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Mexicolore contributor Dr. Nicholas Saunders

The Jaguar in Mexico

We are deeply grateful to Dr. Nicholas Saunders, Senior Lecturer, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, School of Arts, University of Bristol, for this illuminating introduction to the importance of this most majestic of felines in the cultures of ancient Mexico.

Pic 1: Contemporary depiction of a jaguar, beaded mosaic on wood, Huichol culture
Pic 1: Contemporary depiction of a jaguar, beaded mosaic on wood, Huichol culture (Click on image to enlarge)

The jaguar is America’s largest and most powerful cat, and for more than three thousand years it has been Mexico’s most enduring symbolic animal. The jaguar’s image, sometimes appearing alongside the smaller ocelot and the plain-coated puma, prowls the art of most ancient Mexican civilizations, from the Olmec to the Aztec. In the years following the Spanish conquest, during the colonial period, and still today - amongst Mexico’s indigenous peoples – the jaguar has retained a tenacious grip on the human imagination.

Pic 2: ‘Panthera Onca’ (jaguar), the only Panthera species found in the Americas
Pic 2: ‘Panthera Onca’ (jaguar), the only Panthera species found in the Americas (Click on image to enlarge)

Beautiful but deadly, the jaguar evokes powerful human emotions. Strong and agile, with razor-sharp claws and deadly fangs, this impressive beast was identified with the qualities which made human hunters and warriors brave and successful. As a stealthy silent killer with an acute sense of smell, and an ability to see in the dark with mirrored eyes, the jaguar was identified with sorcery and magic, and regarded as the spirit-helper of shamans and sorcerers, as well as the most dazzling symbol of priests and kings.

Pic 3: Contemporary Mexican folk mask, human-jaguar, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 3: Contemporary Mexican folk mask, human-jaguar, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The jaguar’s natural talent for hunting on land, up trees, and in water led to it being regarded in mythology as the ‘master of animals’, and spiritual lord of the powers of fertility in the natural world. All animals are the jaguar’s prey, but it is prey to none. Only human beings kill jaguars, which may explain why Native Americans regard humans and jaguars as spiritual equals. Thinking about the world in this traditional way, every man carries the jaguar within himself, and every jaguar may be a man in disguise. It is no wonder then that the jaguar creates anxiety and fear when suddenly encountered in the depths of the tropical rainforest.

Pic 4: Double-headed jaguar throne on the eastern terrace of the Governor’s Palace at the Maya city of Uxmal in the Yucatan, Mexico
Pic 4: Double-headed jaguar throne on the eastern terrace of the Governor’s Palace at the Maya city of Uxmal in the Yucatan, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

All felines are masterful hunters and natural killers, but it is how humans understand these qualities that give the jaguar such a distinctive presence in the art and religion of ancient Mexican cultures. In pre-Columbian times, before the Spanish arrived, animal and human features were often combined to create what we regard as fantastical creatures possessing supernatural strength and magical powers. No surprise then that the kings and rulers of the Aztecs, the Maya, and earlier civilizations adorned themselves with jaguar skins, skulls, fangs and claws. Carvings, paintings or statues of humans wearing jaguar clothing or appearing to be half-human, half-jaguar, are more than simple artistic images – they represent fundamental ideas and beliefs of the Aztecs and their predecessors.

Pic 5: Giant Olmec stone sculpture at La Venta: the front of Altar 4 appears to depict a ruler figure and his throne, bearing strong feline imagery
Pic 5: Giant Olmec stone sculpture at La Venta: the front of Altar 4 appears to depict a ruler figure and his throne, bearing strong feline imagery (Click on image to enlarge)

In Mexico, images of great cats (almost certainly jaguars) first appear in the art of the Olmec civilization (1250-400 BC). They are carved as giant stone sculptures and as small delicate jade figurines from archaeological sites such as San Lorenzo, El Azuzul, and La Venta. Some of these appear as naturalistic animals, while others blend the human with the jaguar and add a fearsome snarling mouth. Myths and stories gathered in indigenous Mexican villages in recent times suggest what these dramatic Olmec items may have been.

