by Marian Blue

Monumental ruins prove that the Yucatán Peninsula has been home to people for about a thousand years. Those ruins contain elaborate jaguar imagery, testifying to the fact that jaguars shared the forest and prowled the people's imaginations. Admired for its hunting prowess and strength, feared for the same reasons, the elusive jaguar came to represent beauty, power, cunning, and mystery entwined in rituals and stories.

Spread the jaguar's skin, say some Maya, and you spread the heavens of a starry night. Yet in some stories, the jaguar prowled the heavens in day as well.

According to one Maya myth, it was a supernatural being, Jaguar Sun, who rose each day in the east and prowled west, aging along the course, until finally plunging into the darkness of the west. Then Jaguar Sun fights the Lords of Xibalba (the Underworld) all night. Through his strength and cunning, Jaguar Sun wins the right to rise each day in the East.

Thus Jaguar Sun dominates both day and night.

Such duality courses through fable, myth, and fact about the jaguar. Both fear and admiration spark jaguar stories, but at least one story recognizes why this third largest cat in the world doesn't have the reputation of "man-killer."

As god created people out of mud, jaguar, curious, watched. God didn't want jaguar to know how this was done, so he sent jaguar to the river to fetch water, using a leaky calabash to fill a jar. God figured to finish people by the time jaguar returned. At the river, as jaguar was mindlessly scooping water with the leaky calabash, frog advised patching the holes with mud. Very quickly, jaguar filled the jug and returned to the god who had finished 13 of the people and 12 arms; god was in the process of making a dog.

Jaguar said the dog looked tasty.

God said the dog was to serve people and that the arms were to teach jaguar respect.

When the jaguar boasted superiority, god made jaguar stand in the distance, and one of the men harm the jaguar in the paw. The jaguar, after the human bandaged the paw, still claimed the dog as a good meal.

This time, the man sent the dog after the jaguar who ran up a tree to escape; the human wounded its paw again. That's how Jaguar learned to leave humans alone.

In spite of this story, the jaguar's powerful hunting skills strike fear and envy in people's hearts. But although these powers are alluring, the jaguar teaches that people should never try to be what they aren't, as in the story of the possum who asked the jaguar to be godfather to her son.

Jaguar, to be a good godfather, took little possum hunting at the waterhole. Jaguar leapt on a very large animal. The possum and jaguar ate their fill. Later the little possum took his mother to the waterhole where the little possum leapt upon a very large animal, but the animal simply shook himself and threw the little possum off into the mud. The little possum called his mother for help, but when she came to him, she, too, was trapped, and they both died.

Jaguar stories also teach that power, by itself, is not enough.

Three jaguars were dying of hunger but didn't want to look for food. Rabbit asked, "Why are you complaining so, my friends? What of your claws and fangs?"

The jaguars protested against the work of hunting.

Rabbit offered to carry the jaguars into the forest if they would climb into a net. Once they were in the net, rabbit tied it shut, then found a long green guava stick and beat the jaguars. "You are built like great hunters, but you are lazy beasts."

Thus the jaguar can be wise and foolish, powerful and weak.

Other contradictions stalk the stories as well. For instance, while The Jaguar Sun has the wisdom and mystery of day and night, life and death, other stories give a jaguar deity the power to eat the sun.

One Maya story says that the end of the earth will come when jaguars ascend from the underworld to eat the sun and moon, maybe the universe; an eclipse will foreshadow this final event.

Sometimes this has almost happened, but the people made noises, singing and honoring the gods until, appeased, their Jaguar Sun reappeared.

Perhaps the stories and details about the jaguar are contradictory in part because people themselves are contradictory. Sometimes humans protect the jungle and share in its bounty. Sometimes people foolishly take more than is needed for food, consuming their environment - maybe even themselves.

What could happen to make a being - jaguar or human - consume itself and its world? Perhaps the answer is in your mirror. But that is another story...

Mayan mural sections found on the walls of Temple of the Fescoes of Bonampak
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