Moche Sex Pots, Part Two

In my previous post about Moche sex pots, I summarised who the Moche were, what their sex pots depicted, and some of the early theories about their use and meaning. I concluded with Gero’s (2004) idea that Moche sex pots were metaphors for changing power dynamics within ancient Peruvian society, with dominant men as stand-ins for the rulers, and subordinate women as stand-ins for the “people”.

But Gero’s was not the only the only theory on Moche sex pots that was published in 2004: that year, Mary Weismantel’s “Moche Sex Pots: Reproduction and Temporality in Ancient South America” also came out.

It’s worth repeating that, in Moche sex pottery, vaginal penetration is very rarely represented. Instead, depictions anal sex, fellatio, and the masturbation of skeletons/skeletonised individuals are much more frequent. Often, this is interpreted as suggesting that Moche sex pottery was not concerned with reproduction–for example, Larco Hoyle (1965) suggested that these pots were meant to illustrate birth control methods, while Gero suggested that they were meant to emphasise male pleasure.

Anal sex among the Moche (Gero 2004: 13): a birth control strategy? A metaphor for power dynamics? Or something else altogether?

Anal sex among the Moche (Gero 2004: 13): a birth control strategy? A metaphor for power dynamics? Or something else altogether?

However, Weismantel points out that, for a lot of cultures, in different parts of the world and at different moments in history, vaginal penetration was not thought of as having anything to do with reproduction. For example, when interviewed by Polish anthropologist Malinowski in the 1920s, the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands, off the coast of New Guinea, claimed that sex between men and women did not lead to babies: rather, when women bathed, they were somehow impregnated by their ancestors. For the Trobrianders, then, depictions of anal or oral sex would have nothing to do with reproduction, but neither would depictions of vaginal sex.

But there are also cultures in which anal or oral sex are absolutely crucial for reproduction. Among the Sambia of Melanesia, at least until the 1980s, it was thought that “[t]he human capacity to reproduce [was] contained in a scarce, precious, and immortal fluid–visible as semen in men and breast milk in women–that must be physically transmitted from one generation to another” (Weismantel 2004: 497). Therefore, for the human race to continue, Sambia boys had to fellate older men, so that they could then pass the reproductive fluids they so acquired to their future wives. And the neighbouring Kaluli had similar notions about anal sex. For the Sambia and the Kaluli, then, scenes of anal or oral sex, either between men or between men and women, would depict important reproductive activity, despite the fact that they would not lead, biologically speaking, to the meeting of sperm and egg.

Pots depicting anal sex, on display at Lima's Museo Larco. Photo mine.

Pots depicting anal sex, on display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Photo mine.

But, of course, 1980s Melanesia is a long way away from ancient Peru. Contemporary Amazonian peoples like the Tukanoa, the Barsana and the Wari’ are a bit closer, and though they don’t seem to consider anal or oral sex to be as important as the Sambia and the Kaluli do, they do have similar ideas about the importance of the transferral of vital fluids. Specifically, these cultures believe in “seminal nurture”–that is, it is not the single moment when sperm meets egg that is important for reproduction, but repeated intercourse, as it is through regular infusions of semen from men, and the mother’s own substances, that the foetus is gradually formed.

In sum: if we consider that many cultures don’t consider vaginal intercourse to be important for reproduction, and if some cultures consider that reproduction is all about the transferral of bodily fluids, regardless of the orifice through which they pass, then it makes sense to think that maybe Moche sex pots actually depict acts of reproduction.

Indeed, Weismantel writes that there are pots in which women are shown breast-feeding infants as they are penetrated–suggesting that a link is being made between the vital fluids that the man passes on to the woman, and those that the woman passes on to the infant. Perhaps they were considered to be the same fluids, just as for the Sambia.

And pots depicting women masturbating skeletons may well be showing that the vital fluids that women need to further human existence ultimately came from their long-dead ancestors.

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

A woman masturbating a skeleton, on display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Though I used this photo for the previous post as well, it’s not because it’s the only pot that depicts a similar scene: quite simply, I don’t own the copyright of any other photo of this kind of pottery.

If we consider that only the ruling classes could probably afford to commission such high-quality ceramics, it is possible, then, that Moche sex pots reflected their concern with furthering lineages, producing heirs, ensuring that their family remained powerful, and remained connected to the ancestors’ power, through the generations. Personally, I think that, in light of this idea, it’s particularly interesting that these pots probably accompanied the elite dead to their graves (we don’t know for sure because many were looted rather than properly excavated)–maybe they were meant to indicate that, despite the death of single individuals within a lineage, their descendants lived on, and would produce other descendants, and so on.

I think this is a very cool theory. It’s not without its flaws: for example, pots in which breast-feeding and anal sex co-occur are exceedingly rare, although I think the idea that anal/oral sex could be reproductive for the Moche is still pretty solid without them. Also, as Weismantel herself points out, the words “Moche sex pots” cover such a huge variety of objects that many do not fit very easily with her theory–for example, pots depicting possible venereal diseases, or copulation scenes between animals, or other stuff that looks pretty weird to a modern-day Western viewer like me (below). But this actually draws attention to the fact that just one theory probably would not explain the whole corpus of Moche sex pots: most likely, the Moche themselves thought of sex pots as divided into different categories, each with its own attached meanings and values.

Double penis pot, on display at Lima's Museo Larco. Photo mine.

Double penis pot, on display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Photo mine.

Will I write a Part Three? Perhaps–Steve Bourget has also written some interesting stuff on this topic, and their connection with funerary and sacrificial rituals. But, for now, I will stop here. Next week, I will probably write something about pots that have nothing at all to do with sex, but which archaeologists have to deal with more frequently.

You can download Weismantel’s article here. And, as always, questions, comments and corrections, persnickety or otherwise, are always welcome!

Additional references

Gero, J. 2004. Sex Pots of Ancient Peru: Post-Gender Reflections. In T. Oestigaard, N. Anfinset and T. Saetersdal (eds) Combining the Past and the Present: Archaeological Perspectives on Society pp. 3-22. Oxford: BAR International Series 1210.

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

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