The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Jaguars are ubiquitously identified with witchcraft, sorcery, magic, and shamanism throughout Central and South America. This reflects indigenous belief, existing long before European contact. (European-styled Latin American witchcraft exists too; the most typical familiars are cats, bats, and black dogs. Of course, black panthers/jaguars may be understood as supernaturally giant black cats.)
In this region, jaguars are simultaneously the most feared and revered of animals, playing a very prominent spiritual and magical role. The jaguar is the largest feline in the Western Hemisphere and is considered the most successful predator. Jaguar imagery pervades Central and South America from the Andes Mountains to the swamps of Eastern Mexico. The animal’s range once extended from Argentina north through the southern United States. The jaguar remains the most powerful jungle predator of Central and Upper South America, although its range has been drastically curtailed because of habitat loss, and also because it has been relentlessly hunted as a competitive species, for sport and for its beautiful fur.
The jaguar embodies Earth’s untamed, primal powers. Solitary, secretive creatures, jaguars are comfortable in all possible realms: they kill monkeys in trees, tap their tails into water to attract fish, jump into water to catch caimans, and hunt all sorts of other creatures on land. Jaguars cross boundaries: they are the biggest, fiercest, smartest, most mysterious animals in the jungle. They are believed to cross boundaries of species as well: many legends tell of liaisons between male jaguars and human women.
In Amazonian mythology, the jaguar is considered the Master of All Animals. Jaguars are often portrayed as the central image in depictions, adored by other animals.
The animal manifests in two varieties. The more common, a golden cat with black spots (really rosettes) bears a very strong resemblance to the leopards of the Eastern Hemisphere. Jaguars may also have black fur. (If one looks closely in the light, the rosettes may still be observed.) Completely black jaguars and leopards are both known as black panthers.
The Mayans associated jaguars with the night sky, especially the black panther. Spotted jaguars symbolize the stars in the night sky. Their golden color represents the sun, while their glowing eyes mirror the moon.
Tezcatlipoca, “Lord of the Smoking Mirror,” Aztec Patron of Sorcerers has a jaguar as his nagual or shadow soul. Jaguars’ shining eyes are identified with mirrors and Tezcatlipoca sometimes travels in the guise of his sacred creature. Among Tezcatlipoca’s many manifestations is one as Tepeyollotli—“the Jaguar Who Lives in the Heart of the Mountain,” Earth’s core. According to Aztec belief, supernal jaguars live in caverns beneath the Earth, occasionally emerging as the need arises. A modern Lacandon Mayan prophecy warns that life as we know it will end when these jaguars emerge from their underground cavern home to devour the sun and moon.
Aztec and Mayan shamans specifically identify themselves with jaguars but the association permeates virtually all shamanic cultures throughout the continent. Shamans dress as jaguars. The Mayan word “balam” signifies both “magician-priest” and “jaguar.” The word for “jaguar” also indicates “shaman” in various unrelated indigenous languages. The jaguar protects and teaches the shaman. Many believe that the shaman actually transforms into a jaguar. Real jaguars are also believed to act as jungle shamans. In some tropical rainforest communities, snakes are believed to serve as these jaguar’s familiars.
Jaguars are also profoundly associated with various Amazonian psychoactive plants including ayahuasca. Jaguar motifs decorate paraphernalia needed for preparing brews and powders from these plants. It’s been suggested that real jaguars may chew hallucinogenic vines twined around jungle trees in the manner that domestic cats sometimes chew grass. Perhaps the jaguar literally taught shamans about these plants. (This may or may not be true but the concept isn’t absurd: reindeer have been known to eat the fungus fly agaric: see BOTANICALS: Amanita Muscaria.)
Amazonian shamans still identify with jaguars. Jaguars remain among the most popular subjects of Mexican mask makers, frequently formed with mirrored eyes.