Gods with tusks and claws: how wrathful Buddhist deities might shed light on ancient Peruvian religious belief

Figure 1: Don't let the apparent friendliness fool you (Burger 1992: 149).

Figure 1: Don’t let the apparent friendliness fool you (Burger 1992: 149)–see fig. 2.

A 14’8” (4.5 m) stone giant with long curving tusks, sharp claws, and writhing snakes instead of hair and eyebrows, its loincloth and headdress both made of tiny jaguar faces (figs. 1 and 2). A portal flanked by a pair of heavily armoured, broad-shouldered dwarves with the wings, talons and beak of an eagle, as well as the sharp teeth of a jaguar (fig. 3). Massive twin caymans, shown as if ready to pounce on their victim, and covered from head to tail in strange little fanged goblins (fig. 4).

These and other, similar images adorn the large temple that was built at the central Andean highland site of Chavín de Huantar, nearly three thousand years ago. They depict the deities and assorted supernatural figures of what was probably the first widespread religion in the region: between about 500 and 250 BC, images of snarling, tusked things crop up all over the land that will one day be known as Peru.

Burger (1992) suggests that the Chavín cult owed its popularity to a number of social and/or environmental crises that were gripping the land at the time, and which prompted people to look for comfort and answers in religion. Though no one, to the best of my knowledge, has provided a satisfying explanation for why this might have happened, after more than a millennium of population growth and agriculural prosperity, construction stopped and population levels plummeted at most major centres, just before  the Chavín cult started spreading, so clearly something was going on.

Here, however, I am not so much interested in figuring out what pushed ancient Peruvians to look for answers and comfort in the Chavín cult. Rather, I have always wondered how ancient Peruvians could even find comfort in the terrifying imagery of this religion.

Figure 2: How the Snarling God would have actually appeared (Burger 1992: ).

Figure 2: How the Snarling God would have actually appeared (Burger 1992: ).

How they could find comfort in the values likely promoted by this religion is fairly clear: there is loads of evidence suggesting that the Chavín cult was all about openness, tolerance, and harmony between opposites. Duality is a recurrent theme in Chavín art (as, for example, with the twin caymans and the eagle-headed dwarves–in each of these pairs, one member bears items that link it to the sky, the other to the water), and, at the same time, the greatest extent of the Chavín cult’s popularity coincides with a period of generalised peace in the region (as suggested, not just by the absence of evidence for conflict or warfare, but also by evidence for the increased exchange of ideas–technological innovations spread much faster than in earlier periods–as well as goods–including wool, dried fish, shells, fine textiles, precious metals and semi-precious stones, as well as the first occurence of llama remains outside their natural habitat, which suggests that for the first time they were being used as pack animals).

But how do these things fit with an iconography that emphasises deadly animals and their sharp teeth, talons and claws? Besides the characters mentioned above, material culture associated with the Chavín cult is rich in depictions of jaguars, eagles, snakes and caymans, and mythical creatures that appear to be crosses between two or more of these. Not only that, but, as we have already seen with the stone giant in fig. 1 (known as the Lanzón, Spanish for lance, because of the blade-shaped stone stela on which he is carved), tusks and fangs tend to sprout all over Chavín creature’s bodies: most commonly, from their clothes (as in the Lanzón’s case), as well as from their joints (Rowe (1967) suggests that Chavín artists were deliberately comparing limbs and tails and wings to protruding tongues).

Figure 2: The twin caymans (fish-like tails on the lft, snouts with big conical teeth on the right), bodies covered in nasty goblin-like things and vegetation (Burger 1992: 151).

Figure 3: The twin caymans (fish-like tails on the lft, snouts with big conical teeth on the right), bodies covered in nasty goblin-like things and vegetation (Burger 1992: 151). Click to expand, it’s amazing!

I think it’s reasonable to assume that, if someone had to infer what the Chavín cult was all about, based solely on its art, they would probably come to the conclusion that Chavín gods were bloodthirsty beings, probably requiring loads of human sacrifice, not unlike their Aztec colleagues. And, to be sure, there is some (possible) evidence for human sacrifice at the Chavín temple: human remains have been found in one of the inner galleries, along with a number of other offerings. However, it’s only a few individuals, and nothing suggests that human sacrifice happened very often in the rituals and ceremonies celebrated at the temple. Instead, as we saw a few paragraphs ago, most of the evidence points to Chavín devotees mostly just running around being friends with everyone and holding hands and playing with their new llama friends. How to make sense of this?

Figure 3: Eagle-headed dwarves (Burger 1992: 176).

