Friday, July 13, 2018


This jaguar image comes from the USFWS National Digital Library. It was
created by Gary M. Stolz.

Panthera onca, or the jaguar as it is commonly called, is a large cat that you can find from South America up into Mexico and even the United States' South West. Though they are large (Males can be 200 pounds) and are carnivores, they like to stay away from people -- though they will attack if upset.

The ancient Maya had a lot of cultural connections to this beautiful animal. They thought it was sacred and they looked at it as a symbol connected to royalty. Jaguars were also mixed into the ancient Maya's religious beliefs: among the supernatural beings they believed to exist, there were ones that had jaguar features.

Supernatural Beings
One supernatural being that had features of a jaguar was the Unen Balam -- the Baby Jaguar --, the Water Lily Jaguar, and possibly the Jaguar God of the Underworld. The Baby Jaguar is a being that was drawn on codex style vessels. The Waterlily Jaguar was an underworld god as was the Jaguar God of the Underworld, who may have been an aspect of the sun.

With Royalty
Also from the USFWS National Digital Library. Created by
John and Karen Hollingsworth. 
At least with what ancient Maya art shows, looks like among royalty, it was cool to wear jaguar skins - it was a way of saying "I'm royal and can wear this skin because of that fact." It was a symbol of their right to rule, their power over everything.

And royalty didn't just wear jaguar skins. The art shows that it was common for royal thrones in art to have jaguar pelts on them. Royalty also took jaguar skins to the grave. Based on the fact that jaguar foot bones (phalanges) have been found in royal tombs, it looks like royal people's bodies were laid down on jaguar pelt mats. (Other kinds of mats were also used.)

As an Art Design
Speaking of art, the ancient Maya liked to include the jaguar in different items, including items made of ceramic as well as jade items and in structures like temples and stelae. Artists started to put jaguars into their works as far back as 1,000 BC.

One kind of pottery painted design artists would create was this: they would paint a jaguar skin on their pots, so that it looked like a real skin had been put on it. This style became notably popular in the 600s AD. The artists would include "loops" that may be representing how the skin pulls when being dried on the drying board. They would also draw the edge of the skin either with a flat edge or a ragged edge.

A type of spirit being that the ancient Maya believed in was the wahy. Wahys could look like different things, including animals. In fact, one way to draw the glyph for wahy is a face that is half person and half jaguar pelt.

Google Books: "Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya: Rituals of Body and Soul"; Andrew K. Scherer; 2015

Google Books: "The Life Within: Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence"; Stephen Houston; 2014

Google Books: "The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, and Ancient Cities"; James D. Nations; 2010

UMFA: Pre-columbian Art: Utah Museum of Fine Arts Evening for Educators; 10 March, 2004

The Free Dictionary: Encyclopedia: Jaguar

The Free Dictionary: Phalanx

Image Credits:
USFWS National Digital Library: Images: Jaguar; Gary M. Stolz

USFWS National Digital Library: Images: Jaguar; John and Karen Hollingsworth; April 18, 2008