Moche Depictions of Severed Limbs

Clifford C. Richey May 2012

Photo Credit: Nahan Benn Nathan Benn,

This Moche pottery looks quite strange with its depictions of severed legs and feet encircling the vessel. One has to wonder that with all the available motifs why the composer would have chosen severed legs and feet to decorate a vessel. We will attempt to show that this was not simply a whim of the ancient artist but rather a carefully planned composition that was based on sign language. For more background on the compositional rules that were developed for written sign language please refer to: The overall shape of the vessel is one of a bottle gourd. Prior to the use of pottery, gourds were used for an untold number of years for all manner of containers, such cups, ladles, bowls, and other vessels. Later when pottery was introduced it would have been natural to continue using the familiar form of the gourd and its metaphorical connotations. The overall shape of this vessel is one of a bottle gourd with an upright stem. Gourd stems are hollow and metaphorically, may have represented the umbilical cord from the parent (plant) to the child (the fruit). The vessel, itself, represented the earth-female as a container of seeds, a hole, the vagina, and a tunnel or tube (the uterus) that led into a cave of the underworld (the ovaries of the earth-female). Illustration 1: Color Coded Signs

The Round shape of the bottom portion of the vessel represents the great (relative size) one. The Mouth (a sign for a water-source) of the vessel (black and white) is the sign for a hole. The Neck of the Vessel, its Throat, represents the tube or tunnel to the Stomach or Body of the vessel. It is the (light green) vertical-place sign. A vertical-place indicates a place with height or depth. The (green) “V” shaped sign indicates an opening in the Straight Line (a surface) The Double Lined (light blue) of the Handle is the sign for, a hidden or unseen cave. Below it is a (yellow) Double Lined Half Circle, this is the sign for the under-half or the underworld. This sign is also Double Lined meaning the unseenunderworld. From the above we begin to understand that the signs on the vessel were an overlay upon which the underlying base was viewed as a body of the earth-female. If one was looking at the vessel frontally then one could probably only see one of the (dark brown) Severed Legs completely. The Small Half-Circle that serves as a protruding bone of the Leg was positioned, on the side (of the earth) The Leg itself means long and the Foot means a walk or journey.

A long dark journey. As a Severed Foot with the bone protruding from the upper leg it is obvious that the leg was no longer a living leg. The meaning here would refer to, the long dark walk or journey of the dead. The protruding Bone is in the form of a side sign and it was positioned, on the side of the upper portion of the leg. The Leg and Foot can be further broken down into further signs. The Leg is a Finger (tan) pointing a direction, here. Here on the side (positional) of the (red) Triangular earth-female sign. The Toes (left,

Illustration 2: Color Coded Signs

dark blue) represent a doorway into the earth-female while the (black) Toes represent, into the doorway. The (red) Triangular pad of the Foot indicates the earth-female while the Heel (light blue) represents a male spirit positioned below. The long journey into the doorway (a hole in the surface of the earth) of the male-spirit below. If one looks closely at the Leg one can detect that the composer painted the upper thigh from a place sign and the calf of the from a large side sign. This only tends to reinforce the message, obtained from the protruding bone, that the walk is on the side of the earthfemale. There appear to be five Legs on the side of the vessel and they are in the Stance of seeming to walk around the sides. Based on earlier papers it seems that the number five was a form of shorthand meaning the four directions plus the center. Thus the walk was a walk around the center of the earth, the Navel of the earth-female. This center probably reflected back to the hole in the surface of the earth. A physical site that would have held significant cosmological meaning. This was an area where, like the opening in the spout of the vessel, there was a place where water from below poured out of the earth –a spring site. Below the Legs, at the base of the vessel, are the signs for dark and water, in effect, the female waters of the underworld surrounded (positional) by darkness. Speaking of the female-waters the rivers or streams of the underworld were depicted as Serpents.

Illustration 3: The Serpent In another Moche vessel we see a Serpent (a stream of water) heading (Stance) upward. Its undulating body (red) indicating the sign for movement. The Eye of the Serpent (black) is in the Form of the sign for a hole. Touching the hole sign is the Mouth of the Serpent (pink) meaning the Mouth of the stream –a water source. Even today there are remnants of this bodily perspective in English when we refer to the Mouth of a Jar or the Mouth of a River. We also note that the Serpent vessel was divided in half (green) by two Half-Circles each indicating a side of the earth-female. We are now aware that Moche vessels were three dimensional cosmological statements.. In this light the depiction of the severed legs on the vessel become less strange than was our initial impression.

Illustration 4: More Moche Severed Limbs Photo Credit: Nathan Benn

Nathan Benn,
Now that we are able to perceive Moche severed limbs as cosmological statements we will take a quick look at some other depictions of severed leg and a pair of severed arms. The severed Leg (left in the photograph) is lying (positional) on its side. We note that the Spout and Handle of the vessel were composed of the same signs that we found in the vessel that we interpreted earlier. We have the hole in the surface of the earth, the tunnel and opening into the unseen cave and now a new Form within the Handle, that of a Large Bean shaped Seed. The meaning of the Seed is something like, the one that germinates or sprouts. Due to its relative size we must add the meaning of greatness. The great one that will sprout. Because this statement relates to a severed leg we understand that the meaning relates to a human being. The walk or journey of this seed or spirit is around the center, the “U” shaped (meaning, turning) sign this was positioned at the Knee and beneath the central Spout. The Toes of the Foot were created from male-spirit (a Form derived from the glans-penis) signs. Of course there are five Toes, the number which we have identified above, as meaning the four directions (everywhere) plus the center (of the four directions). Because the Leg and Foot's Stance was on the side the Toes Form the curved arising sign. They, the male spirits, arise at the center which we now know is a spring site or an area where subterranean water arises to the surface of the earth. The Arm and Hand vessel in the middle of the photograph was based on the shape of the gesture sign for , a high mountain. The higher the mountain the higher one placed one's arm above one's head in making the sign1. The closed Fingers of the hand are four Rectangular vertical-place signs indicating, vertical-places in all four directions or everywhere. The Thumbnail, from this perspective, is a verticalplace sign and the Form of the thumb is in the sign for arising. The Curve of the palm is cupped 1Tomkins, William, Indian Sign Language, Dover Publications, Inc. New York, P 17. “Bluff, make the sign for Mountain, raising or lowering fist to indicate height.”

making the sign for, held as in a bowl indicating, perhaps, a pool of water. The meaning of the imagery of Arms (warriors) and Hands (stewards) reflect the meaning of, warrior-priests of the Sun. This vessel reflects the cosmological phase of the Moche afterlife where the warrior-priests ascend to the sky from vertical-places, the high mountains, from places where they had been held as in a bowl (of water). Finally we see, to the right of the photograph, a vessel shaped in the form of another Arm and Hand. This Form was also made as lying on the side (Stance and position). The Hand holds a Tumi Knife which we learned in previous papers was a sign for a Ray of the Sun. The one that cuts open (cracks) the face of the earth. Here the meaning is one in which the warrior-priest, a ray of the Sun is held as in a bowl. Only three (shorthand for, many) Fingers are shown in a horizontal position, the manyhorizontal-places. In other words, the many places on the earth's surface where water is pooled holding the spirit's of the deceased warrior-priests awaiting their ascension. There is probably more to this message but the details are not clear in the photograph. All of the vessels appear to have some red coloring on them which alerts us to the ancient use of red as a reference to the rising sun and rebirth.

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