300 years after the Moche Mama’s rule, in a temple complex to the north and east, in San José de Moro, we find 8 burials of women, 5 from the late Moche culture (720 CE) and 3 from the “Transitional Period” (850-1000 CE) all receiving the label: priestess.

In this temple complex are found many variants from earlier Moche remains which archaeologists and anthropologists believe show a change in the culture at large and possible influence of cultures from the north, including the Mayans.

Because the women are buried with icons and images relating them to the moon, including the “lunar” or “moon animal” and tule reed boats, many call them The Moon Priestesses of San José de Moro. If the women are moon priestesses, that means they were in relationship to a Moon Goddess.

“The largest ceremonial site in the lower Jequetepeque Valley is San José de Moro. It consists of two medium-size huacas and many layers of burials in the flat areas between and around the mounds. Several high-status women were buried near the base of one huaca, dressed in costumes depicted in Moche art as being worn by a woman deity. San José de Moro was apparently particularly devoted to this goddess, and these women served in succession as her priestesses, either by appointment or by inheritance”(Quilter 69).

The Lunar or Moon Animal of the Moche

According to many sources Moche culture associated male with sun/gold and female with moon/silver. The metal artwork matches this binary and it persists throughout generations.

Some believe the Moche Moon Goddess was called Si, and was also the Supreme Deity who controlled  seasons and storms. Others believe that Si is an Incan title. Whether or not that is what she was called by the Moche, their relationship to the Moon Goddess envisioned in intimate relationship with the water was profound.

Catch up with this narrative by reading these previous posts:
“La Señora de Cao”: A Powerful Female Leader in Pre-contact Peru

The Lure of the Amazon by Eduardo Barros Prado: Further Information on the Amazon Women or Icamiabas of Brazil

The Goddess Diana, Lake Nemi and the Mirror of the Moon South of Rome

Icamiabas: Amazon Warrior Women in Precontact Americas

In the 1990s the first four burials of important women were uncovered at San José de Moro, within what had been a ceremonial center in their time, rather than a village. Evidence of cyclic, recurring, large scale gatherings, including ritual making of chicha (corn beer) were found in a courtyard and indicate that these events were attended by many people year after year.

In the large chamber tombs where the priestesses were interred were found ceramic pots and bottles with what are called fineline paintings. In the scenes imaged on the pots there are spondylus shells, goblets, plumed headdresses and other items similar to items found in their graves. In the fineline paintings on the pots the women wear what have been called “net-shirts.” This differentiates them from other high-status women recorded onto pots throughout the Moche culture. These images are believed to be of the Moon Priestesses of San José de Moro and important rituals they carried out.

Red spondylus or thorny oyster shell

In the scenes of  particular fineline images classified as the Tule Boat Theme we find the stylized crescent moon, the “moon animal”and tule reed boats morphing into one another, and swimming with arms and legs upon the water.

The tule reed boats also shapeshift into anthropomorphic crescent moons and spondylus shells. They carry the priestesses and their passengers over the water on a journey, perhaps ritual fishing or nighttime excursions and also ritual passages through the darkness of the underworld. The moon animal also shapeshifts into a tule reed boat and a crescent moon as well as a multiplicity of animals, further indicating the transpermeable consciousness and interactive ecosystem held in this culture.

Singing net-shirted and masked moon priestesses in tule boats morphing into the moon animal with catfishes. Christopher B. Donnan and Donna McClelland Moche Archive, 1963-2011.

The images of the moon boats, the lunar animal and the priestesses often have stars with them as well, indicating to us that it is nighttime and that these excursions, whether actual or ritualistic in nature, took place in the dark when the stars and moon were visible.

Net-shirted moon priestesses on crescent moon boasts with spondylus shell spikes. Christopher B. Donnan and Donna McClelland Moche Archive, 1963-2011.

The 8 priestesses of San José de Moro

Here is a brief overview of the 8 priestesses of San José de Moro uncovered to date: (Unfortunately  the priestesses have been given very unoriginal names).
The first 5 are from the late Moche era, around 720 CE:

  • The first found is called “The First Priestess.” Around forty when she died, this priestess was not mummified but her skeleton was wearing the typical clothing of a priestess as seen in Moche art. She is buried in a tule reed coffin, mimicking the tule reed boats that the Moche used to travel the waters as well and that local peoples use to this day. As stated earlier, we find these boats depicted in the artwork, transformed into a crescent moon flying though the sky. The tule boat coffin of this priestess was outfitted with metal arms and legs on the outside as the boats are often imaged with arms and legs in the fineline paintings. They also have a copper mask in the front and a diadem the was attributed to the owl or spider in the time of the Lady of Cao. Or perhaps it is the face and crested crown of the lunar animal. A metal cut out of a pot of chicha also graces her coffin. This priestess surrounded by 5 other women. A bottle with a fineline painting bearing a priestess wearing a net shirt on a crescent boat was interred with her.

