Moche Sex Pots, Part One

When people come across Moche sex pots, they tend to find them amusing, or gross, or weird, or titillating. Or something that should be squirreled away in an adults-only section of a museum, lest our children’s innocent eyes be tainted by their frank depictions of anal sex, oral sex, masturbation, huge erect penises, and occasional huge vulvas.

A rare pot that emphasise female genitalia rather than the male equivalent. On display at Lima's Museo Larco.

A rare pot that emphasises female genitalia rather than the male equivalent. On display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Photo mine.

But what if we take them seriously, as objects that can actually tell us something about people’s lives in the past, how they thought about things, and what they valued?

Before continuing, I should say a few brief words on the Moche–they inhabited the North Coast of Peru between about 200 and 850 AD (way before the Inca), they were characterised by high social stratification, and they produced an insane amount of beautiful pottery. Some of this pottery is finely painted with hunting scenes, duel scenes and scenes of ritual sacrifice, as well as stories from mythology. Some of it is shaped to look like agricultural products, animals, warriors, musicians, gods, the faces of prominent individuals, amputees, animal-human hybrids, old men, seashells, mountains, sacrifice victims, labourers, blind people, headdresses, skeletons… and, of course, people having sex.

Not much has actually been written on Moche sex pots–despite the fact that the Moche are very well studied (they’re probably the ancient Peruvian culture we know most about, after the Inca), and the fact that they produced something like 500 of these pots, suggesting sex was very important for them. These pots clearly reflect very different notions of sex and reproduction from ones that prevail in the West, and, because of this, a lot of researchers have had trouble making sense of them.

For example, depictions of vaginal sex are extremely rare. Why? For a very long time, of the main theories out there was that Moche sex pots were meant to encourage birth control, by showing how one might enjoy sex without risking babies (Larco Hoyle 1965: 107-112). However, there’s something unconvincing about the notion that people had to make hundreds upon hundreds of expensive ceramics, just for the Pre-Coumbian equivalent of a Sex Ed lesson.

Oral sex.

Oral sex: a birth control strategy? (Gero 2004: 12)

Another example of the strange stuff you see in Moche sex pots: women masturbating skeletons. Here, for a while many people thought that these pots were supposed to warn men of the dangers of excessive sex (Larco Hoyle 1965: 87-90)–“if you can’t control yourself, this is what happens to you–you stop eating, all your flesh falls off, you’ll just be a bunch of bones with a penis attached”. Perhaps they were meant to warn women too–“say no to your man more often, if you value his health”. Again, the dubious notion that these pots were a sort of ceramic Sex Ed lesson, coupled with ideas about the “dangers” of sex that are suspiciously close to Western ideas of sin and punishment.

A woman masturbating a skeleton, on display at Lima's Museo Larco.

A woman masturbating a skeleton, on display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Photo mine. Update: as one commenter pointed out, the skeleton isn’t passively receiving his companion’ attentions.

These are not the only theories that were proposed about the meaning of Moche sex pots in the twentieth century–but other ones I’ve come across are unconvincingly convoluted (i’m happy to summarise/discuss them in the comments section if anyone is interested). The way people started to look at Moche sex pots changed in the Noughties, with two articles that came out in 2004. I’ll talk about one in my next post on sex pots, and spend the rest of this post discussing the other one.

Joan M. Gero’s “Sex Pots of Ancient Peru: Post-Gender Reflections” suggests that Moche sex pots were all about power and politics. Gero points out that Moche society was more hierarchical than previous societies in the region, and she suggests that the sex pots may have been used as metaphors to justify or make sense of the new power relations. In her view, Moche sex pots are all about dominance and subordination: because depictions of anal sex and fellatio are so common, while depictions of vaginal sex and clitoral stimulation are very rare and depictions of cunnilingus non-existent, and because women never seem to be having much fun in these scenes (Gero even suggests that their participation in them may be “forced or commanded”), Gero suggests that the Moche are using these pots to say something like “even in the most intimate of relationships, there is one who gives pleasure, and one who receives it”. This message that may well have been used to justify or make sense of the rule of the few over the many. In other words, women in Moche pots may be stand-ins for “the people”, while men may represent the rulers–the former are meant to do all the hard work and get little in return, while the latter are meant to get all the pleasure and give little back.

