Cosmological genesis

The Mayan had an elaborate mythology with 13 levels of Heaven, the Living Earth and 9 levels of the Underworld. Cosmological genesis and the formation of the Maya world are described in the Mayan Popol Vuh.

"The gods created the face of the earth, “u wach ulew”, as a propitious place for human life with the Jaguar Spirit as its protector".

"Here is the story of the beginning when there was not one bird, not one fish, not one mountain, there is nothing, no sound and no movement."

"In the beginning there was only the creator Hart-of-Sky and the modellers. But there is no one to speak the name of Heart of Sky, to praise his glory, to nurture his greatness..."

“How should it be sown, how should it dawn?" . . . It was simply Heart of Sky and the modellers that formed the Earth. The Earth arose suddenly, just like a cloud, like a mist, now forming, unfolding as it was brought forth by the Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth, as they were now called. . . The Sky was set apart, and the Earth was set apart in the midst of the waters. A pillar of the sky was set up of four trees of abundance, a white in the north, a black in the west, and yellow in the south., and the great ceiba tree was set up in the center." Chilam Balam.

Jaguar spirit

“spread the jaguar's skin and you spread the starry splendors of the heavens of both the day and the night" Maya proverb.

 Mayan jaguar spirit lamanai Left: The jaguar spirit is a powerful spiritual entity in Mayan cosmology. This mask representing a jaguar is paired either side of the staircase of the jaguar temple at the Mayan city of Lamanai; a major trading partner with Sarteneja.

For the Maya, day and night represented two different spiritual worlds with the living world and the earth associated with day and the underworld with its spirits associated with night. The Jaguar Spirit had the ability to cross between these two worlds and jaguars were therefore depicted as mysterious and elusive creatures.

As the largest predator in the region of Maya civilisation the jaguar (Panthera onca) combines speed, agility and power, coupled with the ability to hunt from trees or in water, and during the day or at night. These qualities enable the jaguar to predate the largest animals. The jaguar represents strength, divinity, and mystery and these were woven into the persona of the Jaguar Spirit in the rituals and stories of the ancient Maya.

Maya mythology

To the Maya it was a supernatural being called Jaguar Sun who, as the sun, rose each day in the east and during the course of the day, prowled its way westwards until finally it plunged into western darkness of the underworld as night fell. In the underworld Jaguar Sun battled with the Lords of Xibalba until near dawn. Through strength and tenacity Jaguar Sun regenerated and gained the right to leave the underworld and continue to rise in the east.

The cosmic forces of day and night fall into the Jaguar Spirit's realm and therefore the Jaguar Spirit became a symbol of dominion of all things celestial. The celestial sphere was of particular importance to the Maya who were more advanced in astronomy and mathematics at the time of their civilisations collapse, than Europe. Therefore the Jaguar Spirit is a central and powerful figure in Maya mythology and culture.

Maya gods with jaguar attributes

The Mayan’s strong spiritual connection with the jaguar, explains garments with art that references the jaguar in images of an underworld god. There is the depiction of the Jaguar Spirit with water lilies sprouting from the spirits head. The god Xbalanque is one of the hero twins who during the Maya genesis descended to the underworld and whose entire body is covered with patches of jaguar skin The Jaguar Spirit is also the god of fertility and protected and sustained plants and vegetation with this activity being a major theme in the Popul Vuh. The association between the Jaguar Spirit and bountiful nature is shown in many art objects (Benson 1998:64-67).

Jaguars and Shamans

The Jaguar Spirit was important to Mayan shamans as a spirit companion (naguea). Shamans were responsible for combating evil spirits that threatened their communities, and therefore needed to transform into a spirit and cross between the underground spirit world and the living world. The Jaguar Spirit could protect the shamans from malevolent and deceptive spirits whilst the shamans moved between earth and the spirit realms. Once shamans were in the spirit world the adopted persona of the Jaguar Spirit enabled the shamans to dominate spirits as a predator dominates its prey.

Use of jaguar pelts

A Mayan proverb says “spread the jaguars skin and you spread the starry splendors of the heavens of both the day and the night", and as a highly worshipped animal the jaguars beautiful coat was highly desired. The jaguar pelt was worn by the Mayan ruling class and Mayan kings who adopted the jaguar as a symbol of power and authority.

Benson, E.P. (1998) "The Lord, The Ruler: Jaguar Symbolism in the Americas." In N.J. Saunders (ed), Icons of Power: Feline Symbolism in the Americas. London: Routledge: 53-76.