When people come across Moche sex pots, they usually find them amusing, gross, or weird. But what if we take them seriously, as objects that can tell us something about people’s lives in the past, how they thought about things, and what they valued? First, a few words on the Moche. They inhabited the North Coast of Peru between 200 and 850 AD (way before the Inca), and they produced a huge amount of beautiful pottery. Some of this pottery is 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, laborers, 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. These pots clearly reﬂect very diﬀerent notions of sex and reproduction from ones that prevail in contemporary Western culture, and, because of this, a lot of researchers have had trouble making sense of them.
For example, depictions of vaginal sex are rare. Why? One of the theories used to be that Moche sex pots were meant to encourage birth control, by showing how one might enjoy sex without risking babies. However, there’s something unconvincing about the notion that people made hundreds upon hundreds of expensive ceramics, just for a Sex Ed lesson.
Another example of the strange stuﬀ you see in Moche sex pots: women masturbating skeletons. For a while people thought that these pots were supposed to illustrate the dangers of excessive sex–but this theory is suspiciously reminiscent of Western notions of sex as something dangerous or sinful. Joan Gero’s 2004 article “Sex Pots of Ancient Peru: Post-Gender Reﬂections” probably oﬀers the first really interesting interpretation of these strange objects. Gero points out that Moche society was more hierarchical than previous societies in the region, and she suggests that the pots may have been used as metaphors to justify the new power relations. In her view, Moche sex pots are all about dominance and subordination.
Because (1) depictions of anal sex and fellatio are common, while depictions of vaginal sex and clitoral stimulation are very rare and depictions of cunnilingus non-existent, and (2) the women never seem to be enjoying themselves, Gero suggests that the women in Moche pots may be stand-ins for “the people”, who do all the hard work and get little in return, while men may represent the rulers, who get all the pleasure and give little back.
I’m not entirely convinced. 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. 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. 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.
Overall, I think that Mary Weismantel’s 2004 article “Moche Sex Pots: Reproduction and Temporality in Ancient South America” oﬀers a more persuasive theory. Weismantel points out that the way humans think about sex and reproduction changes from culture to culture. For example, contemporary Amazonian peoples like the Tukanoa, the Barsana and the Wari’ believe in “seminal nurture”–-that is, they think it’s not the single moment when sperm meets egg that is important for reproduction, but repeated intercourse, as it’s through regular infusions of semen from men, and the mother’s own substances, that the fetus is gradually formed.
In Melanesia, at least until the 1980s, the Sambia people believed that boys could become men and have children of their own only if they received precious vital ﬂuids from their elders—that is, only if they fellated older men. In sum: many cultures don’t believe that vaginal sex is necessary for reproduction and some cultures specifically believe that reproduction is all about the transferral of bodily ﬂuids, regardless of the orifice through which they pass. In light of this, maybe Moche sex pots depict reproductive acts after all. Indeed, Weismantel writes that there are pots in which women are shown breastfeeding 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.
And pots depicting women masturbating skeletons may well be illustrating the transferral of vital ﬂuids from long-dead ancestors to current generations. Consider, as well, that these are high-quality ceramics, and, in all likelihood, only the ruling classes could aﬀord to commission them. If Moche sex pots are indeed all about reproduction, then maybe they specifically reﬂected elites’ concern with furthering lineages, producing heirs, ensuring that their family remained powerful, and remained connected to the ancestors’ power, through the generations. In fact, 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.
This theory is not ﬂawless: for example, pots in which breastfeeding and anal sex co-occur are rare. Also, as Weismantel herself points out, the words “Moche sex pots” cover such a huge variety of objects that many do not ft very easily with her theory–for example, pots depicting possible venereal diseases, or copulation scenes between animals, or other weird things that defy categorization. But, after all, it seems reasonable to guess that the Moche themselves thought of sex pots as divided into diﬀerent categories, each with its own attached meanings and values—some had to do with reproduction, some didn’t.
In the end, even if we’ll never truly be able to tell what it is that Moche sex pots mean, they are inspiring all the same, as they give us a precious example of how, throughout history, there hasn’t been one single, biologically-based way of having sex and thinking about sex, but a wide range of weird, creative and diverse ones.
Enrico Cioni studied Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the University of East Anglia. He currently works for Seshat Global History Databank and lives in Norwich (England) with his partner and an extremely ﬂuﬀy cat.