In the brilliant light of what is now Peru, sunlight once poured over a golden supernatural being from the Moche culture (100–700 C.E.). When finished by a Moche artist, light would have reflected dramatically off the smooth surface of sheet gold cut and shaped into eight serrated appendages ending in animal faces. Identified as octopus tentacles, they emanate in bilateral symmetry from a central face with oversized fangs, staring frontal eyes, curling hair, and curving clawed feet flanked by small, wave-like spirals. The drama of the sun reflecting on the gold and the powerful symbolic imagery would have emanated power and prestige.
This headdress (c. 300–600 C.E.), recovered from a looted burial site in the Jequetepeque Valley along the northern coast of Peru, is considered one of the finest surviving examples of Moche metalwork for its superb craftsmanship and imagery that is emblematic of their deities and unique artistic style.
The brilliance of Moche metalwork
The headdress frontlet is part of the exceptional Moche metalwork tradition. Inheriting the skills developed by the earlier north coast Salinar culture, the Moche developed the most sophisticated metallurgy in the Andes. Some of their metalwork techniques were so advanced that they made gilded copper surfaces appear to be pure gold.  One of the most widely used artistic methods involved hammering metals into sheets, resulting in planar surfaces which could be cut and shaped into a range of forms that maximized the sun’s reflective effects. Sheet gold was also pressed over wooden or metal three-dimensional objects to create raised images, a technique called repoussé.
These considerable skills were directed toward creating a rich array of personal adornment befitting a ruling class who, in part, consolidated and broadcast their power with regalia: headdresses, earspools, nose ornaments, beaded necklaces, pectorals, and even garments composed of individual metal pieces assembled with small wires. Some items included imagery as fine as spiders on delicately soldered webs. On the Octopus Headdress, small pieces dangling from the eyeshades would shimmer in the sun and further animate the face.
The Octopus Headdress is a category of elite objects known as frontlets. Frontlets are worn on the forehead and typically consist of an elaborate frontal figure held in place by a band encircling the head. The Moche artists explored the design potential of the frontlet by suggesting, in gold, the elaborate and orderly motion of octopus tentacles. The central face is also enhanced by blue eyes rendered by inlays of the mineral chrysocolla, and teeth expressed by inlaid shells. One of the curving claws retains small traces of a red mineral powder that might be cinnabar, a substance used to enhance the symbolic and spiritual power of high-status objects in Andean art.
Although the Octopus Headdress was found in a burial, Moche ceramics have been found depicting seated individuals wearing a similar headdress. This indicates that the frontlet was likely worn by an elite political or religious leader during life as the crowning feature of ceremonial attire, as well as accompanying such an individual in death.
An ancient face with a new feature: the octopus
Scholars have suggested that the fanged face belongs to a complex Moche deity, Ai Apaec, known in part as a protective figure who would assist the Moche in times of chaos and disorder.  The octopus tentacles may have added additional symbolic power. Octopus tentacles have also appeared as part of regalia in other significant burial sites, such as the metal pectorals on one of the burials from the Tombs of Sipán and on a headdress belonging to Wrinkle Face, another key Moche deity who shares some roles with Ai Apaec. Numerous other high-status and spiritual beings often feature octopus tentacles in combination with spider features.
This fanged face has appeared in earlier times and cultures in the Andes, including the Chavín culture. The face is part of a powerful and enduring Andean deity known as the Staff God, whose image spread throughout the highland and coastal regions of the Andes in various but consistently recognizable forms. The Moche adapted the ancient face by adding bulging eyes—possibly indicating a kind of trance, or simply exaggerating the significance of these features—and softening the edges around the mouth into curves.
The face also appears in relief sculpture in the enormous Moche temples of the Sun and Moon, encircled by curving, wave-like appendages, four angular heads with catfish characteristics, and a border of interlocking, stylized snakes. In the frontlet, the gently curving, stylized octopus tentacles double as snakes with catfish heads (identified as such due to the curving whiskers they possess). In the Andes, supernatural beings often feature composite imagery, such as two or three animals combined into one. The golden tentacles may also evoke the rays of the sun.
Moche mythology and the natural world
The Moche were unusual in the Andes for their richly expressive figural imagery in a region known predominantly for abstraction, such as the later Wari and Inka artistic traditions. When this imagery has been analyzed through comparative iconography, scholars have reconstructed some of the complex narratives the Moche possessed. The Moche cosmos was compartmentalized into different realms inhabited by varied creatures and deities, often in conflict with one another, and humans were vulnerable to the monstrous adversaries of the natural world.
As inhabitants of the river valleys along Peru’s north coast and frequent visitors to the Pacific Ocean, the Moche were deeply involved in and dependent upon coastal weather cycles. A frequent theme that emerges from their art is the need for supernatural intervention in times of extreme weather, particularly the warm El Niño current that arrived approximately once a decade, impacting ocean currents and their food supply, as well as bringing extreme weather events such as flooding and drought. They needed a hero, such as Ai Apaec combined with an octopus.
The evocative octopus
In the Octopus Headdress, we see how the Moche employed a combination of technical skill, artistry, and an awareness of the interplay of materials and their surroundings to create a stunning image. With Moche culture, we see a proliferation of mythological deities and narratives, many related to marine life, which greatly enriches the long-established Andean serpent/bird/feline supernatural triad. The face of an ancient Andean deity is enhanced by a creature of particular interest to the Moche, the remarkable octopus, forming one of the most powerful and enduring Moche images.
 Heather Lechtman, Antonieta Erling, and Edward J. Barry Jr. 1982. “New Perspectives on Moche Metallurgy; Techniques of Gilding Copper at Loma Negra, Northern Peru,” American Antiquity 47: p. 3. These techniques included depletion gilding and electrochemical replacement gilding.
 Luis Jaime Castillo, Cecilia Pardo, Julio Rucabado, and Museo de Arte de Lima, eds, Moche y sus vecinos: reconstruyendo identidades. Primera edición (Lima: MALI, 2016), p. 205.
Cecilia Pardo and Julio Rucabado, eds. Moche y sus Vecinos. Lima: Museo de Arte de Lima, 2016 (includes translations in English).
Elizabeth P. Benson, The Worlds of the Moche on the North Coast of Peru (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012).
N. Lechtman, Roberts, B. W., and Thornton, C. P. “Andean Metallurgy in Prehistory.” Archaeometallurgy in Global Perspective (2014), pp. 361–422.
Steve Bourget and Kimberly L. Jones, eds. The Art and Archeology of the Moche, An Ancient Andean Society of the Peruvian North Coast (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008).