Moche warrior kneeling. (Image from Travelvantage.Com)
By way of introduction, let me first say that I am leery of the archaeological tendency to try to explain everything by religion: when one is confronted with a strange artifact or a perplexing bit of iconography, it is all to easy to label it as "religion" or "probably ritualistic." This is a particularly thorny issue in the Andes, where in one sense everything is religious -- and in one sense, very little is. As I have gathered from learning from Michael Czwarno and from reading the work of Bastien in Bolivia, the Andean mindset does not relate to Western religion in a very clear way. "Gods" may not be so correct as "manifestations," and even that is rather problematic. Furthermore, it can be pointless to say that something was a "ritualistic" behaviour, e.g. when dealing with Moche art of hair-washing, when every activity was probably ritualistic -- not because they were praying to the gods and make holy symbols with their hands, but simply because every thing was done as it was supposed to be done. Besides, as religions scholar Dr. Winfried Corduan has suggested to me based on his firsthand studies of Eastern religions, rituals often pick up their "explanation" only after the "ritual" has been established.
Therefore, please read the following with caution and an analytical frame of refernece...
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Si Ni Theory, Phillip Means
The main thrust of this theory is that the moon (si in the Mochik language) was the primary deity of the Moche. Perhaps the main reason for this, never made entirley clear, is the "Moon Virgins" which Means (after Calancha) credits to the Moche. This is not necessarily a solid basis for a theory, however. First of it all, it is very probably a mixup with the mamaconas of the Inca, and if not, it is certainly the result of redrodiction (aka "forced analogy," or the backwards extrapolation of cultural ideas based on study of modern anthropology or historical documentation).
The theory contains an element of circular logic. One reason that the "Moon Virgins" are supposed to have existed in Moche culture is because of the Huaca de La Luna ("Temple of the Moon"), which Means thinks might have been roughly equivalent to a sort of "convent." On the other hand, the main argument for the validity of the label de la Luna often revolves around the presence of the "Moon Virgins." It should be noted that Victor von Hagen (in Desert Kingdoms of Peru) claims that it was not "virgins" but rather priests who lived in the Huaca de la Luna. While one could logically argue that maybe there were both priests and nuns living in the building, this would not allow for the strict celibacy described by Calancha and Means for the "Moon Virgins," who (as were the Inca mamaconas) were totally isolated from men.
Arguments can be constructed, however, that would allow for the the Moche to have potentially seen Si, the Moon, as more central to their religious lives than Re, the Sun. If they believed the sun was powerful, they might easily have believed it too powerful to meddle in the affairs of humans, whereas the moon came down closer to them and helped them in the night. This idea, while not necessarily in keeping with Andean tradition, might account for building the Huaca de la Luna closer to the common people. They could also have thought that the sun was just sitting in the sky gloating over his power, which was minimal: he only lit-up when the sky was already bright. He would then run when the moon was coming, and the moon would proceed to light up the sky when it was dark, when illumination was necessary. Again, this goes against much of Andean tradition, but it could account for the prevelance some see of nocturnal ceremonies. nother, related possibilty is that they recognized the sun's immense power, and thought that for the moon to chase him away, Si must be much more powerful. Conceivably, they could also have seen the sun as evil. For one, they lived in the desert where the sun might sometimes be seen as an enemy, making life harder. The sun burns people's skin and destroys water and food. The moon however, brought them sight in the mysterious and frightening dark, and brought cooler air, as well. One other possibility is that they saw the moon's power in more ways. The sun brought heat and light to the whole world. The moon, on the other hand, brought light as well as controlled the oceans (i.e. tide) and women's bodies (i.e. mesntrual cycles -- see Von Hagen).
That said, vritually of these ideas are totally conjectural and have little basis in proven Andean tradtion. The Inca, for instance, saw the Moon as powerful -- but as the wife as the sun, and therefore somewhat subordinate to it. While the Inca did have mamaconas dedicated to the service of the Moon, it was not because they saw her as more powerful than the sun but simply because they saw her as also deserving (if not requiring) worship. In the absence of any hard archeological or anthropological evidence, it might be best to leave worship of Si as a central god in the realm of possibility, for the mean time.
Means also argues that the Moche may have worshipped Ni, the sea, whom they could easily have seen as an engulfer of ships and flooder of land, as a powerful force, a "god," as much as the term applies in the Andes. There are representations of large, ornate and sometimes deific figures associated with water, but whether the association is with a Sea God is not known.
