The Jaguar

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 New World. They can grow up to 185 cm and 158 kg. Occasionally, they are born with pure black coats but, despite the difference, they are the same species.

Jaguars are very shy and discreet animals. They move mostly at night when they hunt. A male home range covers 30 to 40 sq km whereas the home ranges of females cover about 10 sq km.

Although very dangerous, jaguars rarely attack people. It mostly happens when a female fears for its cubs safety.

The ancient Maya thought that at night the Sun, as it slips into the Underworld, would transform into a Jaguar. Powerful predator, the animal was also associated with warriors and hunters, and it became a symbol of the might and authority of the ruling class.

Many Maya rulers had names incorporating the word for jaguar: 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).

In Maya hieroglyphs, the word for jaguar could be written several ways:

as a logogram representing the entire word

maya logogram for jaguar

or phonetically using the signs for the syllables b’a, la and ma

phonetic maya writting for jaguar

but also using combinations of the logogram with syllabic signs and phonetic complements


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