The Tantra of the Moche

By Osman Malik Khan

Introduction: A Fanciful Call to Arms

We need a new language for the art and cultures of the Pre Columbian “New World.” It is perfectly clear that, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego cultures evolved (and are still evolving) that were coeval with European civilization. These cultures produced architecture, art, philosophy, history, and ritual structures of great complexity; and yet the language of the European Imperial Age was still being applied until only a very few years ago, proclaiming the Pre-Columbian cultures to be genius children. Because of this, the study and possible understanding of these cultures has been seriously hampered, and often, it seems, not taken beyond the recognition of oddity and “ingenuity” in these others.

In fact, a huge amount of information is available through archeology and ethnography, which can be applied if one has the guts and is willing to admit that, when we digup a body from a common grave, what we have before us is not the remains of a female, approximately 24 years of age with a slight disfigurement in her left hip socket (which may be very interesting); rather, we have the remains of a daughter, a sister, a mother, who was very skilled at watching and identifying birds and their habits and who enjoyed making tools more than weaving, much to the disgrace of her family. The inclusion of humanity in our study of humans is not disruptive but enlightening.

The words and concepts “them” and “us” must be gotten rid of entirely if anyone ever hopes to truly understand anyone else.

The Tantra of the Moche

Even “Primary Civilizations” have roots, though ultimately these roots and origins are impossible to determine, moving layer upon layer back in time. But it is reasonable to assume a certain degree of continuity within a greater civilization, such as the civilization of the Andes and Peruvian coast. Thus, the ethnography of today and the “histories,” however questionable in some respects, taken by the Spaniards from the Incas have some import for the understanding of previous cultures, such as the Moche of the Early Intermediate Period. Perhaps the details might not match up perfectly, but the cores of certain cultural and philosophical ideas are probably the same.

Michael Moseley gives a good overview of Incan/Andean concepts in The Incas and Their Ancestors. Three essential levels of organization appear to exist in this system:

  1. responsibility of the ayllu to the greater system or state
  2. responsibility of the moieties to each other within the ayllu
  3. responsibility of the human beast to the rest of creation

Central to these systems of responsibility is the concept of mit’a. (Hereafter, mit’a, ayllu, and any other terms will be acculturated and not italicized.) Mit’a is poorly translatable, but “reciprocation as a matter of course” will do. This includes the reciprocal workings of the three responsibility-structures listed above. The ayllu traditionally gave material and labor taxes to the Incan (and presumably to the Moche) government and in return was supplied with a certain level of staples from central stores; one moiety provides a certain service for the other moiety engaged in an equally mutually-beneficial labor; and humans must give back to the earth certain adorations and care in return for what the earth provides. Without this reciprocation, which is reflexive rather than reactive, the empire might crumble, the ayllu will be at odds with itself, and creation will fall out of balance and yield disaster. Such ideas are not philosophical concepts but rather matters of basic existential fact. (Moseley, pp. 55, 68, 71-73)

The maintenance of these reciprocal relationships is dependent in ritual, which is led both by hereditary and elected/volunteer elites. The regular maintenance and performance of ritual is a task of monumental importance in order to preserve continuity of the society and creation, and a great deal of power, both “spiritual” and temporal, is acquired by those who successfully maintain the necessary ritual systems. (Bawden, 5.February, 1997)

Based on this, it has been suggested that the Moche culture’s elite ruling class maintained power not by the regular imposition of military force, but rather by the control of the rituals central to their existence. (Bawden, 8.April, 1997) Stemming from this basis of power, the “corporate style” of Moche artwork is steeped heavily in the history/mythology of the culture. Christopher Donnan has done much to decipher these images within their cultural framework and can suggest a corpus of some two dozen or so basic stories or themes that are played out in Moche art. (Moseley, p180)

“…Moche themes were recounted orally, depicted graphically, and acted out as pageants and rituals…Similar to a scene from a play, the characters in a theme are depicted as interacting in a repetitive manner in recurrent settings.” (Moseley, p.180)

So it seems that Moche art very specifically depicts and recounts certain tales or myths, and it may also, integrally, describe greater themes or concepts that are metaphysical or ontological in nature.

