Meirya contacted me two months ago about Beyond Awakening’s prompt on animal myths and archetypes, searching for my writing on clouded leopard folklore from 2006 – and I knew I wanted to join in and post something, but I had done a lot of research on clouded leopard and feline folklore since then and simply updating the old thing wouldn’t suffice.
So I gathered my notes and this has been sitting on my desktop for over a month as some kind of messy patchwork. I kept changing my mind and wanted to include more and more sources, as it appeared to me that I didn’t want to repeat my old essay too much. Instead, I wanted to talk about one’s clouded leopard symbolism as much as highlight the research process itself and explain why and how framing “what is clouded leopard” in a wider context has helped me better understand it.
I’ve voluntarily put the mainland and insular species of clouded leopards – neofelis nebulosa and neofelis diardi – on the same level because there is no evidence so far that they’ve been treated as distinct animals in South-East Asia even in countries that were acquainted with both species (such as Malaysia). I believe the two to be close enough to be treated as the same symbolical entity for this essay’s purpose.
In Search of the Clouded Leopard
The materials about clouded leopards are very scarce. The animal is seldom seen in the wild, making zoological studies more difficult, its lore widely unknown by the Western world and seemingly ignored as well by most of “lowland” and urban Asia. We can suppose that it’s not because it doesn’t exist; it’s highly possible the tales simply aren’t widespread and nobody has ever gathered the data to make them available to foreigners. There actually are less stories known about animals such as the clouded leopard as they are about dragons and a number of other mythological creatures. I rarely talk about raven even though it’s an as much important part of my identity, both because it doesn’t translate as well into words (which is ironical for an animal that is so much tied to language), and because the information and lore are common enough that I don’t obsess over them.
What is there left for animal-folks like myself when there is such a lack of information about who we are in whole or in part? The first answer is UPG, of course, our own as well as that of others we know. I’ve already written before about the raw experience and symbolical significance clouded leopard has to me, and I once knew someone who called herself a clouded leopard. We wouldn’t discuss this much at all, though. In fact most animal-people don’t bother sharing their experiences (which is fine), so I dropped my expectations: being a clouded leopard is no guarantee that we’ll relate to each other – if we ever meet, that is. Maybe it’s the raven part of me that makes me more vocal, maybe we really are a rare and elusive bunch, just like in the wild.
A second option for research is to make it broader. Through my studies, what I came to understand more and more is how there is no meaning without context. I’ve read a lot about jaguar lore because Jaguar is my totem, and my own UPG made more sense as I learned about the animals and cultures jaguars were connected with. You can’t understand Jaguar fully if you don’t know about animal symbolism and social structures in Meso-America, past and present. You can’t understand well his role in shamanism if you don’t know about the magic, medicine and religion there, in other words the more general spiritual landscapes Jaguar usually works within. It’s not just searching about “everything that has Jaguar”, it’s about what seemingly doesn’t have Jaguar as well, to provide a larger picture and contrasts.
At some point, as I was still deep into my jaguar readings, it came to me that I needed to stop complaining about the lack of clouded leopard stories, and start researching animal lore in South-East Asia. Symbolism rarely if ever replicate itself perfectly across the world so I wasn’t expecting to find clouded leopard serving as a miniature jaguar in South-East Asia. However I thought that by reading materials from and about the very diverse societies of South-East Asia, especially relating to other animal myths and folklore, maybe I could infer pieces of informations about clouded leopards or understand why they are virtually unheard of when they are physically present.
I must stress that this writing isn’t an academic paper and I don’t have the money right now to fly to several countries on the other side of the planet and do comparative fieldworks over the following 10 years, so this is very much an incomplete first draft. I’m also not fooling myself into believing I can get to know whole societies just by studying a bunch of papers.
I’ve had to face a number of pitfalls common to actual researchers, including the following. First, we have to rely on accounts we know have been translated from several languages – as an example, from a local dialect to a more widespread language of South-East Asia, and then to Dutch and/or English later on – so some aspects may have been lost. Secondly, context is very important in stories (who’s telling them to whom and for which occasion); when presented with data gathered by another person we often lack this. South-East Asia is a culturally diverse and historically complex area, and I’ve tried to keep this in mind as much as the scholars used here as references have. Last but not least, not all animal tales follow the same interpretation: many of them are to be taken as metaphors to reveal aspects of the human society and hardly revolve around the actual animal. We must remember that they’re stories told by human people to other human people for certain purposes.
