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Sex, Death, and Sacrifice in Moche Religion and Visual Culture

Steve Bourget
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  • Book Info
    Sex, Death, and Sacrifice in Moche Religion and Visual Culture
    Book Description:

    The Moche people who inhabited the north coast of Peru between approximately 100 and 800 AD were perhaps the first ancient Andean society to attain state-level social complexity. Although they had no written language, the Moche created the most elaborate system of iconographic representation of any ancient Peruvian culture. Amazingly realistic figures of humans, animals, and beings with supernatural attributes adorn Moche pottery, metal and wooden objects, textiles, and murals. These actors, which may have represented both living individuals and mythological beings, appear in scenes depicting ritual warfare, human sacrifice, the partaking of human blood, funerary rites, and explicit sexual activities.

    In this pathfinding book, Steve Bourget raises the analysis of Moche iconography to a new level through an in-depth study of visual representations of rituals involving sex, death, and sacrifice. He begins by drawing connections between the scenes and individuals depicted on Moche pottery and other objects and the archaeological remains of human sacrifice and burial rituals. He then builds a convincing case for Moche iconography recording both actual ritual activities and Moche religious beliefs regarding the worlds of the living, the dead, and the afterlife. Offering a pioneering interpretation of the Moche worldview, Bourget argues that the use of symbolic dualities linking life and death, humans and beings with supernatural attributes, and fertility and social reproduction allowed the Moche to create a complex system of reciprocity between the world of the living and the afterworld. He concludes with an innovative model of how Moche cosmological beliefs played out in the realms of rulership and political authority.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79183-1
    Subjects: Archaeology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1 More Questions than Answers
    (pp. 1-64)

    The Moche inhabited what is now the Peruvian north coast for nearly seven hundred years, between the first and the eighth centuries of our common era. Their origin, their history, and the nature of their political and religious structure are still a matter of debate. But greater advances than ever before have been made in the past two decades or so, and the picture of a complex and fascinating society is slowly emerging from their sand-covered sites and from the shelves of museums where thousands upon thousands of their exquisitely modeled and painted ceramics are waiting to be rediscovered. Thanks...

  6. 2 Eros
    (pp. 65-177)

    I will begin this essay with the representations depicting sexual acts and explore their multiple and complex relations with death, sac - rifice, fertility, and the all-encompassing concept of the afterlife. Among the themes represented in Moche iconography, there exists a surprising repertory of vases representing sexual acts. Given the interest for this subject in the modern world, it might not be too surprising to realize that Moche sexual depictions have been written about the most.

    This seemingly peculiar subject is not unique to the Moche, and most ancient Andean systems of representation such as those of the Salinar, Vicus,...

  7. 3 Eros and Thanatos
    (pp. 178-185)

    In this chapter, the structural relationship between the broad subject of sexual representations and the Burial Theme will be investigated with a number of scenes that represent subjects both on a single ceramic vessel and within the same narrative. These scenes not only present an important methodological justification to associate both subjects—sex and death—but will also permit forays into the everpresent problem of myths versus rituals. In other words, is it possible to discern what could have been a mythical representation and what could have been an authentic ritual performed by living beings? Again, it is not an...

  8. 4 Thanatos
    (pp. 186-224)

    In this chapter, I will explore the “afterworld” or “world of the ancestors,” terms that have loosely been applied to a number of concepts and representations in Moche culture and iconography. It is not by any means an easy undertaking to visit the mindscape of an ancient society, but I would argue that a number of concepts developed so far, especially those of symbolic duality and ritual inversion, should provide us with the tools needed to attempt this journey.

    The emphasis will now be given to a number of scenes, predominantly from Phase V, that represent what appear to be...

  9. 5 Dualities, Liminalities, and Rulership
    (pp. 225-238)

    In Moche visual culture the sexual acts, the transport of funerary paraphernalia, and the offering of children are consistently being carried out by three broad types of subjects. The first one consists of human beings. The second one consists of living-dead, skeletal, or mutilated beings. The third one consists of individuals with supernatural attributes and the bat.

    I have suggested here that to explore Moche religion and belief system, these three types of actors had to be related to three conceptually and cognitively different but related domains: the World of the Living (human beings), the World of the Dead (skeletal...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 239-242)
    (pp. 243-252)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 253-258)