Phoenicians In Peru: The Initial Evidence

By Hugh Fox

Dear Mr. Kurkowski,
Iím like Jesus looking for a place to be born!

Thereís no room in any inn. My essays donít fit anywhere because they are about ideas that still are outside the canon of the canonized. They will eventually totally change the way the world looks as the ancient Americas, but meanwhile they wander the highways and by ways looking for a place to be born.

In The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses you say you have an interest in classical studies, and these ideas of mine certainly touch on classical studies......just one little point, like the fact that all Mochica Indian pots in ancient Peru portray Herakles myths in a beautiful and startlingly original way changes the whole nature of classical aesthetics......

But take a look yourself. Iíd like you to be one of those place that publish the work that changes the worlds. Thatís what I deal inóshades of grey.

Hugh Fox


Some eight years ago, when I was in Chile and Bolivia on an Organization of American States Research Grant, a Bolivian scholar friend of mine. Mario Montano Arag6n, the author of Raices Semiticas en la Religiosidad Aymara Y Kichua (La Pat. 1979), took me into the basement of an out of the way museum in La Paz where, in a corner in the basement, he showed me a large stone "dish" which the museum curators had labeled La Fuente Magna.

"I believe that the writing is Semitic. It was found on the shores of Lake Titicaca and an Indian family kept it for I don't know how many generations before it was acquired by the museum." he told me.

I made a "copy" of the letters on the dish, and when I returned to the U.S.. I was able, mainly with the help of Hans Jensen's Sign, Symbol and Script, able to identify the letters not simply as "Semitic" but very specifically as Phoenician.

I wasnít particularly surprised to find a stone "dish" in Bolivia filled with Phoenician writing because some ten years earlier I had read Cyrus Gordon's Riddles In History (New York, 1974) in which he translates some Phoenician inscriptions that had been collected in Brazil in the nineteenth century, which indicated that Phoenicians had been blown ashore in Brazil during a storm at the time of Solomon/King Hiram of Tyre:

We are sons of Canaan from Sidon, the city of the king. Commerce has cast us on this distant shore, a land of mountains We sacrificed a youth for the exalted gods and goddesses in the nineteenth year of Hiram. our mighty king We embarked from Ezion-Geber into the Red Sea and voyaged with ten ships. We were at sea together for two years, around the land belonging to Ham [Africa], but were separated from the hand of Baal and we were no long with our companions So we have come here. twelve men and three women, on a...shore which I, the Admiral, control. But auspiciously may the exalted gods and goddesses favor us!

(Ouoted from my GODS OF THE CATACLYSM. New York: Harper's Magazine Press, 1976, p.136.)

This inscription correlates very nicely with the bible, King Solomon making a pact with the same Hiram of Tyre to build ships for him to go to Ophir in search of gold:

King Solomon also built a fleet of ships at Ezion-Geber. which is near Eloth on the shore of the Sea of Reeds in the land of Edom. Hiram sent servants of his with the fleet, mariners who were experienced on the sea, so serve with Solomon's men. They came to Ophir, there they obtained gold in the amount of four hundred and twenty talents, which they delivered to King Solomon.

(I KINGS 9, TANAKH: A NEW TRANSLATION OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES, Jewish Publication Society, 1985, p. 537.)

Volumes of speculation have been written about the exact location of Ophir. but its location has never been determined.

One might merely think that the Phoenicians who landed in Brazil were killed by natives and that was the end of the affair, but, as a matter of fact the New World is explicitly mentioned by ancient geographers who say that the Phoenicians not only knew about it but wanted to conceal its existence from others so it could serve as a "retreat" for them:

There lies out in the deep off Libya an island of considerable size and situated as it is in the ocean it is distant from Libya a voyage of a number of days to the west....

In ancient times this island remained undiscovered because of its distance from the entire inhabited world, but it was discovered at a later period for the following reason. The Phoenicians. from ancient times traded throughout Libya and not a few as well in the western parts of Europe. And since their ventures turned out according to their expectations they amassed great wealth and essayed to voyage beyond the Pillars of Heracles into the sea which men call the ocean...

The Phoenicians, while exploring the coast outside the Pillars...were driven by strong winds a great distance out into the ocean. And after being storm-tossed for many days they were carried ashore on the island we mentioned above...

Consequently the Tyrians, at the time when they were masters of the sea, proposed to dispatch a colony to it; but the Carthaginians prevented their doing so, partly out of concern lest many inhabitants of Carthage should remove there because of the excellence of the island, and partly in order to have ready in it a place in which to seek refuge against an incalculable turn of fortune, in case some total disaster should overtake Carthage For it was their thought that, since they were masters of the sea, they would thus be able to move, households and all, to an island which was unknown to their conquerers.

