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ATAHUALLPA (c. 15021533) was the thirteenth ruler of the Inca Empire and the last to preside over it before its conquest by the Spanish. Present-day Andean people envision Atahuallpa as a messiah. In poetry, drama, and legend, he is associated with both autochthonous and Roman Catholic beliefs. His symbolic identity transcends his historical identity.

Historically, Atahuallpa was neither the noblest nor the last of the Inca rulers. He was the son of Huayna Capac (r. 14931527), the eleventh Inca (the title given to heads of the empire). The heir to the throne was not Atahuallpa but his brother Huascar (r. 15271532), who, at Huayna Capac's request, let Atahuallpa rule over the empire's northern half, from Quito to Jauja. Three years later, in 1530, Atahuallpa defeated Huascar in a civil war that left the Inca empire so debilitated that it was easily occupied by Spanish forces under Francisco Pizarro in 1532. Pizarro captured Atahuallpa, who tried in vain to form an alliance with Pizarro to buttress his title. To avoid being burned at the stake, Atahuallpa agreed to be baptized as a Christian, although he previously had refused to accept conversion. Nevertheless, he was put to death by strangulation on August 28, 1533.

To stifle Quechua (Inca) rebellions in 1535, Pizarro made Atahuallpa's son, Manco II, the Inca ruler. Manco resisted Spanish rule until his death in 1545. Subsequent Inca rulersSayri Tupac (r. 15451557), Tito Cusi Yupanqui (r. 15571569), and Tupac Amarú (r. 15691572)prolonged this resistance for forty years. The conquest officially ended in 1572 with the execution of Tupac Amarú, although Indian revolts continued. Because of his capitulation, Atahuallpa was ignominious, but as personal memories of him began to fade he became a tragic and redemptive figure who stands at the crossroads of Inca and Spanish culture.

The seventeenth-century Peruvian poet Garcilaso de la Vega reflects the soul of a conquered people in his Royal Commentaries of the Inca (1609; Eng. tr., 1961). Garcilaso, himself the son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca princess who was the niece of Huayna Capac, describes Atahuallpa as a traitor. Garcilaso quotes a citizen of the Inca capital, Cuzco, as saying, "Atahuallpa destroyed our empire and committed every crime against the Incas. Give that man to me and even if he be dead I will eat him raw, without seasoning!"

Garcilaso also depicts Atahuallpa as a symbol of the lack of communication between Indians and Spaniards. At the first meeting between Atahuallpa's retinue and Pizarro's troops in 1532, the Inca was confronted by a priest, Vicente de Valverde, to whom he said, "You claim that Christ is God, but how can he be dead? We worship the Sun and Moon, which are immortal! By what authority do you say that God created the universe?"

"The Bible!" Valverde replied, handing his copy to Atahuallpa. The Inca placed the book to his ear, shook it, and replied, "It is silent?" He threw it to the ground, and at this Valverde ordered the Spanish troops to kill the Indians. Garcilaso's irony is that Valverde represented peace but brought destruction, whereas Atahuallpa represented civil war but sought reconciliation.

During the colonial (15321826) and republican (1826present) periods, Atahuallpa came to symbolize the conquered people, and his death came to signify the disruption of nature caused by the conquest. This is poignantly illustrated in a poem, A Eulogy to Atahuallpa, written in the sixteenth century by an unknown author:

A black rainbow covers Cuzco, tight like a bow.

Hail hits our heads; rivers flow with blood;
The days are black and the nights are white.
Our hearts are overwhelmed because Atahuallpa is dead,
The shadow who protects us from the sun.

Spaniards became rich with your gold.
Yet their hearts rotted with greed, power, and violence.
Atahuallpa, you embraced and gave them all,
But they beheaded you.

Today, may your heart support our sinful ways. (trans. by Bastien, from Arguedas, 1957)

According to the present-day belief system of the Quechua peoples, the conquest destroyed harmony between the Inca and his subjects, between Indian and Spaniard, and between heaven and earth. Harmony, it is believed, will be restored by the resurrection of Atahuallpa, which is represented in a popular dance drama, The Death of Atahuallpa, performed annually in the Bolivian cities of Kanata and Oruro. In Oruro the drama is performed on the Sunday and Monday of Carnival. The actors playing Atahuallpa and the Inca princesses stand across the central plaza from those playing Pizarro and his soldiers. Atahuallpa debates with his diviner about ominous prophecies and the divinity of the conquistadors. Pizarro captures, tricks, and executes Atahuallpa. As a finale, a choir of Inca princesses chants, "Eternal Lord, make arise the all-powerful and youthful Inca Atahuallpa!" Clowns then bring Atahuallpa back to life. In Kanata a similar drama is performed during a fiesta dedicated to Jesus. Like Christ, Atahuallpa suffers trial and execution and is resurrected. Actors dressed as Inca princesses dedicate the drama to the Blessed Mother and march in procession carrying a statue of Jesus. Finally, they enact the capture, trial, death, and resurrection of Atahuallpa.

These actors transform Atahuallpa and Jesus into a composite symbolic figure who is acceptable to both the conquerors and the conquered and who promises the regeneration of a harmonious culture in a future age. The archetypal imagery of death and rebirth forms a common denominator between the Atahuallpa of the Inca and the Jesus of the Spanish. However, the drama separates Atahuallpa and Jesus from negative historical associations: Atahuallpa is not remembered as a traitor and tyrant, and Jesus is dissociated from the Catholic colonial heritage.