Tule reed coffin containing a moon priestess. Drawing by Patrick Finnerty from Bourget, 2016.

  • The second moon priestess found at San José de Moro is called The Girl Priestess. Seven years old at death, there were six other people, both male and female, buried with her
  • Next is The Young Priestess who was 25 at death. She is also buried in the tule boat coffin decorated with copper discs and metal appendages and a mask. She has necklaces and bracelets and fineline ceramics in her tomb,  2 with net-shirt women in crescent boats and one with a net-shirt women carrying out a ritual burial.

Tule reed boats used by modern coastal Peruvians

  • The last Moche priestess or #4 is also in a tule reed boat coffin. She is buried with architectural models and ceramic vessels.
  • In 2013, a 5th priestess from this era was uncovered, buried with an elaborate headdress and necklace and precious grave goods, including pottery, a silver goblet and a ceremonial “tumi” knife.
  • Next are the 3 priestesses from the Transitional Period that were uncovered at San José de Moro. These women are from a time period when the  Moche were losing power to the Lambayeque culture. Two of these priestesses are called the transitional priestesses. They also had clay replicas of houses or temples that are called “house models.” These house models may have been shrines or specific temples the priestesses oversaw or were affiliated with throughout their lives. They were also buried with ritual objects and numerous bodies.
  • The tomb of The Absent Priestess was the largest found at San José de Moro. She is named The Absent Priestess because her body was missing and it was not because of looting. There were metal plaques meant to outline the shape of the priestess but it is not understood why her body was moved or where she went.


San José de Moro as Oracular site

It is widely believed that San José de Moro at the time of the Moon Priestesses served as an oracular center much like Chavín before it. The priestesses offered oracle at these seasonal rituals and possibly other times.

“A long tradition exists in the Andes in which important religious centers served also as oracle centers. Several are known for Inca times, and at least one, at Chavín de Huantar, has been inferred for more remote antiquity. Although variability in social and cultural practices surely was considerable throughout the millennia of Andean civilization and across a vast region, the possibility that the priests and priestesses of Moche temples served in oracular or similar capacities seems not too great a stretch beyond our current evidence. No only is evidence found for Andean oracles well before and after Moche times, but early colonial legends from the north coast tell of hermits with predictive powers, suggesting the tradition existed there, too”(Quilter 71).

Divination using coca leaves is still carried out in Peru today and there is indication it was done as far back as before the Moche. Also Incan offerings and human sacrifice were made to the coca plant. Perhaps some of these rituals were similar to that.

Follow along with these blog posts as I research and write Part 2 of my book, The Amazon Pattern: A Message from Ancient Women Diviners of Trees and Time.


The San Pedro cactus (achuma) is also available in the area and perhaps was another way that the priestesses accessed information from the supernatural realms. Some even propose that the revered spondylus shell itself, when eaten out of season, could have been used as a mind altering drug.

Besides local plant allies to offer a trance induced state, it is always interesting to find the specific ways a culture engaged in divination. On many Moche pots we find illustrations of a Bean and Stick Ceremony or Lima Bean Divination.

Stick and Bean Divination in Moche Culture. Christopher B. Donnan and Donna McClelland Moche Archive, 1963-2011.

Some of the images of those carrying out the divination are strikingly similar to animal entities in other artwork, the iguana and jaguar for one example (pictured below).  Are these the entities the priestesses work with while carrying out divination, or are they the priestesses themselves in shapeshifted forms? The women sit together and throw the beans. It is unclear the function of the sticks. Perhaps the sticks were to help read the bean layouts or the sticks were thrown after the beans.

Shapeshifted priestesses of animal allies carrying out stick and bean divination. Christopher B. Donnan and Donna McClelland Moche Archive, 1963-2011.

In my first Amazon Pattern book the oracular and divinatory skills of the women I claim as Amazons was noticed and discussed. Now here with these powerful women of the Moche culture we find ourselves in the realm of the oracular and divinatory as well.

Stay tuned for the next post where we we discuss the Moon, her priestesses, their boats and the transpermeable reality of the watery realms of creation.

© Theresa C. Dintino 2023

Works Cited

Bourget, Steve. Sacrifice, Violence, and Ideology Among the Moche: The Rise of Social Complexity in Ancient Peru. Austin. The University of Texas Press. 2016.

Quilter, Jeffrey. The Moche of Ancient Peru: Media and Messages. Cambridge, The Peabody Museum Press, Harvard University. 2010.


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