Lords, Warriors, Priests, and Gods

Priests and lords, such as those shown in this detail from a fine-line painted ceramic, performed rituals and were buried in the great Moche pyramids.  Drawing by D. McClelland from photos by C. B. Donnan
Priests and lords, such as those shown in this detail from a fine-line painted ceramic, performed rituals and were buried in the great Moche pyramids. Drawing by D. McClelland from photos by C. B. Donnan

The faces of humans and humanoids commonly appear in Moche art. It is often difficult to distinguish among gods, mythological heroes, and various kinds of human potentates. Large fangs on otherwise human faces usually denote deities. Perhaps the most famous Moche pottery forms are “portrait head” vessels. They likely were modeled on real people, but whether they represent historic individuals or mythological heroes remains a subject of investigation.

Research has identified distinctive headdresses, regalia, and postures as indicators of specific deities and humans. The main Moche deity is known as the Decapitator God. He is often shown standing with arms partly outstretched, a human head in one hand and a curved-blade knife in the other. Sometimes this god’s head, with fanged mouth and distinctive headdress, is featured by itself in art.

Moche lords were often depicted as warriors, and in late times, a warrior deity was prominent in art. Rulership was intimately tied to warfare and sacrifice. Captured prisoners were stripped of their clothes and marched with ropes around their necks to temple complexes, where they were killed by priests and priestesses dressed as deities. The victims’ blood was ritually drunk by the priests, probably in front of a large audience of onlookers. This ritual, known as the Sacrifice Ceremony, appears frequently in late Moche art when fine-line painting increased in popularity.

Many scenes shown in art appear to be episodes from long myths. Some of these narrative fragments, or themes, have been identified and relationships between them proposed. Other myths, and the heroes or gods depicted in them, remain mysterious and unknown.