A jaguar with four eyes features in many South American Indian myths. It represents the gift of second sight possessed by the spirits of darkness and the Underworld. In Brazilian myths of the origin of fire, the jaguar is seen as a culture-hero giving mankind not only fire but their first crafts and especially that of extracting cotton fibre. However, the jaguar is not depicted as the discoverer of fire, but rather as its guardian to whom it was entrusted and who was the first to use it. It does not teach fire-making, which emphasizes its chthonian origins. The jaguar is not a Demiurge but perhaps an ancestor.
Central American Indians thought of four jaguars watching over the four tracks leading to the centre of their villages. This custom may have derived from the ancient Mayan belief that four mythic jaguars at the beginning of time guarded the maize-fields.
During the third Maya-Quiche age, corresponding with the cultivation of food-plots and hence with the pre-eminence of Moon-worship, the jaguar represented the Moon-Earth goddess. ‘In Mayan and Mexican manuscripts the Earth-Moon goddess is normally depicted with jaguar’s claws. It should be observed that the Quiche of Santander-Xecul still call the pot-bellied idols of the archaic period balam [jaguar]’.
A stylized pair of jaguar-jaws symbolizes Heaven on monuments from the Classical period of Central America. During the historic era (from about 1000 ad onwards) jaguar and eagle, as decoration on monuments, stand for ‘the earthly army whose duty it was to nourish the Sun and the Morning Star with the blood and hearts of human sacrifice’.
As an Underworld deity, the jaguar carries a conch-shell on his back, a symbol of his grandmother, the Moon, and, by extension, of birth. Again as an Underworld deity, the jaguar is also lord of the mountains, echoes, wild beasts and message-drums. He was called ‘Heart of the Mountains’.
In the symbolism of earthly and heavenly powers, the jaguar was the counterpoise to the eagle and gave its name to one of the two highest orders of Aztec chivalry, the other being the Eagles.
There are countless examples of the association of jaguar with eagle, as representatives of the mighty powers of Earth and Heaven, in Amerindian tradition. The Aztec emperor accepted the homage of his warriors while seated upon a throne set upon a carpet of eagle-plumes and backed by a jaguar-skin. When males are born into the Tupinamba tribe in Brazil, they are given jaguar-claws and eagle-talons.
However, the Tupinamba regard the jaguar as a sky-god, celestial, looking like a sky-blue dog. Its home is high in the sky. It has two heads to eat the Sun and the Moon - this explains eclipses - and at the end of the world it will come down and eat up mankind.
One might ask whether these two symbolic meanings given to the jaguar are not complementary, the powers of the upper and under worlds coming together to accomplish the final destruction of the world.
Alcide d’Arbigny recorded this myth from the Yurucari in Brazil in his Voyage dans l'Amerique meridionale (Paris, 1884). A human hero, seeking vengeance for the killing of his own family, hunted the last of the jaguars and forced it to climb a tree. Here it begged the Sun and the Moon for help. The Sun ignored the plea, but the Moon gathered the jaguar up and hid it. Thereafter it lived with the Moon and this is why jaguars are nocturnal creatures.
The same beliefs are to be found among countless South American Indian tribes, in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and the Guyanas, especially among the Chane, Uitoto (Colombia), Bakairi (Brazil), Guarani and Tupi (Brazil), Carib, Makusi and Warai of Venezuelan Guyana.