The Jaguar as a Cultural Icon

Desiree Michels

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While in the modern world Jaguar watching is of great interest to scientists, naturalists and wildlife lovers, the big cat is also an iconic and enduring cultural emblem of the indigenous cultures of Mexico and South and Central America. Over thousands of years, ancient civilisations, including the Maya, Aztecs and Incas, have both revered and feared this magnificent animal.

For anyone planning a Jaguar watching trip to South America, understanding a little of the ancient mythology associated with the big cat can offer an insight into its contemporary relationships with the local peoples.

Symbolisms of Panthera onca

As well as being an ultimate symbol of courage, aggressiveness and spiritual power, in Mesoamerican mythology the animal also possessed the supernatural ability to predict impending events. Some cultures believed the big cat was not only able to see in the dark but also to delve into the deepest recesses of the human heart. The Maya and Aztecs believed that the ability of shamans to transform to a half human, half Jaguar form enabled them with the extraordinary power to face the challenge of their own inner fears as well as the strength to vanquish their enemies.


To the Incans of Peru, the animal represented might and royalty, with the skins used as ceremonial apparel for their kings. It also symbolised the ruler’s skill and prowess in hunting, and it was the definitive emblem of authority. As the alter ego of the shamans, taking on the big cat's form endowed them with the power to ‘shapeshift’ and move between the spirit, water and human world. (This belief in transience stemmed from the animal's capability to hunt during the day or under the cover of darkness and its comfort in trees, on land and even in the water. )


The highly superstitious Maya people associated the animal they depicted as a god with the night, believing its spotted coat to be a reflection of the night sky and its glittering, reflective eyes to be a direct conduit to the underworld. Revering it as a powerful deity of the spirit world, they built temples to the animal and enacted ceremonies to appease it, which were officiated over by the highest order of Maya priests, the Balam.


The Aztec culture held the animal in the highest regard, and it served as a spirit animal, or totem, to sorcerers and shamans. The civilisation's most elite warriors were known as the Jaguar Knights. Associated with connotations of royalty and battle, the Aztecs believed the big cat possessed supernatural powers, and they took part in ritualistic human sacrifices, where the heart of the victim was fed to the animal as a peace offering.

An Enduring Symbol

To this day, many South and Central American cultures continue to uphold the mythological traditions involving this majestic and powerful feline. For adventurous wildlife lovers who go in search of an encounter on Jaguar watching tours, the enduring image of a deadly accurate predator doesn't detract from its powerful regal warrior presence, and the knowledge that there is still far more we don’t know about the world's most elusive big cat than what we do know.

Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Jaguar watching. Being passionate about her subject, Marissa chooses the expert-led Jaguar holiday itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.


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