Jaguar head (center, right) in Zapotec glyphs, in a Monte Albán museum piece. Here, the jaguar is paired with a number (12), which suggests a calendar date, for the jaguar/ocelot was a day-sign. (Photo, R. Haskett, 2005)

The jaguar is ubiquitous across Mesoamerican art and across time. We are assembling here resources for a study of this important animal and its ethnobiological significance.

Jaguar or Ocelot? (Both existed, but jaguar was more central.)

Gordon Whittaker, Aztlan Listserv posting, Feb. 25, 2012:  “In the ongoing discussion of cat terms [on the Aztlan Listserv] Kier Salmon brings up the subject of Nahuatl *ocelotl*. The latter (*o:ce:lo:tl*) is actually ‘jaguar’ par excellence, whereas *tla’coo:ce:lo:tl* (literally, ‘semi-jaguar’) is ‘ocelot’. I have no idea why Dibble and Anderson (or Anderson and Dibble) decided to continue translating plain *o:ce:lo:tl* simply as ‘ocelot’, which is quite a misleading definition. The zoologist they consulted, Stephen Durrant, recommended ‘jaguar’ over their ‘ocelot’ (Florentine Codex, Bk. 11, 1963, p. 1, fn. 2), but they stuck to their translation. As a result, they rendered both *o:ce:lo:tl* and *tla’coo:ce:lo:tl* as “ocelot”.The indigenous consultants for the Florentine Codex descriptions, however, clearly regarded the *tla’coo:ce:lo:tl*, which they also named the * tla’comiztli* (‘semi-puma’), as a separate animal, not merely a different kind of *o:ce:lo:tl*, as the following passage (FC 11: 3) implies: , translated by Dibble and Anderson as ‘OCELOT.’ Also they name it *tlacomiztli*. It is small, squat, rather long, the same as a Castilian cat; ashen, whitish, varicolored — varicolored like an ocelot, blotched with black.” The significant translational oddity here is the comparison: “OCELOT […] small, […], the same as a Castilian cat, […] — varicolored like an *ocelot*”. Clearly, ‘OCELOT […] — varicolored like a *jaguar*’ would be a better fit.

We don’t know whether Aztec *o’o:ce:lo’* only wore jaguar skins, or whether some of them were running around in ocelot uniforms. The evidence strongly favours a primary association with jaguars, for cultic, cosmological and ideological reasons. Thus, for practical purposes, the translation “jaguar warriors” is still okay.”


Above, a detail from the Lienzo de Tequixtepec, Oaxaca, Mexico.
It shows a couple sharing a jaguar mat, a symbol of their authority.
Photo, Robert Haskett, 2011.

A large, Classic-Period (?) seated jaguar figure from Oaxaca or Veracruz. Museum of Natural History, New York. (R. Haskett, 2012)

Post-Classic Mexica jaguar head found in the Templo Mayor and now displayed in that museum. (S. Wood, 2003)

This jaguar head, above, so beautifully carved, probably formed part of a cuauhxicalli, or recipient where the hearts of sacrificial victims were placed. According to the curators of the Templo Mayor museum, for the Nahuas, the jaguar symbolized the night and could serve as an animal spirit-guide (nahualli) for elite men, for individuals connected with the supernatural, and had connections to some deities, such as Tezcatlipoca. An order of Aztec warriors took the name of this feared and respected feline. The jaguar was the companion to the eagle, the other order of warriors.  Some warriors had an association with both animals, being cuauhtli océlotl (eagle-jaguars).  (Recent research is suggesting that there were not two orders, just one, represented by the eagle-jaguar pairing.)

Jaguars are very prevalent in dances in Mexican indigenous communities. Below we see a sampling in the Ragatz family mask collection, now maintained by artist Karima Muyaes in the family home in Azcapotzalco.

Twentieth-century dance masks featuring jaguars. Spots, whiskers, and fangs are prominent features. Note the mirror eyes on some masks.  One thinks of the way cat eyes can appear glow with reflected light at night. (S. Wood, 2009)

Mexican indigenous religious belief united humans and animals as shared inhabitants of the universe. Dances of the colonial period (and probably before) typically included a Lord of the Animals, called the “Pastor” in Spanish-influenced dance. This lord or deity was believed to live in wild places and could manifest itself in many different animal guises, but the jaguar was one that was especially prevalent.  It could also appear as an alligator, a bat, or another animal.

Here is a Nahua song excerpt that mentions both eagles and jaguars:

An quaauhnenelihui oceloihcuiliuhtimanique in tepilhuā ayahue maça yicxochiuh [read yeixochiuh] onchichinalo = Ah, these princes are scattered as eagles, painted as jaguars. Let these incense-flowers of His be sipped! (late sixteenth century, Tetzcoco?)  [Source: Ballads of the Lords of New Spain: The Codex Romances de los Señores de la Nueva España, transcribed and translated by John Bierhorst (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 34.]

When we think of the quetzalcoatl phenomenon (the dual ability to fly and to crawl on the earth), we wonder if a similar principal was at work with eagles (flight) and jaguars (roaming on earth)?  The coloring of jaguars is also significant, as we see in the remark, “painted as jaguars.”

Jaguar head/skull in a detail from a Oaxacan mural. (S. Wood, 2010)

Jaguar themes continue to run strong in Mexican art today. One of the Oaxacan street art collectives calls itself ArteJaguar (Jaguar Art). Above, we see a jaguar featured in a mural on a wall in Oaxaca city that was photographed in 2010.

Jaguar head by street artist “El Caso” (also seen as Cazo), Oaxaca. Recalls a carved pre-Columbian figurine, in a conscious nod to pre-Hispanic heritage. (Photo, Itandehui F. Orozco, 2010)