This is not to say there is less value in mythology and folklore [than biological facts or therian UPG] to learn more about animals and archetypes, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this article. My point is: each way of doing has its bias and may lead to different answers. On a somewhat different note, I don’t believe that the mythical and therianthropic versions of an animal are one and the same (though I acknowledge the two can overlap to some degree and that sometimes the former can lead to the latter). I don’t want my words to be misunderstood as “totemists and therians are essentially the same beings”, or as though one raven person must be like the Raven from the myths to be a legit raven, and so on. This isn’t congruent with what I’ve learned.
Biological facts, UPG and lore are not interchangeable ways to reach the same conclusions. They’re different sources that can be used to help cross-check information as much as highlighting differences. They can work together but we must not mistake one and its results with another’s. I would not advocate for a superficial analysis of animal symbolism, which would be misleading at best, so this has to be done carefully. In order to keep this writing reasonable I did not include most of the background information that I used regarding anthropological analysis and methodology as well as the South-East Asian region, but for further reading I did indicate a list of some of the references used in this article.
Of Spirits and Kings
Now I’m past the disclaimer part, I can say that knowing jaguar symbolism has helped me better studying tiger symbolism, and in turn both gave me insight about clouded leopard. I haven’t drawn a definite conclusion – more like a general trend – so everything I’m sharing is to be taken with a grain of salt.
Tigers and jaguars have a lot in common. Both big cats are impressive predators sitting at the top of the food chain; because they can hunt most creatures, they are known as the “masters of animals” as well as the “rulers of the forest” in their respective habitats. This power extends from the natural world to the realm of the supernatural as they are often favored as spirit-helpers and associated with protection (of sacred places in particular) as well as fertility. The Siona people (Ecuador/Colombia) believe that dead shamans become spiritual teachers, and their Huaorani neighbours (Ecuador) believe their ancestors to be the children of a jaguar and an eagle, and that their shamans and elders can turn into jaguars. Of course we can also mention the highland Mexican nahual (soul companion), the Mexican tonal (shadow spirit) and the Mayan uay (spiritual alter ego), which often were jaguars; Tezcatlipoca is also associated with jaguar essence, as well as – among other concepts – rulership, divination, sorcery and war.
This close relationship between shamans, ancestors, jaguars and spirits is similar to what can be found in South-East Asia regarding the tiger.
Indeed, there, the tiger is often considered by the community and shamans as a spirit companion who is as much a spirit-helper as an ancestor. In the Malayan Peninsula in particular, the tiger spirit was a dead shaman who would become the spirit-helper of his successor. Some shamans can also assume a tiger shape in their lifetime, but that could as well happen to other virtuous and powerfully spiritual people such as Muslims, usually as a reward after their death, as believed in Northern Sumatra. In this region, most holy men’s graves were guarded by tiger spirits, which were thoughts to be either the spirits of the deceased or sent by Allah. Reports of were-tigers also abound, such as in East Java. Tigers were often considered, alongside crocodiles, as guardians of human villages (while on a higher scale the symbol of the civilized world and state was more likely to be another creature such as the water buffalo).
As a protector of the village, the tiger was seen as a peaceful prey-sharing partner, driving away as much other predators as the wildlife attracted to feed on the fields, and causing no harm to its villagers as long as they followed the customary rules. As an ancestor however, the tiger was very much a strict disciplinarian who inspired a great fear. Guardian of the law and father of the community, he would not hesitate to punish his “offspring” if the latter had broken any rule, thus acting as a moral force. There used to be trials in Java where people would be judged by a tiger, who would kill the guilty person and let the innocent live. Interestingly, this description of the tiger as a severe guardian and spiritual elder is similar to my own UPG relating to Jaguar.
Speaking of UPG and spiritual experiences as an animist: I was amused and surprised to find that one of the reasons tigers can be refered to in kinship terms isn’t solely related to the belief in tiger ancestors. Indeed, Indonesians would rather call a tiger thought to be nearby “grandfather” or “grandmother”, “father”, “uncle”, “older brother” and such as, out of respect or fear. Honorific titles were also used (“great lord”, “Your Reverence”, “chief” or “prince”). This also seems to be the case for the jaguar to some extent. The point being: during a journey in early 2009 I was directed to a clouded leopard spirit refered to as a “prince”, which I found a bit strange as a title, wondering what it could mean – until I found the above references about honorifics. Though it could also be an actual sign of ruling power over something, I guess; in my experiences, the clouded leopard spirit was not only associated with the forest but also dreamwalking, travelling and protection in the otherworlds.
