Who Was The Lanzon, The Fierce And Terrible God Of The Chavin?
High in the mountains of Peru can be found the ceremonial center of Chavin de Huantar. It is a striking place. A large stone-paved courtyard is surrounded by towering stone steps, reminiscent of the Maya temples at Tikal but much older. From this great courtyard, a pathway leads to a smaller circular area, and onwards to a flight of stairs which lead up to the temple of the Lanzon.
This temple is quite hollow, and contains the god of the Chavin, the civilization which built the complex and occupied the site between 900 and 200 BC. The Lanzon itself is a great granite stela at the heart of the temple, standing 15 feet (4.5 m) tall, named for its resemblance to a lance.
But the Lanzon is so much more than a statue. Supplicants were introduced to the maze containing the Lanzon and would arrive in the presence of their god from one of several angles, depending on the path they took in the darkness. And it seems that the Chavin considered the stela to be a living god, the only example of this still in-situ in the entirety of the Americas.
An expert sculptor carved the granite stela around 2,500 years ago in the shape and image of a supernatural being sacred to the Chavin religion. The image is arresting: a grinning man-jaguar with bared teeth, long nails held close to its sides.
The name “Lanzon” itself is quite deceiving, as the form of the stela does not resemble a lance so much as a highland plow that would have been utilized for cultivation purposes during that time. As a result the deity was likely associated with agrarian worship, at least in one aspect.
Chavin de Huantar
The entire Chavin civilization revolved around the Chavin de Huantar archaeological site, the religious center for the Chavin culture. In the middle of the site is a large main plaza, surrounded on three sides by stone terraces. The main temple itself, a huge flat-topped pyramid surrounded by these lower platforms, sits across from where people would enter the square.
The huge monolithic temple at Chavin de Huantar (Mark / Adobe Stock)
The entire area forms a U-shape with a central sunken plaza. Beyond lies the smaller circular area with steps leading to the entrance to the temple. This smaller area appears to be for only a select few of those gathered in the main plaza, perhaps a staging area for those who were going into the temple maze.
The temple walls were originally covered with carvings and sculptures, stone obelisks and grotesque carved heads depicting caimans, jaguars, and other anthropomorphic forms. Although the Chavin remain enigmatic and nothing survives of what took place in this plaza, it is clear that the complex had a ceremonial function.
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Inside the temple, there are several passageways with no natural light. Switchbacks and changes in height are frequent as you progress into the center, where the Lanzon waits. Several strange small channels also lead into the temple, from various other areas across the site.
Anthropomorphic head carving on the exterior wall of the temple (PsamatheM / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The weird anthropomorphic carvings are also found on artifacts uncovered at the site. Despite being located high in the Andes, several conch-shell trumpets have been discovered. These artifacts, along with pestles and mortars have intricate decorations, assumed to be related to Chavin rituals.
What Happened Here?
Archaeologists still debate about the religious practices at Chavin de Huantar. Given the disorienting nature of the interior of the temple it is possible that psychoactive drugs were involved. This would certainly explain the channels leading into the interior, through which smoke as well as water could be introduced. Those who met the Lanzon would then be questioned by the priests of the temple, who would interpret what they saw.
During the 1970s, Peruvian archaeologist Luis Lumbreras went to the site and talked to the locals to see if any of the Chavin traditions were remembered. The people believed the Chavin word comes from “Chaupin,” a Quechua (an indigenous South American language) word that means “center.”
This shows the significance of the site to the local indigenous communities during that time. After some investigation, Lumbreras theorized that higher-class people in the communities had created the rituals associated with the Lanzon. He believed that these elites might have persuaded the followers of the spiritual importance of the temple complex, to maintain their social and political structure.
High In The Andes
The Lanzon itself sits at the very core of Chavin de Huantar, itself situated on a high pass between the dense Amazon rainforest and the mountainous coastal region. Due to the Andes forming a natural barrier, the site is therefore situated on a key passage between the Pacific and the interior.
A beautifully carved conch trumpet found at Chavin de Huantar (Joe Green / Public Domain)
The Chavin were certainly actively trading with distant cultures, as the conch shells prove. Archaeologists also discovered textiles that resemble Chavin architecture and artifacts buried far away in coastal areas like Karwa, in the south of Peru. This suggests that the influence of the site reached much farther than most ceremonial sites of that time.
A Living God
The Lanzon is present in the central cruciform chamber of Chavin de Huantar’s underground passages. Devotees who entered the temple would find themselves in pitch-black tunnels and intersecting galleries. All tunnels eventually lead to the center, but not straight away, and not from the same directions.
To add to this confusion, the Lanzon looks very different depending on from which angle it is viewed. The tall, standing figure has big round eyes on either side of its head looking upwards. The mouth of the figure is large with bared teeth and protruding fangs. Its left hand points downwards while the right one is pointing upwards, suggesting gestures towards heaven, the earth, and the underworld.
One carved channel runs right from the top of the stela to the Lanzon’s forehead. This channel may have been carved so that liquid could be poured over the face of the god, either as an offering or for visual effect.
Two main elements characterize the deity. Firstly, it is a combination of animal and human features. Secondly, the representation is deliberately visually confusing and complex.
The talons and fans symbolize connections with the caiman and the jaguar, who are the predators of the forest lowlands often depicted in Andean iconography and Chavin art. The hair and the eyebrows of the figure are carved as snakes, another animal commonly considered sacred.
The Lanzon at the heart of his temple (Frenchguy / CC BY-SA 3.0)
At the bottom of the carving, two animal heads share one fanged mouth. The technique is an exmaple of contour rivalry, where carvings deliberately create a complexity in what is being seen, to be interpreted by the viewer according to their own understanding.
Worship The Lanzon
But the central aspect of the Lanzon is that of the jaguar, an animal commonly seen in Chavin art. This prominence of jaguar imagery has resulted in the prevailing hypothesis that this was a jaguar cult, where the animal’s characteristics were admired and worshiped.
The Lanzon’s key role within the site was as a central pivot or “Axis Mundi” connecting the sky, the earth, and the underworld. The duality of the arms, pointing in opposite directions, suggests parallels in nature such as night or day, life or death, and the sacred balance found between them. Even though the anthropomorphic deity was made from terrestrial material, it was believed to be a celestial being, and for the Chavin their god was very real.
Top Image: Replica of the Lanzon, god of the Chavin. Source: Dtarazona, CC BY-SA 3.0)
By Bipin Dimri
Chavín de Huántar. Available at https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/indigenous-americas-apah/south-america-apah/a/chavin-de-huantar1
The Sacred Lanzón Stela. Available at https://www.globalxplorer.org/expedition/chapter/2/article/4