Were-Jaguar - Icon of the Olmec Civilization

Pan-Mesoamerican Symbol

Jaguar God from Cerro San Martin, 9th-4th century BC Olmec
Jaguar God from Cerro San Martin, 9th-4th century BC Olmec. DEA G. Dagliorti / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

The were-jaguar (jaguar humanizado in Spanish) is an iconic image of the Olmec civilization, the Early Formative and arguably "mother" culture of all other Mesoamerican cultures. Early on, before scholars fully grasped the idea of the Olmec, archaeologists and art collectors noticed that a lot of Mesoamerican sculptural art had representations of jaguar-people. Appearing as early as 1500 BC, the were-jaguar image is that of a baby-faced creature with fangs, with a snarling mouth, and a cleft on top of its head; and, say scholars, to the Olmec it represented a visual link between animal, human, water, ruler and the supernatural.

Were-Jaguars and Art History

Not all scholars have always been convinced that the were-jaguar is a jaguar at all. Among the interpretations that appear in the literature are that were-jaguars actually represent:

  • A human fetus (Carolyn E Tate)
  • Human dwarfism (Agustin Delgado)
  • Down's syndrome children (Roberto Gonzalo, George Milton)
  • Children with birth defects (Carson Murdy)
  • Crocodilians (Stocker et al.)

Those ideas have not entirely disappeared, and there's no reason why those notions may not have had cultural inflections in the meaning of the symbol--after all, there's nothing more alien-like and frightening than a screaming baby. But the majority of scholars today concentrate on the way the were-jaguar fits into a larger understanding of Olmec and indeed pan-Mesoamerican ideology. Often, say scholars, the imagery seems to describe a dichotomy or dualistic split between were-jaguar (earthquake/earth/feline) and fire-serpent (lightning/sky/reptilian/bird).

Scholarly Explorations

Christopher Pool (2007) pointed out that there have been two main scholarly focuses on Olmec iconography over the past twenty-five years or so. The first, led by Karl Taube and others, focuses on the meaning of the Olmec symbols and how they were communicated and translated across later pan-Mesoamerican cultures.

Jaguars have been connected with various later deities for maize, rain and the avian serpent. Were-jaguars have been seen as the progenitor idea for much later gods of the Maya (such as Chaac) and Aztec (such as Tezcatlipoca). Some scholars have pointed to Puebloan maize symbolism from about 1,000 years ago that might have diffused out of Mesoamerica from a complex ceremonialism rooted in the Olmec. But that idea, while intriguing and certainly not out of line with how human symbols persist and change over time, is a little difficult to trace, since it must be based on comparisons of out-of-context pieces in museums and private collections.

The other theoretical strain concerning the were-jaguar discusses the use of imagery and sculpture by Olmec rulers to create and maintain political authority. Peter Furst, for example, argued that the first representations of were-jaguars were Early Formative greenstone celts which seem to illustrate shamans in the act of transforming into their animal spirit companions. Later on, beginning about 1200 BC, the jaguar became explicitly associated with Olmec rulers. There are Olmec displays such as the Loma del Zapote array which illustrates two rulers kneeling in front of a jaguar that seem to make a meaningful switch.

Jaguar and Maize and Water and Kings?

It might seem odd that the combination of what seems like a disparate set of concepts are all thought to be expressed in a single being. To understand that, we have to turn to Michael Coe, who sat down in 1967 with two dozen colleagues to discuss Mesoamerican feline images at a conference at Dumbarton Oaks.

In his paper from that conference published in 1970, Coe pointed out that the jaguar is the most-often depicted feline of the five cat species in Mesoamerica. The jaguar is solitary, has a round face with large binocular eyes and sensitive whiskers, and a furrow running longitudinally along the top of the head, formed by folds of its loose scalp. The jaguar coat has rosette spots and a black-tipped tail; it has retractable claws, and stalks its prey alone at night.

The jaguar's victims are brought to the ground in a muscular embrace of the jaguar's feet, claws and forearms and often dispatched by in one deadly bite.

Jaguars and Water

The jaguar has a broad range of prey preferences, unlike the puma (mostly deer) and the smaller cats, who are into birds; the jaguar dines on peccary, deer, agouti, monkeys, rabbits and other mammals. It hunts along the riverbanks and is an excellent swimmer. Turtles and fish are also eaten, and the jaguar apparently fishes by slapping its tail on the water to attract them, imitating the sound of falling fruit.

A dangerous, powerful, intelligent animal with a distinctive personality that moves with ease on water and land. Why wouldn't you want that in a king?

Sources

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Olmec Civilization, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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Casellas Cañellas E. 2005. El Contexto arqueológico de la cabeza colosal olmeca número 7 de San Lorenzo, Veracruz, México. Bellaterra: Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Coe MD. 1970. Olmec jaguars and Olmec kings. In: Benson EP, editor. The Cult of the Feline: A conference in Pre-Columbian Iconography. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections. p 1-18.

Cyphers A. 1999. From stone to symbols: Olmec art in social context at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán.

In: Grove DC, and Joyce RA, editors. Social Patterns in Pre-Classic Mesoamerica. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks. p 155-181.

Melville SS. 2014. Naturalism and supernaturalism in ancient Mesoamerica: an analysis of Olmec iconography. Missoula: University of Montana.

Murdy CN. 1981. Congenital deformities and the Olmec were-jaguar motif.

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Stocker T, Meltzoff S, and Armsey S. 1980. Crocodilians and Olmecs: Further Interpretations in Formative Period Iconography. American Antiquity 45(4):740-758. doi: 10.2307/280145