This experience also echoes on a symbolical level the Rukai legend of the clouded leopard who led a hunter-warrior and its people through the mountains – a place commonly associated with ghosts and other spirits – to the region that would become their homeland. Some versions indicate that the clouded leopard turned into a person after this – hence becoming an ancestor to the descendants of this group – and a house was built at the spot. Here the cat served less as a spirit-helper and more as a founder and literal guide for the tribe in a way not dissimilar to the widespread South-East Asian place-founding myths involving other animals, usually buffalos or nagas. In one legend from East Java, King Tawan Alun rides a white tiger who directs him with a voice to the location of his new capital (incidentally, the voice also called him “grandchild”). According to one of the King’s descendants, the family lines are still guarded by this tiger spirit nowadays, which also is a manifestation of their shamanistic powers. In Java, where the tiger has disappeared, the leopard (panthera pardus) sometimes has taken on his role as a guardian spirit.
However, the association between rulers and tigers in South-East Asia does not seem to mirror further that of jaguars in the Americas.
While there seems to be a link between strength and tigers, kings did not turn into tigers as much as they mastered them, hence reinforcing their power over the rest of the natural world. For the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, the jaguar represented much of the qualities admired in the ruler, adequated with the warrior figure. There is a strong association throughout Meso-America between warfare, elites and the jaguar. In South-East Asia, the tiger was often defined as unpredictable, rude and aggressive, while the “kingly power” had the connotations of refined, aloof and cool, traits usually associated with the water buffalo. Buffalos were also known to be the founders of states and kingdoms in myths, and linkened to culture through agriculture. Tigers, on the other hand, were very much part of the Wild – not as much a chaotic world per se as one that obeys different laws than that of humans.
At the time of colonization, the people in Java and Malacca saw the Dutch and Englishmen as tigers because of their coarseness and misbehaviour. There are a number of accounts of ritual tiger/buffalo fights at the Javanese courts dating back from this time. Possibly once symbolic of the superiority of civilization over nature, we can assume that the ritual fights became a representation of local resistance against colonizers. As a rule, the buffalo usually won by horning and crushing the tiger, while the Javenese would express disappointment if the winner was the tiger – a fact that was known to the European. A rumor suggested that the Dutch made the tiger-buffalo fights illegal for these political reasons, though this remains unconfirmed.
As a side note – as if this article didn’t contain enough disclaimers! – it is important to keep in mind the fact the different populations found throughout South-East Asia were often very much in touch through various contacts such as commercial exchanges, thus animal parts and symbolism sometimes travelled outside of the actual living range of the creature. Also, there has been a growing pressure through the last decades from the officials onto the highland, often nomad populations so that they settle in the more lowland villages with an agricultural way of life. Consequently, symbolism and cultural practices in one group may influence another, or be lost completely through assimilation. In regards to the tiger symbolism in Java, where it is known to be virtually extinct, it is worth noting that the urban populations’ tiger symbolism consist of both the tiger village beliefs and the Court ones, mixed with some European influences.
Masters of the Forest
Another difference between tigers and jaguars is their association with forests.
The perception of the forest in South-East Asia vary between rural and urban people, and among individuals themselves as well. Overall though, it is a liminal place of power and transformation, ruled by different laws than that of human people. Like mountains, forests are thought to be the abode of the spirits and gods, and thus considered dangerous places which often require the local spirits’ permission to cross. In Indonesia, wooden hills were often favored as a site for the founding ancestors’ graves, a space further apart from the edge of the village (in Sundanese, the word for “forest” and for the grave of the common ancestor is actually the same).
On a superficial level of course both tigers and jaguars are thoughts to inhabit and rule over forests and forest spirits – though they occur in some other biomes as well – but on a closer examination we learn that natural tigers did not live so much far away from civilization. In fact, although a higher density of human population coincides with a lower density of tigers, the densely tropical forests devoid of human activity also used to lack tigers. This is because the animals they prey upon are mostly ground-dwelling, large animals that will thrive where the forest is less dense and the ground less covered: the forest fringes, often maintained or created by human activity. Tigers are rather bad climbers and will not hunt arboreal species, unlike the clouded leopard whose smaller size, lighter weight, flexible ankles and longer tail (used for balance) make much more efficient at this.
Tigers regular sighting and association with the protection of villages and cemetaries thus become more understandable: the tiger belongs or belonged to the world between men and the forest, and between men and the spirits, more than the remote areas of wilderness – contrary to the clouded leopard, which is said to be very secretive, even more so than the already rather elusive leopard. It then also appears probable that the highland populations of South-East Asia (such as, it is worth noting, the Rukainese from the clouded leopard tale, who lived in the mountainous area of Taiwan ), populations that also happen to be more often than not hunter-gatherer societies, were or are more likely to be familiar with the clouded leopard, a true master of the remote forest areas, than the lowland populations living from agriculture and who’d be more likely to integrate the tiger instead as part of their cosmology.