Figure 4: Eagle-headed dwarves (Burger 1992: 176).

Buddhism might help. Though this religion is well-known for its general chilled-out-ness (in principle, at least, if not always in practice), the art associated with one of its three main branches, Vajrayana (also known as Esoteric or Tantric Buddhism), is rich in depictions of the aptly named “wrathful deities”. These terrifying beings vary a lot in appearance, but, generally, they tend to have multiple arms and heads, sharp teeth and claws, and fiery eyebrows. They are adorned with necklaces or crowns of human skulls. Sometimes they, or their mounts (which may be horses, but also tigers or lions), also wear either flayed human skins or the hides of tigers or leopards. Sometimes they are armed–for example, with a bow and arrow. Sometimes they have roaring faces on their bellies. And so on. Good images are surprisingly difficult to find online, but there’s a fine example here.

These deities may, at first, seem not to have anything to do with Buddhism. I vaguely remember thinking, when I first came across them (at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art, which is definitely worth a visit or two), that they might be influences from pre-Buddhist traditions: demons and ghouls of folklore, imperfectly incorporated within new religious beliefs.

However, it was later explained to me that the wrathful deities are seen as being able to channel their own ferocity towards destroying the obstacles that lie between Buddhist devotees and enlightenment (Linrothe 1999). In other words, their fearsome bodies and faces are meant to scare away the things that normally prevent humans from reaching enlightenment, such as, for example, the fear of death.

I am aware of the massive cultural and historical differences that separate the Chavín cult and Esoteric Buddhism. At the same time, I don’t see why archaeologists should not grab inspiration wherever they can, when interpreting the frustratingly obscure traces of long-lost cultures. So, in this case, I wonder: could it be that the Chavín gods were worshipped because they were thought to be fierce enough that they could scare off any Bad Thing that might befall their devotees?

I wouldn’t know how to test this idea: the Chavín deities are never shown triumphing over something that could be interpreted as symbolising obstacles or difficulties of some kind, for example. But I think the analogy offers a logical possible explanation for the contradiction between the religion’s popularity and likely message of peace and harmony on one side, and its eerie art on the other.

Comments are very welcome: I can hardly claim to be an authority on Buddhist deities, and if there is something I got wrong, or not exactly right, I’d be very happy to know. I would also be very glad to answer any questions about the Chavín cult.


Burger, R. 1992. Chavín and the Origins of Andean Civilization. London: Thames & Hudson.

Linrothe, R. 1999. Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art. London: Serindia.

Rowe, J. 1967. Form and meaning in Chavín art. In Rowe, J. and D. Menzel (eds.) Peruvian Archaeology pp. 72-104. Palo Alto: Peek Publications.

  1. I’d always been horrified and bemused by terrifying depictions of gods in a number of cultures, thank you for your insight with respect to that. It hadn’t occured to me that this ferociousness might be valued due to its power over a culture’s obstacles.

    As someone pretty godless myself (unless the future and technology can be counted as a deity) I really enjoyed reading about your insights with respect to people’s changing relationship with gods over time. Interesting stuff to read over.

    “I wouldn’t know how to test this idea” sounds like the number one problem in your discipline… maybe just behind “I don’t know how to get funding for this.”

    Thanks for the fascinating read [=. I look forward to future instalments!

    A quibble for you – I don’t like having to leave articles to look at the images in detail – would you consider something like http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/lightbox-plus/ ?

    Lastly, I’d be interested to hear more about the societal structure and if the gods were seen to look more kindly on one class or another (if there were classes). I can envisage a scenario in which the general populace are terrified of what the gods might do, and thankful that the religious rulers were there to temper and direct their wrath.

    But that might just be a reflection of how I perceive religion as a device used to control through fear as well as comfort… how the hell do you make any kind of comment about these things without being very heavily rooted in contemporary views?

    • Thanks for this! I’m glad you liked the post. And thanks for the tip, I’ll try to figure out how to use Lightbox Plus later 🙂

      To answer your questions in no particular order: I think to some extent it is impossible to interpret things like this in ways that are independent of contemporary views. But using information from different cultures from our own can help–even just by reminding us that there are loads of different ways of doing and perceiving things from the ones we’re used to.

      It’s a good point you make about elites possibly using religion for their own ends. I’ve looked it up, and there does seem to be a better-defined elite at the time of the Chavín cult, and one that likes to wear stuff (e.g. crowns) with Chavín-related iconography on it. So yeah, it’s possible that elites were claiming a special relationship with the gods.

