Jaguar and Hummingbird

A Mesoamerican fable credited to the Mayan and Aztec civilizations of Mexico and Guatemala has been passed through generations from ancient times. Like fables told everywhere, it conveys symbols and profound truths that are not immediately apparent to the uninitiated.  Investigating the story, we can see universal facts of a sophisticated and deep philosophy.

According to the story, one day there was a big fire in the forest. All the animals fled in terror in all directions, because it was a very violent fire. A jaguar sat at a distance, passively observing the chaos and panic of the fleeing animals.

Suddenly, the jaguar saw a hummingbird pass over his head, but in the opposite direction from the fleeing forest dwellers. The hummingbird flew towards the fire!

The jaguar watched the hummingbird carefully. Moments later, the jaguar saw the tiny bird pass overhead again, this time in the same direction as the forest dwellers fleeing the fire. Then, again, the hummingbird flew towards the inferno. Repeating this behavior over and over, seemingly endlessly, the bird seemed driven by a mission.

The jaguar observed this coming and going until he decided to ask the bird about it, because it was very puzzling behavior.

“What are you doing, hummingbird?” he asked.

“I am going to the lake,” the bird answered, “I drink water with my beak and throw it on the fire to extinguish it.”

The jaguar laughed. ‘Are you crazy? Do you really think that you can put out that big fire on your own with your very small beak?’

‘No,’ said the hummingbird, ‘I know I can’t. But the forest is my home. It feeds me; it shelters me and my family. I am very grateful for that. And I help the forest grow by pollinating its flowers. I am part of her and the forest is part of me. I know I can’t put out the fire, but I must do my part, no matter how small or insignificant.’

We must pause our story at this point to introduce the creatures more fully. As in fables told throughout the world, the performers tell a tale that is much more nuanced and profound than a simple fable might imply.

We find the symbols represented by the jaguar, the hummingbird, and the forest spirits full of allegorical meaning.  In the Mayan and Aztec religion, the Jaguar God (Tezcatlipoca in Aztec religion) is a prominent symbol, a major deity representing “Jaguar God Terrestrial Fire”. Usually called ‘Jaguar God of the Underworld’, he is assumed to be the ‘Night Sun’ – the nocturnal identity taken by the Sun God (Kinich Ahau) during his nightly journey through the underworld.

The Jaguar God of Terrestrial Fire and War (‘Night Sun’) on a Burial Urn

In other words, the jaguar represents the ever-present underworld of non-existence; where the sun disappears at night and where all life eventually vanishes and then reappears.  The “Jaguar God of Terrestrial Fire” represents the conflagration that incinerates existence, removing all trace of the living save the ashes. Those familiar with Mesoamerican culture know of the ever-present underworld of deceased ancestors and expired souls, experiences that play an active role in the ephemeral world of the living.  In our story, the impassive Jaguar God represents the all-consuming fire of non-existence, the end of life on earth into non-existence until rebirth.

The hummingbird (Huitzilopochtli) was spiritually important in Mayan and Aztec culture. Early chroniclers describe what appears to be the hummingbird hibernating in a tree as a prominent theme: “It appears to be dead, but at the advent of spring … the little bird is reborn.”  

Huitzilopochtli -The Hummingbird God – as depicted in the Codex Borbonicus

There are a handful of origin mythologies describing the hummingbird deity’s beginnings. One story tells of the cosmic creation and Huitzilopochtli’s role in it.  In our fable, the hummingbird represents creation, persistent life activity, existence and mission – in contrast to the Jaguar God’s domain of non-existence.

The forest spirits of the fable are many and various forces representing nature and protective forces.  Their awareness of the hummingbird’s devotion resonates with their compassionate nature and inspires them to call forth their protective powers as rain. 

Here is how the story ends:

At that moment, the forest spirits, who heard the hummingbird, were moved by the little bird and its devotion to the forest. Joining together with the rain god, they miraculously sent a torrential downpour, which put an immediate end to the great fire.

Grandmothers tell this story to their grandchildren, concluding with, “Do you want to attract miracles into your life? Do your part in life while you can, no matter how small or insignificant you may think it is.”

Artwork by Art: Christopher Noel

One thought on “Jaguar and Hummingbird

  1. It’s a beautiful tale of what’s needed and what’s sorely lacking in human society at the present time. Not to say, of course, that it’s completely lacking, but the fire of our times is hot and dangerous and we are in desperate need of more hummingbirds❣️

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