I’ve written five articles about the research for the novel, The Jaguar’s House. They can be found by clicking on the category: Research, or looking for the title; Travels in the Mayan Yucatan.
The Animal Gods
The jaguar is the most feared and the most revered of the primary animal gods of the Maya. Their obvious position at the top of the food chain made them power animals extraordinaire: chiefs and kings wore jaguar pelts, and sandals made from pelts; head-dresses were fashioned from jaguar heads and necklaces were made of jaguar teeth; the pelts were used for cushions as the symbol of the enthroned lord, and their stone thrones were often shaped like the jaguar.
Besides expressing an individual’s power, the jaguars other value to the Maya was as a shamanic creature; in states of ritual transformation, humans changed themselves into jaguar. One of the most important beliefs in the area of human and nonhuman relationships for the Maya, as well as many other early American peoples, was that each human’s fate was determined by both his birthday and his totem animal—his nagual or guardian spirit that usually took the form of an animal or bird.
There were several ways that the nagual could be identified: ashes were sprinkled outside the place where the child was born so that footprints of the first animal to cross the path were captured.One amusing story from a modern Mayan family was that because bicycle tracks were found outside the house. The child’s nagual was a bicycle.
Another more common manner for determining the spirit was a vision quest when the individual went alone into nature to inquire of the spirits which creature would claim them. A powerful individual who seemed humble but was really fierce might have a jaguar. It was supposed that some people had the power of transforming themselves into their nagual which was particularly true if their nagual happened to be a jaguar, but whether that power did or did not manifest in an individual’s life, the animal was like a second soul , and they often came to resemble one another physically as well as taking on the particular attributes. The individual related to their nagual through conversation, prayer, and awareness to be instructed on the proper use of their attributes for living their lives well, which, for the Maya, translated into life lived in harmony with the gods.Jaguar