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.
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).
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?
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.