Tritheistic Bureaucracy, Elizabeth Benson
In her book, Mochica, Elizabeth Benson provides a compact, concise description of the Moche system of deity, as she sees it. She attributes the early phases of the Moche with two (maybe three) gods and the later phases with two (maybe four) gods. While concise, this system is very elaborate and based heavily on iconography. It is a thematic study which somewhat predates that of Donnan's Presentation Theme, and has much merit on that account. The accuracy of her approach, though, may be questionable at times.
The first god of the early Moche phases is called the Supreme Deity, or the Creator God. He lived in a mountain, probably in the Andes, and was remote from the people. Benson speculates that he may actually have been a sky god, and was artistically associated with mountains simply because sculptures of the sky are rather difficult to make. The mountain god is usually accompanied by two snakes and a lizard helper. This "Creator/Supreme Deity" usually wears a sunrise head-dress with a jaguar head sometimes mounted on the front. He is almost always enveloped by a cape or robe. He also wears fancy ear ornaments in the shape of snakes.
The second god of the early Moche is supposed to be the son of the Supreme Deity. This god also has the feline mouth, but he is seen actually associating with the people and in action scenes. He usually has snakes coming out from his belt and a double fanged mouth. There are some scenes in which this deity is in combat with someone who looks much like himself, and Benson suggests that "he" may actually be a "they," i.e. he might actually be twins. This Fang-god being twins could account for Moche dualism in the form of clothes, body-paint, etc... On the other hand, dualism is quite frequent in the Andes, and there is some reason to believe that the Moche might have seen a three-part balance, like that of modern curanderismo, anyway.
The original Supreme Deity is the only of the two/three deities of the early family to be transferred from the first few phases into the late stages of Moche.
One god who appears during the late periods of Moche has been labeled "the radiant god." He is usually associated with a raft of some sort, or else being borne in a litter, usually carried by prisoners. He wears armor, which Benson assumes reflects the growing militaristic side of the Moche culture during last Phase IV and Phase V. Together with the supreme deity, who was remote, this more human-appearing deity ruled in the presence of the people.
While there is much solid thematic analysis in Bensons's tritheism, a few questions must be asked. First, is it necessary to separate the "father" and "son" in the early phases? Most of the distinction is simply because of scenic associations or activities; while these can be viable means of distinguishing different people or deities, they can also simply be representations of a person/deity who is mobile and versatile. Secondly, how much attention was given to archaeological evidence in this study? While some thought is given to statuette-burials in mounds of guano as evidence for the mountain-god role of the Supreme Deity, what of grave materials? The Sipan findings were obviously not available when this book was written, but Strong and Evans had twenty-years previous published their extensive report on the Viru Valley, and the Warrior Priest's burial theory. Surely some of these burials indicate that the "radiant god" was most likely a human figure who was powerful and central, and did, in fact, dress that ornately?
Benson goes on to surmise that, beyond the basic tritheism, there there were probably two other types of gods: a god of wind and a god of earthquakes. What the role of these gods in the bureaucracy was, or even her reasons for proposing their existence are not clear.
Monotheism, Rafael Larco Hoyle and Others
This, one of the oldest theories, is centered on the same basic fanged god as in Benson's "Tritheism." Larco Hoyle called him ai apaec, a name meaning "Creator" in Mochik, which has been picked up by many other scholars. He is seen as a god of the fields, a creator god, and a god of protection or war. This theory basically combines all of Benson's three gods -- four if you count the son's twin -- into one, all-powerful god.
This one-god system has often been said to be supported by the the Warrior-Priest of Huaca de la Cruz in the Viru Valley, for that wealthy and ostentatious burial contained a staff, featuring a likeness of ai apaec (see Strong and Evens for a report on the burial). On the staff he is shown with all the features mentioned above as the Benson's fang-god's features. He is the only proposed god to be so clearly associated with an obviously important individual: there are no clear representations of of Si in any burials, and no piece depicting the unified tritheism, only individual images painted on pots (with the exception of the Supreme Deity, who is also ai apaec).
The question is, again, how well some of the iconographic representations hold up to the finds of Sipan and even that of the Warrior Priest itself. Also, in light of Donnan's very strong arguments for Shamanism, it must be wondered whether or not a figure atop a staff need be the central deity, or if it could instead be a "spirit" or even a picture of a mystically transformed human being during a shamanistic ritual.
Shamanism, Christopher Donnan
This is probably the most recently advanced theory, and may not be a "religion" so much as a practice.
