I’ve written a bit about why we see what we see when tripping on psychedelics. But what about animals? What does, say, a big cat see after munching down some hallucinogenic jungle leaves?
We can only wonder. But we can observe how that jaguar behaves once its under the spell of yage, which for centuries has been brewed into ayahuasca. The beast just seems to melt. It’s nothing erratic, though it does call to mind, in the annals of our observing trippy cats, this ‘lil guy that was dosed on LSD during the US Army’s so-called psychedelic Manhattan Project throughout the 50s and 60s.
Sure, it was forced subjection that confused the cat. The jaguar, some would believe, munched yage because it wanted to, perhaps as a way to sharpen its hunting skills.
The jaguar (/ˈdʒæɡjuːər, ˈdʒæɡjʊər, ˈdʒæɡjuːɑr/ or /ˈdʒæɡwɑr/), Panthera onca, is a big cat, a feline in the Panthera genus, and is the only extant Panthera species native to the Americas. The jaguar is the third-largest feline after the tiger and the lion, and the largest in the Americas. The jaguar’s present range extends from Southwestern United States and Mexico across much of Central America and south to Paraguay and northern Argentina. Apart from a known and possibly breeding population inArizona (southeast of Tucson) and the bootheel of New Mexico, the cat has largely been extirpated from the United States since the early 20th century.
This spotted cat most closely resembles the leopard physically, although it is usually larger and of sturdier build and its behavioral and habitat characteristics are closer to those of the tiger. While dense rainforest is its preferred habitat, the jaguar will range across a variety of forested and open terrains. It is strongly associated with the presence of water and is notable, along with the tiger, as a feline that enjoys swimming. The jaguar is largely a solitary, opportunistic, stalk-and-ambush predatorat the top of the food chain (an apex predator). It is a keystone species, playing an important role in stabilizing ecosystems and regulating the populations of the animals it hunts. The jaguar has an exceptionally powerful bite, even relative to the other big cats. This allows it to pierce the shells of armored reptiles and to employ an unusual killing method: it bites directly through the skull of prey between the ears to deliver a fatal bite to the brain.
The jaguar is a near threatened species and its numbers are declining. Threats include loss and fragmentation of habitat. While international trade in jaguars or their parts is prohibited, the cat is still frequently killed by humans, particularly in conflicts with ranchers and farmers in South America. Although reduced, its range remains large. Given its historical distribution, the jaguar has featured prominently in the mythology of numerous indigenous American cultures, including those of the Maya and Aztec.
In pre-Columbian Central and South America, the jaguar was a symbol of power and strength. Among the Andean cultures, a jaguar cult disseminated by the early Chavín culture became accepted over most of what is today Peru by 900 BC. The later Moche culture of northern Peru used the jaguar as a symbol of power in many of their ceramics.
In Mesoamerica, the Olmec—an early and influential culture of the Gulf Coast region roughly contemporaneous with the Chavín—developed a distinct “were-jaguar” motif of sculptures and figurines showing stylised jaguars or humans with jaguar characteristics. In the later Maya civilization, the jaguar was believed to facilitate communication between the living and the dead and to protect the royal household. The Maya saw these powerful felines as their companions in the spiritual world, and a number of Maya rulers bore names that incorporated the Mayan word for jaguar (b’alam in many of the Mayan languages). The Aztec civilization shared this image of the jaguar as the representative of the ruler and as a warrior. The Aztecs formed an elite warrior class known as the Jaguar Knights. In Aztec mythology, the jaguar was considered to be the totem animal of the powerful deity Tezcatlipoca.
The jaguar and its name are widely used as a symbol in contemporary culture. It is the national animal of Guyana, and is featured in its coat of arms. The flag of the Department of Amazonas, a Colombian department, features a black jaguar silhouette pouncing towards a hunter. The jaguar also appears in banknotes of Brazilian real. The jaguar is also a common fixture in the mythology of many contemporary native cultures in South America, usually being portrayed as the creature which gave humans the power over fire.
Jaguar is widely used as a product name, most prominently for a British luxury car brand. The name has been adopted by sports franchises, including the NFL‘sJacksonville Jaguars and the Mexican soccer club Chiapas F.C. The crest of Argentina‘s national federation in rugby union features a jaguar; however, because of a historic accident, the country’s national team is nicknamed Los Pumas. In the spirit of the ancient Mayan culture, the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City adopted a red jaguar as the first official Olympic mascot.
Jaguars in Mesoamerican cultures
The representation of jaguars in Mesoamerican cultures has a long history, with iconographic examples dating back to at least the mid-Formative period of Mesoamerican chronology. The jaguar (Panthera onca) is an animal with a prominent association and appearance in the cultures and belief systems of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies. Quick, agile, and powerful enough to take down the largest prey in the jungle, the jaguar is the largest of the big cats in the Americas, and one of the most efficient and aggressive predators. Endowed with a spotted coat and well adapted for the jungle, hunting either in the trees or water, making it one of the few felines tolerant of water, the jaguar was, and remains, revered among the indigenous Americans who live closely with the jaguar.
Olmecs, jaguars, and the “were-jaguar”
The Olmec civilization was first defined as a distinctive art style at the turn of the nineteenth century. The various sculpture, figurines, and celts from what now is recognized as the Olmec heartland on the southern Gulf Coast, reveal that these people knew their jungle companions well and incorporated them into their mythology.
