Jaguar and panther

Icons of Power

March 19, 1999

Our remote ape-man ancestors in sub-Saharan Africa were once preyed upon by leopards. It is thus no surprise to find that most human cultures occupying the same territory as large cats have feelings of awe, fear and reverence for these felines, and that even house cats (hunters also) were objects of worship in ancient Egypt. The special place that felines occupy in the human psyche is underscored by the fact that, unless faced with imminent starvation, no known human group uses cats, either large or small, as food. The rare exception to the rule - in which shamans or other tribal leaders consume small amounts of feline flesh to partake of the power of these creatures - merely underlines this attitude.

The art of the pre-Columbian civilisations of the New World is replete with feline imagery, beginning with the earliest complex cultures - Chav!n in Peru and Olmec in Mesoamerica - and ending with the late Inca and Aztec states. Apart from the fully literate Classic Maya and the well-documented Aztec, we can only infer the nature and meaning of these often terrifying icons by means of ethnographic analogy. What did these animals mean to those post-Conquest Native Americans whose way of life has been recorded by anthropologists? And can such meanings be projected back in time and across space to other, now-disappeared cultures known only from archaeological remains? These are the questions that are addressed in this volume of essays.

I hasten to say that this book is not an easy read because its densely detailed contributions, accompanied by an enormous scholarly apparatus, are directed towards an audience of fellow anthropologists and art historians rather than towards natural scientists and the general reader. Yet the contributors have some important things to say, and there is much new material bearing on native culture history in the western hemisphere.

In a cogently argued and wide-ranging introductory essay, Nicholas Saunders examines "the symbolic associations in pre-Columbian America between large predatory cats, warfare, hunting, shamanism and social status" through these millennia. Much of past thought on this subject stems from an early archaeological interest in the Olmec and Chav!n art styles, in which feline symbolism is pervasive, and from the suggestion by anthropologist Peter Furst that some Olmec images represent a human/jaguar shamanic transformation similar to that found among tropical forest tribes of the Amazon and Orinoco drainages. Throwing cold water on this approach as too "formalistic", Saunders reiterates the position held by art historian George Kubler that while symbolic forms may remain static over long periods, the meanings change so that no meanings may be safely projected backwards in time. In this vein, Saunders suggests that the European conquest invested native feline symbols with totally different semantic referents, so that one can use post-1492 ethnographic analogy only with the greatest caution. This theme is taken up in a final essay by George Hamell in his study of "panther" (puma) ideology among the Huron and Wyandot of northeastern North America.

Of course, if Kubler were right, there can be no such thing as survival and continuity in the realm of Native American thought and culture, certainly not past the Conquest. In my mind, this is an over-valuation of the ability of Europeans to wipe out Amerindian traditions and an under-valuation of deeply ingrained modes of thought. I am reminded of the Canadian anthropologist Marius Barbeau, who once tried to credit the spectacular culture of the northwest coast to the introduction of steel tools and beaver symbolism by the Hudson's Bay Company, a position now discredited by all.

In a masterly survey of jaguar symbolism in the Americas (predominantly Latin America), Elizabeth Benson makes the point that so closely identified was this potent and dangerous cat with power - whether shamanic or royal - that icons of this creature can be found in places far beyond its natural range. The jaguar was a symbol of might, and it played a protective and a destructive role in native religious systems. Being an animal equally at home hunting along watercourses, on the jungle floor or in trees, deities with its attributes ruled not only the sky but also the earth, water and the underworld (the Aztec jaguar god Tepeyollotl presided over the inner depths of mountain caves).

Benson's essay concerns itself largely with the high civilisations of the Andes and Mesoamerica, where the evidence is incontrovertible. Less convincing are the data for pre-Columbian Panama, dealt with by Richard Cooke. There, simply because the art styles are far more abstract, it is difficult to pin down the iconography to identifiable animals, let alone specific felidae ; in fact, many of the icons with gnashing teeth appear to be crocodileans rather than cats. Nonetheless, the presence of jaguar teeth, claws and bones in elite graves of the spectacular Coclé culture (c. AD 600-900) suggests that high-ranking chiefs took on the accoutrements of power by means of feline relics. The same degree of abstraction is present in the cultures of Colombia, as seen in the contribution by Anne Legast, but the terrifying polychromed stone monument from San Agust!n, pictured on the dust jacket, leaves little doubt that this god with gnashing tusks is an anthropomorphic jaguar.

Alana Cordy-Collins examines a series of strange feline representations on stirrup-spout vessels of the Cupisnisque and Moche cultures of the Peruvian coast. On these, the cat is shown with head looking backward, and is significantly placed in association with the San Pedro cactus, a hallucinogenic plant used extensively by contemporary Andean shamans and curers. Cordy-Collins reasonably suggests that what the artist wished to show was not "just" a jaguar, but a shaman in the guise of a jaguar - a reversed or mirror-image animal, not an everyday feline.

Peter J. Roe has probably devoted more effort to placing early Andean art in relation to South American mythology and religious systems as a whole than any other scholar, and his contribution on Amazonian Indian concepts concerning the jaguar is enormously stimulating. Basing himself on fieldwork among the Shipibo of the Upper Amazon and the Waiwai of Guyana, and on the structural approach to mythology pioneered by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roe has come up with a highly complex yet convincing scheme to explain Amazonian human-jaguar relationships.

That jaguar symbolically means "power" is highlighted by an essay by Tom Dillehay, who shows that among the Araucanians of south-central Chile (a region devoid of jaguars), those whose patronymics incorporate the word for this feline occupy the most productive land, while the unfortunates with herbivore and plant names have to content themselves with a smaller slice of the ecological pie.

In the US southwest, James Gunnerson tells us that the puma is the focus of attention, the Pueblo peoples placing it as one of their "Beast Gods", invoked in curing-society rites and by shrines within the Pueblo landscape.

Except by Benson, the Classic Maya are hardly touched upon in these essays. Yet consider this. On March 2, 776, Yax Pac, the 16th king of Copán, dedicated an altar commemorating all of the previous rulers of his city-state by sacrificing 15 jaguars and placing their bodies in a pit beneath the altar. It takes an enormous area of tropical forest to support just one of these great cats, let alone 15 of them. At a moment in Maya history when most of the forest had been felled to support a burgeoning farming population, this is vivid testimony to the lasting concern of Maya shaman kings to associate themselves with the dangerous and beautiful creature that they considered king of beasts.

Michael D. Coe is emeritus professor of anthropology, Yale University, United States.

Icons of Power: Feline Symbolism in the Americas

Editor - Nicholas J. Saunders
ISBN - 0 415 153 1
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £35.00
Pages - 298

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