According to this idea, the Moche used shamanistic doctors, now called curanderos, for physical and spiritual healing. Religious rites would have included, among other things, the installing of or calling for aid from the spirit of an animal. The specific spirit would have been selected according the properties that were possessed by its natural counterpart. In addition, herbs and other medical practices involved with the shaman's job would have had spiritual or otherworldly connotations. These curanderos may also have been responsible for the "surgical" practice the Moche are often credited with.
This theory is backed up by much corollary evidence between the art and archaeological remains of these people and current shamanistic practices in that region of Peru, particularly that of Eduardo. (See Donnan's article on Moche ethnoarchaeology, and also Douglas Sharon's book, Wizard of the Four Winds for an indepth and highly detailed account of Peruvian shamanism and how it relates to the past.)
Spiritual Disarray, Mainstream
In a way this section details a fourth religious theory, that there were no set "gods" and little religious structure in Moche society. In another way, this theory can simply be an addition or compliment to one or another of the many other theories.
Many archaeologists agree that anthropomorphic animals like foxes and stags are generally zoomorphic demons, less often "gods," "angels," or "spirits." Moche art also displays plant spirits and bean and maize demons. Elizabeth Benson saves us from having to believe that they worships their armor and other gear (which sometimes show "god-like" attributes) by arguing that the Moche may only have "believed" in the animation of weapons and gear as we today "believe" in gremlins and the human spirit/attributes of cars, planes, boats, etc...
There is something to be said for these theories, but rather than necessarily assume that these are gods, demons, spirits, or anything else, it must be considered how they fit into the Andean concept of spirituality. Division of deities is almost uniquely Western, and it almost certainly had little application for the Moche. This problem also applies to Si Ni worship and Tritheism, but most dramatically in the case of spiritual disarray. In general, in Andean tehological conceit, there was Deity, perhaps akin to the viracocha of Inca religion (but even that may be a somewhat false forcing of Western understanding onto the Andean spirit conciousness). Other "gods" and "spirits" were usually just seen as "manifestations" of that Deity, that theo-natured essence. So in a sense there may have been a "squash god," but probably only in so far as Deity manifested itself in squash.
There are two other considerations, particularly in the case of zoomorphic and botanical "gods," "demons," and "spirits." One, of course, is shamanism. If the Moche did, as Donnan has pretty well established, practice at least some degree of shamanism, a belief in and depiction of such spirits might make sense -- particularly if the object were used in some way to invoke or otherwise deal with that spirit. There is also the possibility that, a la Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui's houses of "idols," such objects might have not been depicting the deific or spiritual appearance of or dwelling within the animal or plant, but rather asking for the blessing of such objects by Deity. In other words, to ask for Deity's special touch to bless the maize crops, Moche artists might have constructed artifacts to act as invitations or even "idols."
Lastly, it is also possible that "demons" or angry-looking "gods" in plants and animals could be symbolic representations of "bad luck." That is, the Moche might have either believed that poor harvests or blights upon their animals were caused by evil spirits attacking them, or else the artists could simply have used such depictions as symbols.
Regardless of how this iconography is viewed, it does not seem likely that "spiritual" disarray could have been present in the Moche cosmology.
Moche Rites & Ceremonies
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The most frequent depiction of a scene thought to represent Moche human sacrifice is a recurring motif of dead bodies (or skeletons) in front of, or around, a huge figure of a supernatural-seeming being, who is situated in/on a mountain range shaped roughly like a hand. This "hand" is generally three-, five-, or seven-fingered, five being the most common. There is usually no clear indication of the method of sacrifice, though two possibilities come immediately to mind: one, the victims were sacrificed by throwing, or rolling them down the side of a mountain or cliff; two, the victims were skinned alive (deduced from the skeletal nature of many of the bodies). It is also possible that these bodies are actually the bodies of slain warriors being disposed of in such a way as to honor them and dedicate them to the depicted deity (who is Benson's Fanged God or Larco Hoyle's ai apaec). Of course, it is not certain that any of these are being shown, nor is it clear whether the deific figure was actually represented at the site of the presumed sacrifice by means of a statue, or wether his spiritual presence is merely being portrayed in the artwork.