Like the clouded leopard, the jaguar is described as “reluctant to cross the mad-made edge between forest and village”, an attitude that seems rather un-tiger-ly. The jaguar is very much seen as living a solitary life away from civilization, when tigers (and maybe to a lesser extent, leopards) were known to prowl around human dwellings or even enter villages on regular occasions – this is still the case for the leopard in Africa nowadays. Although a tiger roaming in the village could be seen as a rupture in the normal (human) order of things, as this could be a sign the spirit-ancestor was to punish a villager for breaking a taboo, and taboo breaches were disruptive of the customary law and order, it was none-the-less a well-known occurrence.
We can thus visualize a spectrum of liminality for the big cats in relation to humanity, with the human village on one side and the forested mountains on the other: tigers belong to the forest edge, nearest to human centers of activity, while leopards are usually placed further away (but not always). Jaguars and clouded leopards are more withdrawn, with the clouded leopard being especially avoidant of human activity, and the same could probably be said of snow leopards, which are thought of as elusive creatures as well. Variations may occur within species too, as we can imagine the clouded leopards of the mangroves as less withdrawn from human people (who often use rivers to travel), than those living deep in the rainforest, and the latter perhaps less rare again than the clouded leopards of remote mountain ranges (as an example: Nepal, a region snow leopards share with them).
This idea of clouded leopards belonging to the most marginal areas of an already liminal place – the forest – reinforces my own clouded leopard symbolism as the liminal cat by essence, which is a point I’ve already detailed before. As a feline very much described as in-between the small and big cats, and considered to be the closest living cousin of the extinct sabertooth (ie. standing between ancient and modern cats), he does possess a noticeable array of liminal qualities. My own UPG also associates him closely with the otherworlds, and it is possible that the clouded leopard share the tiger and jaguar’s relation as ancestors, gods and forest spirits for other highland societies than the Taiwanese Rukai. The Bornean Dayak were known to use clouded leopard pelts for war costumes, but I have no other evidence for an association with warfare (well, outside of the clouded leopard guide that accompanied the Rukai warrior, but I’m not sure that makes enough clues).
One or more liminal qualities though does not guarantee the creature to assume a trickster role (an usually very liminal figure), and I haven’t read about any sign that any of the big cats, including the clouded leopard, were tricksters. In South-East Asia, in fact, that role is played by other animals such as the mouse-deer (kantjil), sometimes called chevrotain, a small ungulate and common prey of the clouded leopard that actually isn’t a true deer. Their name comes from their small size, as they count among the smallest ungulates of the world; the Asian species do not exceed 8kg. They also – much like the evolutionary-ambiguous clouded leopard – place themselves in-between other species: on one hand non-ruminating ungulates like pigs and hippos, and on the other ruminating ones like antelopes and deers. The mouse-deer is a popular figure of Indonesian folklore, tricking many of the fearsome beasts of the animal reign such as the crocodile and tiger, and he also served as a mediator between the asian leopard and man.
The tiger is also known to be tricked by other creatures such as – unsurprisingly, as developed in the article – the buffalo. These examples, I hope, show a point regarding how animal symbolism is closely related to one another and to the human world. Trying to draw meaning from the lore without any knowledge regarding its cultural-specific context can be quite misleading, and UPG cannot be mistaken with actual facts. However when data is so scarce, we sometimes aren’t left with much else than suppositions as well as our own imagination to try to piece together these stories about the animal-part of our identity. In researching convincing evidence from other animal and popular folklore, though, I’m hoping to draw a plausible sketch of what clouded leopard could be, at least until someone (or myself someday perhaps) can record the actual stories of the clouded leopard for others to share.
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- Hutton, J. H. “Leopard-Men in the Naga Hills”. The journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 50 (Jan.-Jun., 1920), pp. 41-51.
- King, Victor T.; Wilder, William D. “The Modern Anthropology of South-East Asia”. Routledge. 2003.
- McKean, Philip Frick. “The Mouse-deer (Kantjil) in Malayo-Indonesian Folklore: Alternative Analyses and the Significance of a Trickster Figure in South-East Asia”. Nazan Institute for Religion and Culture. Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 30, n°1 (1971), pp. 71-84.
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- Wessing, Robert. “The Sacred Grove: Founders and the Owners of the Forest in West Java, Indonesia” from the 10th Annual Conference of the Société d’Ecologie Humaine, ‘L’homme et la Forêt Tropicale’, Marseille, Université de Provence, 26-28 November (1998).