(Diodorus Siculus, COMPLETE WORKS, V. 19-20.Loeb Edition Heinemann. 1933-67.)

This account by Diodorus Siculus seems to correlate very nicely with both the inscriptions found in Brazil referring back to Hiram of Tyre (which makes them Tyrians), and the biblical account of the contract between Solomon and Hiram of Tyre for the building and manning of ships to go to Ophir. Or if they weren't exactly the same voyage(s), they were certainly part of a Phoenician exploratory push out into the Atlantic.

I believe I was the first person to identify Carthaginian 'Tanit altars" among the so-called "Yopi" Indians in Mexico and in my book THE GODS OF THE CATACLYSM, in Chapter IV ("Phoenicians in the New World") I had an artist draw pictures of Phoenician funerary masks that were close doubles of their counterparts among the Olmecs in Mexico, and side by side presented drawings of the Egyptian-Phoenician god, Bes, from both western Mexico (again "Yopi"-territory) and Egypt. There was no question in my mind that the "Yopis" were a Phoenician colony in Mexico and that probably the Olmecs themselves were derived from Phoenician settlers -- with a strong infusion of black African influences.

It was only last year that I discovered, on a trip to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a Neo-lnca (ie. Post-Conquest) tapestry in their collection that was filled with an interesting mix of Numidian (Libyan), Thamudic, Egyptian hieroglyphic and Phoenician scripts that I am presently in the process of trying to transliterate and translate:

Letters from Neo-lnca Tapestry Equivalent Middle-East/ Mediterranean Letter Old West Thaumidic/South Arabian, Jensen, p.266 (Phoenician. Jenson. 291. Old Semitic, Jensen. 267) (Hieratic. Jensen. 266) (S. Iberian. Jensen. 291) (The Byblos Finds. Jensen. 274)

(All the Neo-lnca shroud letters are taken from a photo in TO WEAVE FOR THE SUN: ANDEAN TEXTILES IN THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON, published by the museum in 1992. Plate 67 a, and all the other letters are from Hans Jensen's SIGN, SYMBOL AND SCRIPT, London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1970, pp. 155, 266-267 and 291.)

The fact that various old semitic alphabets are "mixed" together this way. indicates that the presence of a wide mix of peoples and cultures all from a very narrow, but highly diversified area-- The Phoenician heartland (Lebanon). Egypt, The Sinai, Syria. perhaps the Phoenician colonies Spain/Portugal (Iberian Script) -- over a wide span of time. perhaps to as far back as 2,000 to 1,500 BC. (the Byblos finds, see Jensen, p. 274). Whether the weaver weaving this shroud still recognized these scripts phonetically or merely viewed them as a kind of closet full of interesting shapes is still to be determined.

On a recent trip to the Museum of Natural History in Chicago, however, I noticed a Phoenician inscription written on the headband of one of the figures on a Mochica pot,* which was my first real indication of any Phoenician influence on Peruvian coastal culture, but I never expected to discover that the dominant themes portrayed on Mochica pottery deal with the Phoenician hero-god Hercules (Herakles).

This year on a trip to the Louvre my attention got caught by a Creek Lykythos (c.590-570) that portrays Herakles fighting with Triton, a monster with a human head and a sea-serpent's body:

There is a similar inscription on a Mochica pot in the Art Institute In Chicago where the forepaw of the cat on the figure's head (Herakles' Nemean Lion) is made into a L and the hindpaw into an N. I read the Phoenician letters as LGN, the Aramaic-Syrian Phoenician related to the Hebrew, for Pot. Perhaps with a play on another ancient related root for Lion (after all the letters are on Herakles' lion-skin hat): LN-Phoenician is related to another old semitic root for "complain"/"growl." (R. Tomback, COMPARATIVE SEMITIC LEXICON OF THE PHOENICIAN AND PUNIC LANGUAGES. Scholars Press: Missoula, Montana, 197B, p158).

Two days later, during a visit to the Musee de I'Homme, I came across a pot with a similar motif and style -- only this one was Mochica, from the coast of Peru, and dated somewhat vaguely between 100 B.C. and 600 A.D. So the two pieces could have been separated by as little as 500 years....or even less.

Carthage, of course, had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C. and, as we've already seen in the work of Dlodorus Slculus, the Carthaglnlans had been keeping the knowledge of the New World to themselves in the case of an emergency. and certainly the Roman siege of Carthage was just that.

