Jaguar Vessel

The Story of the Jaguar and the Deer

Jaguar Vessel, ca. 1000–1350. Greater Nicoya culture, Costa Rica. Clay, pigment [1969.90]

READING THE ART

Zoom in on the artwork images above and listen to a detailed description here:

This large clay jar is shaped and painted with features of the jaguar, a supreme hunter and the largest big cat in the Americas. The snarling cat face has sharp teeth and small ears, and the jar has a golden color with black patterning like the spotted coat of the jaguar. However, the creature crouches like a human with “hands” on its knees, its bent arms creating the vessel’s handles. And the black designs on the jaguar’s arms, legs, and chest are made up of repeating borders that include many tiny jaguar heads!

The two hind legs and tail of the jaguar form three legs to support the pear-shaped body of the jar. The legs are hollow; they and the mouth all contain small clay balls that rattle when the jar is shaken, making a sound that imitates of the jaguar’s rolling growl.

Click here to listen to the sound of a jaguar’s growl.

  • The side view of the Jaguar Vessel shows the tail used as a third leg to support the body of the jar. The back view shows the pattern of tiny jaguar heads continuing down the tail.
  • The side view of the Jaguar Vessel shows the tail used as a third leg to support the body of the jar. The back view shows the pattern of tiny jaguar heads continuing down the tail.
  • The jaguar's coat has a distinctive pattern of black rosettes formed by spots arranged around a central spot.
  • This detail of the jar's jaguar face shows a better view of its teeth, and the small clay ball in its mouth that creates the rattle sound when the jar is shaken. How does the jar's face compare to that of the real animal?

The Story of the Jaguar and the Deer

The jaguar was the “king of the jungle” in the beliefs of early Central and South American cultures. This story comes from the Maya people of Central America, and shows just one aspect of Jaguar’s character.

Listen to a recording of the story here:

Deer went to look for a place to build himself a house. Jaguar was also out looking for a place to set up a house. He came to the same place Deer had chosen, and thought he would build there also.

The next day Deer came and thoroughly cleared the ground with his antlers. Jaguar came later and said, “It seems somebody is helping me.” Then he stuck some big poles in the ground and set up the framework.

The next day Deer came back and when he saw the framework, he said, “It seems somebody is helping me.” Then he covered the house with branches and made two rooms, one for him and the other one for whomever was helping him.

The next day Jaguar saw that the house was finished. He went in one room and fell asleep. Deer came later and went to sleep in the other room.

One day the two came home at the same time. When they saw each other, Jaguar asked Deer, “Was it you who was helping me?” Deer answered, “Yes, it was me.” Then Jaguar said, “Let’s live together.” “Yes, let’s live together in the same house,” said Deer. They went to sleep.

The following morning Jaguar said, “I’m going hunting, so sweep the floor, and prepare wood and water, because I’ll be hungry when I come back.” Jaguar went to the woods to hunt and got a very large deer. He brought it home and said to his companion, “Let’s eat what I have caught.” But Deer didn’t want to eat; he was very much afraid. He couldn’t sleep all night long on account of fear.

Early the next morning Deer went to the woods and met another, very large jaguar. Later he met a large bull and said to him, “I met a jaguar who was bad-mouthing you.” The bull went looking for the jaguar and found him resting. The bull came up to him slowly, leaped on top of him and gored him. Then Deer went off dragging the dead jaguar. When he got home, he said to his companion, “Let’s eat what I have caught.” Jaguar approached Deer, but he didn’t want to eat; he was very frightened. That night he couldn’t sleep thinking about Deer killing jaguars; and Deer couldn’t sleep thinking about Jaguar killing deer. Both were very frightened.

At midnight as Deer moved his head, his antlers struck the wooden walls of the house. Jaguar and Deer were both frightened by the noise, and both of them ran out of the house without stopping. And so, the deer and the jaguar each went his separate way.

CONNECTING THE CULTURE

The jaguar is well adapted for life in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America. Jaguars are very strong, so move easily through dense undergrowth, climb trees, and swim streams and rivers. They hunt and feed over 80 different animal prey including rodents, birds, fish, crocodiles, and deer.

Many ancient cultures of the Americas considered the jaguar’s ability to live in water and trees, in forests and grasslands, by day and by night, to represent the supernatural ability to cross back and forth between the earthly and spirit worlds. This made the jaguar a powerful spirit companion for shamans, local religious leaders and healers who communicated with the spirit world. The ancient Olmec people of Central America believed in were-jaguars; half-human, half-jaguar creatures with supernatural powers. Legends of the ancient Maya people of Central America explained the spots on the jaguar’s coat as representing the stars and heavens, with solar eclipses caused by the jaguar swallowing the sun.

