Gender and Religion: Gender and South American Religions

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Religion is central to South American society. Daily life and major events are marked, celebrated, and aided by the performance of religious rituals derived from a range of traditions, including Andean, Inca, shamanism, Catholicism, and Protestantism. In agricultural areas planting and harvesting are imbued with religious meaning. Marriage, healing, and even travel require celebration of religious rituals. Religion in South America also reflects and reproduces gender norms in the society. Forms of veneration, rituals of healing, rites of reconciliation, and specific religious cults follow gender lines.

Research on Gender and Religion in South America

The gender specificity of religious belief, practices, and rituals in pre-Colombian South America defied the logic of the Spanish who invaded the region in the sixteenth century. The principle characteristics of Andean and Inca religion are gender parallelism and complementarity, which reflect and reinforce social organization. By contrast, Spanish Mediterranean monotheistic religion in which a supreme male deity dominated supported a patriarchal model of the society in which men presided over the family and society. Spanish chroniclers misunderstood Andean and Inca religion and condemned religious practices that defied the patriarchal model by suggesting they were the work of the devil. Inca worship of a masculine Sun as the principle deity and of the feminine Moon as its counterpart seemed to the Spanish a result of diabolical intervention. Although they did not understand them, Spanish chroniclers recorded their observation of gendered practices of worship and of male and female deities. Their accounts provide researchers with insight into the gendered cosmology and practices of pre-Colombian South American society. Spanish clergy, including Pedro de Cieza de León, José de Acosta, Cristóbal Albornoz, Pablo José de Arriaga, Bernabé Cobo and Martin de Murua, whose goal was to eradicate local religion and establish Catholicism, also provide much of the available source material for understanding pre-Colombian South American religion. Andean and Inca manuscripts, including the Huarochirí Manuscript, and the accounts of Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala and "El Inca" Garcilaso de la Vega provide knowledge from an indigenous perspective. Researchers have examined these accounts using gendered categories of analysis to gain insight into the female, male, and androgynous components of Andean and Inca religion.

Archaeological evidence has also provided insight into the gender specificity of religion and ritual in South American society. Archaeological remains are subject to different interpretive challenges because analysis of them reflects contemporary assumptions about gender and worship. As a result, women's roles depicted in artifacts were sometimes ignored or misinterpreted. For example, in 1980 Anne-Marie Hocquenghem and Patricia J. Lyon identified a figure with long braids and feminine dress depicted in a Peruvian Moche "Sacrifice Scene" as a Moche priestess. Their interpretation was contested by researchers who identified this figure as male. Only in 1991 when the remains of a tomb where the ritual had been enacted in practice was found and the participant's bones were identified as female did researchers concur with Lyons and Hocquenghem that the image in the picture was that of a woman. Even with this recognition, the female figure was ascribed lower status than that of her male counterparts in the Sacrifice Scene. Two men depicted in the Sacrifice Scene often were identified as Moche warrior-priests and rulers, whereas the female figure was identified as a priestess rather than a ruler.

Irene Silverblatt's influential book, Moon, Sun, and Witches (1987), was among the first to provide a gendered analysis of Andean and Inca religion and the impact of Spanish Conquest. Using Spanish sources, Silverblatt concluded that gender parallelism and complementarity were core characteristics of Andean cosmology and of the organization of religious cults. She argued that the Incas used gender ideologies and religious practices to extend their control over Andean communities. Kathryn Burns's Colonial Habits: Convents and the Spiritual Economy of Cuzco, Peru (1999) carried a gendered analysis of religion into the colonial period. She demonstrated that the Spanish used religion and gender to assert control over the Incas and to establish a colonial order. Burns examines the Spanish foundation and development of two Catholic convents in the Inca capital of Cuzco. She argues that, by facilitating an inextricably linked exchange of prayer and material resources with the people of Cuzco, women religious played a central role in what she describes as the spiritual economy of colonial society. This research is complemented by ethnographic studies (e.g., Allen, 1988, Glass-Coffin, 1998) that illustrate the centrality of gendered practices of religion in contemporary Andean society, suggesting that elements of pre-Colombian religious ideals of Andean parallelism and complementarity survived Spanish conquest.