The rebirth of Atahuallpa is also expressed in the legends surrounding the figure of Inkarri (whose name is a Quechua corruption of the Spanish Inca rey [Inca king]) that are found throughout the Andes. According to these legends, the father of Inkarri is the Sun. Inkarri has abundant gold. His head is buried somewhere in Cuzco. His body is slowly being regenerated, growing from the head down. When Inkarri's body is complete, he will return to judge the world. Although the Inkarri legends portend the return of the Inca in general, they are also associated with Atahuallpa. Traditional Andeans believe that Atahuallpa's head is also buried in Cuzco, where his body, too, is being regenerated by the forces of Pachamama (Mother Earth), a major deity in the Andes. When he is regenerated, Atahuallpa will emerge from Lake Titicaca. During the messianic age that follows, he will judge all who have upset nature, culture, and society.

Ethnohistorically, Atahuallpa has thus become a symbol combining Inca ideas of earthly and cosmic rebirth with Christian beliefs about the death, resurrection, and second coming of Christ. Christian beliefs, however, are secondary to the association of Atahuallpa with the earth as the center of a regenerative cycle from birth to death to renewed life. This more basic process provides cosmic meaning for the tyranny initiated by the conquest.

As the twenty-first century begins, the rivalry and fratricide between the two brothers Atahuallpa and Huascar still functions as a foundation myth for the existence of Ecuador, which descends from Atahuallpa, and Peru, which descends from Huascar. Their rivalry was the start of the rivalry between the two nations. This is the most important thing about Atahuallpa from the perspective of the modern nations. Hence the story of Atahuallpa is partisan depending on which nation one belongs to. In short, Atahuallpa is a symbolic figure with multiple meanings evoked for varying religious beliefs, political parties, and national identities that have changed since the conquest.

See Also

Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo.


Four chronicles of early colonial times refer to events in the life of Atahuallpa. The most reliable is by Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala (15261614). He describes the contact between Atahuallpa and the Spaniards in folios 378 to 391 of El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1613), edited by John V. Murra and Rolena Adorno, translation from Quechua and textual analysis by Jorge L. Urioste, 3 vols. (Mexico City, 1980). Guamán Poma bases his account on testimonies by his father and others who were adults at the time of the conquest. The second chronicle was dictated by Tito Cusi Yupanqui, who ruled as Inca from 1557 to 1569; it was published as Relación de la conquista del Peru y hechos del Inca Manco II (Lima, 1916). The nephew of Atahuallpa, Tito Cusi faithfully reflects the Inca viewpoint and eloquently points out the injustices perpetrated by the Spaniards. The third chronicle, Relación de antiguedades desde reyno del Peru, written by Juan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui at the beginning of the seventeenth century, appears in Historia de los incas y relación de su gobierno, edited by Horacio H. Urteaga (Lima, 1927). Much shorter than that by Guamán Poma, this chronicle contains information about Andean beliefs and cosmology and includes a map of the Andeans' universe. Atahuallpa is unfavorably depicted as the killer of Huascar and his wife and child. The fourth chronicle, Commentarios reales de los Incas, written by Garcilaso de la Vega in 1609, appears in The Incas: Commentaries of the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega 15391616 (New York, 1961), translated by Maria Jolas from the critical, annotated edition by Alain Gheerbrant (1959). Educated in the classical tradition, Garcilaso wrote in a humanistic style that embellished Inca traditions and criticized the Spaniards for their betrayal of Christian culture.

The poem "A Eulogy to Atahuallpa" was translated by José María Arguedas in Apu Inqa Atahuallpaman (Lima, 1957). Jesús Lara presents a complete translation of an early version of the folk drama of Oruro in Tragedía del fin de Atawallpa (Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1957). Several scholars have analyzed the drama: Miguel León-Portilla compares Atahuallpa with Mexico's Moctezuma IIthey were both products of millenarian cultures and believed that Pizarro and Cortés were returning deitiesin El reverso de la conquista (Tabasco, Mexico, 1964). Along similar lines, Nathan Wachtel, in The Vision of the Vanquished: The Spanish Conquest of Peru through Indian Eyes, 15301570 (New York, 1977), interprets the drama from a structuralist perspective: the conquest brought disharmony, Atahuallpa brings harmony, and the drama reveals these contradictions. Clemente Hernando-Balmori has written a profound study of this drama in La Conquista de los españoles: Drama indígena bilingue quechua-castellano (Tucumán, Argentina, 1955). He interprets it in the context of Inca drama and Andean cognitive patterns.

A useful source for articles about Andean messianism is an anthology edited by Juan Ossio Acuña, Ideología messianica del mundo andino (Lima, 1973). This includes twenty-two articles on messianic movements in past and present Andean history, including José María Arguedas's interpretation of the Inkarri legends, "El mito de Inkarri y las tres humanidades."

A compendium of studies on the overthrow of the Inca Empire can be found in Transatlantic Encounters: Europeans and Andeans in the Sixteenth Century (Los Angeles, 1991), edited by Kenneth Andrien and Rolena Adorno, and in the article by Vicente Cantarino, "Conquista en el Nuevo Mundo," published in Civilización y Cultura de España (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1995), edited by Steve Debow.

Joseph W. Bastien (1987 and 2005)