Time Warps

Considerations on the semiotics of Pre-Colombian textile motifs

'Symbols create us, no less than we create them'
Thomas Kelting

The recurrent iconography manifested from the early Chavin cultures continuing through to the Inca Empire, presuposes the existence of a common knowledge or values shared by all of these cultures. As archeology has never encountered any form of written script as we know it, we are tempted to put forward the supposition that the consistant use of ideographs and pictographs throughout 3000 years of known Andean history had the essential function of conveying the principal teachings of these people, indeed entire cosmogonic and philosophical systems. Textiles conveyed images which transcend verbal limits and insured the transmission of a universal doctrine, from generation to generation and across the boundaries of regional cultures.

Prima facies, the extraordinary variety of motifs and symbols is bewildering to the untrained eye. Thanks to the untiring efforts, over the last 50 years, of an army of scholars, a veritable iconology of Pre-Columbian textiles is emerging which provides increasing proof to the existence of a coherent visual vocabulary responding to a formal syntax. These symbols continuously repeated on textiles, ceramic wares and temple walls, albeit altered to suit the aesthetic tastes of each culture, acted as a daily reminder from the monarch to the priest initiate and to all the strata of society of the universal order and the pre-eminence of the divine in the realm of the human. As fundamentally agrarian societies in the lowlands, the Andean cultures became early stargazers in order to fix ritually the important moments of the life cycle. It follows that in the process they developed a sophisticated cosmology, based on the periodic waxing and waning of different stars, ascribing to each such qualities and properties which stemmed from, or resulted in, a profound meditation on the nature of space, time and the universal order.

Although there is no text to provide a firm foundation to this line of argumentation, the formal geometry which is a fundamental feature of composition in most of the textile artifacts provides a rich opportunity for analysis and, certainly a fertile terrain to decipher the underlying principles of expression. Our knowledge of the Pre-Columbian psyche is unfortunately fragmentary and only survives in its mythology. We must therefore call upon the arsenal of comparative religions and symbolism with all of its shortcomings to steer the course of our investigations into the world of these mysterious glyphs.

The concept of unity in the Andean world seems to have been contained within the geometric shape of the square, perhaps because the viewpoint of the universe from the surface of this planet is mostly hexa- directional, the four cardinal points, the zenith and the nadir, as in a cube when one considers the square as a volume. This leads to the conception of the tripartition of the cosmos in three distinct yet interpenetrating planes of existence. The Celestial plane above, the plane within or below and the plane of the middle, earthly existence. The later results, as in most other elaborate theogonies, from the interpenetration of the previous two. In cosmological terms, the first operation of creation presuposes that the fundamental unity of the square was divided into two distinct antithetical, yet complementary entities, light and darkness, force and resistance, creative and receptive; in other words, the division of the One into the Primeval Couple.

The simple geometry of the square engenders by the diagonal division of the surface, new triangular surfaces which create a dialectic of opposites contained within unity, like mirror images of opposite natures which are underscored by the use of different colour schemes. This theme is particularly apparent in Nazca, Huari, Moche, and Inca motifs where they take a new dimension from the extraordinarily vibrant declination of the internal-external interpenetration of identical geometrical shapes. In this manner, these essentials forms which convey profound meaning by the act of repetition of positive-negative designs are elevated to the dignity of symbol, expressing, apparently, some primordial form of mystic knowledge of the universe. We can discover within these rhythmic aliterations the scales and dimensions, the systems within systems, the units within units which make up the conceptual framework of the Andean Cosmos.

Without pretending to formulate a lexicon of Pre-Columbian symbols, it is important to provide a basic description of some of the most common motifs which have traveled through time and cross-culturally in the ancient andean civilisations.

The conception of duality is synthesised in the terms 'Hanan - Urin' which could be translated as above - below or that which descends and ascends. These poles of unity of reverse qualities, are at first antagonistic and then become a dynamic interacting couple. This leads one to presume that the Andeans may have had a concept analogous to the " so above, so below " of the hermetic Emerald Tables. This interpretation could provide some insight into the recuring theme of duality of opposites, complementary dualities resolving themselves into a new unity which are so current in Andean textiles. In design terms, particularly obvious in many Nazca and Huari textiles, we obtain two obviously fundamental motifs such as the steps or ladder intertwined with the spiral. This duality forms a modular compositional unit which is then declined in rhythms of negative-positives, from initial design values to complete reversals of the unit. Thus, the Andean weavings reveal the realm of mystic principles we find enunciated in other better known cultures, such as the Egyptians, the Indo-Europeans or within the mystical Islamic writings of Ibn Arabi and Sofavardi.

