In Central America, there are few predators as powerful and effective as the jaguar. Jaguars can hunt in both the day and the night. They can climb into the trees and water does not stop them. The ancient Native Americans took note of these amazing creatures and wanted to become them themselves. Some believed that they could transform into the Were-Jaguar.
Title Photo Credit: Telmo32 via Flickr
The Olmec Civilization
The Olmec were the first sophisticated society in the Americas. Their civilization is believed to have risen around 1200 B.C. and declined at about 400 B.C. They inhabited a small area along the southern Gulf Coast of modern day Mexico; Their major cities were San Lorenzo (modern day Veracruz) and La Venta (modern day Tobasco).
The Olmec were the first people in America to have a system of writing and mathematics. Still, little is known for sure about them because archaeologists have yet to decipher their written language. The Olmec civilization would be very influential on later civilizations including the Aztecs and the Mayans. A few Olmec contributions were:
- Step pyramids
- Fundamental parts of their religion
- Their calendar
- A ritualistic game played with a rubber ball
Much of what is known about them is pieced together from the civilizations who took influence from them.
The Olmec Shamans & The Were-Jaguar
The Were-Jaguar played a central role in the Olmec religion (and in Mayan religion after that). The Olmec religion had a pantheon of gods, each having a benevolent personality and a malevolent personality.They also believed that the universe was comprised of 3 realms:
- The Sky Realm (a sort of heaven)
- The earth (where the living are)
- The underworld (a realm of the dead)
Only a special type of person, known as a shaman, could interact with the gods. These shamans would practice divination, conduct rituals, and heal the sick. Kings acted as the head shaman.
In order for the shaman to do his duties, he would have to transform himself into a Were-Jaguar so that he could move between the 3 realms. The Were-Jaguar form would protect the shaman from any evil spirits that he might run across. The Jaguar was seen as a spirit companion to the Shaman much in the way that black cats are to witches in western European folklore.
Many figurines representing the Olmec shaman/Were-Jaguar relationship have been found. Were-Jaguars have also been found depicted on altars and carved into jade votive axes and celts. The depiction is always a human-like character with large, down turned lips, almond-shaped eyes, and a cleft head. Different depictions show different points in the transformation from shaman to Were-Jaguar. Some of these seem almost human while some are nearly feline.
The Were-Jaguar as an Olmec God
There is also a Were-Jaguar god in the Olmec pantheon. Often this god is depicted as a human baby with jaguar-like facial features. Usually, this baby Were-Jaguar is in the arms of a stoic man. Sometimes the Were-Jaguar baby appears limp and dead. Not much is known about the
Not much is known about the Were-Jaguar god. Archaeologists believe that the mythology behind this god is that it was offspring of a male jaguar and a female human. The Were-Jaguar baby may have been the god of thunder, lightening, and rain.
The Were-Jaguar in Mayan Culture
The Mayan culture adopted the beliefs about the Were-Jaguar from the Olmec. Mayan kings and shamans still transformed themselves into Were-Jaguars to travel from realm to realm to interact with the gods. Once again, the Were-Jaguar was the only creature that could pass between the realms.
Several gods had taken on Were-Jaguar attributes. Any god with a Were-Jaguar attribute or clothing was associated with the underworld. Two Mayan Were-Jaguar gods are prominent:
- One of the most important Mayan gods, Xbalanque, had patches of Jaguar skin all over his body. He is important in the Mayan fertility myth that explains the cycle of the seasons and celebrates the growing of Maize. It is said that he passed into the underworld and returned.
- God L was known as the primary god of the underworld. He had a jaguar throne, ears of a jaguar, and jaguar clothing.
Becoming a Were-Jaguar was not a thing to be taken lightly. Only members of the ruling class and those that excelled in hunting or warfare could wear any jaguar attire. Kings would frequently add the word jaguar to their names as a sign of their ability to become the Were-Jaguar. The best of the hunters and warriors would be adorned with jaguar pelts, teeth, and claws. They were said to have “feline souls.”
At special ceremonies, warriors would dance like jaguars to show their might. A special instrument was played for them as they danced. This instrument was the only stringed instrument to exist in the Americas before the explorers brought others over from Europe. It sounds almost identical to the sound of a jaguar growling.
Since it stands for bravery, who would you say has a “feline soul?”
Sources & Digging Deeper
- Pre-Columbian Civilizations – Britannica
- Olmec Babies as Early Portraiture in the Americas – Met Museum
- Were-Jaguar With Half-Mask – Cornell Museum
- Olmec Civilization – Ancient History Encyclopedia
- The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives – Heather Irene McKillop
- Music from the Land of the Jaguar – Princeton University