Enter the Jaguar (cont.)
By Mike Jay
This plaza and pyramid was Chavín’s original structure, but over the centuries more and grander variants were added. There are several shafts, some still unexcavated, which lead down into larger underground complexes, their stonework more regular than the old pyramid and their side-chambers typically more spacious. There is a far larger sunken plaza, too, square rather than circular and leading up to a new pyramid and surrounding walls on a more massive scale. Whatever happened at Chavín, the architecture suggests that it carried on happening for centuries, and for an increasing volume of participants.
The term most commonly applied to what went on at Chavín is ‘cult’, although elements of meaning might perhaps be imported from other terms like pilgrimage destination, sacred site, oracle or, in its classical sense, temple of mysteries. This is a conclusion partly drawn from lack of evidence that it represented an empire, or a state power: there are no military structures associated with it, nor centralised labour for major public works like irrigation or housing. During the several centuries of its existence, tribal networks would have risen and fallen around it, changes in the balance of power apparently leaving its source of authority untouched. Its cultic – or cultural – influence, though, spread far and wide. Throughout the first millennium BC, ‘Chavínoid’ sites spread across large swathes of northern Peru, and pre-existing natural huacas began to develop Chavín-style flourishes: rock surfaces carved with snaky fangs and jaws, standing stones decorated with bug-eyed, fierce-toothed humanoid forms. People were clearly coming to Chavín from considerable distances, and carrying its influence back to far-flung valleys, mountains and coasts.
Was Chavín, then, a religion? There’s been some speculation that the carvings on the site represent a ‘Chavín cosmology’, with eagle, snake and jaguar corresponding to earth and sky and so forth, and the humanoid shapeshifter, as represented on the Lanzon, a ‘supreme deity’. But Chavín was not a power base which could coerce its subjects to replace their religion with its own: the spread of its influence indicates that it drew its devotees from a wide range of tribal belief systems with which it existed in parallel. It’s perhaps better understood as a site which offered an experience rather than a cosmology or creed, with its architecture conceived and designed as the locus for a particular ritual journey. In this sense, the Chavín figures would not have been deities competing with those of the participants, but graphic representations of the process which took place inside its walls.
The central motif of this process is signalled clearly enough by the shapeshifting feline heads which studded its portals: transformation from the human state into something else. It’s here that Chavin displays the influence of a new cultural element not conspicuous in the sites which preceded it. The prominence of the jaguar and shapeshifting motifs suggest the intertwining of traditions not just from the coast and the mountains, but also from the jungle on the far side of the Andes. While the monumental style of Chavín’s architecture builds on earlier coastal models, its symbolism points towards the feline transformations which still chararacterise many Amazon shamanisms. The trading networks on the Pacific coast had long ago joined with those in the mountains; at Chavín, where the river Mosna runs east into the Rio Marañon and thence into the Amazon, it seems that these networks had also reached down the humid eastern Andean slopes into the jungle, and had transmitted the influence of another hunter-gatherer culture: one characterised by powerful shamanic technologies of transformation, in many cases with the use of plant hallucinogens.