Andean Parallelism

Andean parallelism and complementarity are perhaps best illustrated by Pachamama and Pachatira. Pachamama, literally Mother Earth, is said to embody the generative forces of the earth and to sustain society by providing nourishment. She cannot, however, realize her procreative powers without a male celestial counterpart and is often paired with Illapa (or Rayo), the god of thunder and lightning, who dominates the heavens and provides the rain necessary for crop production. Pachamama is also inextricably linked with Pachatira, a temporal and material dimension of the earth associated with masculinity. Pachamama and Pachatira appear to represent different aspects of the pacha's nature as both a nurturing figure, yet also a potentially angry force that may punish people and requires their worship and sacrifice in exchange for sustaining them. Pachamama/Tirakuna may appear as distinct manifestations of Mother Earth with Tirakuna seen as sacred places identified as "Fathers" and Pachamama as the earth as a whole. Thus, rather than being completely separate, Pachamama/Tirakuna are distinct manifestations of a gendered Mother Earth.

Pierre Duviols observed that gender parallelism transcended life so that when elite Andean people died, they were transformed into two entities: a mallqui, the mummy of the live person and the feminine half that represented the seed of future generations, and the huaca, the masculine half, a phallic rock that represented the inseminating force. Thus like the Pachamama/Tirakuna the individual reflected a unified whole that was nonetheless gender distinct. Similarly Andean couples are known as the single composite word, warmi-qhari (woman-man), suggesting that couples represent a unified whole. This assumption is reflected in the mandate that only couples may perform religious cargoselective offices held for a one-year term by male community members charged with responsibility for overseeing civil and religious activities crucial to indigenous communities' survivallike that of fiesta sponsors.

Religion, Gender, and State Expansion: Incas to Spanish

From 1200 to 1400 ce the Incas embarked on a program of expansion and conquest over surrounding Andean communities, which would lead them to control an area that spanned a third of the South American continent. Irene Silverblatt argues that the Incas, recognizing Andean religious practices and beliefs, used gender ideologies to mask their control. They sought to graft Inca divinities onto local Andean religious structures, thereby using them to establish legitimacy and authority. Central to this assertion was the Incas' establishment of a masculine Sun as the principal deity from whom all Inca men descended and who presided over the Inca kingdom, and a feminine Moon from whom all Inca queens descended and who presided over the earth and the sea. Thus the Inca kings were said to be sons of the Sun, and the Inca queens were the daughters of the complementary feminine Moon. The Incas made Mamacocha (Mother Sea) a descendant of the Moon and proclaimed her mother of all waters: streams, rivers, and mounting springs. Andean cosmology asserted that Pachamama's daughters embodied highland products and provided Andean people with knowledge of them and methods of cultivation. Saramama was associated with maize; Axomama, with potatoes; Cocamama, with coca; Coyamama with metals; and Sañumama, with clay. The Incas used this ideology by claiming that an Inca queen, Mama Huaco, had introduced the sowing of corn in the Andes, thus attributing to her the base for the survival of Andean communities and the Inca kingdom. The Incas thus used Andean cosmology to expand their empire.

The Incas also used gender and women to extend their control over communities through a system of female cults, marriage, and sacrifice. Chaste girls, acllas, were selected from Andean communities and they became virginal wives of the Sun. They were separated from their communities and sent to acllawasis (aclla houses) located in each province's state-run capital. After they were selected these virginal girls might become permanent servants to Inca divinities, or they might marry Incas or other men chosen by Incas. Those girls who served the deities were taught "women's tasks" including spinning, weaving, and the preparation of chicha and special foods that they provided for the service to the Inca king and gods. Although some Andean girls were selected as acllas, others were chosen for sacrifice. The number of human sacrifices appears to have increased during the Inca Empire and new ideals about human offerings developed. The Inca directed and controlled human sacrifice and used a variety of methods, including strangulation, burial, cremation, removal of heart and offering blood and heart while burning the body, and throat cutting in which the victims blood was offered. The Inca also buried victims alive or left them to die of exposure on mountains after they had been made insensible by drink or blows to the head.

These sacrifices were gender and age specific. Male sacrifices often involved bloodletting, whereas female sacrifices consisted of death by a nonblood-releasing means and burial. Most sacrifices were of prepubescent children who were selected by their communities for their beauty and brought to the Inca capital, Cuzco, where they were presented in a public ceremony. After the ceremony the children of the capa cocha ritual were returned to their communities where they were buried alive and then established as a local cult often overseen by their own family members. These sacrifices enhanced the community's privilege within the Inca kingdom and that of the girls' fathers and family members within their own communities. It provided a means of expanding Inca control.

