Built across three floors, the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan is a stand out feature against the small, somewhat dated buildings squatting in the backdrop. Shaped like a pyramid with a huge red slope leading to the entrance, it has a distinctive golden design of Ai Apaec, the Moche creator God, on the front wall.
It is a fairly large museum and contains over 1400 artefacts including ceramics, jewellery and clothing. But it is not so much the artefacts themselves that most interest me, but the symbols which I consistently find on them.
I have written at length over the course of this book about the symbols used by the ancients and have done my best to explain what they mean, or at least what they may mean. For example, you will remember one of the most prominent symbols is the snake or serpent. It appears everywhere and represents wisdom and the underworld or spirit within. It is very present again in Moche and Lambayeque artefacts.
In his book, The Cosmic Serpent, anthropologist Jeremy Narby explains that the ancients discovered that when they were bitten by a snake, the venom gave them the same feeling they got from psychedelic experiences such as San Pedro and Ayahuasca, and other hallucinogenic medicines shaman used to transcend into different dimensions of time. Because these experiences helped them acquire knowledge, priests and Gods are often depicted with a snake to demonstrate they have acquired wisdom – they are enlightened.
The snake also represents the inner self – the side of our character we often do not understand. Julian Jurak, the practicing shaman at Paz y Luz in Pisac said it is important to understand both sides of your character, and accept the bad as well as the good side of your personality. Once you find the balance you are then complete and can choose to change the weaker aspects in your character and turn them into strengths.
This idea of duality is as prevalent in society today as it was in ancient times, but we somehow appear to have lost connection with its true meaning. It is only in the last 100 years since psychoanalysts pioneered by Carl Jung would even consider the spiritual aspect of the self. Before then the idea had always been to turn it outwards towards God, saints and prophets etc.
The ancients on the other hand were served constant reminders of duality and we see this reflected all over the ancient world in buildings, monuments, ceramics and symbolism. The Chinese Ying and Yang is perhaps the most well-known.
The snake is another recurring symbol we see all around the globe, often depicted as a serpent or dragon with its tail in its mouth. This image is also recognised in the familiar oriental sign of Ying and Yang, and also means oneness or completion. In the Tarot, the World card is symbolised with a snake with its tail in the mouth and represents the completion of a cycle so that another cycle can begin.
In the Sipan Museum I find artwork of a double-headed dragon, or serpent dragon. Angelina tells me “the two heads represent the sun and the moon.” Which is true, it is a duality, but detracts from its true meaning.
Our ancient ancestors shared the same idea about duality in opposite sides of the world yet had allegedly never met. Regardless of whether they had met or not, the fact that we find evidence of the earliest civilisation all shared the common idea of opposites suggests it´s something very important. Yet how many of us today share this belief and actually try and do something with it?
Another interesting artefact I find features two snakes intertwined to form the shape of the double helix that is found in DNA. This is apparently a common vision shaman have when they take Ayahuasca.
Jeremy Narby, who travelled to Peru to live with shaman in the Amazon Jungle, conducted an extensive study between the relationship of psychedelic medicines and DNA. In his book, The Cosmic Serpent, Narby recites the first ever account of an Ayahuasca experience. It was written in 1968 by anthropologist Michael Harner and describes how he saw dragon creatures that tell him they were in all forms of life. At the time DNA had not been discovered.
In the Cosmic Serpent, Narby writes, “DNA is the informational molecule of life, and its very essence consists in being both single and double, like the mythical serpents.” His hypothesis is that what scientists call DNA is the same spirits that communicate with Shaman.
Is there something in our DNA that allows us to connect with the Universe?
Another interesting feature I find spread throughout the Moche culture is a constant repetition of spirals. It is not something that had occurred to me before, but in one form or another, spirals had crept into the artwork of all the ancient cultures I had seen so. In the Sipan Museum the image was everywhere and it was all representative of mankind connecting with the cosmos – or as the ancients believed, as many people believe today, they were communicating with Gods.
I was now beginning to understand that the Gods written about in Greek, Norse and Roman mythology etc, represent energies and inner fragments of our souls, just as the archetypes throughout South America did for the ancient Andeans. Scriptures all over the world say that connecting with the energies of nature reveals your true self.
In the Sipan museum, there is an artefact of a priest wearing a crown is shaped in the form of an octopus. Its tentacles curl into spirals. Being coastal peoples, the octopus would have formed a large part of the Moche diet and the ancients held rituals to the Gods in return for food.
On a vase used for drinking Chicha, a spiral is painted alongside a Condor the archetype for the spiritual realm. There is a funeral mask with spiral earrings that look similar to the present day depiction of the solar system.
There is one display exhibiting cone shells found in the graves of the ancient dead. The way they had been laid out had the inner side of the cone facing the onlooker. I look through the side window of the display case and every one of those shells had spiral rings on the bottom.
In the next cabinet is a body of armour made from gold. On the bottom are a row of tassels, shaped like a cone shell. Out of interest I crouch down and look on the base of the cone tassels. Sure enough, I find etched into the metal the shape of spirals.
You may recall that it was in the Wirococha Museum on the road between Rachqui and Cusco that I first encountered an explanation of spirals. The interpretation, printed onto an A4 sheet of paper and cello taped to the wall, read that spirals represented five things; the origin of life, evolution, reaction, expansion and the Milky Way.
At the tombs of Sipan, Angelina had told us that shells represented trade. Clara had told me they represented the sea in Chimu culture. Yet the Moche – together with other coastal cultures such as the Nazca and most evidently the Chimu – buried shells with their dead. Yet I had been told everywhere, the ancients buried belongings so their souls could take them to the next life. Why would they want to take symbols representing trade and the ocean? Do our spirits trade with sea shells in the afterlife? It occurs to me that it wasn´t the shells themselves that were important to the coastal tribes of Peru, but the spiral pattern on the shells.
I ask Angelina about the repetition of spirals.
“Because the sea was important to this culture,” she tells me. Other than some spirals looking like waves and the spiralled octopus legs I am failing to find a connection with the sea and spirals. I am equally perplexed by the explanation Clara had given me for the “geometric waves” found on the walls of Chan Chan. They were on display again here, in ceramics, jewellery, and a head dress that depicts the creator God. Are they really geometric waves as we are told, or are they geometric spirals?
It would not be until I get to Mexico that I finally discover what spirals probably mean.