Posted on 19 November 2014
The pantheon of gods worshipped by the Olmecs was the root from which more well known religions of the Aztecs, Maya and other later cultures sprang. For example, the Olmec deity known as the “Feathered Serpent” became the Aztecan Quetzalcoatl and the Mayan Kukulkan. Descendant of spirits such as the Olmec Dragon, the Maize God and the Bird Monster can be seen throughout Mesoamerica. But the most powerful and mysterious god in the Olmec pantheon was the Were-Jaguar.
Represented as half-human, half-jaguar, the Were-Jaguar symbolized Olmec strength and power; Were-Jaguar statues and artifacts routinely represent Olmec victories over their enemies. Neighboring societies would frighten their children with tales about the vicious Were-Jaguars who would come to capture them for blood sacrifices. If you believed those stories, Olmec warriors blessed by the Were-Jaguar were given control over the more earthly kind of jaguar, and the fierce jungle cats would fight side-by-side with their Olmec masters.
In reality, this story was mostly like an embellishment on the fact that Olmec warrior routinely wore dried jaguar skins into battle – sometimes with the heads still intact. The Were-Jaguar was not only a powerful War god, but also had dominion over the rain. In that way, the Were-Jaguar symbolized both life and death, and was one of the central fixtures of Olmec society.
Later artifacts show a pattern of Olmec figures offering up baby Were-Jaguars, as if for sacrifice. But what would make such a fierce civilization sacrifice their most powerful ruling spirit? And did that sacrifice have anything to do with the disappearance of the Olmec? While we do not know for sure, there are few interesting later development that might shed light. Because while other Olmec gods reappear in the pantheons of the later Mesoamerican societies, the Were-Jaguar does not – at least in the same form. For the Aztecs, the Were-Jaguar becomes subsidiary to Tezcatlipoca, the God of the NIght Sky. But why the night sky? What power does the night sky hold over a jaguar? Also, around the same time, the legend of the Nahual became more prominent. These were creatures that had the power to change from from human to jaguar and back again.
Students of the Olmec, remember this lesson. You can derive power from wrapping yourself in the skins of something with great strength. But beware that your second skin doesn’t become a prison, that the story you tell yourself to create strength doesn’t ultimately make you vulnerable. Remember that eventually, you will have to stand on your own, with no other person, power or god holding you up.