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Predators of Culture: Jaguar Symbolism and Mesoamerican Elites Author(s): Nicholas J. Saunders Source: World Archaeology,

Predators of Culture: Jaguar Symbolism and Mesoamerican Elites Author(s): Nicholas J. Saunders

Source: World Archaeology, Vol. 26, No. 1, Archaeology of Pilgrimage (Jun., 1994), pp. 104-


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Nicholas J. Saunders

Situating symbols

One of the most frequently encountered images in Mesoamerican art and iconography is that which appears to show America's largest feline - the jaguar (Panthera onca) - in either naturalistic, stylized or anthropomorphic form. Yet, despite the frequency of represen- tation, in civilizations spanning three thousand years, discussions of such imagery have

often been lacking in analytical precision. Most accounts have tended arbitrarily to identify the animal, or its constituent parts, as jaguar, and then to assert its symbolic significance. Arguably the most serious consequence of this is that, hitherto, both formalist and analogical interpretations of such imagery have regarded the jaguar's importance as a self-evident 'fact' (e.g. Bernal 1976: 66; Furst 1968: 148; Krickeberg et al.

1968: 11) rather than a graphic but speculative assumption. Since art is one of the ways in which people represent how they conceive of themselves, and their place in the world (Roosevelt 1991: 89), the appearance and frequency of jaguar motifs, as with any animal motifs, is not arbitrary, but is centred on the symbolic systems

which use the motifs metaphorically to express qualities regarded as significant for a given society, and within particular contexts. There is nothing obvious in the way in which a culture will regard a particular animal, or in the way in which it may utilize the animal's

empirical behaviour or appearance in its symbolic reasoning (e.g. Douglas 1957; 1990; Lewis 1991), or image-making (e.g. Morphy 1989: 5). In this sense, the jaguar symbol did not come ready-made, with a cluster of inherently important attributes somehow ascribed to it by 'Nature'. Rather, the jaguar, along with the natural world's diversity of culturally defined animate beings and 'inanimate objects' (Levi-Strauss 1976:184-5), should be regarded as a cultural appraisal. It is argued here that it is not from what we regard as empirical nature, but rather from an indigenously 'constructed nature' that animal symbols are taken, and from which they derive their efficacy as signifiers of human activity. Species are not natural kinds, but rather a product of classification, as an ordering process which creates and sustains the potential for metaphor use (Douglas 1990). As a society's ideas about, and attitudes towards an animal are, at least in part, a product of classification, then the constraints of emic logic will, presumably, also circumscribe the use

World Archaeology

Volume 26 No. 1

Archaeology of Pilgrimage

Jaguar symbolism and Mesoamerican elites


to which the image, symbol, or metaphor of that animal can be put. What is needed in

order to consider meaningfully the jaguar symbol, like any symbol, is the identification of a local emic theory which entrenched its use in patterns of social behaviour and belief (ibid.: 27).

Image and imagination in Mesoamerican art

The physical and symbolic associations between large predatory cats, warfare, and pre-eminent social status are particularly evident in Mesoamerica, where images of felines, feline-like creatures, and humans with feline attributes, apparel, or accoutre- ments, are found in a number of chronologically and spatially separated cultures (e.g. Benson 1985; Coe 1972; Kubler 1972; Peterson 1990: 90-103; Saunders 1989). Whilst 'jaguar' imagery has been a recurring theme in Mesoamerican iconography from the Preclassic Olmec (c. 1250-400 BC) to the Postclassic Aztec (c. AD 1350-1521), assessing its significance has been problematical. In one sense, interpretational difficulties began with assessments of Olmec art which identified what were assumed to be jaguar or were-jaguar images in a variety of media, from delicately carved jade items to monumental stonework and cave paintings (e.g. Coe

1968; 1972; Coe and Diehl 1980; Furst 1968; Grove 1984; Stirling 1943; 1955). Despite occasional more considered and sometimes contrary views (e.g. Coe 1990; Furst 1981; Luckert 1976; Stocker et al. 1980), the fascination of the Olmec 'feline complex', together with the outmoded but enduring view of the Olmec as a 'mother culture' (Bernal 1976),

combined to produce a 'conceptual straitjacket' which constrained many subsequent discussions. Such views were often clearly influenced by a Eurocentric conception of the

symbolic and ideological role of large felines in Old World culture history (e.g.


