Among the shelves of the Logan Museum of Anthropology’s “Cube” are many stirrup spout vessels from the Pre-Columbian Moche culture of Peru (1st-8th century CE). One particular object may be appropriate for this Valentine’s Day week, although it may make some people blush. This particular pot looks similar to all the others—reddish in color with a stirrup-shaped spout. A closer look reveals that, unlike the iconography on other pieces that depicts animals or people, this vessel is unique. It depicts a family, lying on what we assume to be a bed or sleeping area. A male and a female figure lie close together, engaging in intercourse. Next to the female figure is a small child, whom she is breastfeeding.
Given the wealth of research into Pre-Columbian, South American pottery in general and the Moche culture of Peru specifically, very little research has focused on these so-called “erotic” works, which are a common motif. According to the late Beloit College Professor of Anthropology Dan Shea,“This pot represents an unexplained category of Moche iconography. These have been found in various contexts, including the graves of minor children, leading to the conclusion that magical or mythical considerations predominate.”
The study of prehistoric beliefs and behaviors is difficult enough to do. Is it really possible to deduce past attitudes and practices surrounding sex? Without written records, can we really know why this type of vessel was made and how it was understood? Is there evidence that proves these erotic scenes had magical or mythical functions?
Scholars exploring these ceramics and their potential meanings point to examples of varying cultural understandings of sex and of a healthy conception. In some Amazonian cultures, regular sexual activity during pregnancy is thought to be necessary for the continued growth of the fetus. Even after birth, semen and breastmilk are thought of as equally nutritious substances, important to the health of the mother, and thus, the newborn. According to anthropologist Mary Weismantel, in this kind of cultural understanding,
The focus is on the body's capacity to generate, store, and transmit life-giving reproductive substances—including semen, menstrual blood, and breast milk, all of which are perceived as transformed versions of a single essence, at once material and spiritual in nature. Exchanges of these nurturant substances, circulated among young bodies and regulated by elders, lie at the heart of reproduction and of social and spiritual life. This process is not limited to specific orifices, members, or actors but involves multiple bodily acts (Weismantel 2004, 499).
This erotic moche pot can perhaps be read as a visualization of this process: As the mother receives semen, she is simultaneously giving milk, therefore ensuring the physical and spiritual health of her child and family.
And so, if we put aside our Western conceptions of the body, sex and eroticism, and reproduction and family, this Moche pot holds the potential to be less of an erotic fantasy, and more a depiction of deeply spiritual love and respect.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Weismantel, Mary. “Moche Sex Pots: Reproduction and Temporality in Ancient South America,” American Anthropologist 106/3 (September 2004), 495-505.