Running from Flies

By Matthew Harris, Museum Intern

The Moche civilization existed in northern Peru, near what is present day Trujillo, from the about 100 to 700A.D. There is much debate about the political organization of the Moche civilization with scholars arguing between a more centralized state and diffuse set of autonomous zones, sharing a common culture. Society was agriculturally based and the Moche were known for their sophisticated systems of irrigation as well as their elaborately constructed art. While there are similarities between many pre-Columbian civilizations, the Moche are uniquely different from the Mayans and Aztecs of Mexico.

Moche pottery jug

Jaguar detail
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, TM 5762

This stirrup-spout bottle depicts a sitting warrior, with his weapon and shield. There is also a jaguar to his left. Jaguars represent many different things across central and South America. While commonly signifying power, in Mayan culture they are also thought to be guardians of the underworld, able to move freely between worlds. Jaguars are also associated with royalty and prestige. This warrior is likely well respected and has seen many battles. Jaguar skins, including the head, were also worn by warriors as decoration before going into battle.

For the Moche, the primary reason for going into battle was taking captives. “Although splayed (presumably dead) figures occasionally appear in combat scenes, they are rare. There are no examples of victims pierced by spears… nor are there any illustrations showing dispatching, decapitating or dismembering victims on the battlefield” (Verano 114). Instead, the Moche would prepare captives to be sacrificed.

The sacrifice itself was a standard ritual that many would attend. At the Sacrifice Ceremony bound captives would have their throats cut and blood would be gathered in cups by attendees.

Moche vessel
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, TM 5776

The vessel to the left depicts someone holding a quero. Queros were drinking vessels used to hold chicha (corn-based alcohol) and they were also important to many rituals. One of which was the sacrifice ceremony, but there were also agricultural rituals which involved offering blood to the land itself.

In the Sacrifice Ceremony, the cups of blood would be presented to a cast of supernatural figures. Perhaps the most important of these figures was Ai Apaec (pictured below), the chief deity and decapitator. Ai Apaec was worshiped as the creator god, protector of the Moche, a provider of water, food and military triumphs. During the ceremony, heads of the sacrificed would be brought before the god.

Moche pottery jug
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, TM 5763

Ai Apaec was depicted in many different ways, depending on the time period and the specific place. Most commonly, the god is represented as an eight legged spider with an anthropomorphic face and jaguar fangs. Pictured above, Ai Apaec is shown as an anthropomorphic crab.

The Moche had a very developed understanding of death and the journey of the soul. What’s interesting about their understanding is how concretely it is based in observable experience and natural processes. “In very ancient times, they say, when a person died, people laid the body out until five days had gone by. The dead person’s spirit which is the size of a fly, would fly away saying, ‘Sio!’ When it flew away people said, ‘Now he’s going away to see Paria caca, our maker and our sustainer” (Bourget 105). Pariacaca is one of the highest mountains in the Andes and an important spiritual location. The Moche carefully observed the decaying of a body and considered it to be the soul’s journey out of body, with the fly’s departure being the soul’s final farewell.

Reading about the Moche people’s relationship with death I wonder about our own practices. We seem to desperately hold on to life, preserving the dead with chemicals and enclosures, buried underground and separate from the flies. What might the Moche think of us? Are we trapping the souls of the deceased for eternity?



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