The main in-road to examining this aspect of Moche art (and therefore Moche life!) is the huge body of ceramics that has survived in excellent condition, in particular the stirrup-spouted “libation vessels.” Most of Donnan’s themes come from depictions on these vessels, whether in sculptural or line-work forms. But Donnan’s theories lacked much proof of carrying over into actual Moche life until Walter Alva unearthed the royal tombs at Sipan in 1987. The burials yielded people (and costumes, more importantly) that placed the characters of Donnan’s stories into the realm of human reality. (Kirkpatrick, p85)

Found with the Tomb of the Warrior-Priest at Sipan was a scepter, on the head of which was sculpted the Moche feline-snake deity actively penetrating a victim sexually and, it seems, about to devour her. The appearance of this image in such a lavish tomb serves to shake the scholar-imposed stereotypes of a major Moche theme– the “erotic” scenes of men and women, women and gods, and even women and women engaged in various forms of intercourse. Many scholars have left this “erotic” imagery outside of the highly mythological and symbolic body of Moche art, preferring instead to class such images as mundanely narrative or even genre.

“…moreover, one cannot call it pornography, since it’s function…was to chronicle their lives.” (von Hagen, p.51)

But the fact that coitus, fellatio, or anal-sex are actions that can be easily identified by outsiders does not remove the distinct possibility that ”erotic” images in Moche art are as symbollic as the scenes deciphered by Donnan. Sidney Kirkpatrick touches on this possibility: “And yet, as Donnan’s research showed, the Moche limited their portrayals to specific activities and postures that may have had ritualistic or ceremonial significance.” (Kirkpatrick, p.97)

Just as the English language lacks a good translation for “mit’a,” Judeo/Christian culture probably lacks a good iconic or philosophical translation for sexual imagery beyond the simply erotic or pornographic. The Indo-Himalayan cultures and, it would seem, the Moche culture, have well-developed systems of sexual imagery as reflective of a greater system of existence, and perhaps it is then easier and more precise to approach the “erotic” art of the Moche from the point of view of Hindu/Buddhist Tantra. The concept of mit’a lends itself well to this angle of interpretation. The reciprocity between man and creation or god can easily be seen as a sexual relationship. The possibility here is twofold, as humans fertilize the earth which brings forth a plethora of bounties; and the earth reciprocally fertilizes humans with these bounties and allows them to bring forth products of their own. The image of the fertilizing/devouring deity on the head of the scepter found at Sipan might indicate such a concept borne in Moche art. The god fertilizes his victim (his consort?) even as he prepares to take her into his own body, to fertilize himself.

Perhaps the comparison is not 1:1, but a similar deity, who fills a similar dual role is present in the religion and tantrik system of the Hindus. Kali (“Time”) is the Great Mother who feeds her children to the point of exhaustion and then consumes the world (in a bloodbath, actually) in order to strengthen herself for the next creation. (Illustration #1) A variation or continuation on this theme is further evident in Moche imagery. Very commonly, a third element is introduced into sexual scenes– a suckling child. The Moche often portrayed men and women performing sexual intercourse while the woman is breast feeding. (Illustration #2) This could well be a different enactment of the reciprocal fertilization discussed above. As the man fertilizes the woman, so she fertilizes their child. This tri-elemental cycle or progression is, again, something found in the art of Hindu Tantra in the image of Chinnamasta, who springs from the “originating couple” of the universe, while simultaneously feeding her children and herself with the blood from her severed head. (Illustration #3)

A great deal of Moche “erotic” art is, however, focused on the depiction of acts not conducive to insemination, namely fellatio and anal sex. But it is quite possible that such forms of intercourse are still symbolically related to fecundity. Both involve the depositing of semen into the digestive tract, whether through the orifice of ingestion or that of elimination. The theme of consumption dealt with earlier may tie in here as well, as the female is “fed” the seed of the male. It is important to note that in Moche images of fellatio, the woman is usually quite active in her sexual role, not simply the passive receptacle of the man. Indeed, the female is often depicted as the active partner as she devours the phallus and the seed of her partner (victim?). (Illustration #4) Perhaps now, in a reversal of the image on the Sipan scepter, the feminine power consumes the male, which could suggest a reciprocal exchange between genders and/or the polar elements or energies that the two genders could imply. If, in fact, the males can be seen as victims of the females in these images, a certain analogy could again be drawn to Hindu Tantra and the stories and icons of Kali, who is often depicted in sexual intercourse with or even trampling the corpse of her husband, Shiva, his penis still erect as he is devoured along with the rest of creation by his insatiable wife. (Illustration #5)