Pic 6: Two of a set of three metre-high Olmec human and jaguar stone sculptures; the human figures were found looking towards the (ferocious looking) jaguar; Xalapa Museum of Anthropology, Mexico
Pic 6: Two of a set of three metre-high Olmec human and jaguar stone sculptures; the human figures were found looking towards the (ferocious looking) jaguar; Xalapa Museum of Anthropology, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

These supernatural creatures have been called ‘were-jaguars’ by archaeologists, because, like the better-known were-wolves of Europe, they appear to be a mix of animal and human. It may be that they show powerful supernatural beings regarded as the children of Olmec rulers and mythical jaguar beasts. Some large Olmec sculptures and smaller figurines may be showing sorcerers transforming into spirit-jaguars, caught, as it were, half-way between the feline and the man. Possibly, of course, such startling artworks could simply be showing a sorcerer, priest, or ruler wearing a jaguar mask, or adopting a feline pose in a long-forgotten ritual.

Pic 7: Wearing jaguar skins, members of a Maya royal court display their power over defeated rivals; room 2, Bonampak murals (detail)
Pic 7: Wearing jaguar skins, members of a Maya royal court display their power over defeated rivals; room 2, Bonampak murals (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Whatever qualities of the jaguar inspired the Olmec, such strange images appear to have established a long and sacred tradition in ancient Mexican art and religion. As an emblem of rulership, hunting, war and sacrifice, the jaguar appeared in the art of many later civilizations. Among the Classic Maya (AD 250-800), the jaguar’s brilliantly-coloured pelt was used as royal clothing for dynastic warrior-kings, and as a covering for royal thrones – some of which were carved in the shape of a feline, as at the Maya cities of Palenque, Uxmal, and Chichén-Itzá. In wall paintings at the remote site of Bonampak, jaguar and possibly ocelot clothing and equipment are a striking addition to scenes of warfare, victory, and torture. Images inspired by the jaguar appear alongside Maya hieroglyphic texts, associated with conflict, war captives, and human sacrifice.

Pic 8: Jaguar throne at the base of the ‘Temple of the Jaguars’ at the Postclassic Maya city of Chichen-Itza in the Yucatan, Mexico
Pic 8: Jaguar throne at the base of the ‘Temple of the Jaguars’ at the Postclassic Maya city of Chichen-Itza in the Yucatan, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

These powerful ancestral beliefs survived into later Postclassic Maya times, where it is recorded that ‘spreading the jaguar skin’ was a sign for war, and during the Spanish colonial period, the ‘jaguar mat’ was the seat of authority in a Maya council.
Classic Maya rulers believed that using the jaguar’s name gave them prestige, and so there are examples where it has been attached to a king’s royal title. Similarly in death, archaeological evidence from Uaxactún and Kaminaljuyu in Guatemala, and Altun Ha in Belize reveals that Maya kings were buried with the animal’s skin, claws, and fangs.

Pic 9: The jaguar’s claws feature clearly in this model of an Aztec jaguar warrior by George Stuart
Pic 9: The jaguar’s claws feature clearly in this model of an Aztec jaguar warrior by George Stuart (Click on image to enlarge)

At the great city of Copán in Honduras, fifteen jaguars were sacrificed by King Yax Pac to each of his ancestors in an act which suggests a spiritual identity between royalty and the great cat. Even today, sorcerers and political leaders at the Maya town of Chamula possess a jaguar soul companion. Maya language and literature also tell stories of how the jaguar is related to the higher social classes in their society. In the famous book known as the Popol Vuh of the Quiché Maya, the name balam refers to the jaguar and its qualities of ferocity and strength, and its claws are used as a sign of lordship.