220), and current Amerindian beliefs and

practices concerning hallucinogenic rituals and shamanic vision quests (e.g. Furst 1968; Harner 1978). These accounts ignored the fact that Pre-Columbian 'jaguar' imagery cannot be considered a logical or all-inclusive antecedent to current Amerindian

symbolism, still less a parallel to the attitudes displayed by a diversity of European cultures towards lions, tigers, or leopards. This problem was compounded by an equally serious issue - that which dealt with the nature of representation. Many interpretations seemed to assume that Pre-Columbian artistswere concerned only or mainly to represent the animal naturalistically, either in part

or whole. Such societies were evidently regarded as having been largely unaffected by cultural, psychological or any other factors which may have intervened to channel or

influence their depictions (Ucko and Rosenfeld 1972; see

words, ancient Mesoamericans appeared to subscribe to an eighteenth- and nineteenth- century European artistic tradition of 'photographic reality' rather than to their own indigenous stylistic canons. Closely linked to this issue was the unfortunate fact that hitherto feline imagery had often been labelled simply as 'jaguar', with little consistency or method in the terminology

of such assumed species-identifications. For example, the Aztec term for the living jaguar, ocelotl, has been given in English as ocelot (e.g. Burland 1967: 90; Davies 1973: 143) or,


11; see also, Saunders 1992:3-4,

also, Layton 1977: 34). In other

106 Nicholas J. Saunders

even worse, as tiger (Vaillant 1944:127). Further, Dibble and Anderson, in their translation of the sixteenth-century Florentine Codex (Sahagun 1950-78), conflate two Aztec terms, ocelotl (i.e. jaguar) and tlaco-ocelotl (i.e ocelot, Felis pardalis), thus using one English term, ocelot, to refer to what, in the corresponding Nahuatl text, are two clearly differentiated types of feline. The significance of such an indiscriminate and confusing use of terms lies in the fact that it obscured the emically logical process of

classification by which Pre-Columbian societies

invested them with particularqualities, and used them to symbolize social values, attitudes and behaviour. A further complication was that these interpretational difficulties were often nested within a wider debate on the appropriateness of using sixteenth-century Late Postclassic

ethnohistorical data to interpret the iconography of earlier Preclassic and Classic period cultures. Where some authors clearly favoured the 'unitary' view of Mesoamerican civilization (Nicholson 1976: 169) - where there is an assumed continuity of iconographic and ideological symbolism spanning three thousand years (e.g. Coe 1968:111-15; Joralemon 1971; 1976) - others urged caution, warning of the dangers of 'disjunctive situations', where form and meaning may have become realigned over time (Kubler 1967: 11; 1970). By relying on superficial resemblances of form to indicate resemblance of meaning, without any understanding as to how or why 'regularities' were generated, many previous interpretations have failed to consider that, even where there is historical

continuity, this does not guarantee similarity of prehistoric, historical, or ethnographic 'cultural expressions' (Wylie 1985: 74-5).