Since we have penetrated into the world of symbolic exegesis, we might venture a symbolic reading of the ladder and the spiral as a recurring intertwined motifs to which must have been ascribed some profound meaning. The Ladder or Steps evokes the action of ascending when upright and descending when reversed. This movement evokes the path of cosmic energies as they descend to fertilise the earth and ascend when they are re-emited as natural radiation in the natural world, and in the metaphysical realm as prayers to the Celestial divinities. The Ladder could therefore symbolise, the world tree, the world mountain or the axis mundi linking the three spheres of existence. In this sense, it represents the concept of space.

The spiral, on the other hand, represents movement. In the Andean cosmology " Pachacuti " expresses the idea of the cycle in its dynamic form, a concept which is synonymous with time. Its geometric rendition may vary from culture to culture, either as the pure spiral of Chavin ceramics and Vicus or as the abstracted angular designs evidenced in Moche, Nazca, Huari and Tihuanaco. More often than not, these spirals are incorporated within square planes and will be found in association with another spiral of opposite direction. This latter symbol, as in other cultures, has the probable meaning of 'involution - evolution'; time inexorably unfolding towards the future and continously contracting the past within itself. In so doing, the spiral movement draws within its eye or the axis mundi, the celestial energies to the sub-terrestrial plane and create in the middle world the merry-go-round of life, growth and death. The double spiral as a pure geometrical form also finds a mythological correspondence in the bicephalic serpent, akin to the Ourouboros of greek mythology, symbolising the untamed primordial energy of movement and formation. Rhianon, the Greek goddess, crushed his head (or more likely joined its head to its tail) to prevent the destruction of the universe, consequence of his ardent and fiery nature. As a result of this quasi emasculation, he was tamed and fertilised the Cosmos in an orderly manner.

The steps and the spiral as a double sign is thus loaded with transcendental meaning and could reasonably represent the linked concept of space and time. Time unfolds whilst space expands in a continuous rhythm which affects the three spheres of existence. Hence, this dual symbol reflects the modern idea of growth in time and gives us the sense that duality is, in reality, the dynamic aspect of unity.

Given the propensity of the ancients from all cultures to think analogically, there is good reason to believe that the Andeans did not constitute the exception. On the contrary there is mounting evidence, as the iconographic corpus is being slowly deciphered by painstaking comparative studies, that the metaphor was a widespread form of expression. Apart from abstract geometric forms, Andean textiles display a rich pantheon of fantastic anthropomorphic figures accompanied by a cortege of equally striking zoomorphic creatures, which would be more adequately described as underworld figures rather than angelic entities. In many cases, however, the symbolic paraphernalia which adorns some of these figures identifies them as intercessors from the upper world. From the malicious feline supreme deity of Chavin bearing the snake emblems to the more benign and perhaps more supreme Sun God of Tihuanaco, equally bearing the staffs or snakes, accompanied in the celebrated Portal of the Sun by a cohort of supernaturals, unequivocably points to a priesthood which derived great power from divinities who ruled through fear or shock. The magnificent mantles from Paracas Necropolis, reach perhaps the paroxism of the bizarre, even the baroque, in that they stand technically as some the most magnificent cloths ever made by the hand of man yet display gruesome flying creatures with tumi knifes in hand, garlands of severed heads on their belts, guardians of a hellish underworld which bears more than a passing resemblance with the devious gods of the Popol Vuh of the Quiche Mayas. At the same time the Paracas iconography is permeated by the symbolism of the seed or seed bearer, which could perhaps symbolise a form of continuity or transformation at death.

In many instances, the monstrous characteristics of the Celestial beings make it difficult to tell them apart from the true underworld creatures. At first, the psyche of the Andean cultures may strikes us as being ruled by fearsome and loathsome devouring entities, which like Kala in Tibetan Tantrism, prey on victims' blood, wears necklaces of severed heads whilst harboring the attributes of his gruesome task. In sharp contrast to this, however, the Andeans have also offered to the world some of the most exquisite and striking abstract art of woven fibers and featherwork, delicate and graceful ceramics, naturalistic subjects of startling beauty as well as humorous creatures flying through the air as if in levitation. This capacity to cross genres and to express a view of the world which encompasses the macabre and the exquisite, impresses upon us, perhaps more than any other civilisation, the intensely dualistic nature of their character as well as the inherently contradictory forces of the universe.

