American Anthropology Research Paper

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American Anthropology

Jaguars and Were-Jaguars:

Conceptions and Misconceptions in Olmec Culture

There is not a question that jaguars were important to Mesoamerican religion and culture. The Olmecs were no exception to this rule. However, it seems that previous interpretations of Olmec art and architecture have erroneously placed more emphasis on the jaguar than is actually due. While a significant part of Mesoamerican culture, the jaguar did not play quite the all-encompassing role that many archaeologists have attributed to it. Specifically, the so-called "were-jaguar" motif might be representative of something other than a jaguar, or at least, contain elements of other animals in addition to the feline. Among others, it has been suggested that the "were-jaguar" babies were, instead, crocodilians, toads, deformed human children, snakes, or iguanas. This essay will look at the most convincing of these arguments, in particular, the possibility of the "were-jaguar" actually representing congenitally deformed babies, were-crocodilians, and toad mothers.

Background

The Olmec people are well-known for their various sculptures, figurines, celts, and other artwork. At the heartland of their civilization, off the Gulf of Mexico coast near the Yucatan Peninsula, many examples of Olmec artwork have been discovered. These artworks have revealed that the Olmec people were quite familiar with their jungle companions and incorporated them into their mythology on a rather frequent basis (Coe 2002).

The idea of animal-men, in which human traits are associated with those of one or more animals, was very prominent throughout the Olmec period. Archaeologists have also found two or more animals combined to form a monster. Over the span of generations, mythical beasts such as this began to embody religious concepts for the Olmec and would even become anthropomorphic gods. These variations of animal-human and animal-animal combinations can be explained by the concept of nahual. A nahual may be an animal mythically associated with an individual human being so closely that his life depends very much upon that of the animal. If the animal is injured or dies, the man will experience the same injury or death. The nahual can also be the animal representation of a god. Throughout Mesoamerican prehistory, there have been animals like the serpent, the eagle, or the bat, which have been revered and given special merit, associated with one another and with human beings, effectively bestowing upon them nahuales status (Bernal 1969: 98-99). "The physical and symbolic associations between large predatory cats, warfare, and pre-eminent social status are particularly evident in Mesoamerica, where images of felines, feline-like creatures, and humans with feline attributes, apparel, or accoutrements, are found in a number of chronologically and spatially separated cultures" (Saunders 1994: 104).

The jaguar, holding primacy among the Olmecs, could have been at the same time the totem and the nahual of the supreme ruler. While today, we view the jaguar as a quite large but seldom dangerous creature, mostly interesting because of its exquisite spotted coat, this was not the view of the jaguar commonly held by prehistoric Mesoamericans. To them, the jaguar symbolized terror and the mysteries of the jungle, life, and the other world. It is no surprise then that the jaguar permeates all forms of Olmec expression. As a deified animal, its essence is captured in magnificent jade sculptures, man-jaguar masks, and so on. As Olmec culture developed over time, the jaguar also evolved. It became far removed form a realistic representation of the animal as features characteristic of human beings and of other animals, such as the bird and serpent, were added. Jaguars have been found with feathers over their eyes instead of eyebrows (Bernal 1969: 98-99). As Nicholas Saunders stated, "There is nothing obvious in the way in which a culture will regard a particular animal, or in the way in which it may utilize the animal's empirical behaviour or appearance in its symbolic reasoning…" (Saunders 1994: 104). The image of the jaguar as held by the Olmec people should be viewed as a cultural assessment, whereby it derives its worth as an indicator of human activity (Saunders 1994: 104).

The "were-jaguar" is an iconic and important figure that archaeologists have unearthed from the Olmec culture. This figure has come to be known by its distinctive "snarling mouth, toothless gums or long, curved fangs, and even claws," almond-shaped eyes, fleshy lips, and a cleft forehead (Coe 2002: 64). While originally, scholars believed that the "were-jaguar" was linked to a religious mythology surrounding the story of copulation between a male jaguar and a female human, other radically different notions of the "were-jaguar" have recently surfaced in addition to disputes over the validity of the interpretation of the so-called copulation scenes themselves (Davis 1978).

