Jaguars in Mesoamerican culture

The jaguar played an important role in the culture and religion of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

Quick, agile, and powerful enough to take down the largest prey of the jungle, the jaguar is the largest of the big cats in the Americas, and one of the most efficient and ferocious predators. Endowed with a magnificent spotted coat and well adapted for the jungle, hunting either in the trees or water, making it one of the only felines tolerant of water, the jaguar was and still is revered among the indigenous Americans who reside closely with the jaguar. For the Olmec and the Maya, this regal feline became a symbol of authority and one's prowess in hunting and battle, as well as an integral part of mythology and a powerful spirit companion for shamans.

The Olmec civilization was first defined as a distinctive art style. The various sculpture, figurines, and celts, which emerged in what is now recognized as the Olmec heartland off the Gulf of Mexico Coast near the Yucatan Peninsula, revealed that these people knew their jungle companions well and incorporated them into their mythology. One of the most prominent figures to appear in the archaeological record has been what archaeologists call the "were-jaguar". This figure, which is known by distinctive "snarling mouths, toothless gums or long, curved fangs, and even claws" (Coe 2002:64), is always infantile and depicted with a cleft forehead. As the jaguar, too, has a cleft running vertically the length of its head, there is little doubt the Olmec associated infants born with this characteristic to have jaguar-like qualities, and revered them because of this. It is believed in myth that a jaguar was to have copulated with a human female and gave rise to this creature. In addition, two were-jaguars depicted on Altar 5 at La Venta as being carried out from a niche or cave (places often associated with the emergence of human beings) may be mythic hero twins essential to Olmec mythology (Coe 2002:75-76).

As other gods are depicted with a distinct cleft on the forehead, which no doubt reinforces this characteristic as divine, a cleft forehead may further serve a symbolic purpose. A carved celt from Veracruz shows a representation of God II, or the Maize God, growing corn from his cleft, and also shows this god with the snarling face associated with the jaguar (Coe 1972:3). Thus, the cleft is seen as a sign of fertility, and associates the jaguar with fertility. The jaguar is further associated with vegetation and fertility by the Maya with what is known as the Waterlily jaguar, which is depicted with having water lilies sprouting from its head (Benson 1998:64-67).

The jaguar is also important for shamans who often associate the jaguar as a spirit companion or nagual, which will protect the shaman from evil spirits and when they move between the earth and the spirit realm. In order for the shaman to combat whatever evil forces may be maligning him, or those who rely on the shaman for protection, it is necessary for the shaman to transform himself and crossover to the spirit realm. The jaguar is often chosen as a nagual because of its strength, for it is necessary that the shaman "dominate the spirits, in the same way as a predator dominates its prey" (Saunders 1998:30). The jaguar is said to possess the transient ability of moving between worlds because of its comfort in the trees and the water, their ability to hunt as well in the nighttime as in the daytime, and their habit of sleeping in caves, places often associated with the deceased ancestors. The concept of the transformation of the shaman is well documented in Mesoamerica and South America, and is demonstrated in the context of the Olmec through the prominence of the were-jaguar, and other sculpture illustrating jaguar transformation.

Integration of the jaguar into the sacred and secular realms of the Maya is proven in the archaeological record. The Maya, whose empire spanned the Yucatán Peninsula all the way to the Pacific coast of Guatemala, were a literate society who left behind documentation of their lives (mostly the lives of the aristocracy) and belief system in the form of relief sculpture on temples, stelae, and pottery. Often depicted on these artifacts are the gods the Maya revered, and it is no coincidence that these gods often have jaguar attributes. As stated earlier, the jaguar is said to have the ability to cross between worlds, and for the Maya daytime and nighttime represented two different worlds. The living and the earth is associated with the day, and the spirit world and the ancestors are associated with the night. As the jaguar is quite at home in the nighttime, the jaguar is believed to part of the underworld thus, "Maya gods with jaguar attributes or garments are underworld gods" (Benson 1998:64). One such god is God L, who is "the primary lord of the underworld" and is often shown with a jaguar ear, or jaguar attire, and atop a jaguar throne (Benson 1998: 64-65). Not only is the underworld associated with the ancestors, but it is also understood as where plants originate. In addition, the Mayas' source of fresh water comes from underground pools in the porous limestone that makes up the Yucatán, called cenotes. These associations with water and plants, further reinforces the notion of the jaguar as a god of fertility.

The jaguar's brilliant coat no doubt made it quite desirable, however not all were allowed to don the jaguar pelt as it became identification of the ruling class for the Maya. Not only did Maya kings wear jaguar pelts, but they also adopted the jaguar as part of their ruling name as a symbol of their might and authority. One such ruling family to incorporate the jaguar into their name is known as Jaguar Paw, who ruled the Maya city of Tikal in the fourth century. Jaguar Paw I was ousted by central Mexicans from Teotihuacán, and it was not until late in the fifth century that the Jaguar Paw family returned to power (Coe 1999: 90). Other Mayan rulers to incorporate the jaguar name include, Scroll Jaguar, Bird Jaguar, and Moon Jaguar, just to name a few (Coe 1999: 247-48). In addition to the ruling class, the jaguar was also associated with warriors and hunters. Those who excelled in hunting and warfare often adorned themselves with jaguar pelts, teeth, or claws, and were "regarded as possessing feline souls" (Saunders 1998: 26).

For those who resided in or near the tropical jungle, the jaguar was well known and became incorporated into the lives of those who lived in these areas. The jaguar's formidable size, reputation as a predator, and its evolved capacities to survive in the jungle made it an animal to be revered. The Olmec and the Maya witnessed this advanced animal, adopting the jaguar as an authoritative and martial symbol, and incorporated this magnificent beast into their mythology. The jaguar stands today, as it did in the past, as an important symbol for the sacred and profane lives of those who coexist with this majestic feline.


Benson, E.P. (1998) "The Lord, The Ruler: Jaguar Symbolism in the Americas." In N.J. Saunders (ed), Icons of Power: Feline Symbolism in the Americas. London: Routledge: 53-76.

Coe, M.D. (1972) "Olmec Jaguars and Olmec Kings." In E.P. Benson (ed), The Cult of the Feline. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks: 1-12

Coe, M.D. (1999) The Maya. London: Thames and Hudson: 90, 247-48.

Coe, M.D. (2002) Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. London: Thames and Hudson: 64, 75-76.

Saunders, N.J. (1998) "Architecture of Symbolism: The Feline Image." In N.J. Saunders (ed), Icons of Power: Feline Symbolism in the Americas. London: Routledge: 12-52.


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