      I’m not sure if this goes against my ideas about what may be going on. I think possibly not: the elites might simply be saying that the reason that they are elites is because their nature is such that the gods are more likely to come to their aid. In fact, there’s nothing in the art that suggests that the elites were important mediators between commoners and gods–unlike, for example, in Maya art, where they are depicted evoking deities with their own blood-offerings, and talking to them.

      But then, you might also be right, perhaps the elites are saying, “these gods are dangerous, we know how to deal with them, so you need to support us with your taxes and tributes”. But I think the Chavín priests would have been in a better position to send this message, as it was only through their guidance that worshippers could find their way in the labyrinth that is the Chavín temple, or understand the intricacies of Chavín art.

      However, there are no priestly burials that we know of, from which we could figure out how the priests lived, so the only evidence that we have that the priests were getting wealthier is the extensions that the temple witnessed between 500 and 200 BC, which doesn’t necessarily signify anything beyond genuine devotion on the part of the worshippers or the priests themselves. Also, Buddhist monks don’t rule over lay Buddhists because they are believed to be the only ones capable to deal with dangerous gods.

      I’m hoping that at some point in the future we will find our way around the problem of excavating the temple (many of whose galleries are too dangerous to access right now–I wonder if we could send those cool biomimicking rat- or cockroach-robots though?), and that this will reveal more information about the people who ran it.

      • But art is so… fluffy! If I think about future archaeologists viewing us and trying to intrerpret our culture via our art…
        http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/artists/artpages/tracey_emin_my_bed.htm ?
        http://www.smartmodernart.com/image-files/nighthawkslarge.jpg ?
        Then again, that’s very short sighted of me – there’s likely to be a lot more directly recorded information about our culture via the internets. Not that being judged as the age of cat memes is necessarily an indictment of this golden age.

        Okay, another thought experiment for you then: what about the priests as a serving class above the public? Higher in status, but very much servants of the general populace, similar in values to The Senate & Athenian Democracy (apologies if I’m butchering history via ignorance as I write).

        Also, have the tenets of Buddhism remained consistent in terms of ruling? Is it possible that fusions of religions that involve Buddhism take on the principle of ruling and bind it with central doctrines?

        Hey, maybe the skeletons found were priests ^_^.

        Adore your idea about robotic assisted archaeology! I can think of a few sci-fi books which involve mining alien digsites, using excellent tools like gravitometers to accurately record density in incredibly resolution without being invasive, and force fields to support and explore dangerous structures. Give me a message if you’d like some reading material w.r.t. that.

        Maaaan, bioengineering an organism to explore a structure and report back, all without damaging it, would be so very cool. Think Hunger Games mockingjays, but for research. Corvids might make good candidates with their excellent pattern recognition schemes and high intelligence. Cybernetically altering them could be a (very scifi but fun to think about) option, recording their visual output remotely or reading their memories from brainstates on retrieval.

        P.S. Vaguely on the topic of meta-archaeology… http://dresdencodak.com/2008/01/07/machine-messiah/
        and if you happen to be the kind of person interested in RPGs & board games (a weird hunch I have) http://dresdencodak.com/2006/12/03/dungeons-and-discourse/ is superb 🙂

      • I see where you’re coming from when you say that art is fluffy, but I also think that art has always been an important tool in how humans try to figure out the world. This includes cat memes. In fact, I think art would have been an even more important tool, in this sense, for aliterate societies such as the ones that existed in Peru at the time of Chavin.

        Besides this, there’s the obvious fact that, in archaeology, we have to make use of what little we have, even when what little we have is highly ambiguous or obscure.

        You’re right, elite skeletons found may well have belonged to priests. The secular-religious distinction was probably non-existent for a lot of ancient societies! And I also like the idea of the Chavin priest/elites being senator-like public servants, though I’m not sure what the archaeological correlate for that would be. Maybe a structure that could have accommodated meetings, perhaps with several rows of seating for participants, and an open space in front or at the centre of these rows to focus participants’ attention on whoever is speaking? I’m not aware of any structures like this being found in Peru at the time of Chavin, but, then again, I might be too influenced by own images of how Roman Senators/Athenian politicians met. It would be interesting to see how much variation there is, cross-culturally, in how elders/public servants meet, and if there are any forms that correspond to things that have been found dating to Chavin-era Peru.

        I think I’ll try to email someone to see what the actual problem is with excavating Chavin (if there even is a problem–if I’ve read about this in a book, none of my sources go beyond the early 90s, and if I’ve heard this from a supervisor, I don’t know how they know), but, regardless of that, I think it might be fun to write a post together about the potential use of muttations/biomimetic robots in perilous archaeology!

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