Pic 10: Replica of Maya jaguar throne figure
Pic 10: Replica of Maya jaguar throne figure (Click on image to enlarge)

It appears that each Mexican civilization created its own ideas and beliefs of what the jaguar (and sometimes the puma) meant to them, and showed them in art according to their own style. At the great pre-Aztec metropolis of Teotihuacán, brightly-coloured murals show green-plumed jaguars blowing conch-shell trumpets. On the so-called Street of the Dead, a puma mural survives, and in the nearby Zacuala Palace, a ‘jaguar warrior’ is shown wearing a snarling jaguar-face helmet and carrying a shield. In 1988, beneath the city’s imposing Pyramid of the Moon, the remains of two large felines were found, and which had evidently been buried alive in wooden cages to accompany a sacrificial victim.

Pic 11: Basalt jaguar warrior, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. He is shown as a great lord seated on a bejewelled wooden throne
Pic 11: Basalt jaguar warrior, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. He is shown as a great lord seated on a bejewelled wooden throne (Click on image to enlarge)

It is Aztecs however who have left us some of the most detailed insights into the ancient Mexican tradition of jaguar symbols. In Nahuatl, the Aztec language, the jaguar was called ocelotl - a fact which has led to confusion with the different and smaller ocelot. The Aztecs regarded the jaguar as the bravest of beasts, and the proud ‘ruler of the animal world’ according to the Florentine Codex compiled by the Spaniard priest Bernardino de Sahagún.

Pic 12: Model of an Aztec jaguar warrior by George Stuart
Pic 12: Model of an Aztec jaguar warrior by George Stuart (Click on image to enlarge)

The jaguar was a favourite symbol in Aztec representations of war. Aztec names which included the term ocelotl were used to describe brave warriors – in this way, ocelopetlatl and oceloyotl described especially brave warriors, such as those of the high-status Jaguar Warrior Society. In Aztec mythology and astrology, the jaguar also played an important role, as it was believed that those born under the calendrical sign ocelotl shared the jaguar’s aggressive nature and would become brave warriors.

Pic 13: Tepeyollotli (bottom left), at the root of a cosmic tree, in the dark underworld of Sustenance Mountain; detail of mural by R. Anguiano, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 13: Tepeyollotli (bottom left), at the root of a cosmic tree, in the dark underworld of Sustenance Mountain; detail of mural by R. Anguiano, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec kings, like their Classic Maya predecessors, used the jaguar to enhance their social status. As the jaguar was lord of animals, so an Aztec emperor was ruler of men. Aztec emperors wore jaguar clothing into battle, and sat in judgement on a throne covered with the animal’s multicoloured skin. The greatest of all Aztec gods, Tezcatlipoca, was the patron of royalty and inventor of human sacrifice. His name means ‘Lord of the Smoking Mirror’ and he wielded this magical obsidian mirror to look into mens’ hearts, piercing the cosmic darkness with the all-seeing eyes of his fierce spiritual companion, a huge jaguar monster known as Tepeyollotli.

Pic 14: Stone Aztec jaguar sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 14: Stone Aztec jaguar sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The importance of the jaguar (and also of other large felines) in Aztec society was dramatically shown during the excavations of the Great Aztec Temple (El Templo Mayor) which took place in downtown Mexico City during the 1980s. Archaeologists discovered complete feline skeletons that had been buried as sacred offerings with polished greenstone balls gripped between their fangs. The Templo Mayor was regarded in Aztec mythology as the ‘cosmic water mountain’, and so these greenstones represented water and preciousness, an association reinforced by the jaguar’s longstanding relationship with blood and fertility.