The themes were unmistakably the same -- the Mochica pot was also a Portrayal of Herakles fighting Triton, the hall-man, half-sea serpent. Herakles' lion is Perched atop Triton's body in the Greek pot, on the Mochica pot Herakles is wearing a lion hat (which is actually much more in the orthodox Iconographic tradition):

When I returned home to Michigan State, I randomly began to browse through materials on representations of Herakles on Greek pottery, and in Gudrun AhlbergCornell's HERAKLES AND THE SEA MONSTER IN ATTIC BLACK-FIGURE VASEPAINTING (Stockholm: Svenskia Institutet i Athen, 1984)1 found innumerable examples of Greek pots with the same theme, although the Greek pots often were more visually 'garbled' because, unlike the Mochica pot where the figures are separate, they are melted together in wrestling holds.

The earliest known Greek examples of this Herakles fighting the sea-monster tradition, however, resemble the Mochica vase much more closely, with Herakles not 'wrestling" the monster but holding it in his his hand and choking it. There is a Protocorinthian fragment, for example in which the pattern is very close to the Mochica.

Ahlberg-Cornell's remarks in HERAKLES AND THE SEA MONSTER, to the effect that during the "orientalizing period" in Greek art, the Greeks took their thematic impulses from Near Eastern iconography, point to, if not a directly Phoenician influence, certainly an infuence out of the Near Eastern world from which Phoenician culture was derived (See especially p. 14).

There is a whole Egyptian-Phoenician tradition, in fact, of one mythological character strangling a sea-serpent or just serpent-serpent, in which the strangler is some sort of Seth- (Egyptian) - Baal (Phoenician) syncretic "mix."

The "form" here is much the same as the Mochica vase, but the identity of the strangler seems to be variable perhaps because Baal, Seth and Hercules all symbolize Light/The Sun in contrast to the serpent, the symbol of Darkness/Night.

The figure strangling the sea-monster in the Mochica vase, however, is wearing a cat-hat which I take to be an extension of the ancient iconographic tradition of Herakles often being portrayed as wearing the skin of the Nemaean lion over his head and shoulders.

There is one Mochica pot, in fact, that shows Herakles wearing the lion-skin, that very much resembles a fourth to third century B.C. Etruscan bronze.

In fact even at this early stage in researching what I see as a book on Phoenician myth portrayed on Mochica-Chimu pottery, I have come across one drawing after another taken from the Herakles myths.

Herakles pursuing the Keryneian Hind (Herakles' Third Labor), for example.

Or, in Herakles' battle with the Lernaean Hydra, Hera sends a giant crab to attack Herakles as he is fighting the Hydra.

If we review Herakles in terms of a larger symbolic context as Fertility and Yeardaimon', then a great number of Mochica pots begin to make sense as part of a coherent presentation of Herakles in a variety of his ancient roles.

In the course of Herakles' tenth labor, the episode of the Cattle of Geryon, he is transported to the island of Erytheia in the golden cup of the Sun. But like Apollo, Odesseus, Orpheus and Dionysos, Herakles also takes one the characteristics of a solar god hi;nself.These two ideas, that of the voyage and Herakles himself as solar god, seem to come together in Mochia iconography in the portrayal of Herakles, emitting rays, travelling on a raft.

I am drawing from materials in Jane Ellen Harrison's EPILEGOMENA TO THE STUDY OF GREEK RELIGION and THEMIS (New Hyde Park, New York: University Books, 1962), especially Chapter IX, pp. 364 ff. The Creek "daimon" isn't a "demon" as in English, but seems to be more appropriately translated as "spirit.

By the same token, the numerous Mochica portrayals of the so-called "fanged god" associated with agricultural abundance, seems to me to be a Mochica way of portraying Herakles as fertility-spirit.

For a while I was a bit confused by Herakles being portrayed with "fangs." It is an idea I am unfamiliar with from Mediterranean/Middle Eastern iconographic tradition. But what the Mochica artist seems to have done is taken the "nature" of the Nemean Lion whose skin Herakles so often is portrayed as wearing, and showing its influence in the icon of Herakles himself.

There are numerous Mochica pots that show a jaguar standing behind a human figure in an attitude that almost seems a caress, and I have taken these figures to be portrayals of shamanistic initiation in which the jaguar serves as a kind of "spirit-guide" to the person being initiated, and I have always seen this whole series of pots as part of a Southeast Asian tradition (traceable back to Shang Dynasty China) that has nothing at all to do with Middle Eastern traditions and further complicates the whole syncretic blending of Phoenician culture with whatever culture (Chinese-derived?) that occupied the Peruvian coast before the Phoenicians arrived.And it has occured to me that the iconographic tradition of the Mochica-Chimu may find its principal difference from Phoenician sources in the very fact that it also incorporates into itself an oriental bias and flavor.

