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  • Ilenia Atzori

Munch and the Chachapoya Mummy

I was walking along a road one evening – on one side lay the city, and below me was the fjord. The sun went down – the clouds were stained red, as if with blood. I felt as though the whole of nature was screaming – it seemed as though I could hear a scream. I painted that picture, painting the clouds like real blood. The colors screamed.

Edvard Munch

Munch’s Scream has been one of my favorite paintings since high school, when my inner self felt like screaming its feelings to the world, while on the surface everything looked calm and good. My once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet this painting for the first time was at the exhibition ‘Munch : Van Gogh’ at the Van Gogh Museum, in 2016: that iconic figure that inspired the mask of Wes Craven’s serial killer in ‘Scream’ was almost oppressed by the surrounding environment, in the total indifference of the two men in the background. It looked as if colors completely flattened the painting, yet at the same time they gave it another dimension, that can only be perceived at an emotional level. I have always genuinely admired Munch’s use of colors in such a powerful way…

However, I had always thought that the foreground figure was just his own attempt to give his anxiety a human-like form, but when I visited the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, I learnt about a sort of myth behind the creation of this painting.

During my visit, I was attracted by a mummy: it was in foetal position, arms and legs bound by a rope; its label said it was a Chachapoya mummy from Perù, dating between the 9th and 15th century, found in 1877 and exhibited in Paris, at the Trocadero Ethnographic Museum in 1882. Therefore, it is believed this mummy might have inspired a number of contemporary artists, such as Gauguin and Munch.

The label also said that it was found in a mausoleum in the Peruvian Andes and that it was a witness to the American natives funerary practices before the conquest of the area by the Incas.

From information collected on different websites, Chahapoya’s story seem to have been reported only by the Incas and the Spanish Conquistadors, therefore excluding any first-hand records; other evidences come from archaeological research on tombs, pottery, excavations and artifacts. Not even Chachapoya was their ‘true identity’, since this name was given them by the Incas, and probably derives from Quechua words meaning ‘cloud forest’ or ‘people who live in the cloud forest’, from their original territory in the Amazonas region of modern Perù.

It looks like Chachapoya were mainly traders who lived in circular lithic huts, and did not use architecture as a manifestation of power. As many other past civilizations, they afforded their dead a great importance, considering them still part of the living population to the extent that dead chiefs could even participate in rituals or meetings.

When their territories were conquered by the Incas in the 15th century, Chachapoya were exiled and scattered in different territories controlled by the new rulers, so to prevent their reorganization and revolt. However, when in the 16th century the Spanish arrived, the Chachapoya soon combined their forces with them to overthrow the Incan regime. Unfortunately, this alliance meant the Chachapoya decimation: not only their fight against the Incas, but also European illnesses, killed a large proportion of the population.

Chachapoya seemed to have had different funerary patterns, from mummification wrapped in textiles, to dry bones buried in sarcophagi, caves and Chullpas, namely funerary towers usually intended to host the remains of individuals or families from a high social background. Despite some regional differences, the evidence available has led researchers to believe that mummification and dry bones might represent a transition from fleshed remains to dry skeletal remains; this would imply a funerary behaviour marked by the continued access to ancestors’ remains, which indicates their importance for living communities.

Although Munch never mentioned any encounter with mummies, in 1967 the American modern art expert Wayne Andersen formulated his hypothesis that a Peruvian mummy could have inspired Munch’s Scream; in 1978, the New York University Art Professor Rosenblum, authour of “Symbols and images of Edvard Munch”, claimed that both Gauguin and Munch first saw a Peruvian mummy at the Paris World Fair in 1889 (now at the Musée de l’Homme), and that encounter was reflected in their artworks (e.g. Breton Eve, Gauguin, 1889). Later, in 2004, the University of Florence anthropologist Mannucci, based on the observation of the position of the mummy’s hands, stated that the one who inspired Munch’s masterpiece was that displayed at the Florence Museum of Natural History. However, there are no records about Munch visiting Florence during the decade between the mummy’s arrival at the museum and the creation of ‘the Scream’ in 1893.


Ilenia Atzori is a museum enthusiast from Italy. She is currently undertaking an MA in Museum Studies (distance learning) at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. She works as an Operator for Cultural Tourism in Sardinia.


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