In the surviving Olmec archaeological record, jaguars are rarely portrayed naturalistically, but rather with a combination of feline and human characteristics. These felineanthropomorphic figures may range from a human figure with slight jaguar characteristics to depictions of shamanistic transformations in the so-called transformative pose, kneeling with hands on knees, to figures that are nearly completely feline.
One of the most prominent, distinctive, and enigmatic Olmec designs to appear in the archaeological record has been the “were-jaguar”. Seen not only in figurines, the motif also may be found carved into jade “votive axes” and celts, engraved onto various portable figurines of jade, and depicted on several “altars”, such as those at La Venta. Were-jaguar babies are often held by a stoic, seated adult male.
The were-jaguar figure is characterized by a distinctive down-turned mouth with fleshy lips, almond-shaped eyes, and a cleft head similar – it is said – to that of the male jaguar which has a cleft running vertically the length of its head.
It is not known what the were-jaguar represented to the Olmec, and it may well have represented different things at different times.
Jaguars and the Maya
Integration of the jaguar into the sacred and secular realms of the Maya is proven in the archaeological record. The Maya, whose territory spanned the Yucatán Peninsula all the way to the Pacific coast ofGuatemala, was a literate society who left documentation of their lives (mostly the lives of the aristocracy) and belief system in the form of bas-relief sculpture on temples, stelae, and pottery. Often depicted on these artifacts are the gods the Maya revered and it is no coincidence that these gods often have jaguar attributes. As stated earlier, the jaguar is said to have the ability to cross between worlds, and for the Maya daytime and nighttime represented two different worlds. The living and the earth are associated with the day, and the spirit world and the ancestors are associated with the night. As the jaguar is quite at home in the nighttime, the jaguar is believed to part of the underworld; thus, “Maya gods with jaguar attributes or garments are underworld gods” (Benson 1998:64). One such god is Xbalanque, one of the Maya Hero Twins who descended to the underworld, and whose entire body is covered with patches of jaguar skin. Another is God L, who is “the primary lord of the underworld” and often is shown with a jaguar ear or jaguar attire, and atop a jaguar throne (Benson 1998: 64-65). Not only is the underworld associated with the ancestors, but it also is understood as, where plants originate. In addition, the Maya’s source of fresh water comes from underground pools in the porous limestone that makes up the Yucatán, called cenotes. These associations with water and plants further reinforce the notion of the jaguar as a god of fertility.
The jaguar is further associated with vegetation and fertility by the Maya with what is known as the Waterlily jaguar, which is depicted as having water lilies sprouting from its head (Benson 1998:64-67).
No doubt, the jaguar’s brilliant coat made it quite desirable, however, not all were allowed to don the jaguar pelt as it became the identification of the ruling class for the Maya. Not only did Maya kings wear jaguar pelts, but they also adopted the jaguar as part of their ruling name, as a symbol of their might and authority. One such ruling family to incorporate the jaguar into their name is known as, Jaguar Paw, who ruled the Maya city of Tikal in the fourth century. Jaguar Paw I was ousted by central Mexicans from Teotihuacán, and it was not until late in the fifth century that the Jaguar Paw family returned to power (Coe 1999: 90). Other Maya rulers to incorporate the jaguar name include, Scroll Jaguar, Bird Jaguar, and Moon Jaguar, just to name a few (Coe 1999: 247-48). In addition to the ruling class, the jaguar also was associated with warriors and hunters. Those who excelled in hunting and warfare often adorned themselves with jaguar pelts, teeth, or claws and were “regarded as possessing feline souls” (Saunders 1998: 26).
Archeologists have found a jar in Guatemala, attributed to the Maya of the Late Classic Era (600-900 AD), which depicts a musical instrument that has been reproduced and played. This instrument is astonishing in at least two respects. First, it is the only stringed instrument known in the Americas prior to the introduction of European musical instruments. Second, when played, it produces a sound virtually identical to a jaguar’s growl. A sample of this sound is available at the Princeton Art Museum website.
Tehuantl (variously rendered) means “jaguar” in Nahuatl while tepec means “hill”. The name refers to a particular hill in southern Mexico which is believed to have been an important shrine in the jaguar cult throughout several eras of Mesoamerican history. Subsequently, the name also was applied to the isthmus in southern Mexico upon which the hill lies, as well as to the gulf on the Pacific shore of the isthmus.For those who resided in or near the tropical jungle, the jaguar was well known and became incorporated into the lives of the inhabitants. The jaguar’s formidable size, reputation as a predator, and its evolved capacities to survive in the jungle made it an animal to be revered. The Olmec and the Maya witnessed this animal’s habits, adopting the jaguar as an authoritative and martial symbol, and incorporated the animal into their mythology. The jaguar stands today, as it did in the past, as an important symbol in the lives of those who coexist with this feline.
Jaguars and shamans
The jaguar also is important for shamans who often associate the jaguar as a spirit companion or nagual, which will protect the shamans from evil spirits and while they move between the earth and the spirit realm. In order for the shamans to combat whatever evil forces may be threatening, or for those who rely on the shamans for protection, it is necessary for the shamans to transform and cross over to the spirit realm. The jaguar is often as a nagual because of its strength, for it is necessary that the shamans “dominate the spirits, in the same way as a predator dominates its prey” (Saunders 1998:30). The jaguar is said to possess the transient ability of moving between worlds because of its comfort both in the trees and the water, the ability to hunt as well in the nighttime as in the daytime, and the habit of sleeping in caves, places often associated with the deceased ancestors. The concept of the transformation of the shaman is well documented in Mesoamerica and South America and is in particular demonstrated in the various Olmec jaguar transformation figures(Diehl, p. 106).