General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 24 Feb 2018/10 Monkey
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Maya cacao pot replica with jaguar tail handle

RESOURCE: Maya artefact: cacao pot with jaguar tail handle

The glyph for cacao is clearly visible on this replica of a famous ceramic lock-top pot from Tomb 19, Río Azul, Guatemala: dating from around 460 CE, the pot contains ancient cacao residue. Equally clearly shown is a ‘faux’ (fake) jaguar tail painted on the pot’s handle. Why a jaguar? The answer is actually very simple: because real-life jaguars’ tails were commonly used as handles on sacred objects like incense bags... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The Maya glyph or sign for ‘tail’, depicting a real jaguar tail
Pic 1: The Maya glyph or sign for ‘tail’, depicting a real jaguar tail (Click on image to enlarge)

The Maya hieroglyph for ‘tail’ (pic 1) - also used as the phonetic syllable neh - is an obvious depiction of an actual jaguar’s tail; in fact it was the conventional sign for ANY animal’s tail (eg deer, monkey, armadillo, tortoise...), not just of a jaguar. In the same way the sign for (human) ‘bone’ came to represent any bone, whether human, animal or bird. Jaguars were powerful both in real-life and as symbols in Maya art, and so their pelts were particularly prized as costume accessories and in the clothing of royals and nobles. Jaguar skins were used to cover sacred and valuable objects such as screenfold (books), drums and offering bowls.

Pic 2: A Maya ruler draped in twisted cloth (depicting rope): he holds an incense bag with a jaguar tail handle. From a stone panel, Temple XIX, Palenque
Pic 2: A Maya ruler draped in twisted cloth (depicting rope): he holds an incense bag with a jaguar tail handle. From a stone panel, Temple XIX, Palenque (Click on image to enlarge)

Rulers sat on jaguar-shaped thrones, draped with jaguar skins, and Maya warriors can be seen dressed in jaguar skins (in the famous murals of Bonampak, for example), taking on the power of this ferocious creature of the rainforest. Weapons - from shields to spears - were adorned with long strips of jaguar pelt. More Maya kings included the word for jaguar in their names than that for any other animal. The jaguar was a sign of wealth, authority, a badge of honour... It features in the Maya glyph for way or spirit guide; its spotted pelt was believed to mirror the star-studded night sky... By painting a jaguar tail on an expensive cacao pot, then, the artist was not just depicting the handle of a valuable object, but making a statement too: ‘This is MY special cacao pot’!

Picture sources:-
• Main photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore. The pot is on display in the Choco-Museum in Bruges, Belgium
• Pic 1: image scanned from our own copy of Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs by John Montgomery, Hippocrene Books, NY, 2002
• Pic 2: image of an illustration by Andrea Stone scanned from our own copy of Reading Maya Art by Andrea Stone and Marc Zender, Thames & Hudson, London, 2011.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 28th 2018

Learn MUCH more about the role of the jaguar in ancient Mexico...

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