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Veracruz (Mexico)

Were-jaguar with half-mask

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Object Details

Culture

Veracruz (Mexico)

Date

150 BC–AD 250

Medium

Ceramic

Dimensions

12 x 7 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches (30.5 x 19.1 x 24.1 cm)

Credit Line

Acquired through the Membership Purchase Fund

Object
Number

73.013.004

Were-Jaguars, half-human and half-jaguar creatures, were depicted in much of Olmec art. It is though(…)

Were-Jaguars, half-human and half-jaguar creatures, were depicted in much of Olmec art. It is thought that shamans or shaman-kings were equated with jaguars in early Mesoamerica, much as they are today in some parts of Mexico and South America. The supernatural jaguar of the Olmec seems to have been associated with rain and fertility. The Great Jaguar, king of beasts in the jungles of Central America, was thus the ancestor of the royal human lineage through his role as rain-deity. The shaman’s transformation into a jaguar through his wearing of the skin of the beast is represented on this Olmec ceramic vessel, from Veracruz. His mask, with lolling tongue and pointed fang, clearly only covers half his face, showing that he is in the process of change. This hollow vessel may have been used to contain a potent hallucinogenic liquid made from plants that helped the shaman enter a trance and complete his transformation. The personage represented on the vessel might also have been noble. He wears ornate ear-pendants and a woven loincloth with a jade pendant suspended from its bottom point. (From “A Handbook of the Collection: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art,” 1998)•BRIEF DESCRIPTIONThis effigy jar depicts a figure in a seated position, wearing jewelry and elaborate clothing and a half-mask of a jaguar. This jar could have functioned in shamanistic rituals, potentially holding hallucinogenic substances.WHERE WAS IT MADE?This was made in the Veracruz region of what is now South-Eastern Mexico.HOW WAS IT MADE?The vessel was formed by hand, then the clay was allowed to dry before the designs were carved into the surface. To permanently harden the clay, the vessel was fired in an open pit.HOW WAS IT USED?The effigy jar may have once held liquids used in ritual ceremonies. Notice the handle, reminiscent of a tail, at the back of the jar, and the open mouth of the jar at the top of the figure’s back. The front of the jar depicts a man wearing a mask of a jaguar or a jaguar skin. The jaguar was a potent symbol in the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica that may have represented a powerful rain deity. The jaguar might also have been involved in an origin myth involving a woman and a jaguar, which is depicted in an Olmec stone sculpture. Shamanistic transformation into a jaguar or vice versa is also a prevalent theme in Olmec art.WHY DOES IT LOOK LIKE THIS?Cave paintings found in the Juxlahuaca Cave in Guerrero depict some type of shamanistic event involving a man (perhaps a royal figure) wearing an elaborate costume that included a jaguar skin. This shows that intricate and ornate costumes are an indicator of ritual. Look at what the figure of the jar is wearing: a detailed bottom piece and large earrings. These details might also indicate that the jar was used in rituals and could indicate the status of the figure as a powerful shaman or ruler. Look closely at the face. Half of the face is more human-like, while the other half protrudes more from the surface of the object and is exaggerated in expression. The ear on the jaguar half is also very catlike, and the mouth of both sides is in an open grimace. The jaguar side looks like a mask that the shaman is wearing, or could also be a depiction of a jaguar skin covering part of the face. A less literal interpretation of the jar is that it is depicting a shaman mid-way through a transformation into a jaguar. The fact that the figure is part of a jar that could have held hallucinogenic substances (such as diluted toad venom from a poisonous toad in the area) lends substance to this more imaginative interpretation. The slightly bent forward, leering posture and the face in a mid-growl expression could also point to the element of transformation from human to jaguar, and a feeling of ecstasy or pain involved in the ritual and the transformation.Laura Bigelow ‘12, contributed to this entry.

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