Up to now the Mochica and Chimu cultures have been much studied but little understood. ∑ Elizabeth Benson in her book, THE MOCHICAS (New York-Washington: Praeger, 1972), for example,describes a drawing of Herakles as Solar Deity voyaging to Erytheia,like the one we have already seen, simply as "the radiant god in a raft. (p.74), describes a fanged Herakles wearing a jaguar headress (which, as we have seen, is probably the Mochica version of the Nemean lion-- Herakles taking on feline characteristics) simply as "the fanged god with jaguar headress" (Plate IV, p.66), and a Mochica gold rattle that portrays the rattle that Herakle used to frighten away the Stymphalian birds (Herakles' Fifth Labor) becomes simply "a gold rattle with the figure of a warrior with inlaid-turquoise eye and ear ornament." (Plate IV, p. 65). Benson does the same thing in her study of jaguar-man figures in "A Man and a Feline in Mochica Art" (STUDIES IN PRE-COLUMBIAN ART AND ARCHAEOLOGY, NUMBER FOURTEEN, Dumbarton Oaks: Washington, D.C., 1974) in which she completely misses the shamanistic iconography of the Mochica pieces and sees them quite literally as jaguars either eating or protecting the humans next to whom they are portrayed .

On the other hand, once we begin to view Mochica pottery'as mainly concerned with a portrayal of incidents in the Herakles myths, more questions are raised than have been answered. If the Phoenicians first 'discovered' the New World at the time of Hiram of Tyre and King Solomon (in the 10 century B.C.). did they very early on set up colonies in Mexico, Bolivia, etc.? Might the man-lion year-god on the sun-gate at Tiawanaku be a feline representation of Herakles? In the Mochica portrayals of Herakles there are often puma-headed tassels hanging from Herakles' belt that echo Tiawanakan iconography.

How, can you account for the strong similarity between Mochica pots and Protocorinthian black-figure ware from around 700 B.C.? There doesn't seem to be any "early" Mochica pottery that is more Greek. There doesn't seem to be a traceable melding of pure Greek style with other (perhaps Chinese-influenced) "Mochia" styles. Why not? If the Phoenicians also had colonies in Mexico (Guerrero and La Venta) and were involved with the development of Olmeca culture, why isn't Olmeca-ware similar to that of the Mochicas? In fact, are there any other cultures in the so-called New World whose pottery has the same Greek cartoon-like clarity as that of the Mochica? I would say no -- but, again, why not?

And why should there be such an obsessive concentration on Herakles mythology among the Mochica? There were actual "shrines" dedicated to Herakles, like that on the Greek island of Thasos (See Birgitta Bergquist, HERAKLES ON THASOS, Lund, Sweden: Berlingska Boktyrckeriet, 1973), which was founded by Phoenicians -- might the Phoenician voyagers to the Peruvian coast have been involved with some sort of Heraklean heroic military "cult"?

And why should they choose the Peruvian coast? Are all the Herakles myths part of the Voyage to the House of the Sun myth that centered around Tiawanaku and was involved with the Tropic of Capricorn and its environs as a mythical House of the Sun?' Was there some sort of cult-link between Tiawanaku and the Mochica?

The questions go on and on.

But then the purpose of this article was never intended to be a final, but merely a first word.

The interested reader may want to consult my book THE MYTHOLOGICAL FOUNDATIONS OF THE EPIC GENRE (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1989) which is primarily a discussion of the role of the twin-myth in ancient myth and epic in relation to the Tropic of Capricorn/the ruins of Tiawanaku in Bolivia. The Herakles legends may be still one more body of myth which fit into the twin-myth pattern and, therefore, establishing a Herakles shrinelcult-center close to the Tropic of Capricorn/Tiawanaku would take on added astronomical meaning.


HUGH FOX is a professor at Michigan State University where he is faculty member of the Department of American Thought and Language. Mr. Fox has had over 60 pieces of work published including: criticism, (Lyn Lifshin: A Critical Study, Whitston, 1985) fiction, (Leviathan, Carpenter Press, 1980) poetry, ( The Sacred Cave, Omega Cat Press, 1992) and non-fiction (The Godís of the Cataclysm (Harperís Magazine Press, 1976).