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Jaguars in Mesoamerican Myth and Culture by Laura Jeeves

Jaguars in Mesoamerican Myth and Culture by
Article Posted: 03/03/2016
Article Views: 121
Articles Written: 3842
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Jaguars in Mesoamerican Myth and Culture

Travel & Tourism
Panthera onca, the Jaguar, is renowned as the most elusive of all the big cats. Organised Jaguar tours to the Brazilian Pantanal offer the best chance for wildlife enthusiasts to get up close to this magnificent creature in its natural habitat. Due to its secretive nature, there is much that naturalists and research scientists have yet to learn about its behaviours - which only fuels the enduring fascination humans have always had for this beautiful creature.

Myths and Legends in Mesoamerican Culture

In many Central and South American cultures, this enigmatic big cat has traditionally held great religious and cultural importance and, indeed, continues to do so. Its regal presence, incredible strength, and ability for supreme stealth while hunting during both the day and night saw it widely revered as a god figure in all the significant Mesoamerican civilizations.

The Mayans

The Mayans believed the big cat was able to cross between the earthly human world and the spirit world. In Mayan culture the daylight hours belonged to the living and the night time to the spirit world of their passed ancestors. Therefore, with the animal's ability to travel and hunt under the cover of darkness, it was revered as a god of the underworld.

Many artefacts that have been recovered from Mayan sites bear the animal's image in one form or another, including as God L, the Lord of the Underworld. It is also associated with fertility and vegetation, as the Mayans linked the underworld to the origins of plants and water.

The Olmec Civilisation

The Olmec civilisation (from 1200-400 BCE) is considered as the precursor to a host of future Mesoamerican cultures, including the Aztecs and the Mayans. Although it's unknown exactly what significance the jaguar held in their culture, their detailed clay sculptures of half human, half animal gods often featured feline poses and characteristics clearly attributed to the big cat. The distinctive cleft-headed 'were-Jaguar' motif is depicted prolifically in various poses in figurines, axes and even on altars.


To the various Shamanist cultures of Mesoamerica - who believed the Shamans had the ability to travel between the human and spirit world to keep evil at bay - the Jaguar was also an important part of their mythology. They revered the animal as a nagual, or companion, who, possessing the same ability to freely pass over to the spirit world, was able to protect the Shamans from coming to any harm as they travelled. They believed the big cat's strength, stealth, and nocturnal hunting ability enabled it as a nagual that could dominate the evil spirits of the underworld.

Today the animal is still revered in many cultures of Central and South America as an important spiritual icon. Despite this, due to loss of habitat through human intervention and hunting from ranchers protecting domestic livestock, its population has declined to 'near threatened' levels. However, there are a number of high-profile organisations making great inroads into ensuring its continued future through various initiatives and educational programmes. Responsible tourism, through dedicated Jaguar tours, is also helping to raise the profile of the Brazilian Pantanal, its wildlife residents, and the need to conserve the fragile balance of its diverse eco-systems.

Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Jaguar watching. Being passionate about her subject, Marissa chooses the expert-led Jaguar tours organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.

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