recognized and named particular species,

Previous interpretations of so-called jaguar symbolism have,

by and large, been

evocative rather than compelling. Part of the underlying problem seems to have been that

one-off, all-embracing explanations have been uncritically applied to a diversity of

cultures, ignoring the fact that form, content and style of representation can differ within

psychological, cultural and

utilitarian reasons (Ucko 1988: xi). And yet, there is evidence from many parts of Mesoamerica that the jaguar appears to have been conceived in such a way that its meaning (i.e. the combination of qualities which it signified) was embedded in language and belief, as well as art. Whatever it was that the jaguar represented, it was apparently important enough to have been appropriated symbolically by the elites of at least two major Pre-Columbian civilizations - the Aztec and Maya. In addition, these two civilizations appear to have thought about, 'constructed' and

used jaguar imagery in broadly similar ways, and in certain analogous contexts, to recent Amerindian societies in both Central and South America. It is possible, therefore, to employ an analogical approach in assessing jaguar imagery, and perhaps to suggest a limited degree of convergence between ethnographic, ethnohistoric and archaeological data. By utilizing a deliberately restricted, as opposed to an all-inclusive, range of ethnographic materials, this paper aims to show how jaguar symbolism was entrenched in

and Maya conceptual thought and anchored firmly in meaningful patterns of

and between


and for a variety of ecological,


symbolic activity.

Jaguar symbolism and Mesoamerican elites

Locating meaning in the ethnographic dimension


Given the inadequacy of previous approaches, and archaeology's inability to provide conclusive answers unaided, the wealth of ethnohistoric and ethnographic data on jaguar imagery clearly comes into its own. This view is strengthened by an apparent unity of

feline, and particularlylarge spotted-cat symbolism, in the ethnographic and archaeologi- cal records of Central and South America over a period of some three thousand years

(Benson 1972; Saunders 1989; 1992: 224). However, in order to avoid previous pitfalls, analogical reasoning as employed here is not based on the assumption that human behaviour is generically uniform, or that any contemporary society will replicate the exact association of attributes distinctive of a prehistoric culture. It is acknowledged that

analogy is an inductive, probabilistic argument which suggests but a partial similarity,

never a complete identity (Wylie 1982: 392-3).

It is further recognized that 'similarity'

itself is a culturally relative notion. Nevertheless, it is apparent that a careful consideration

of ethnographic contexts widens our interpretive horizons by suggesting generative

principles and generalizations that can be tested against archaeological data (Stark


of ancient Mesoamerican conceptual thought. In Central and South America, ethnographic data reveal a close symbolic relationship between the jaguar, social status, warfare, and the wielding of spiritual and political power by shamans and chiefs (e.g. Furst 1968; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975; Roe, forthcoming;

Saunders 1992: 50-81). This contextual specificity indicates that jaguar imagery in dress and accoutrements was associated with aggression (e.g. Furst 1968: 152-3; Levi-Strauss

the qualities of strength and fierceness (e.g. Goldman 1979: 225; Karsten

social status

(e.g. Goldman 1979: 57). Jaguar killing, in particular, was a route to gaining and maintaining social prestige (e.g. Metraux 1946: 417; 1948: 412), and local terms for the jaguar were incorporated into the names and titles of priests, chiefs, deities and ancestors

(Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975: 45). The greatest density of jaguar symbolism however, appears in association with the shaman (e.g. Furst 1968; Goldman 1979: 262; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975) - a fact which has led to some of the interpretational problems mentioned above. The varied aspects of this relationship are well illustrated by the imagery invoked by Guahibo shamans

1993: 95). This process, I will argue, offers potentially useful insights into the

1948: 365),

1968: 124),

supernatural protection (Karsten 1968: 123), and pre-eminent

[who] still wear headresses of jaguar claws turned upwards, necklaces of jaguar teeth, and carry bags of jaguar fur that contain herbs, stones, and their snuffing equipment.




is kept

in a tubular







shaman paints his face with black spots in imitation of jaguar pelt marks, a form of facial paint that is only used by shamans.

(Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975: 46)

For Amerindian societies, a fundamental equivalence between the jaguar, shamans, warriors and hunters is reflected in etymology, inasmuch as local terms for the jaguar not

only acknowledge its

also denote predator status in extenso. This conceptual extension of the jaguar/predator

category is based, for example in north-west Amazonia, on the belief that any animal or

status as the pre-eminent predator (e.g. Arhem 1981: 203), but can

108 Nicholas J. Saunders

human which hunts any other can be referred to as yai (Hugh-Jones 1979: 124; Elizabeth

Reichel, pers. comm.),

(1979: 124). Embedded in classification, the designation 'jaguar'signifies human attributes

ascribed to the culturally constructed animal in distinctive configurations.

In the ethnographic context, jaguar imagery represents less a depiction or description of

the living animal per se, than of a 'bundle' of negotiated meanings appropriate to the representation of certain culturally important qualities (Morphy 1989:5). From the evidence presented above, these meanings appear to have been acknowledged in local theories of the world within which the use of jaguar symbolism was apparently associated with notions of strength, aggression and pre-eminent status. The conceptual correlation between these notions and the relevant contexts of hunting, warfare, shamanistic ritual

though typically it refers to the jaguar and powerful shamans

(i.e. spirit-attack and defence), and general status display, illustrates the degree to which jaguar symbols and metaphors were embedded in indigenous thought and action. In the light of this ethnographic evidence it is possible to consider the meaning and significance of


civilizations conceived of the jaguar, and in what contexts its symbolism was concentrated,

it may be possible to throw some light on the indigenous logic which made the animal such

such imagery in Aztec

and Maya symbolic



assessing how


an apparently suitable vehicle for the metaphorical expression of elite display.

The Aztec

In the Florentine Codex (Sahagun 1950-82), we find the jaguar referred to as ocelotl and regarded as the 'bravest' and 'fiercest' of animals, whose 'cautious', 'wise' and 'proud' disposition made it the 'ruler of the animal world' (ibid., Book 11: 1). This view suggests that the Aztecs conceived of the ocelotl as the embodiment of a distinctive configuration of

human qualities, and that its imagery was appropriate to signify this 'bundle' of ascribed attributes in certain contexts. We subsequently find ocelotl symbolism associated with warriors, dignitaries and rulers - the Aztec elite - for whom the classificatory attributes ascribed to the ocelotl were recognized as definitive qualities. Especially brave warriors, for example, could become members of one of two elite military orders, the ocelotl warrior society and the cuauhtli (i.e. eagle) warrior society, and were then privileged to wear the appropriate costumes. Anawalt (1992) refers to the design of the ocelotl warrior's costume as connecting the wearer to the power and protection of the jaguar. Even the coincidences of birth-dates were significant, as those individuals born under the sign of the month called ocelotl were regarded as possessing the attributes signified by the jaguar (Duran 1971: 402), and thus were particularly suitable to lead a warrior's life. The degree to which this aggressive aspect of jaguar symbolism was embedded in Aztec thought is shown by terms with ocelotl as their root, which were applied adjectivally to individuals who displayed the appropriate qualities. Thus the terms ocelopetlatl and oceloyotl were considered particularly appropriate to describe valiant warriors, and the qualities of valour and bravery in general (Simeon 1988: 352).

A similar concentration of ocelotl symbolism is found in association with Aztec royalty,

particularly in clothing and paraphernalia. According to Sahagun (1950-82, Book 8: 23-5, 8), Aztec emperors adorned themselves with ocelotl capes, breech clouts, and sandals

Figure 1

Jaguar symbolism and Mesoamerican elites


The jaguar-skin throneof the Aztec emperorAcamapichtli(from Codex Tovar).

made of the animal's pelt. Emperors also wore an insignia of ocelotl skin into battle

(Simeon 1988: 352). This symbolic association is also evident in royalty's privileged access to the use of a variety of ocelotl-skin thrones, mats and cushions (Sahagun 1950-82, Book

