It’s fascinating to observe the multitude of ways humans have found to carry out divination and oracle through the ages. In every culture we find a variety of ways that  people devise to interact with the unseen and spiritual dimensions, to read signs and try to predict the future, obtain solutions to problems they are having or gain advice from ancestors.

In the Moche Culture from the north coast of Peru circa 100-800 CE, we find images of what have come to be called Bean and Stick Divination painted onto pots.

The Moche were a highly stratified temple culture with priestesses and priests or shamans also serving as or in the elite class.

For more on the Moche culture you can read the following posts:
La Señora de Cao: A Powerful Female Leader in Pre-Contact Peru
The Moon Priestesses of San José de Moro Peru

In the Bean and Stick Divination images we find depictions of priestesses and priests or shamans wearing masks and dressed up as local deities or perhaps shapeshifted into them as they carry out this sacred ritual.

Seated figures holding sticks and surrounded by beans, from a Moche Pot reproduced by Donna McClelland, Harvard University Library

In the above image, the Supreme Moon Goddess (right figure in the seated pairs) divines with “Wrinkle Face,”  a central creator-destroyer, multi-species, mountain deity.  Wrinkle Face bears the ubiquitous “snarling face” possessed by deities of many Andean cultures. He wears a jaguar headpiece and snake earrings and has a face or mask full of lines that many identify as wrinkles. Thus the name.

The Moche Moon Goddess’  image alternates in the artwork with her half canine, half cat, dragon and snakelike “moon animal.”  In the above image the moon animal perches on her long hair in the farthest right image, an ally whose consciousness assists in the divination.

In the  image below, we see Wrinkle Face divining with Iguana (seated on the far left), another common Moche Deity, and two big cats, the right one being Jaguar, divining together on the right.

Anthropomorphic deities seated before beans and holding sticks from Moche pot, reproduced by Donna McClelland, Harvard University Library

The impersonated deities throw the beans with one hand while holding a batch of sticks in the other. Some images, like the ones pictured above also show them throwing the beans in beach sand.

When I first encountered these images I thought perhaps they were creating grids with the sticks within which to work with the beans as an oracle or divination system. If it was anything like modern bean divination then this may have actually been the case.

Follow along as I research and write part 2  of The Amazon Pattern


Bean divination is technically called favomancy. A quick internet search turns up multiple systems across the globe using dried beans to divine. Through a system of numerical elimination, a pile of beans are organized into a grid created by wood. The sticks we see the Moche shamans holding with the beans could readily have been formed into a grid. Each square of the grid represents a specific quality, or theme. The number of beans that end up within each separated grid is what helps the diviner read the meanings of the response to the questions asked. The images that show the divination happening in the sand, reveal that the beach sand could also have easily been sectioned off into quadrants or a grid to carry out the divination directly into the sand.

Why Lima Beans?

The beans in the Moche Bean and Stick Divination images have been identified as Lima Beans, also called Butter Beans. Some say Lima Beans originated in Peru, others say Guatemala.

Large Lima or Butter Beans

The Lima Beans (Phaseolus Lunatus) used in the Moche divination system are the large Lima Beans which are also white and shaped like the crescent moon. Based on all the other lunar associations with the temples and oracular priestesses from this culture, the lunar shape would lead us to believe this is part of why the Lima Bean was chosen for divination and scared arts.

Some scholars point to the fact that many of the Lima Beans portrayed in the images have differentiated markings which could lend itself to an early form of script. As with the Oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty (l600-l046 BCE) in China and Linear A (1800-1450 BCE )script in Minoan Crete, many written languages began with sacred script reserved for the temple priest and priestesses. This could also have been the case in the Moche culture with the beans.

It is commonly said that Lima Beans acquired their name from the packaging on the crates they were exported across the globe in after colonization marked, “from Lima, Peru.” However it has come to my attention that the coastal Quechua word Lima comes from Limaq also pronounced Rimaq meaning “one who speaks.” Lima or Limaq was named after the famous Oracle “one who speaks” of Limaq from the pre-Incan Ychma peoples (1100-1469 CE).

The Moche people did not speak Quechua, they spoke “Mochica,” an unrelated language. If etymologically, the word Lima comes from the word oracle in Quechua, it is very possible that the Moche called them “oracle beans” as well, using their own word that would translate to Limaq.  So the Lima Bean designation for these sacred beans most probably had to do with more than their place of origin in Lima, Peru.

In her research into the use of Lima Beans in Moche Culture, archeologist Gail Ryser discovered  that at a certain point in Moche history, they ceased using the Lima Beans as a sustainable food crop and reserved them to use for high culture and temple activities. There are also anthropomorphized “Lima Bean Warriors” depicted in a lot of the artwork. We will delve into the Ychman Oracle of Limaq and Lima Bean Warriors in the future posts.

© Theresa C. Dintino 2023

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