Jaguar Shamans

As seen in this ancient Olmec carving, jaguar sculptures with human features are common in Mexico and South America. Anthropologists say that this type of sculpture always represents a were-jaguar. In South America, the were-jaguar is a legendary creature with an ancient lineage and formidable pedigree. Often, these beings were portrayed as shamans who were favored by the jaguar god. The good ones might hunt for their people when game was scarce and the human hunters could catch nothing, while the bad ones were likely to set themselves up as tyrants, ordering the entire community to cater to their wishes, and dealing out bloody revenge in the shape of a jaguar if anyone resisted.

The idea that people could change into jaguars is bound up with many ancient religions in this area, although it is hard to untangle these connections today. The cultures that these beliefs belong to were decimated too quickly, with little done to record their authentic beliefs before they were fragmented, mixed with Spanish folklore, and largely lost.

However, anthropologists have done a good job of putting together the fragments of folklore, old historical documents, and archaeological evidence to give us a fairly good guess of what was believed about this process before the time of Columbus. The idea of shapeshifting was connected to the Aztec underworld. Traveling to the underworld in dreams and learning shapeshifting there was supposed to eventually transfer over to real life; that is, if it didn't kill you first. The Aztec underworld was thought to be a very dangerous place for the living.

However, though roots of this belief are ancient, you don't have to look at these roots in order to find out something about the jaguar shaman. Even today, there is a widespread belief in these creatures among the remaining South American Indian tribes, gradually eroding away under the pressure of westernization, but resistant to entirely dying out. Furthermore, some of the rural whites have also adopted these beliefs, imparting them with the flavor of Spanish folklore.

Today, legends about shamans turning into jaguars are found in the same nations that have urban legends about hitchhiking were-jaguars or were-jaguars used as an instrument of the secret police.

Go to the Library
Find out more about jaguar shamans by reading page 25-26 of the book Transformations by Time-Life Books.
Jaguar shamans are a major theme in the novels The Jaguar Princess by Clare Bell and The Jaguar Knights by Dave Duncan.

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