PARIS.- For the very first time in Europe, the exhibition "Sex, death and sacrifice in the Mochica religion" puts together 134 Mochica ceramics depicting sexual or sacrificial acts with a surprising level of realism. These potteries reveal to us the link that the Mochica people had established between religion, power, sexuality and death.
This amazing religious iconography, which is a meeting of the sexual act and the sacred, is unique in Precolumbian art and specific to Mochica mythology. It represents sacrificial acts but predominantly of a sexual nature between animals and/or anthropomorphous figures. The Mochica craftsmen have moulded these non reproductive rites into their pottery, making the stylized sexual attributes the central themes of an iconography for ritual purposes whose boldness is as pronounced as the strength of their beliefs.
Steve Bourget proposes keys for interpreting this sexual imagery which is not linked to the daily life of the Moche, but refers to a political and religious ideology that is characteristic of their society. Within this ideology dwells the concern for ensuring proper continuity of society and in a more general manner that of the whole universe through the reproduction of the governing authority.
Deciphering the Rites of an Unrecognized Civilization
This major Precolumbian civilization,, a contemporary to the Nazca culture of the southern coast, is ranked amongst the greatest indigenous cultures of the Andes, at the same level as the Inca empire that it preceded by more than five centuries. It flourished from the 1st century to the 7th century of our era in an arid zone of northern Peru. Imposing funeral sites (such as the one of "Lord of Sipan", exhumed in 1987), and the huacas (huge pyramid shaped ceremonial sites), have led to a deeper understanding of this civilization thanks to a number of exhumed testimonials of burials and the wall paintings which adorn funeral monuments.
The exhibition gives us the opportunity to discover this Precolumbian civilization through the prism of its unique mythology which, in the absence of writings, is handed over to us through its specific imagery standing testimonial to the amazing meeting of the sacred, the sexual act and death.
It is important to understand that the sexual images represented on Mochica ceramics are not illustrations of the day-to-day life of the Moche society. Therefore, their interpretation cannot be based on the ideas and values upheld by our own society: their message should be deciphered from a reconstruction of the specific context of the Moche world, which is represented in this exhibition.
By focusing more specifically on ceramic production, a particularly rich facet of Mochica craftsmanship that is well known for its abundance and its realism, the archeologist Steve Bourget unravels the outcome of the research works that he has conducted while studying the whole of Moche iconography in a systematic manner.
However, the interpretations put forward in the exposition are necessarily speculative in nature, given the incomplete nature of archeological sources pertaining to this civilization.
The exhibition is freely based on the book published by Steve Bourget, in 2006: Sex, Death and Sacrifice in Moche Religion and Visual Culture.
A Unique and Complex Ideology
The vestiges of Mochica culture refer back to a complex cosmology organized according to a dualistic principle, that is typical even today of the indigenous cultures of the Andes: the universe and the phenomena that make up the universe are split into two parts, and the elements of the world, arranged in pairs, are assigned to one or the other part.
The Mochica society, as it is represented in iconography, consists of four major classes of beings:
the living beings (humans and domestic animals),
the main divinities or ancestral spirits. on the book published by Steve Bourget, in 2006: Sex, Death and Sacrifice in Moche Religion and Visual Culture.
All these beings are caught in reproduction cycles involving their tipping over from one half to the other, within the framework of big group rituals wherein sacrifices, in particular those of imprisoned warriors, occupied an important place.
We are dealing with one of the most complex aspects of the Mochica religion here: the rites associated with the journey of their Lord the omnipotent dignitary who ruled singlehandedly over his subjects as well as over nature from the World of the living to the World of the dead. Rites which, in the absence of writings, are conjured up by the production of these brick red coloured ceramics. The vases are decorated with painted or sculpted sexual and sacrificial scenes; the representation of explicit acts, involving human beings, animals and even skeletons, accompanied the Lord and the Mochica elite in their journey to the World of the dead, thus guaranteeing their return to life and fertility.
An Unparalelled Know-How, A First-of-Its-Kind Reading
The Mochica have been famous for a long time for the technical virtuosity, the abundant nature and the amazing "realism" of their ceramic productions, and particularly for those portraying sexual acts between animals and between anthropomorphous figures. This sexual imagery, unique owing to its complexity in Precolumbian art, poses multiple interpretation related problems, all the more so since it is linked to funeral contexts, most probably pertaining to dignitaries.
Based upon a systematic study of the religious iconography, the curator Steve Bourget was able to highlight a focus of attention by the funeral ceramics on two major forms of sexuality:
one involving non-procreative sexual acts (sodomy, masturbation, fellation
) between a living human being (generally a woman) and possibly a sacrificial victim, a dead being or a skeletal being.
the other pertains to procreative copulation either between animals symbolizing important elements of fertility (amphibia, rodents
), or between an important divinity mainly the divinity known under the name of "Wrinkle Face" and a human woman.
The first category of images would seem to refer to a reversed sexuality and one that could not lead to procreation as is specific to the inhabitants of the infra world, while the second one, representing copulation between a divinity and a sacrificial victim, would seem to invoke conducive sexuality on the cosmological plane, as a proof of fertility of the world inhabited by the Mochicas.
There is thus nothing erotic about these astonishing representations, and their naturalism is just superficial, since they represent the essential part of super-natural entities or processes combining things that are normally far removed from one another: the living dead, animals with human attributes, gods who are at once destructive and regenerative.
It actually pertains to a religious imagery, for ritual purposes, which uses sexuality for symbolizing abstract cosmological operations: the journey from this world to the infra world, the continuous exchanges of nourishing and nurturing substances blood, the seminal fluid, water
between the living and divinities or ancestral spirits, regulated exchanges that guarantee proper functioning of the universe managing which is the duty of sovereign and religious dignitaries.