Effigy Vessel of Naylamp
Effigy Vessel of Naylamp

August 20, 2015: Naylamp Effigy Vessel

Lambayeque, Peru
Middle Horizon to Late Intermediate 800 CE - 1370 CE
12 x 15 x 18 cm

Ceramics of the Sicán civilization, sometimes called the Labayeque after the modern region they lived in, possessed a distinctive style, representing a rich history and ideology. Spouted vessels, such as this one, are often adorned with the image of what many anthropologists have called the Sicán Deity or the legendary hero Naylamp.

Legend tells that Naylamp arrived on the shores of Peru on a raft of balsa, though accounts vary as from where he came. There, he founded a large city from which twelve of his grandsons set out and founded each a city of their own. It is said that when Naylamp passed from this world, he sprouted wings and flew off into another world. Due to this legend, early depictions of Naylamp portray him with bird-like features but he is more often recognized in the form observed in this spout and handle bottle, with almond-shaped eyes and a prominent pointed nose.

Are there some intersections between mythology and science here? DNA evidence of tomb burials and haplotype distributions suggests a multiethnic makeup of the Sicán polity, which likely absorbed Moche people as it grew, which could be consistent with the arrival of a new group of people to the region, perhaps, as the legend tells, by sea. Furthermore, the political structure of the civilization was not one of empire but of a network of cities linked by ruling bloodlines, reminiscent of Naylamp’s twelve grandsons. Perhaps there are some hints at archaeological truths buried in the legends of the region.

Regardless, Naylamp became a powerful icon of the Sicán, used as a major artistic theme throughout the Sicán period. The art and architecture of the Sicán indicate a deeply religious polity, with political power passed and sustained by a ritualized theocracy with the Deity of Sicán at the core.

A period of sustained drought saw the downfall of some of Sicán’s major centers, such as Batán Grande, around 1100 CE. Some have even claimed that the Sicán represent a case in which climatic failure resulted in observable changes in religious practices from pre-disaster to post-disaster. Whether weakened by a loss of trust in the theocratic political order as a mediator of natural processes or by drought alone, the Sicán were conquered by the Chimú around 1375 and many of the artists of the tradition that gave us a peak into the world of the Sicán were forcibly removed to Chan Chan, the capital of their conquerors. Through their efforts, though, the story of Naylamp lived on among the Chimú.

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