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Permanent Collection: Art of the Ancient Americas:
Lidded Bowl with Jaguar - Old Man Transformation Figure

Lidded Bowl with Jaguar - Old Man Transformation Figure

Mesoamerica, Highland Guatemala, Maya, Early Classic Period, A.D. 200 - 550. Ceramic, 7 7/8 x 4 5/8 in. diameter (19.7 x 11.6 cm diameter). Gift of Laurence C. and Cora W. Witten II. 1992.15.176

The ancient American peoples almost universally believed in the existence of an "animal spirit companion" for every human being, a concept portrayed with unusual literalness in this early Maya ceramic piece. On one side is an old man and on the other a jaguar, their unity and identical postures representing the two aspects of a single being. The shaman (high priest) typically had the "king of the jungle" as his alter-ego and was believed to transform into this mighty beast during nighttime rituals. This belief illustrates two fundamental aspects of the ancient American world view: the essential flux and interchangeability of states of being, as well as the interdependence and equality of the human and animal realms.

The ancient American universe was dynamic, inexorably alive, and interpenetrating. The shaman was powerful and knowledgeable enough to traverse simultaneous realities, interceding with natural forces, animal spirits, and negative energies to cure illness and discover the causes of ecological, social, and political strife. Thus, this image captures the dual, transformative nature of a truly exceptional person, and is itself thereby exceptional as well. Perhaps this explains the rarity of depictions of the shaman and his animal spirit companion together, a subject so fraught with power as perhaps to be considered dangerous.


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