Standing figure with were-jaguar face

1200–400 BCE
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General Description

The carved stone images Olmec kings wore on their foreheads and chests projected supernatural power. Kings also possessed small sculptures, such as this carved jadeite figurine that depicts a standing figure. The facial features are common among Olmec figurines and represent the were-jaguar motif, which depicts a human-jaguar supernatural figure with exaggerated down-turned mouth, cleft head, and almond-shaped eyes. The term were-jaguar refers to the merging of human and jaguar characteristics, an analogy with the term werewolf. Although interpretations of the were-jaguar figure vary, the incorporation of animal attributes suggests that the Olmec held animals in high regard and may have attempted to channel the power of such creatures. This image may represent the king's own transformation from a human into a magical animal.

The figure stands with arms across the abdomen and grasps a small object in his hands, likely a celt. Ground stone axe heads or celts made of precious jadeite and serpentine were important in Olmec ritual. Great numbers of them were placed in burial caches, and when planted vertically, celts defined the central axis mundi, or World Tree. The inclusion of this sacred object may represent the ruler's connection to the supernatural world. Small sculptures like this stranding figure also accompanied the king on his journey through death to the otherworld.

Adapted from

  • Carol Robbins, Label text [1968.20], A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.

  • Carol Robbins, Label text [1968.32], A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.

  • F. Kent Reilly, PhD, DMA unpublished material [1973.17], 1992.