‘Blood-thirsty religions in Peru…?’

By John Reeve

Peru- a journey in time’, a new exhibition at the BM, is an interesting example of museum anthropologists tackling religion, ritual and our attitudes to what we may find deeply abhorrent in other cultures in the past. In a related article, by the exhibition curators, we are admonished as follows: ’A common misconception of these cultures as brutal or bloodthirsty misses the truth that the representations of death reflect the inestimable value of life to Andean societies. Death was emblematic of the human responsibility to sustain life and maintain the balance of life forces in the living world….’ Curator Jago Cooper rightly points out in the context of our horror at human sacrifice that ‘The gaze of moral certainty and judgement is rarely turned on one’s own cultural practices’ [Pardo and Cooper 151] but this is clearly a problematic issue. In their related article  they tell us that ‘humans were often captured in warfare and taken back to the ruler’s palace and religious centre before having their throats slit or hearts removed’. [Cooper and Pardo 27] In the catalogue we learn about mass sacrifice of children and camelids such as llamas. [Pardo and Cooper 142]  In fact some of the most exquisite objects in the exhibition relate to brutally sacrificed bodies: e.g. the funerary blanket ‘depicting human figures with feline mouth masks holding severed heads’ ‘representing the transformation of the deceased into ancestors’ [Pardo and Cooper 90-91]

Ceremonial drum showing captured prisoners who will be sacrificed and with some heads already severed 100 BC-AD 650 Private collection Photo by Daniel Giannoni

Llamas were also sacrificed: Miniature gold llama, probably for use in funeral ceremonies. Inca, 1400-1532 BM

A detail from the 2,000-year-old funerary blanket showing human figures holding severed heads. [Nasca c 100BC-100AD]  Museo de arte de Lima Photograph: British Museum

The curators’ point is that early Peruvians like so many early cultures invested nature with meaning and recognised the need to placate the natural world with sacrifice if they were to survive in often harsh conditions of mountain and desert. There is a’ spiritual symbiotic connection with the landscape’ which is alive. [Cooper and Pardo 28]  This is of course the landscape of Machu Picchu and the Nasca Lines both discussed here. As in many other cultures, [ancient Greece, Japan] mountains [protective but also threatening] were sacred as were the sea, rivers, lakes, animals, especially felines, and particular objects such as certain kinds of shell used in ritual worship. Worship and sacrifice were conducted by ‘religious elites’ we are told in impressive ‘ceremonial centres.’ [Pardo and Cooper 68]  These often became the focus for pilgrimage as did sacred places like Lake Titicaca. The experience of visiting a temple up in the Andes is well conveyed:

Visitors would come to consult the oracle, pleading for favourable weather and fertility. Once they finally reached the temple a unique experience awaited, one that would transport them into another world through the consumption of psychoactive substances. The roaring of the underground water flowing through the chambers, the enchanting sound of the conch shell trumpets…the sumptuously dressed priests…’  [Pardo and Cooper 74]

Ritual cape in the form of a feline, to be worn in ceremonies to ensure the health and prosperity of the community Moche AD 200-600

Pottery vessel depicting Spondylus shells Chimu  AD 900–1470 © Museo de Arte de Lima.   Photo by Daniel Giannoni

Gold earrings with feline features from an elite Chimu burial 800-550 BC Museu Kuntur Wasi

The Inca site of Moray, Cusco region, Peru © Miguel Majía / PROMPERÚ

Another fascinating theme is mummies- the ancient Peruvians got there first, 9000 years ago. Mummified ancestors were regularly brought to participate in meetings and ceremonies, [a bit like the so-called Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham at University College London, still on display but apparently not needed for meetings anymore!] The idea of ancestors as contemporaries is part of a cyclical rather than linear view of time in ancient Peru.

 Some earlier ideas in Peru about our relations to the natural world have survived into the modern world, despite European colonisation and the imposition of Christianity. Today offerings continue to be made of coca and maize beer and with textiles and miniature objects similar to the llama illustrated here for example, but not in gold; landscape and nature are venerated and propitiated, but minus the sacrifice of people and animals.

The exhibition continues to February 2022


Cooper and Pardo 2021, Andean life stories, in British Museum Magazine Autumn 2021

Pardo and Cooper 2021, Peru- a journey in time The British Museum

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