The Maya word for Jaguar (Panthera Onca) is Bahlam or B’alam.
Also called Tigre in Spanish, jaguars are the largest cat species in the Americas and they are the third largest cat in the world, after tigers and lions.
They can grow up to 185 cm and can weigh over 200 pounds (190 kg). They have distinctive black rosettes on their body. Occasionally, they are born with pure black coats but, despite the difference, they are the same species.
In the wild they are known to live about 11-12 years but have been known to live up to 20.
They move mostly at night when they hunt. Their eyes are like golden orbs adapted for low light and glow in the dark.
A male home range covers 30 to 40 sq km whereas the home ranges of females cover about 10 sq km.
Jaguars roar back and forth to each other, although most commonly they make low, raspy grunting noises.
Eighty five different species are known to be consumed by jaguars including peccaries, deer, tapir, monkeys, snakes and birds.
Although very dangerous, jaguars rarely attack people. It mostly happens when a female fears for her cubs safety.
The Jaguar in the Maya World
Probably the most feared and revered beast in Mesoamerica, jaguar occupies the top level of the food chain.
The ancient Maya thought that at night the sun, as it slips into the underworld, would transform into a jaguar. A powerful predator, the animal was also associated with warriors and hunters, and became a symbol of the might and authority of the rulers.
As jaguars were the most powerful and dangerous animals in the rainforest; the kings of the rainforest, Maya rulers desired the power and spirit of the jaguar as they also ruled as kings, but of the people.
You will often see rulers wearing jaguar pelt (skin), or jaguar pelt is laid out on their thrones or in their tombs. Even objects owned by royalty often show the black spots of the jaguar painted on them.
Many Maya rulers included the name of the jaguar in their royal title.
One of the earliest kings of Tikal was called Foliated-Jaguar, whereas the city of Yaxchilan had a long line of ‘Jaguars’ rulers: Shield Jaguar, Bird Jaguar I (378-389 AD), Bird Jaguar II (ca 467 AD), Knot-eye Jaguar I (508-518 AD), Knot-eye Jaguar II (ca 564 AD), Bird Jaguar III (629-669 AD), Shield Jaguar II (681-742 AD), Bird Jaguar IV (752-768 AD), and Shield Jaguar III (769-800 AD).
How to write and pronounce the Maya word for Jaguar
In Maya hieroglyphs, the word for jaguar could be written several ways:
as a logogram representing the entire word
or phonetically using the signs for the syllables b’a, la and ma
but also using combinations of the logogram with syllabic signs and phonetic complements