The Jaguar god, the Bird god and the Serpent gods are ubiquitous symbolic images which provide the main leitmotiv spaning the entire history of the Andes. Their designs will vary greatly from culture to culture but their hold upon the religion and the psyche of the Andeans will never fade until the Conquest. The snarling Jaquar god of Chavin is inaccessible in his abstractness, whilst, 1500 years hence, his homologue from Tihuanaco has traded his ferocious secrets for the majesty of the powerful yet more benevolent Sun. After the pictograph representations of Chavin, the feline god will change appearance many times before being transformed into the abstract and virtually illegible ideographs of Tihuanaco textiles. The Moche which seemed to have a certain sense of humour depict the feline god in mystery plays (presentation themes), set in murals or painted on ceramics, which make him accessible to humans, although his ability to exact from his victims a pound of flesh seems undiminished. In Nazca Cavernas, the Jaguar god is more stylised, electric and vibrant almost a cartoon character whilst, in later Paracas, he will occasionnally take terrifying chavinoid appearances. The Jaguar god is definitely a god of power, of war and probably displayed to his followers an unhealthy appetite for blood. In other cultures, he is the heraldic emblem of kingship and of the warrior cast and there is no reason to believe that he should not have been considered as such amongst the Pre-Columbian cultures. His association with the sun during the Wari/Tihuanaco period clearly identifies him with immanence in the celestial sphere and below to royalty, justice and order, although this could clearly have been a feature of his Chavin incarnation. His ultimate appearance as the supreme god of the Incas, testifies to his permanence in the course of Andean history although the bloody cults associated with him may have gone on until the very end.

The Bird god is another familiar figure of the Andean pantheon. His appearances in Chavin times are less frequent but is certainly from a graphic point of view no less ferocious than the Jaguar god. In later stages his importance seems to increase and he will become frequently associated to the Jaguar god in the same pictograph, evidencing a strong duality in the co-existence of those two primeval beings within one entity.

The same aerial symbolism can be found all over the world, precisely in connection with shamans, sorcerers and the mythical beings that the latter sometimes personify. Such pictures occur frequently throughout the Paracas phases.

Mircea Eliade writes " We must consider the mythical relations that exist between the eagle and the shaman. The Eagle, it will be remembered, is held to be the father of the first shaman, plays a considerable role in the shaman's initiation, and, finally, is at the center of the mythical journey that includes the World Tree and the shaman's ecstatic journey. Nor must we forget that the eagle, in a manner, represents the supreme being, even if in strongly solarised form ".

During the Tihuanaco period, the Condor will reach an unprecedented level of stylisation in textiles to the point where the symbol becomes so abstract and so dense that it will take a whole team of specialists to identify him. On the Portal of the Sun in Tihuanaco, the Bird god has become a celestial being in his own right, divorced graphically from his tutelary entity. He forms, on either side of the central Sun glyph, part of the retenue of the Supreme creator . Later, the Chimu and Chancay cultures will continue to express the jaguar - bird duality in a sign language, where the symbolism is clearly recognisable, mature and almost hieroglyphic in its ability to carry a powerful but hidden meaning. The Bird is a creature of the air which has, like the condor, the ability to rise to the heavens, or like the eagle to look straight into the sun. It is hard to say whether the Andeans associated with this god such qualities as the Iranians for example imbued to their own mythical Simurgh, or with the Indian Garuda which attacked the Snake in the primordial ocean and crushed its head. But the capacity to fly through the spheres and to penetrate the heavens cannot on any ground be denied. He is like the messenger which links the three worlds together and as such stands as the guide which leads wordly souls to their heavenly repose. In the portal of the Sun he appears as an anthropomorphic figure with wings, which could be the description of an 'angelic being' although such expression seems ill fitted to the Andean iconography.

The Andean iconography is so rich and so varied that it would be futile in the state of our current knowledge to attempt interpreting it in a formal manner. It is now the viewer's prerogative to impart to the beautiful textile material contained within the following pages, his own individual reading and perceptions.

'Then weave for us a garment of brightness: May the warp be the white light of morning, May the weft be the red light of evening, May the fringes be the falling rain, May the border be the standing rainbow. Thus weave for us a garment of brightness, That we may walk fittingly where bird sing, That we may walk fittingly where the grass is green, Oh our Mother the Earth, Oh our Father the Sky!'
Traditional Tewa song