The Jaguar has been a recurring motif in the myths, legends and storytelling of the ancient civilisations of the Americas for many thousands of years. The powerful and mysterious big cat has always been held in great reverence and awe, both culturally and religiously, and many of these civilisations have their own thematic Jaguar stories and art. |
The Incans, Aztecs and many other cultures feature Jaguar stories throughout their mythology, but some of the most fascinating come from the Mayans.
Jaguar Stories in Mayan Mythology
The Mayans built temples to worship the big cat and saw it as a ruler of the underworld and a powerful symbol of darkness, or the night. Admired and feared in equal measure, the animal was considered a supernatural being, capable of shape shifting and changing form at will.
The Story of Night and Day
In one Mayan myth, the Jaguar Sun was a powerful spirit being who controlled both day and night. Every day he would rise in the east and prowl a path to the west, at which time the earth would be plunged into darkness. As the world slept, the spirit being would battle with the lords of the underworld, called the Xibalba. With superior might and sleuth, the animal spirit would vanquish the Xibalba, thus winning the right to return to rise in the east once again.
The Story of Self-Truth
Although all-powerful, the Mayans also saw the animal as a wise teacher. A story goes that a possum mother asked the Jaguar to be a godfather and protector of her son, which he did. He took the young possum hunting and, with one powerful leap, took down a larger animal, upon which he and the little possum dined. Later, the possum son, showing off for his mother, also tried to leap on the back of a very large animal but was tossed off into deep mud. When he called for help his mother came, but then she too was trapped in the mud and they both died – the lesson being that one should never try to be what one is not.
Power Alone is Not Enough
Another of the Mayan Jaguar stories makes the point that strength alone is not enough and one must also cultivate the traits of mental agility and hard work. Three of the big cats were starving, but were too lazy to hunt. A rabbit came along and questioned them as to why, with such impressive teeth and claws, they did not just go into the forest to hunt – to which they railed against having to travel the distance.
The rabbit convinced the big cats to climb into a net and promised to take them into the forest, but once they did, he tied the net shut and beat them with a large stick to teach them a lesson not to be so lazy. This myth is one of the many depictions of the duality the Mayans believed existed in the animal: power over night and day; strength and weakness; life and death; wisdom and foolishness.
When they Ate the Moon
One of the best-known Mayan Jaguar stories involves the lunar eclipses. The people believed that the big cat spirit gods of the underworld would one day rise from beneath the earth to consume the sun and moon. When the fearsome event was foreshadowed, the people would assemble to cry and sing in honour of the gods to convince them to spare the sun and moon and enable the world to continue.
While the associations and beliefs may vary according to the particular culture, even today, this magnificent animal is universally considered a symbol of power, courage, and spiritual significance.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Jaguar stories originating from Central and South American indigenous culture. Being passionate about her subject, Marissa chooses the expert-led wildlife holidays 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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