Another common theme in these “erotic” images apparently blends the concepts of death and sexuality or generation. The idea of death preceding or being necessary for birth is not an uncommon one world wide. Observation of agriculture or of the seasons in general provides one with an environmental awareness of this. But the simultaneous pairing of the two images is interesting. Death is indeed the bridegroom, whether shown in active intercourse with a woman or shown being masturbated by a female partner. (Illustration #6) It seems then, that death is not only linked as an origin for regeneration, but that death itself is simultaneous with regeneration. One possibility here is that the images are indicative of an afterlife (a fertile afterlife, perhaps?), a belief in being reborn. The Moche certainly might have held such a belief, and the accouterments of their burials would surely seem to support that. Another possibility exists that might better fit into a tantra-like system. Perhaps “death” in these images is symbolic rather than literal. Death could indicate an initiatic or progressive step in life, whether only personally or within some initiatic cult or religious system. Of the tantrik goddess Durga, who often manifests herself in the skeletal deity Chamunda (Illustrations #7), Swami Chinmayananda writes:

“Invoke the Mother Terrible, to help us annihilate within all negative forces; all weaknesses, — all littleness. It is these that have removed us from our own selves.” (Nathan, ed. p.153)

And these Moche images of sex and death again recall the Hindu Kali, ever in intercourse with her husband’s corpse.

Hindu and Buddhist sexual Tantra is not only conceptual but is also actively practiced as a system of lovemaking for those who follow it. There are two essential results of this– first, the acting out of tantrik principles as an act of yogic meditation; and second, the increasing of sexual pleasures for the couple. This second, more purely sexual practice in the Hindu tradition deals with a greater belief system of energies, chakras, and other concepts of the subtle body’s construction. There is no evidence at this time that the Moche studied a similar program of the body, though they certainly could have. However, it is known that the peoples on the north coast of Peru did practice these various “non productive” sexual acts with great frequency, much to the chagrin of both the Inca and the Spaniards.

“[The Incas thought] that ‘it is a loss of seed.’ This, if no other, was the reason for the intense reaction of the Incas’ governors, who destroyed masses of yuncas because of this practice: bachelors and sodomists were enemies of the state.” (von Hagen, p51.)

No doubt these practices were pleasurable on the mundane level for the Moche and their successors, but the practice of these sexual acts may have also been in deference to and reflective of the “tantrik” system suggested by this paper, and perhaps this is why it was so difficult for the Incas and the Spaniards to stamp out.

“Aghast at such ‘waste of seed,’ for loss of children was loss of people, [the Incas] regarded this practice as abominable, and tried to stamp it out by destroying families, even whole tribes. It persisted.” (von Hagen, p.49) And we can assume that the Spaniards made various efforts to end this practice, too.

Conclusion: Lunge, Parry, Thrust

This theory of a tantra-like system of thought in the Moche culture is difficult to pin down as a viable explanation for their “erotic” images. A great deal of work remains to be done in this area, even more so than in other areas of study regarding the Moche and the Andean cultures in general. The intention of this paper is not to suggest any actual connection between South Asian Tantra and the Moche religious complex, but it remains clear that the depiction of these “sexual” acts and circumstances are extremely important in the body of Moche sculpture, ornamentation, and ceramics. The theories of scholars to the effect that these works are mundanely descriptive of the sex life of this artistically and symbolically prolific and complex culture seem woefully inadequate to describe such a powerful body of work. Von Hagen (like many others) slickly downplays “erotic” art as he casually comments that, “…the woman was the sex historian of the tribe…As most Mochica-Chimu pottery was mould-cast, a woman could perform these tasks at home in her spare time.” (von Hagen, p.52) However, contrary to von Hagen’s claims, the evidence suggests that most of the fine-ware of the Moche was produced in centralized shops, usually in close proximity to seats of power. Surely, most of the extant “erotic” ceramic pieces would fit the category of fine-ware, and such an object as the Warrior-Priest’s scepter would be produced in an extremely elite (and probably male) craft environment. (Bawden, 8.April, 1997) Interestingly, von Hagen contradicts himself and supports an elite production view when he states that the only comparison to be made to these pieces outside of the Andean world are the temple sculptures at Khajuraho and Konarak in central and eastern India, respectively. (Von Hagen, p.51) But the connection he posits is one of image only, not of possible similarities in philosophical undercurrents.

Perhaps the possible (if fantastic, admittedly) connection is not made between tantrik systems and Moche “erotica” because the bulk of scholarship has been performed by Westerners. Since the death of Sophia in the early days of Roman Catholic power (aside from the occasional, heretical attempts to exhume her), the idea of procreative mysticism or religion has been largely absent in the Christian world. For this reason, it is important to remember that no single culture can be the measure of all things, despite so many whimpers to the contrary. And so this paper has attempted to step back, circle around, and re-approach Moche “erotic” art from a different standpoint, as far as possible, from the standpoint of a system that could directly relate and sympathize, not just cast off these images as jocular pornography.

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