e-book The Jaguar Dances

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the jaguar dance

Thinking about the world in this traditional way, every man carries the jaguar within himself, and every jaguar may be a man in disguise. It is no wonder then that the jaguar creates anxiety and fear when suddenly encountered in the depths of the tropical rainforest. All felines are masterful hunters and natural killers, but it is how humans understand these qualities that give the jaguar such a distinctive presence in the art and religion of ancient Mexican cultures.

In pre-Columbian times, before the Spanish arrived, animal and human features were often combined to create what we regard as fantastical creatures possessing supernatural strength and magical powers. No surprise then that the kings and rulers of the Aztecs, the Maya, and earlier civilizations adorned themselves with jaguar skins, skulls, fangs and claws. Carvings, paintings or statues of humans wearing jaguar clothing or appearing to be half-human, half-jaguar, are more than simple artistic images — they represent fundamental ideas and beliefs of the Aztecs and their predecessors.

In Mexico, images of great cats almost certainly jaguars first appear in the art of the Olmec civilization BC. They are carved as giant stone sculptures and as small delicate jade figurines from archaeological sites such as San Lorenzo, El Azuzul, and La Venta. Some of these appear as naturalistic animals, while others blend the human with the jaguar and add a fearsome snarling mouth. Myths and stories gathered in indigenous Mexican villages in recent times suggest what these dramatic Olmec items may have been.

Dance of the Jaguar

It may be that they show powerful supernatural beings regarded as the children of Olmec rulers and mythical jaguar beasts. Some large Olmec sculptures and smaller figurines may be showing sorcerers transforming into spirit-jaguars, caught, as it were, half-way between the feline and the man. Possibly, of course, such startling artworks could simply be showing a sorcerer, priest, or ruler wearing a jaguar mask, or adopting a feline pose in a long-forgotten ritual.


Whatever qualities of the jaguar inspired the Olmec, such strange images appear to have established a long and sacred tradition in ancient Mexican art and religion. As an emblem of rulership, hunting, war and sacrifice, the jaguar appeared in the art of many later civilizations.

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In wall paintings at the remote site of Bonampak, jaguar and possibly ocelot clothing and equipment are a striking addition to scenes of warfare, victory, and torture. Images inspired by the jaguar appear alongside Maya hieroglyphic texts, associated with conflict, war captives, and human sacrifice. Even today, sorcerers and political leaders at the Maya town of Chamula possess a jaguar soul companion. Maya language and literature also tell stories of how the jaguar is related to the higher social classes in their society. It appears that each Mexican civilization created its own ideas and beliefs of what the jaguar and sometimes the puma meant to them, and showed them in art according to their own style.

It is Aztecs however who have left us some of the most detailed insights into the ancient Mexican tradition of jaguar symbols. In Nahuatl, the Aztec language, the jaguar was called ocelotl - a fact which has led to confusion with the different and smaller ocelot. The jaguar was a favourite symbol in Aztec representations of war. Aztec names which included the term ocelotl were used to describe brave warriors — in this way, ocelopetlatl and oceloyotl described especially brave warriors, such as those of the high-status Jaguar Warrior Society.

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Aztec kings, like their Classic Maya predecessors, used the jaguar to enhance their social status. As the jaguar was lord of animals, so an Aztec emperor was ruler of men.

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The greatest of all Aztec gods, Tezcatlipoca, was the patron of royalty and inventor of human sacrifice. The importance of the jaguar and also of other large felines in Aztec society was dramatically shown during the excavations of the Great Aztec Temple El Templo Mayor which took place in downtown Mexico City during the s. Archaeologists discovered complete feline skeletons that had been buried as sacred offerings with polished greenstone balls gripped between their fangs.

So powerful were these beliefs concerning the jaguar and other felines that they did not disappear with the Spanish Conquest of When confronted with the new religion of Spanish Catholicism, the ancient jaguar simply changed its name, not its nature. In years following the conquest, during the early colonial period, the ancient power of the jaguar was used by those who fought against the new world that the Spanish were creating in Mexico. During the sixteenth century, sorcerers known as nahuallis were accused by the Spanish of murder, insurrection, and, most interestingly, of changing into jaguars.

He was denounced to the Holy Inquisition in and accused of devil worship, predicting the rains, and transforming himself into the great spotted cat. The jaguar replaced the lion at the feet of St Jerome.

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Many traditional jaguar festivals have survived into the twenty-first century. Los Tlacoleros and the Danza de los Tecuanes are just two of the most popular dances that still take place in rural villages.

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One such community, Totoltepec in Guerrero, has dancers dressed in jaguar masks and yellow-spotted clothing who mix Catholic beliefs with pre-Columbian ideas concerning the protection of crops and livestock from predators.