The Power to Dominate: Jaguar Symbology in the Olmec Tradition

With the ability to see in the dark, uncanny stealth, and incredible strength, the jaguar is the apex predator of Mexico, and its greater living space throughout Central and South America. No other animal hunts this big cat, and its domination over life does not stop at terrestrial animals, as it also preys on aquatic and avian creatures. Humans witnessed these attributes for millennia, but Mesoamerican cultures respected this mighty creature on a deific level. Jaguar symbology is found throughout many of the prominent cultures of Mexico such as the Aztec, and Maya. Some of the earliest depictions of the jaguar in art, however, come from the Olmec, the Preclassic era culture from Mexico’s southern Gulf coast. The jaguar is found as statues, in paintings, and carved into ceremonial items, but what makes the Olmec jaguar symbology unique is the consistent use of were- jaguars, anamorphic depictions of humans crossed with jaguars. What these different representations have in common is their symbol of dominance, whether it is class dominance, or religious dominance that all originate from the human fascination with the jaguar’s ability to rule over its domain.

A part of what emphasizes the jaguar’s symbolic dominance is its use in combination with monumental architecture. The existence of this architecture implies class dominance. As an agrarian society begins producing surplus food stuff, labor can be designated to other tasks such as large-scale construction which is carried out by a powerful figure or group in the community. Creation of these structures was a form of social remembrance, a physical history with cultural significance that passes a message to their present society and beyond.[1] The jaguar is presented in this architecture through stone statues of royalty where the subject of the sculpture takes on jaguar features or is depicted with a jaguar. As a symbol of dominance, having jaguar lineage grants ruling power over the physical world of the Olmecs, along with the spiritual world as the shamanistic rulers channeled nature to grant themselves supernatural power.[2]

Jaguar symbology was not only used by the ruling class. Art created by those not of the powerful minority reveals jaguars as they are woven into stories that create their own social remembrance.[3] An example of this comes from a cluster of cave paintings in Guerrero, Mexico. Caves are sacred spaces that symbolize spiritual pathways to the underworld, but also creation. Creation is an important theme to these paintings, as they depict jaguars and humans copulating which implies the creation of the royal bloodline.[4] Unlike the royal depiction of shamanistic control of jaguar anamorphic shapes, this representation is a form of sexual dominance, where the original royal family physically created their divine right to rule rather than manifesting it through magic.

Olmec copulation with jaguars, however, is not the definitive answer behind historical understanding of how the Olmec rulership described their creation. Besides the cave paintings stated above, so called copulation scenes were found at a few Olmec sites in the form of statues, where jaguars and humans appear to be interlocked in suggestive means. Scholars like Whitney Davis argue that while these scenes could be suggestive, there are important details that disregard the idea of copulation, such as the appearance of clothing, the lack of discernable gender, and the lack of blatant sexual positions. Rather, Davis states that the humans and jaguars are in a violent struggle, in which case the human is either dead or dying. In this case, the human represents outside groups of people who are being conquered by the Olmec, who are represented by the victorious jaguar. This is presented in other statues as well, but the Olmec are were- jaguars or warriors wearing jaguar pelts.[5]

The existence of the were- jaguar in Olmec art is also in question. When jaguar symbology was documented in the Olmec tradition in the early 20th century it became the basis of assumptions on representation throughout the Olmec heartland, leading to the theory of the “jaguar cult.”[6] Many of these were- jaguars have similar features such as the almond shaped eyes, cleft forehead, and upturned lips that form a snarl which makes it difficult to find discernible differences. However, further scholarship has proven that not all these anamorphic humans are taking on the form of jaguars. Other symbolically important creatures such as caimans, snakes, and raptor birds have all been identified as partial forms for shamanistic ritual. The were- caiman, for example, is depicted with a reptilian scaled belt, and teeth that are turned inward. Finding these differences is important because it changes the meaning behind certain statues due to the change in symbology.[7]

The depictions of these were- jaguars, and other anamorphs, are fantastical but may also hold onto realistic physical traits from royal children. While there is symbolic significance to traits such as the cleft head, toothless snarl, and contorted face, these are also identifying traits of handicaps. For example, the fat, upturned lips could result from children that suffer from agnathia, the partial or total lack of a mandible, while statues that depict these children looking up in “listening positions” may depict a deaf child. Certain bodily proportions are also thought to represent children with dwarfism. These traits in royals were not thought of as bad and considered a part of their jaguar heritage manifesting inside a child.[8]

The jaguar’s strength manifests itself in monumental architecture, royal history, and even cosmology throughout the Olmec Heartland. It justifies rulership over a populace of indentured workers and explains victories over other people that do not hold the blood of jaguars. Whether artistic depictions truly represent copulation, or if some of the artistic pieces are other animals rather than jaguars, the jaguar still holds an important place in Olmec tradition.