The jaguar also became a powerful symbol of royalty, authority, and skill in hunting and battle. The nobles and rulers of many ancient cultures of Central and South America justified their royal authority and right to govern by association with the mighty jaguar. One of the highest ranks of elite warriors for the ancient Aztec culture of Mexico were known as Jaguars.

The modern Central American nation of Costa Rica (which means “rich coast” in Spanish) is a varied land of high mountains, thick rainforest, and ocean coastlines on east and west. From around 1000 to 1550, the western Guanacaste-Nicoya region was home to people who traced their origins back to Central Mexico, spoke a dialect of nahuatl (nah-HWAH-tul), the language of that region, and maintained contact with these northern cultures. “Nicoya” is taken from a nahuatl word meaning “country with water on both sides” — the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Caribbean Sea on the east. The Nicoya people produced these distinctive three-legged clay vessels with added animal features, with decoration in orange-red, cream, and black.

  • Jaguars are the third-largest cats in the world, after the tiger and the lion. Their powerful muscles and jaws make them fierce and adaptable hunters in a variety of environments across Central and South America.
  • Jaguars are the third-largest cats in the world, after the tiger and the lion. Their powerful muscles and jaws make them fierce and adaptable hunters in a variety of environments across Central and South America.
  • Jaguars are the third-largest cats in the world, after the tiger and the lion. Their powerful muscles and jaws make them fierce and adaptable hunters in a variety of environments across Central and South America.
  • This Olmec clay vessel depicts a shaman in the process of transforming into a were-jaguar, his face half human and half animal. By taking on the supernatural characteristics of a jaguar, the shaman is protected from evil spirits and becomes able to move between the spirit world and the earthly world.
  • This Olmec clay vessel depicts a shaman in the process of transforming into a were-jaguar, his face half human and half animal. By taking on the supernatural characteristics of a jaguar, the shaman is protected from evil spirits and becomes able to move between the spirit world and the earthly world.
  • The Maya depicted many of their gods and spiritual protectors with jaguar characteristics such as ears, fangs, spots, or tail. Jaguar warriors in painted murals at the palace site at Cacaxtla, Guatemala refer to the rain god Chac; the "red" figure at left holds long darts with water dripping from the ends, and the "blue" figure at right pours water into the rain god's pot.
  • The Maya depicted many of their gods and spiritual protectors with jaguar characteristics such as ears, fangs, spots, or tail. Jaguar warriors in painted murals at the palace site at Cacaxtla, Guatemala refer to the rain god Chac; the "red" figure at left holds long darts with water dripping from the ends, and the "blue" figure at right pours water into the rain god's pot.
  • For the Aztecs of modern Mexico, the jaguar-warrior played an important role in the sacrificial combat rituals held during the spring festival in honor of Xipe Totec, god of war and agriculture and Tlaloc, god of rain. Ancient rituals marking the beginning of the spring rainy season are still
  • For the Aztecs of modern Mexico, the jaguar-warrior played an important role in the sacrificial combat rituals held during the spring festival in honor of Xipe Totec, god of war and agriculture and Tlaloc, god of rain. Ancient rituals marking the beginning of the spring rainy season are still
  • The colors of the map at highlight the varied terrain of Costa Rica and the surrounding Central American region.
  • This map at right focuses in on the Nicoya peninsula on Costa Rica's western Pacific coast.

MATERIALS AND METHODS

Ancient American potters used clay to produce a variety of objects. Clay is basically composed of very finely ground-up rock, left in deposits by rivers or glaciers. By adding water to soften the clay, and wedging or kneading to eliminate air pockets, the clay becomes workable and useful.

The potters’ wheel was unknown in the Ancient Americas, so all pottery was made by hand, using a variety of techniques, including modelling, or pinching the clay into shapes; coiling, or rolling long strands of clay, stacking and smoothing them; slab-work, or rolling flat sheets of clay to cut shaped pieces that are joined together; and molding, or pressing damp clay into a shaped or textured form.

In order to make a jaguar vessel like this, a potter used a combination of techniques. After constructing the basic shape of the vessel by coiling, the potter attached separately modeled legs, tail and face. Carved stamps pressed into the clay provided additional decorative textures, emphasized with colors made from mineral pigments. When complete, the vessel was fired, or baked at high temperatures, often in simple fire pits.

Today’s ceramic artists in Costa Rica and other Central America nations use traditional and modern methods to keep ancient forms alive. One of these, Gregorio Bracamonte of Nicaragua, adds painted decoration to a replica jaguar vessel.


Credits for the Jaguar Vessel