Another possible sacrirficial motif involves a character described by Benson as the Fang God's "Lizard Helper," shown along with what may be either steps or waves or both. The motif's basic design is as follows: there is a body (or two) laying face down, often spread-eagle, on a stair-shaped wave. Nearby is usually the lizard helper (or two lizard helpers) standing on the side of the wave -- not alongside the body or in such a posture that he seems to be doing anything in particular. The theory is that the victim was sacrfied by being drowned while ttied to stone stairs along the beach. These stone stairs have never been found, though, so it is possible that the stair-shape is simply a Moche effort to depict a wave. One problem with this theory is that there is very little here to suggest sacrifice. Some may point to the lizard helper's presence to indicate that this is a supernatural or sacred picturing, but I can find no logical role that the lizard helper may be playing here. Does he stand for a holy presence in the absence of the Fang God, sent to oversee a sacrifice to his master?
The following is the weakest argument for Moche human sacrifice: there are many depictions, such as that shown below, of a cat-like animal eating, wrestling with, or embracing a human. Elizabeth Benson makes the bold statement, "The fact that several pots represent large cats with human prisoner figures suggests sacrifice." (Benson, 1972, p.34). There seem to more options, though, that could be deduced from a scene showing an animal eating a human, including the more mundane idea that it could be just an animal attacking someone or perhaps a prisoner being punished for his crimes. More fantastic ideas might include things such as theoretical depictions of a feline god's wrath or the iconographic relating of a Moche myth or legend. There seems to be little reason to assume that these pictures are of sacrificial rituals.
A word should be said about the victims of Moche human sacrifice. Assuming the reality of all or most of these rituals, there is still a great deal of question concerning whom was sacrificed. Commonly bandied about theory in general texts is that the victims were prisoners of war -- that the Moche, rather than kill conquered people in battle, knocked them unconscious with their clubs and then brought them back to temples in order that their lives might be offered up to the gods. Such treatment might indeed have been given to the rulers and elite of other people groups, but it seems unlikely that prisoners -- either POW's or criminals -- were sacrificed. As Michael Czwarno pointed out to me, it is uncommon (although not unheard of) for people to offer their human "trash" to their gods. If one is intending either to win the gods' favor or defer their wrath, one must generally offer the gods the best one has. Whom the Moche would have considered their best offerings, however, is unknown, leaving the question unanswered.
The Moche, it is thought, probably had two main kinds of offerings. They may have had life offerings (ceremonies in which they offered animals and/or grains up to the gods [or a god]), and they may have also have had death offerings ( rituals centering around offerings buried within structures or those placed in graves).
As for the first type, there are a few pieces in which are shown people holding deer and other animals up to what appear to be statues or representations of gods, generally Ai Apaec/Fang God. What precisely the people are doing is obviously not known. They may be giving offerings to the deity, as is usually accepted, but they might also be for wounded animals to be healed, or asking for a blessing on the animals to give them good meat, or any number of other things. As with the human sacrifices shown in the mountains, it is uncertain whether the artist intended to depict an actual, physical statue or just the god's spiritual presence in the scene, perhaps through the medium of a shaman.
Many times, items seem to have been buried in the foundations of structures, perhaps as offerings to ensure the blessings of divinities upon the structure. It is even possible that burials, such as those in the platform at Orejas in the Moche Valley, are also burial offerings, giving the gods the most precious gift possible, that of human beings.
The other kind of burial offering is the interment of various goods, e.g. bowls of food, llamas or llama bones, guinea pigs (cui, Mochik) or guinea pig bones, pottery, or "treasures," with the dead. Some of these things might have been placed in special nooks in the side of the grave, others placed on, under, or around the body. The role of these goods is uncertain. they might be offerings to the dead (as ancestor mummies), they might be offerings on behalf of the dead, they might be accouterments for the use of the dead in the afterlife, or they might simply be part of the standard burial rite. In fact, this distinction probably varies from item to item.
Coca & Other Herbs
Another religious rite that is frequently extrapolated upon is a ritual (possibly nocturnal) in which coca is taken. It is virtually a given that the Moche did take coca, given the area in which they lived. The heavy use of coca in that area now, and the large amount of coca indigenous to Peru make it seem likely that people living there would have seen it as a valuable and abundant resource. Coca is and was usually be taken raw in cake form or in a mixture on the tip of a stick. The latter method is the one the Moche are thought to have used most often, based on ethnographic evidence comparing current coca apparati and method with elements of Moche art. Some of the Moche 3-D pieces are fairly distinct in their portrayal of, at least, a person partaking of some herb by the methods commonly used today for coca.
