Lord of the Maya Underworld

The jaguar was the most powerful animal in the ancient Maya world. It’s not surprising that it played a prominent role in mythology and kingship. Piecing together the interpretations of several scholars, mythically, K’inich Ajaw, the Sun god, created the jaguar to represent him in the world. He gave him the color of his power (reddish-orange) and the voice of thunder (the voice of the sun), and entrusted him to watch over his creation. 

Each night, when K’inich Ajaw descended into the “West Door” and entered Xibalba he ruled as “Jaguar God of the Underworld,” the name that scholars gave him. In Maya art and inscriptions he represents the night sun and darkness. He’s often shown as paddling other gods through the waterways of Xibalba in a canoe. In these representations, he became known as “Jaguar Paddler.” During the day, he was considered “Lord of the Middleworld.” As a symbol of hunting and war, he was “Waterlily Jaguar,” shown wearing a waterlily on his head and a sacrificial decapitation neck-scarf. All his personifications, including “White Owl Jaguar” and “Baby Jaguar,” were patron gods, different ones for different polities, depending on the preference of the ruler.

As a symbol of the sun’s power, only kings wore jaguar pelts. These could be the complete pelt including the head, the body-skin only, a helmet covered with pelt or tufts of fur adorning wristlets, capes, belts, loincloths and sandals. A clue for scholars, when a bit of jaguar tail was used as a headdress ornament, the wearer’s name included Balam, “Jaguar.” It turned out, many headdresses depicted in Maya art provided the full name of the wearer. When a king sat on a throne adorned with a jaguar pelt it was understood that he represented K’inich Ajaw, the Sun-eyed Lord. 

Maya kings went to war with their patron-deities. The kings engaged in battle to demonstrate that their patron was the more powerful. An example is illustrated on Tikal Lintel 3 of Temple 1 (scroll down). In 695 A.D. Tikal defeated Calakmul in a major battle. Calakmul’s enormous palanquin, a wooden platform carried on the shoulders of many men (perhaps slaves), was called “Jaguar Place.” Riding on it, above the seated ruler, was Yajaw Maan, “Five Bloodletter God,” the Calakmul patron deity, an effigy of a huge jaguar with claws outstretched standing high above a throne where the Tikal king, Jasaw Chan K’awiil, sat in regal splendor wearing an enormous headdress. Scholars believe the effigy was taken to Tikal in a triumphal parade where a temple was built for “him.” The king effectively “domesticated” him and acquired his power, thereby winning the respect of his people for the added protection the deity would afford.  

For the ancient Maya and most indigenous cultures, the primary concern was with the within of things, their spirit, because that was the source of power. It’s why every element and force in nature from hurricanes to mosquitoes, had a god. And everyday affairs went well or poorly depending on the divinely appointed ruler’s ability to negotiate with them. When a commoner saw his king parading on a palanquin wearing a jaguar pelt, it wasn’t just the skin of an animal being worn as a costume. The pelt itself endowed him with the power of the sun, power over life and death, not just for all who witnessed it, but for the world.  

Unlike the panthers in Africa, jaguars have black spots in their rosettes. And some jaguars are completely black. They range from northern Mexico to northern Argentina, living mostly in tropical forest. These lonely hunters are more active at night, prefer places near water with dense forest coverage and unlike other felines are as agile in the water as well as up trees. Their bite is also the most powerful among felines, killing their prey, usually by the neck, in a single bite.

Parade Of The Captured Jaguar Palanquin At Tikal

Excerpt From Jaguar Sun (pp. 125-126)

Jaguar heads emerged from the smoke of numerous censers, one on each corner of the swaying palanquin. Behind them, red-painted dwarfs stood on the pelts with their backs to us, holding censers. Painted or embroidered on their white capes was the face of Tlaloc, the storm god of Teotihuacan, reminding me that this was a commemoration as well as a victory celebration. The white skulls hanging from the dwarf’s belts sent a chill through me. I wouldn’t allow myself to think that they belonged to my father or brothers, so I looked down at the platform and the men too numerous to count who bore it on their shoulders. In front of the dwarfs there were two more little men, similarly attired and also holding censers, except that they wore wreaths of parrot feathers. 

The Divine Lord Jasaw Chan K’awiil himself, sat on a jaguar pelt with its head hanging down the side. He grasped the K’awiil, god of abundance, scepter in his right hand and let the god’s serpent foot rest on his thigh. The other hand grasped a long, red-painted fabric bundle which, because of the stone face sewed on the side, I took to be either his or a captured god-bundle. Rising well above his headdress and the enormous spray of quetzal feathers with the face of the sun god prominent in the middle, the snarling patron of Calakmul, Yajaw Maan, looked like a bigger and more menacing version of Underworld Jaguar. Like him, his orange and black arms were extended, but he grasped a black staff tied with white knots in the manner of Tikal’s sacred headband. The staff, standing at least the height of three men with a snarling jaguar head at the top, told us that he now held the office accorded to a patron of Tikal. 

From such a distance, and with ear ornaments and feathers attached to his headdress, I couldn’t see the ruler’s face. Suddenly, I needed to see it—to see his eyes. If I was right about where the palanquin would stop and he would step off, I saw a chance to get closer. Torches had been stacked high on both sides of the palace steps and there were warriors standing ready to light them and hand them out. 

I went down the back steps, ran around the backs of the shrines and the ball court and waited in one of the walkways where the torches were stacked. I waited and waited. Then, when the warriors began lighting the torches and passing them along so every warrior on the plaza floor would have one, I approached and asked if they needed help. Clearly they did. They couldn’t light and hand them out fast enough. I gathered up torches, held them one at a time to be lit, and passed them on. With the torches all handed out, and with the plaza looking like a city on fire, I was able to stand with a torch of my own as the palanquin passed about thirty paces in front of me.  

The Tikal ruler was younger than I expected, not much older than me. Keeping his gaze forward with a blank expression and relaxed posture, he seemed to say he deserved to be treated like a god. 

The bearers stopped and set the platform down gently, being careful to keep it level. The dwarfs, as revered beings sent by the sky gods to honor and assist rulers, approached their master. One of them held out a long red pillow to receive the scepter. Another took his embroidered, pearl-studded tobacco bag, while the two behind them held their torches high to keep the flames well away from the enormous sprays of quetzal feathers that, when he stood, framed his body and towered the height of a man over his head. Considering the weight he carried—in addition to the headdress of stacked sun god masks and heavy jade ear ornaments, a long pectoral of jade stones that rested on a cape of shell-plates, a carved jade head the size of a fist that hung from his belt, two more jade ancestor faces strapped to his legs and ankles and jade tubes in his ears—it was a wonder that he could even stand.


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

One Comment on “Jaguar

  1. Pingback: A Bit of Perfection | Contemplative Photography

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