Were-Jaguar as Toad Mother

The V-shaped cleft on the top of the head of the "were-jaguar" and also its toothless mouth (save the fangs sometimes depicted) has inspired a different interpretation of this creature by Peter Furst. Furst has asserted that this creature is not human at all, bur rather, the Earth Mother Goddess "in her manifestation as a jaguar-toad" (Furst 1981: 149). For Furst, the V-shaped cleft on this creature has multiple meanings. It is said by Furst to represent the feminine, creative portal between worlds. The Olmec acknowledged that "this cleft represents some sort of opening" that is somehow connected with divinity (Furst 1981: 150). Drawing from various Mesoamerican iconographic studies, Furst determined that the V-shaped cleft had the primary function of acting as a "sipapu-like" place of emergence from and reentry into the divine, female earth. In this way, a connection with the "earth mother" is made. The second interpretation of the cleft put forth by Furst is drawn from its strong resemblance to the v-shaped space seen at the top of a toad's head, which splits at a certain point during the molting process. He argues that the toad itself was quite an important animal in the Olmec world. Associations have been drawn between the toad and earth and fertility. Furthermore, the toad's successive amphibious metamorphosis, its toothless carnivorous nature, its frequent molting, and long life span correspond to "some of the most fundamental aspects of Mesoamerican and Olmec cosmology and symbolism" (Furst 1981: 150).

Furst further supports his theory of the "were-jaguar" having toad-like characteristics by pointing to the so-called "fangs" often found in the corners of the mouth of an otherwise toothless creature. He attributes the presence of these "fangs" to being as a result of the natural molting process of the toads. During the final stages its molting process, the toad sucks into its mouth any remnants of skin, forming in its mouth what could be mistaken as fangs by some observers. Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that these "fangs" are actually as a result of the toad's peculiar shedding process. This molting process, argues Furst, is significant to the people of Mesoamerica, in that it is representative of the cycle of death and rebirth. This explains why the toad was revered by the Olmecs. The fact that some effigies are cleft-headed but fangless and others are lacking a cleft but have fangs supports his thesis that the "were-jaguar" is more toad-like than anything else. These two types of effigies are indicative of the same being in "different manifestations or symbolic contexts -- the one the earth as genetrix…the other the earth in cyclical or seasonal renewal," argues Furst (Furst 1981: 160). The process of regeneration undergone by species of toad found in Mesoamerica could have symbolized death and rebirth in the earth and its maize crops. The toad itself probably had an important association with both maize and rainwater in the Olmec culture.

Furst's conception of the Olmec creature with the V-shaped cleft depicting a toad stands both in unique and complimentary contrast to the "were-jaguar" interpretation of this same creature. For Furst, it is not hard to conceive that the "were-jaguar" is actually an "anthropomorphically conceived toad with jaguar characteristics" that place it as a "classic example of transformation and mediation between contrasting but complementary beings, environments, and…cosmic realms" (Furst 1981: 150).

Were-Jaguar as Crocodilian

Taking an ecological approach to religion, which is based upon the interaction between the natural environment and society, some archaeologists have argued that the "were-jaguar," in many cases, is a depiction of a crocodilian. Features such as the hand-paw, the upturned lip, and crossing teeth, which had been previously attributed to jaguars, seem to be more easily explained and understood as crocodilian than anything else. Any one of three species of crocodilians could have been represented by the motif. Crocodilians were an important part of Olmec life. It has been conjectured that, much like the toad, crocodilians represented a connection to fertility, agriculture, weather, and the other world. Crocodilians were likely associated with fertility since a large number of them can exist in a very small space due to their poikilothermic nature. They were associated with weather, specifically thunder and rain, due to the "booming" thunderous sound they sometimes emit during mating season. They were also seen as having some sort of supernatural…[continue]

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