Throughout 40 years, the Polish archaeologist Krzysztof Makowski has excavated and investigated important sites on the north and central Peruvian coast. And among the aspects that most caught his attention are the various pre-Hispanic religious iconographies that reveal complex belief systems that cannot be explained by following European models alone.
In this volume, titled Gods and beliefs of pre-Hispanic Peru, published by EY, the author questions widespread ideas such as the existence of a creator god in the Andean world similar to Christianity and rather affirms that religion involved everything in the form of a worldview. We chatted with Makowski about these issues.
How to understand religion in pre-Hispanic Peru without falling into direct or indirect comparison with Christianity?
When I began to delve into the subject (religious), I realized that a very reductionist vision dominated and still dominates the minds of many researchers: religion is defined for them as the ideology imposed by the ruling class and, likewise, the emergence of the political structure of the State, in a nascent class society, implied the secularization of beliefs and institutions. In this way, what happened in Europe in the Age of Enlightenment is taken as a model. For me it is an anachronism and it does not have much to do with the reality investigated, because secular spaces and institutions are not present in any of our sources, neither archaeological nor historical. On the contrary, when we look for the secular, the religious appears… From my perspective, Andean religion has to be understood and studied as a worldview because in reality it involves everything. It is at all levels of human action: in politics, in the economy, in war, in peace, in everything. In the case of the Moche, the deities, when they are represented, share headdresses and dresses with human beings of different hierarchies and both sexes. It alludes to the idea that the same social and natural order was established in heaven and on earth, in the past time of the myth, so that the rules and behaviors that govern where the gods and ancestors dwell are the same as humans must follow.
In the book, he raises an interesting question: Did some of the gods have a universal character, as rulers of the natural order, of earth and heaven, or, on the contrary, were all of them conceived as ancestors of their respective communities of believers? […] in relation to the prestige of the numen-huaca?
It is one of the central questions in the history of religions and it would take a lifetime and several volumes to try to answer it fully. However, I don’t want to avoid it. The archaeologist specializing in complex societies has the potential advantage of recognizing the value of excavated images and contexts as an independent source. However, in order to take advantage of this value, it is necessary to assume as a hypothesis that the complex societies of the past are similar in some respects, but absolutely not in others. For this reason, we must try to approach the other, our ancestor who had his own ways of representing and narrating, of organizing himself, of understanding the divine, the natural, the cultural, etc. Tello, like Larco, firmly considered that the Andean populations were devotees of a creator god, with roots in Chavín or Cupisnique… This is a vision close to that of chroniclers such as Betanzos, Molina, Santa Cruz Pachacuti or Guaman Poma de Ayala, who they believed that the natives had a presentiment of the true religion and therefore were devotees of Wiracocha, the creator god. But, on the other hand, we have written and material sources from which emerges the vision of a very different religion and perhaps much closer to reality. Instead of a single creator deity, the Andean world depends on the performance and benevolence of various deities. His character differs greatly from the personality of the Christian God and also from the Greek and Roman, Egyptian or Mesoamerican gods. An Andean deity like Pariacaca can be, at the same time and according to the circumstances, rock and bird; at one moment he can be incarnated as a ragged beggar and then as a resplendent warrior; It is a deity that has different possible epiphanies. Similarly, as in the Amazonian beliefs analyzed by Levi Strauss and Descola, rocks, springs, lagoons, objects can have agency and behave like humans. Those aspects are present today in certain levels of popular Christianity but are not part of canonical religion.
In his research he questions some of Tello’s postulates, who affirmed that in Chavín the feline god and the being of the staffs were the same deity present in the Lanzón, the Obelisk and the Raimondi Stela.
Tello was not only convinced that Andean beliefs followed the same path as the religions of the ancient Mediterranean, but also considered that the way of representing the divine adopted the same conventions in all ancient civilizations. According to this assumption, he arranged the images in a typological series that suggested the transformation of a god from an animal form into an anthropomorphic one. Thus, he supported his hypothesis that Lanzón represented the only Chavín deity. From my point of view, Chavín iconography with its metonymic-metaphorical conventions does not resemble classical art and should not be analyzed as such. I propose a different perspective, closer to that proposed by authors such as Peter Roe, Lucy Salazar and Richard Burger. That is to say, apart from Lanzón, the main deities were represented in the columns of the Falcónidas Portico and in the Tello Obelisk. In all these cases they are large and complex figures. Unique images, found in privileged places in front of the temple. Hybrid animals, birds and supernatural lizards represented in these reliefs, which contain heads and elements of other mythical, subaltern beings. It should be noted that, unlike other smaller representations, these require interpretation by a religious specialist, since they cannot be fully appreciated even by turning the column or obelisk around. In addition, Chavín was transformed from a local cult, in a small temple with Lanzón in the atrium, to a large complex attended by people from 700 kilometers around. The Tello Obelisk and the Falcónidas Portico correspond to the decoration of the temple in this boom period between 900 and 400 BC.
Is Lanzón already losing strength at that moment?
It is possible… What I consider is that he was incorporated into a larger group of deities, as a being from the underworld. He thus becomes a counterpart to the deities in the aspect of Eagle, female, and Falcon, male, which are seen in the columns of the front of the south wing, in the main axis of the temple. I consider it likely that the winged gods were worshiped on top of the southern platform as sky gods. The Chavín pantheon also included other deities, such as mythical lizards, perhaps responsible for the rains, and hybrid beings with human bodies. The latter could correspond to images of ancestors from the communities of the coast, mountains and jungle, which were part of the Chavín religious confederation.
The feline god did not exist either?
The idea of the feline god stems from a recurring feature in the iconic personality of various deities. Actually, we are talking about the ability to have fangs, to be a skilled hunter like a jaguar, a puma, a monkey, a snake, a spider or an osprey. It is a metaphor for power. The chavín and cupisnique deities are various and have a hybrid nature, combining characteristics of skillful sky, sea and earth hunters, those who move by day or night. These conventions are partly maintained in Moche iconography.
In the Moche case, he finds a narrative structure behind the figurative themes of the wall ceramics.
We could say that the Moche iconography has narrative characteristics that are fully manifested in the late phases (approximately 500-850 AD) and are similar to a comic strip, obviously without legends. I know of no convincing cases of a thematic structure in Andean iconography. I disagree with many of my colleagues on this point; that is to say, there are no themes such as “Crucifixion”, “Annunciation”, “Last Supper” etc. in the Moche repertoire, because, to begin with, there is no illustrated book that is the origin of all thematic conventions. We are in an unwritten, oral tradition. So, what predominates is a metaphorical metonymic structure and occasionally the narrative structure appears. Thanks to this particularity, the researchers of Moche iconography were able to determine not only the hypothetical list of the main deities, but also to describe their respective personalities and their range of action. It is even possible to reconstruct the plot of some myths, such as the one that describes the attempt to dominate the land of mortals by the warrior god of the night and the underworld and the goddess of the sea and the Moon. The famous paintings of the Huaca de la Luna (new temple) and Pañamarca allude to this myth. According to my hypothesis, four male deities share the government of the world (Moche), while the couple made up of the ancestor god of the earth and the goddess of the sea and the Moon take care of the borders, the mountains and the sea.
“Gods and beliefs in pre-Hispanic Peru”
The first volume of Gods and beliefs in pre-Hispanic Peru, dedicated to the coast and northern highlands, has been published by EY, with the editorial direction of Apus Graph Ediciones. A second volume will appear soon.