8: 31) (Fig. 1), as an expression of authority and rulership (Dibble 1971: 324). There was also a religious and ideological manifestation of ocelotl symbolism in the

omniscient and omnipotent supreme Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca (Nicholson 1971:412; Saunders 1990; 1992: 127-44). This god was the patron of royalty and played a central role in rituals of royal accession (Townsend 1987). The most convincing of Tezcatlipoca's many ocelotl associations was his transformational manifestation as the jaguar Tepeyollotli (Jimenez Moreno 1979: 28; Saunders, in press), who, in a number of codices, is shown either as a jaguar (e.g. Codex Borbonicus, Seler 1904: fig. 28a) (Fig. 2), or in association with jaguar imagery (e.g. Codex Borgia, Morante 1991:32). This symbolism was reinforced in Aztec cosmology and mythology, where Caso (1958:14-15) relates how Tezcatlipoca was a nocturnal deity whose alter ego was the jaguar and, as such, was also the patron of Aztec sorcerers, who used the animal's claws, pelt, and heart in their magical activities (Sahagun 1950-82, Book 11: 3).

The Maya

In the various Maya languages the jaguar is called balam or bolom (Alvarez 1984: 328; Laughlin 1975: 84-5; Hunn 1977: 233). In the Colonial Period Yucatec Maya language, the

110 Nicholas J. Saunders



^ Figure 2




Tepeyollotli,the jaguar manifes-

tation of Tezcatlipoca - the omniscient sup-

preme Aztec deity


(from CodexBorbonicus;

balam was regarded as 'brave' and the etymologically-related term, boolay, signified 'savage', 'fierce' - and thus, presumably, jaguar-like behaviour, in all animals that killed others (Alvarez 1984:328). The Yucatec Maya phrase, balam-tah, translates, sug- gestively, as either 'to be like a jaguar' or 'to hunt like a jaguar' (ibid.: 329), and Thompson (1970: 291) notes also that the term balam was used as a symbol of strength, fierceness and valour. Thus, for the Maya, as for the Aztec, the jaguar appears to have signified predator

status, and to have represented a cluster of highly specific human qualities. In the light of this, we might expect to find a conceptual extension of balam symbolism from the realm of animals to that of humans - in other words to be associated with warriors and the elite of Maya society. Consonant with this view, Laughlin (1975: 84), Pitt-Rivers (1970: 189), and Gossen (1975: 452) note that, amongst the more recent Maya, individuals with a strong and aggressive nature were considered as possessing a balam as an animal soul-companion, or

nagual. Recent

advances in Maya hieroglyphic decipherment appear to extend this

association back into the Classic Maya period (Houston and Stuart 1989: 6). In Postclassic

Maya society, not only were there balam warrior societies who wore balam insignia, apparel and accoutrements into battle (Landa 1982: 52; Orellana 1984: 60), but the whole concept of warfare is referred to in a Yucatec Maya phrase which translates as 'spreading

the jaguar skin' (Roys 1967: 154). Similarly, in Classic Maya iconography, there is a close

warriors, and warfare.

Specifically, Freidel (1986: 99-101) notes that the scroll-topped jaguar motif is a primary

physical and symbolic association between

jaguar imagery,


Figure 3

Jaguar symbolism and Mesoamerican elites


A Classic Maya ruler from Temple III, Tikal, Guatemala. The figure is wearing a huge

jaguar-head helmet and an elaborate jaguar-skin costume, complete even to the tail (after W. R.

Coe, Tikal Project).

112 Nicholas J. Saunders

image of war, as it appears in the battle scenes of the Bonampak murals (see also, Miller 1986: 98, 107-8), is a prominent feature of war regalia in narrative scenes at Yaxchilan, and is physically associated with glyphic references to war, captives and sacrifice on many lowland Maya monuments. Ethnohistoric evidence indicates that jaguar imagery was also associated with pre-

eminent social status - specifically with strong, powerful and leading members of society. The term balam, as well as certain of the living animal's physical attributes, appears to have signified lordship (e.g. Edmonson 1971:148, 218). In the Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya, the term balam referred to magical power and was used as an epithet, almost a title, signifying the qualities of strength and might (ibid.: 148). According to Thompson (1970), balam not only means jaguar, but also designated rulers and priests (see also, Edmonson 1984: 93). These associations are apparent also in Classic Maya iconography, where elite individuals wear what appears to be jaguar clothing, accoutrements and paraphernalia (e.g. Benson 1985; Robicsek 1975: 108-11) (Fig. 3), the remains of which have been found

1946:155; Pendergast

1950: 90; Welsh, pers. comm.). A further association between rulers and

in elite mortuary contexts (e.g.