I’m not entirely convinced by this theory. It’s true that depictions of vaginal sex and clitoral stimulation are very rare, and depictions of cunnilingus non-existent. BUT.

The one example I could find of what looks like clitoral stimulation in a Moche pot. On display at the Museo Larco, Lima.

The one example I could find of what looks like clitoral stimulation in a Moche pot. On display at the Museo Larco, Lima. Photo mine.

For one thing, it’s often very difficult, in Moche pottery, to tell what exactly the people depicted are feeling–sometimes there are obvious frowns, or smiles, but most of the time facial expressions appear to be neutral. This goes for sex pots as well: the women don’t seem to be having much fun, true–but, usually, neither do the men (below). There are a few rare cases in which men are shown to be enjoying being fellated, but then there are also a few rare examples of women smiling while they masturbate their partner.

She doesn't seem to be enjoying it, but neither does he. This is just one of many examples I could have chosen.

She doesn’t seem to be enjoying it, but neither does he. This is just one of many examples I could have chosen. (Gero 2004: 14).

Secondly, who says that anal sex or fellatio can’t give pleasure to women? As far as I am aware, they both can, and, in any case, though it may well have a biological basis, “pleasure” is also often influenced by culture. In other words, if in some societies things that are thought of as delicious to eat can be thought of as disgusting by others, then the same should apply to sexual practices.

However, when you compare Moche sex pots with Recuay sex pots, which is what Gero does, the Moche do seem to be much more hierarchical about intercourse. The Recuay were the Moche’s neighbours in the highlands, and their sex pots seem to emphasise complementarity and equal interaction between sex partners. For example, by showing the man and the woman sitting in front of one another, rather than showing one on top of the other. Or by using two-chambered pots to depict sex scenes (below): one chamber (usually the one in the shape of the woman) was used to filled the pot with liquid, the other (usually the man’s) to pour it out. This suggests that both chambers (both man and woman) are needed for the pot (and therefore society?) to function.

Two-chambered Recuay sex pot, in which the male bit has a spout and the female bit has the side in which you fill up the vessel.

Two-chambered Recuay sex pot, in which the male bit has a spout and the female bit has the side in which you fill up the vessel (Gero 2004: 7)

Still, I think the other article that was written in 2004 offers a more persuasive answer to the question “why all the anal sex?”–but for that, you will head over to Moche Sex Pots, Part Two.

Meanwhile, you can download and read Gero’s full article here.

Additional References:

Larco Hoyle, R. 1965. Checcan. Geneva: Nagel.

NB Some of these images may appear to depict men having sex with men. However, it appears that, if one actually looks closely at these pots, the who is penetrated/the one who fellates is actually equipped with a vulva.

2 comments
  1. Pat said:

    Being a pernickety pedant, I would point out the bloke being wanked has a death’s head but is not a skeleton. Ritual masks were quite common in those societies, no? Also he is caressing her breast and sharing a kiss.
    Perhaps they had a commercial agreement with each other, “You Moche do the pervy stuff, we’ll do the sweet, loving stuff.” How many different potters were involved in creating them and over what period of time?

    • You’re right–“skeleton” is a shorthand I’m using for a whole spectrum of beings that go from “proper” skeletons to only partly skeletonised ones like this one. It’s true that it could be a mask, but, as far as I am aware, skull masks have not been by archaeologists, while other types of clothing or ornamentation that we see in the art is well documented archaeology (they had cool fox-head headdresses, for example). And thanks for pointing out that the skeleton is being more interactive than what my description–will see if I can edit that caption in a way that makes sense.

      These sorts of pots were mostly produced in the periods known as Moche IV and V, which corresponds to about 550-850 AD. I don’t think we have much information regarding how many potters were involved in the production of these ceramics–a lot of Moche sites are heavily looted, which means that identifying things like workshops is very difficult. I would imagine, though, that the ruling families of each major Moche centre (there were one or two per river valley) had their own affiliated craft specialists.

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