The mythical Jaguar, biggest feline of Americas

Courtesy of the authors

Liana John*

It is easy to see a beast as a link between life and death, but the mythical jaguar goes far beyond and closes the circle by connecting death with life.

Talismans for the newborn

Among the Tupinambas of Brazil, when a male child was born, the father would cut the umbilical cord with his teeth and take the baby to the river for a bath. Then the father would flatten the baby’s nose with his thumb and place it in a small hammock, hung with jaguar claws, beside a small bow and some arrows, so that the child would be courageous and eager to fight.

Protection of virgins

A relationship to the jaguar is also present in some female rites of passage, although much more subtly and often associated with sexuality and fertility. The onset of menstruation separates the woman’s world into childhood and maturity. From one moment to the next, she is able to have children, whether or not she is ready to stop playing games, get married and face motherhood. In many societies, special rituals celebrate this passage by secluding the girl that she was, followed by coming-out festivities for the young woman that she has become. Among the Uru-eu-wau-wau of Rondônia, the girl is kept in the tribal hut after the first menstruation. She does not take a bath for over a month and oil is rubbed on her body. When she menstruates again, she tells her mother, who tells her father and the father spreads the news throughout the village. The girl leaves her hammock and is bathed by an aunt. Brazil nuts are prepared for the men to shuck. The men of the family sing and fetch water from the river to cook the nuts. Other men of the village prepare arrows and paintings. The women and the girl cook the nuts, and the girl is given presents to adorn herself, among which are bracelets and chains of capybara teeth and of jaguar teeth.

Initiation of a young shaman

Like death. This is how the Mamaindê Indians (Nhambiquara of Rondônia) describe a shaman’s initiation. The novice shaman must go to the forest alone, where he may be beaten with a club or struck by arrows from spirits of the dead. He
faints. He then receives from these spirits adornments and things of magic – a female-spirit in the form of a jaguar.
The shaman sees her as a woman and she goes everywhere with him from that time on. When he cures people, she sits by his side and helps him. But she is jealous and may beat him if he sleeps around. That is why shamans limit their sexual activities and also keep a diet that is different from that of most people.
For the Halotésu (Nhambiquaras of the Cerrado), the novice shaman goes hunting and sees animals as humans. An ancestral spirit
calls him brother-in-law and gives him a female-spirit to marry, reciting her name for him to hear. He is then accompanied by a female-spirit everywhere he goes, but only he can see her. She is the source of his power. He has a son by her whom he sees as a child but others describe as a jaguar. For other shamans, the power of the jaguar is also represented by a necklace of jaguar teeth, given to novices by older shamans, with whom they learn the chants and cures by blowing smoke or suction of diseases and pestilence. The novice must also pass a survival test of one night in the forest, alone and unarmed. The older shaman keeps an eye on him and sends dangerous animals such as serpents and jaguars to frighten him. The neophyte must deal with these animals as if they were human and talk to them to keep from being attacked. If he does not succeed and runs away, he cannot become a shaman. And even after passing the test, he may lose his state of being a shaman, if he stops talking to the animals or cannot tolerate the restrictions imposed on shamans. In this case, he runs the risk of becoming a victim of vindictive spirits of the dead. If he does behave like his relatives, they may become his enemies, causing accidents and sickness.

* This post was extracted from the bilingual Portuguese/English book “Jaguar, O Rei das Américas”, written by journalist Liana John and her husband, agronomist Evaristo de Miranda and just published by Metalivros. The authors discuss the environmental and cultural importance of the jaguar, the biggest feline of the Americas.