Kidder, Jennings and Shook

1969: 21; Smith

balam imagery in the Classic period is found in the many depictions of jaguar-shaped thrones or cushions of jaguar-skin (Robicsek 1975:108-18) - an association paralleled during early Colonial times, when the phrase ix-pop-balam meant the 'jaguar mat', the

seat of authority in a Maya council (Roys 1967: 66).


For both the Aztec and Maya, it appears that whilst Panthera onca was the empirical

prototype, the culturally 'constructed' jaguar was the conceptual paragon. The latter, with its freight of cultural meanings, served as a source of appropriate metaphor to express a relational analogy consistent with the ascribed attributes of the animal in classification. To

'be jaguar', therefore, was to act in accordance with the distinctive, culture-specific

configuration of human qualities which the jaguar signified. Consequently, represen- tations of jaguars, either naturalistic or stylized, cannot be taken simply as denoting the

animal but also as connoting a variety of other meanings (Tilley

Whereas previous attempts to analyse jaguar symbolism in Mesoamerica have often assumed that it was self-evident that Pre-Columbian peoples would worship 'jaguar gods' (Krickeberg et al. 1968: 11), and that the jaguar was an obvious emblem for hierarchical, sophisticated civilizations because it was such an 'essential animal' (Bernal 1976: 66), I have argued that such views represent an unwarranted assimilation of the past to the present. I have also argued that it is possible to locate the meaning of such imagery more securely in contexts of indigenous thought and action. Whilst I do not suggest that this provides a definitive resolution to the problems raised by the analysis of such symbolism, it

may have gone some way to establishing what Douglas (1990: 28) has called a 'theory of behaviour' rather than a correlation of superficial resemblances. More specifically, amongst the Aztec, Maya and more recent Amerindian societies, conceptions of the jaguar, linguistic terms referring to human qualities which the animal signified, and the context-specific uses of its imagery, have been shown to exhibit a degree

1991: 44).

Jaguar symbolism and Mesoamerican elites


of similar patterning, in terms of warfare and status display. As the use of jaguar imagery

and as warfare and

status-related situations displayed the greatest density of such imagery, it can be suggested

for these designated contexts that the enduring form of symbolism possessed, at least in part, an enduring similarity of culturally ascribed meaning and associated cultural behaviour. In the light of this, the analogy between the ethnographic source and the

archaeological subjects can be regarded as having thrown further light on the meaningful uses of jaguar imagery by the elites of two of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica's major civilizations, and may serve as a starting point for more thoughtful considerations of similar imagery in other Mesoamerican cultures.


Departmentof History Universityof the WestIndies Jamaica

appears to



internally consistent

for each



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Saunders, N. J. Predators of culture: jaguar symbolism and Mesoamerican elites

Jaguar imagery is one of the most frequently encountered

symbolism. However, despite its appearance in art and iconography over a period of some three thousand years, most previous interpretations have tended to assert rather than prove its

features of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican

Jaguar symbolism and Mesoamerican elites


significance. In this paper an attempt is made to locate such imagery meaningfully in several categories of indigenous thought. Thus, this approach seeks to show how such symbolism is entrenched in Amerindian, Aztec and Maya conceptual systems, and how 'constructions' of the jaguar in classification led to the emically logical use of its verbal and artistic imagery in symbolic representations associated with warfare, and the display of elite status.