs. Nahualli and the more familiar “nagual,” are often discussed in New Age Toltec writings. I prefer nahualli as defined by Caelum Rainieri and Ivory Andersen in their discussions about Aztec religion. The common usage for heyoka is to denote “crazy energy.” However, this Lakota term also refers to the person, a sacred clown who is touched by Wankan Tanka (the Great Mystery). To the Lakota, the heyoka holds the sacred duality of the universe.


According to Caelum Rainieri and Ivory Andersen, the Aztecs believed that everyone had a shadow animal. This spiritual twin was an animal that a person had a deep spiritual connection with, since they were born together. (The Aztec priests consulted omens and their calendar to uncover the person’s shadow animal.) Moreover, if this animal was killed, the person died.

Rainieri and Andersen, who studied Aztec religion, presented their ideas in their “Nahualli Animal Oracle.” They called this animal twin, the nahualli, the “shadow soul.” (Nagual is another term for this concept.) In the modern world, this animal would be the one you fear the most. This shadow animal, the nahualli, will act as an ally protecting you. In return, you would work to preserve the species of your nahualli.

To the Aztecs, Black Jaguar (Panther) saw the Shadow inside every being. In this role, He foretold the future, kept time, and was the Gatekeeper to the Unknownable. Since the Black Jaguar represented the Great Smoking Mirror, the Aztecs regarded this animal to be a powerful nahualli.

The Aztec warrior society of the Jaguar is an example of how people and their nahualli could interact. Important to Central American religions, Jaguar was also the Ruler of the Underworld. Because of his elusive qualities, the Aztecs thought that Jaguar could shapeshift as well. Like the Jaguar who moved through the jungles undetected, so could the Jaguar warriors. Wearing jaguar skins, these warriors ( ocelomeh) were also believed to possess feline souls.


A Lakota religious concept, heyoka is the sacred energy who rattles the cages of complacency. Heyoka is the mirror that reflects our actions. It turns things backwards, and upside down to reveal hidden truths. Heyoka tells people that they are only human beings, and not be too serious about themselves. (Amongst animals, coyote is invested with heyoka sacredness.) Heyoka reminds people that Wankan Tanka is beyond the Christian concepts of good and evil. Like the storm that brings fire and rain, so does heyoka, which is both the creation and destruction of the world.

Although heyoka also translates into English as “sacred clown,” a heyoka is more than that. Because this is a sacred calling, the person is chosen by supernatural forces such as having dreams of a Thunderbird. Only a few receive such dreams, and they are regarded to be mad by everyone else.

Because a heyoka represents the conflicting aspects of life, he usually does things backward and contrary. Since he lives outside the norm, a heyoka would often interrupt a sacred ritual by farting. This act would jolt people into understanding the mysteries of the Sacred. The heyoka reminds ordinary people to look beyond their own mundane natures. He forces them to see that their own actions are limited to their expectations. The heyoka, then, becomes a source of wisdom and healing.

The being that is the source of heyoka is the Thunderbird. Possessing a paradoxical nature, the Thunderbird brings the storms which wash over the land and the green life that flourishes afterwards. Large, powerful and primeval, He wields great power over the elements of nature. The Thunderbird creates thunder by flapping his great wings and lightening by blinking his eyes. The black tekites that are found on the ground are signs of his passing. As a Shadow Animal, the Thunderbird brings only madness to a select few. However, within this madness lies the entirety of the universe.

Other articles in this series:

Working with Shadow Animals: terms: darkness and the Shadow Archetype (Part 2)
Shadow Animals (Part 1)

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Virginia Carper, a Roman Polytheist, lives in the Washington D.C. area with her family. She navigates life with a traumatic brain injury which gives her a different view on life. An avid naturalist since childhood, she has a blog called “Nature’s Observations.” Having experienced the animals directly, she teaches on-line classes about the spiritual and natural aspect of animals. She has published articles on her brain injury, Roman polytheism, and working with extinct animals. In addition her writings on animals (including dragons and other mythic creatures) can be purchased her book site, Animal Teachers.  


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