Death in Ancient Peru

The journey to the Underworld or the Inner World

By Museo Larco

Museo Larco

Sculptural ceramic ceremonial vessel that represents Ai Apaec, mythological hero of the Moche emerging from a corn cob ML003291 (1 AD - 800 AD) by Moche styleMuseo Larco

Andean Worldview

The societies of ancient Peru were agricultural societies and had a strong and dynamic connection with its natural environment. They had a fundamental preoccupation in understanding the cycles of nature, such as the cyclical return of the seasons. Moreover, they considered that in a similar way humans also experienced natural cycles, they born, live, die and travel to the underworld or inner world, where life is reborn

Ceramic ceremonial vessel that represents spirals ML010720 (1 AD - 800 AD) by Moche styleMuseo Larco

These cycles are possible because the forces that animate the world are in constant movement...

... This dynamic is represented by the symbol of the spiral.

Ceramic ceremonial vessel with stepped designs and volutes ML010933 (1 AD - 800 AD) by Moche styleMuseo Larco

In the Andean worldview there are three planes or worlds...

... The stepped symbol represent these three planes or worlds: the world above, the terrestrial world, and the underworld...

... and the spiral symbolizes the infinite dynamic that exists between them.

Sculptural ceramic ceremonial vessel that represents the head of Ai Apaec, mythological hero of the Moche in the upper world ML003022 (1 AD - 800 AD) by Moche styleMuseo Larco

The World Above

Inhabited by the gods.

Sculptural ceramic ceremonial vessel that represents a head of a man ML013572 (1 AD - 800 AD) by Moche styleMuseo Larco

The Terrestrial World

Inhabited by men and animals.

Sculptural ceramic ceremonial vessel that represents the head of Ai Apaec, mythological hero of the Moche in the underworld ML013574 (1 AD - 800 AD) by Moche styleMuseo Larco

The Underworld

Inhabited by the dead.

Sculptural ceramic ceremonial vessel that represents a decapitator mythological being ML010854 (1 AD - 800 AD) by Moche styleMuseo Larco

Death

In ancient Peru people were completely convinced that there was life after death. Death was thought of as a state of transition. Many of the pieces in the Museum Larco’s collection were created as offerings, to be carried down to the grave and to cross over into the land of the dead.

Whistling ceramic vessel that represents a funerary bundle ML031840 (800 AD - 1300 AD) by Huari styleMuseo Larco

Reverence for the Ancestors

In Andean societies there was a constant preoccupation with the continuity of the cycle of life. For this reason, when their leaders died, they built tombs and performed funeral rites to transform them into powerful ancestors able to fertilize the earth and ensure that society and the universe continued to exist.

Funerary mantle ML600068 (1250 BC - 1 AD) by Paracas styleMuseo Larco

Funerary mantles were used by the peoples of the south coast of Peru to wrap the bodies of their dead in multiple layers, together with offerings, thus creating a kind of funerary parcel or bundle which was then deposited into a pit in the ground.

This mantle expressed the Andean worldview through animal images that represented the different worlds and brought them together in the same object.

Funerary mask ML100187 (1 AD - 800 AD) by Moche styleMuseo Larco

Funerary masks were an important part of the burial of the leaders of ancient Peruvian societies. The mask allowed the deceased to be transformed into the figure it represented.

Gold ceremonial attire ML100861 (1300 AD - 1532 AD) by Chimu styleMuseo Larco

Golden funerary attire of a great lord, buried in the mud-brick city of Chan Chan, the capital of the Chimú kingdom.

Sculptural ceramic ceremonial vessel that represents a sexually active inhabitant of the underworld ML004199 (1 AD - 800 AD) by Moche styleMuseo Larco

The Dead

In the Andean worldview, the dead continued to be active in the underworld or inner world. Their vitality was manifested in the possibility to continue procreating, since, even though a corpse, the man is able to emit fertilizing semen.

Sculptural ceramic ceremonial vessel that represents an inhabitant of the underworld masturbating himself ML004212, Moche style, 1 AD - 800 AD, From the collection of: Museo Larco
Show lessRead more

Through masturbation, the ancestor who dwelt in the underworld or inner world is capable of emitting semen to fertilize the earth.

Sculptural ceramic ceremonial vessel that represents a woman masturbating a man ML004443, Salinar style, 1250 BC - 1 AD, From the collection of: Museo Larco
Show lessRead more

Sculptural ceramic ceremonial vessel that represents a woman masturbating an inhabitant of the underworld ML004341 (1 AD - 800 AD) by Moche styleMuseo Larco

Scene of propitiation in the world of the dead, where the woman masturbates the deceased in order to obtain semen, either real or symbolic.

The stepped design symbolizes access to the underworld.

Sculptural ceramic ceremonial vessel that represents an inhabitant of the underworld playing the pan flute and being embraced by a woman ML004336 (1 AD - 800 AD) by Moche styleMuseo Larco

The ancestor, next to his wife, plays the Andean panpipe...

... instrument that enables contact between the worlds. The Andean panpipes are usually played in pairs, each musician complemented the other during the performance.

Sculptural ceramic ceremonial vessel that represents the sexual union of Ai Apaec and a mythological woman ML004211, Moche style, 1 AD - 800 AD, From the collection of: Museo Larco
Show lessRead more

Ai Apaec, hero of Moche mythology, copulates with a woman who represents the earth. This union takes place in the world of the ancestors and symbolizes the meeting of opposites that generates life.

Sculptural ceramic ceremonial vessel that represents Ai Apaec, mythological hero of the Moche emerging from a corn cob ML003291 (1 AD - 800 AD) by Moche styleMuseo Larco

The return

The cycle continues...from the earth, fertilized by the dead that inhabit the underworld, the fruits emerge. In this piece we see how Ai Apaec returns between bundles of corncobs, the golden fruit from which chicha is obtained, the ceremonial drink of the Andes.

Credits: Story

Guión — Museo Larco: Isabel Collazos y Ulla Holmquist
Fotografía — Museo Larco Archives
Referencias
— Rafael Larco Hoyle, 1942. Los Mochicas.
— Juergen Golte, 2009. Moche, Cosmología y Sociedad.
— Peter Kaulicke, 1997, La Muerte en el Antiguo Perú.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Stories from Museo Larco
Explore more
Related theme
Day of the Dead
Explore and celebrate one of Mexico's most magical and popular traditions
View theme
Google apps