Pic 15: Jaguar-man wearing an elaborate mirror-eyed jaguar helmet at the village of Zitlala, Guerrero, as part of the springtime petitions for rain
Pic 15: Jaguar-man wearing an elaborate mirror-eyed jaguar helmet at the village of Zitlala, Guerrero, as part of the springtime petitions for rain (Click on image to enlarge)

So powerful were these beliefs concerning the jaguar and other felines that they did not disappear with the Spanish Conquest of 1519-1521. When confronted with the new religion of Spanish Catholicism, the ancient jaguar simply changed its name, not its nature. The jaguar became the Spanish tigre (tiger) and the puma the león (lion) – even though neither of these Old World cats had ever lived in the Americas. In years following the conquest, during the early colonial period, the ancient power of the jaguar was used by those who fought against the new world that the Spanish were creating in Mexico.

Pic 16: Two shamanistic jaguar masks, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 16: Two shamanistic jaguar masks, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

During the sixteenth century, sorcerers known as nahuallis were accused by the Spanish of murder, insurrection, and, most interestingly, of changing into jaguars. The most famous of these sorcerers was Martín Ocelotl, who took the Aztec name for jaguar as his own. He was denounced to the Holy Inquisition in 1536 and accused of devil worship, predicting the rains, and transforming himself into the great spotted cat.

Pic 17: Two jaguar-men fighting during an early May festival to petition for rain at the village of Acatlan, Guerrero. (These fights take place on top of a local mountain, and are violent fist-fights between young men and blood is spilt)
Pic 17: Two jaguar-men fighting during an early May festival to petition for rain at the village of Acatlan, Guerrero. (These fights take place on top of a local mountain, and are violent fist-fights between young men and blood is spilt) (Click on image to enlarge)

In other places, the jaguar became Christ’s defender, its colourful skin symbolizing its protective role in the Passion. The jaguar replaced the lion at the feet of St Jerome. Many traditional jaguar festivals have survived into the twenty-first century. Los Tlacoleros and the Danza de los Tecuanes are just two of the most popular dances that still take place in rural villages. One such community, Totoltepec in Guerrero, has dancers dressed in jaguar masks and yellow-spotted clothing who mix Catholic beliefs with pre-Columbian ideas concerning the protection of crops and livestock from predators. Others, such as the villages of Acatlán and Zitlala, also in Guerrero, have preserved echoes of ancient blood rituals in fiestas where young men dressed as jaguars fight to spill blood for the jaguar deity who then sends rain to fertilize the maize.

Pic 18: Jaguar-costumed dancer, Tribu music-dance troupe, British Museum 2010
Pic 18: Jaguar-costumed dancer, Tribu music-dance troupe, British Museum 2010 (Click on image to enlarge)

Across Mexico, in pre-Columbian, colonial, and modern times, indigenous ideas about the jaguar were not concerned with worshipping the natural animal. Instead, the ideas and beliefs of what the jaguar meant and what it represented for human beings were part of native Mexican ways of seeing and understanding the world – and of how beliefs about the cycle of life and death could be made visible and relevant to ordinary people.

Suggested reading:-
• Benson, E. (ed.) (1972) The Cult of the Feline. Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks
• Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. (1975) The Shaman and the Jaguar. Philadelphia: Temple University Press
• Saunders, N.J. (1989) People of the Jaguar: The Living Spirit of Ancient America. London: Souvenir Press
• Saunders, N.J. (ed.) (1998 & 2012) Icons of Power: Feline Symbolism in the Americas. London: Routledge.

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1, 3, 5, 6, 10, 11, 13, 14, 16, 18: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: from Wikipedia (jaguar)
• Pix 4, 8, 15, 17: Photos by and courtesy of Nicholas Saunders
• Pic 7: Photo by Alan Gillam/Mexicolore
• Pix 9 & 12: Photos courtesy of Leroy Becker, Gallery of Historical Figures.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 26th 2013

emoticon Q. How do you titillate an ocelot?
A. Oscillate its tits a lot!
(Thanks to Roz Wallis, from Chiswick, London)

‘Stone jaguar’s head in the heart of Mexico City’

‘Jaguars in Mesoamerican Cultures’ (Wikipedia)
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