The Vulture in Pre-Columbian Incan Art of the Moche Culture Part 2

Vultures do appear on Moche pottery, in drawings and carvings. They also appear in other cultures both preceding and after the Moche. They show up in the rock engravings, apparently once having a symbolism, according to Bierhorst (1988:260) who states there can be little doubt as to the significance of certain figures as mask dancers. In the real mask dances the masks are believed to conjure the demons they represent; similarly the painted figures are believed to permanently act as charms against the spirits. A common idea is that death brings a demon, and it must be dealt with. The belief that the departed reincarnate themselves in certain birds as well as other animals, is extremely common. The myths themselves being similar across the continent suggests contact among the peoples, even if very limited. The Moche had some contact with others around them (Reichert 1982:279).

Bierhorst continues (1988:200-213) that the people, living as they did by hunting, would take from the animal world as they were in intimate contact with them. most ornaments were purely practical charms against evil spirits and the occurrence of animal figures as ornaments is due to the common belief that the spirits assume the shape of animals. Primitive magic, namely the magic of names and the magic of images was common in animal dances with and without masks.

He continues that in animal dances not only images of fish and birds and lizards were used, but the birds were fashioned of wood and painted. They represented hummingbirds, swallows and the caracari vulture as well as the urubu vulture. Jones (1964:68) adds the Mochinca used symbols to show the properties of various creatures, often combining them to form a mythical entity. Here we find the jaguar, the cayman, the serpent, and the condor. The resulting compositions are hybrids which may be read in many different ways. It is one thing to show from what concrete patterns certain diagrammatic ornaments have been derived, another to assign the reason why they have been applied to different objects; to weapons, and implements, and to vessels (Karsten 1988:198).

Benson concurs that Mochica art was related to that of other northern coast groups, and several styles have been found; the pure early Mochica style is very creative, indicating interaction among the groups in motifs as well as mythology (1972:15, 16).

In this forbidding land of rocky desolation the Mochica artist applied his keen observation to all the animals that inhabited his world. Von Hagen continues that their art was unrivaled in all of the Americas. (1965:3).

Few other people in the history of the world have told us as much about themselves with their pottery as have the Mochica of Peru. They covered their pyramids and buildings with murals giving much insight into their lives: their ceremony, irrigation practices, metallurgy, musical instruments. They show realistic representations of battle, of sacrifice, the hunt, wildlife and plants and simply daily lives. (Benson 1972: book cover). Is it any wonder then that we can read through these their idea of the vulture and what it meant to them.

The dry air preserved much of the Moche culture, leaving a rich legacy of artifacts. Stierlin observes the potters must have felt a keen interest in the animal world (1983:76), for their repertory includes serpents, birds and felines which served their environment, and served in some cases as their commons. He shows in plate 61 the same image of a vulture as the object in question. It is made of pottery in the form of a stirrup vessel; its body is a bit fuller; it lacks the inlay, but it is the same image. In Plate 61 is illustrated a stirrup spouted vessel with a condor (Stierlin 1983:76). Another condor vessel is shown in Lapiner’s plate 266.

Although pottery constitutes the bulk of the Moche legacy, other objects are not uncommon. The Mochica were prolific with pottery, especially at the end of their era, giving a spirit of mass-produced quality. But they were also skilled in metals, both working in gold and in casting. Metal seemed to indicate status, as more has been found in elite homes than in those of the commoners, indicating use of metal was probably a status symbol (Earle 1987:98). In von Hagen’s work, he indicates that sheer masses of bronze knives, wedges, cutting tools and tupu pins that have been found in Moche and Chimu graves give testimony to the amazing amounts that were in use. He feels here again that the vast numbers indicates mass production. These include cast pieces as large as crowbars, and delicate small pieces the size of a thumbnail. (1965:83-4).

Carved bone has been found in the area; beautifully carved with small animals and figures on the handle tops of snuff spoons. Wooden staffs and agricultural implements are carved also with figures and animals on top (Docksteder 1967:plate 183, and Jones 1964:49,50). It is therefore not unusual at all to find the object in question carved so well and placed on the top of a knife.