The difficulty is knowing whether or not to attach "ceremony" to the end of "coca-taking." Spanish Priests like Antonio de la Calancha and Bartolomé de las Casas testified that the Moche's descendants with whom they came into contact took coca all the time. Coca could have supplied them with endurance for working in the high altitude mountains, the dry deserts, and for working on the heavy building jobs the people were assigned. It also could have given them the ability to forget that they were hungry, and could have given them energy and stamina in the battlefield, which seems (especially in the late Phases) to have been important for the survival of their culture. Such things certainly could make coca important, but they might also make it most important for daily, ordinary-time consumption, not necessarily for ritual use. Furthermore, there is a severe crash after the effects of coca have worn off, so the user has to be constantly chewing the leaf in order to avoid this debilitating crash. Certainly, priests or shamans might have been willing to suffer the crash for the fulfillment of their religious duties, but anyone else who used it would almost certainly have had to use it habitually.
The other other difficulty lies in the inherent problems with trying to understand the iconography of a pre-historic culture. While some coca use by shamans seems likely -- almost certain -- if Donnan's theory about shamanism in Moche culture is correct, there is a large gap between understanding that the Moche probably did use coca and assuming that therefore certain scenes painted on vessels are depictions of coca-taking ceremonies. The most troublesome instance is a series of fine-line drawings, in which Moche are shown either carrying or tossing bags in the air -- bags which many believe must contain coca. This activity is scene as part of a coca ritual. Unfortunately, one cannot identify for certain the contents of the bags in these well-crafted but nonetheless simple paintings. Certainly coca was often carried in bags, in Moche 3-D work which seems to portray coca-taking, it seems that the Moche did, in fact, often carry their coca in bags. There is, however, no certain correlation between the two bags. The strongest suggestion that these scenes might be depicting the taking of coca or some other herb is that some of the paintings show a person putting something his or her mouth. While there is no firm indication that the person is ingesting something taken from one of the little bags, the correlation between the presence of bags and the action of chewing something could be suggestive of coca-taking. And all this leaves aside the largely unanswerable question of whether or not the scenes depict a ritual of any sort.
An extremely common theme in Moche art is the depiction of what may be a race, a procession, or perhaps a dance. Generally, the participants in the activity are at least partially zoomorphic or else shown wearing animal headgear (e.g, a pelt with a head still attached). This has led many to suspect that the scene is showing a shamanistic dance of some sort. Occasionally, there will seem to be a progression; for instance, the figure on the left might be the most human and the figure on the right might be the most "animal" or "supernatural." To some this suggests that the scenes are not showing a group of people engaged in a shamanistic dance, so much as the transformation of a single shaman from human into animal or spirit. Still others think that the scene -- in which the runners often have bags in their hands -- shows the collection of coca, which might have been a ceremonial activity. Rafael Larco Hoyle ("La Escritura de la Moche sobre los Pallares") thinks that the runners are messengers, carrying inscribed lima beans in the bags.
Phillip Means makes a distinction between many of the above scenes and those several in which some or all of the runners are winged and bird-like. In contrast to those who might think these paintings are about a shaman's spiritual flight, Means traces their meaning back to a Peruvian legend. This legend, an explanation about the formation of the dynasties of Peru, ends with the hero, Naymlap, sprouting wings and flying away, leaving the other people behind to search all around for him. Christopher Donnan, however, believes that the Naymlap legend describes events which probably occurred after the Moche. Means would be unswayed, however, for he allows himself the "backup" theory an unspecified legend that survived through the progression of coastal peoples.
Thanks to Calancha, we have an account, based on Late Chimu activities and oral traditions, of the marriage ritual which may have been common for the Moche. I hesitate to assert that the ceremony was held this way, but there are enough similarities between the coastal peoples discussed by Calancha and other Spaniards to make this interesting reading, at least. Please do not regard this account with any certainty, but rather as a mere curiosity, included for your enjoyment:
The couple who were to be married, the sponsor of the marriage, and probably the rest of the clan gathered at a special location, possibly a huaca or maybe the terrace outside of a home. A freshly created pot of some kind -- probably a so-called "cooking" olla -- was placed before the two who were to be wed. In this pot was placed maize flour and tallow-fat from young llamas. The contents were then set afire, probably by the sponsor or a priest, though there may even have been someone whose only job was the performance of such rites. The couple then stirred the blazing ingredients and poked them with a stick or pole of some kind until everything inside was burned up and decimated. At this point, the sponsor gave the following admonition: "Now you are married, but bear it in mind that you must be equally industrious and equally ardent in love, for you must always be equal in the state into which you are entering." (Means, 1931 -- from Calancha, 1638).
This ceremony would probably have been followed by much rejoicing, including dance, music, drink, and food. There might even have been gift-giving, and possible the use of twirl-sticks.
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