The Spanish sought to establish patriarchal Catholicism in the Andes, and they introduced a distinct conception of sin. Although they did not understand Andean gender parallelism or complementarity, the Spanish nonetheless used gender to assert their authority and to expand their control. Because the Spanish did not share the same culture with the Andean and Inca people they sought to conquer, they relied on force and violence. Burns observes that during a brief respite in the violent conflict that threatened to destroy the nascent colonial society in Peru, the conquistadores established Santa Clara Catholic Convent in the Inca capital of Cuzco. Half a century later a second convent would be built in Cuzco atop the ruins of acllawasi. Santa Clara's purpose was to transform the daughters of Inca queens and Spanish conquistadores into culturally Spanish women who might either become nuns to serve God or marry Spanish men. Among the first entrants to the convent was the last Inca ruler's six-year-old daughter. These girls were wrested violently from their Inca mothers so they might be transformed. Although the purpose of Santa Clara convent was to create culturally Spanish girls of the mestiza women, the conquistadores' efforts were thwarted by the Spanish Abbess Francisca de Jesús and the small minority of Spanish nuns who distinguished themselves from their mestiza counterparts by donning a black veil. The black veils established the Spanish nuns as culturally superior to the mestiza nuns who were forced to wear white veils. Spanish nuns thereby reproduced the racial distinction the Spanish conquistadores sought to eradicate through religious training of mestiza girls. Both the Inca and the Spanish requisitioned daughters of the defeated to serve as participants in religious cults and as their spouses. Gender-specific religious imposition was central to the expansion of the Inca and Spanish states.

Whereas mestiza girls entered Santa Clara convent, Andean girls could enter beatas founded in Cuzco at the end of the seventeenth century, the Spanish golden age in the region. In contrast to Santa Clara convent where mestiza girls were subject to the authority of Spanish nuns and distinguished from them by a white veil marking their inferiority, Andean girls in beatas were autonomous. They redefined themselves and established themselves as honorable women by virtue of their religious faith, practice, and knowledge. Indigenous women became abbesses of the beatas and even defended themselves and their community against Spanish officials. They thus enjoyed greater autonomy than both their mestiza counterparts and Andean and mestizo men who were barred from becoming clergy or directing their own seminaries. Andean women who did not enjoy the formal protection of the church were subject to abuse, including rape, by Spanish clergy.

Rituals of Health and Healing

Gender parallelism and complementarity remain central to contemporary South American religion and are evident in rituals of marriage, health, and healing. The interdependence of men and women is considered a natural state of things and is reflected in the term warmi-qhari (woman-man) to refer to a couple. Formal marriage with a Catholic religious ceremony usually occurs many years after a couple has been established and has had children and often occurs in the context of a larger religious fiesta. Single adults are considered unnatural and cannot fulfill specific religious or civic cargoes in the community. Marriage also continues to serve as a means of allying distinct social groups with girls from less powerful families, who are considered "more Indian," marrying boys from more powerful families.

Religious fiestas, which mark specific points in the harvest and celebrate communities' founding saints, require sponsorship by couples within each community. Some fiestas require two sponsors because together they form a warmi-qhari. The junior sponsor in a fiesta is said to act like a woman, suggesting the fluidity of gender and its relation to specific roles. During fiestas, although men and women share the same physical space, they are separated within it to conform with the Andean ideals of a masculine and feminine.

Rituals of health and healing conform with the ideal of a gender division of labor and are infused with religious belief and practice. Joseph W. Bastien found, for example, that in Bolivia misfortune rituals designed to eliminate misfortune are usually carried out by a warmi yachaj (female diviner), whereas a qari yachaj (male diviner) performs good-fortune rituals to set in motion favorable events. The symbolic system of the Bolivian Aymara people avers to men stability and mountains and contrasts them with women associated with rivers and a natural cycle of dissolution and renewal. Women are seen to be especially appropriate for performing misfortune rites because their menstrual cycle enables them to experience a flow like that of rivers. The flow of blood cleanses them just as one needs to be cleansed of misfortune by returning it to a river so it can follow the natural cycle of dissolution and renewal. Male diviners, by contrast, help to fix good fortune by offering symbols of llama fat and fetus to the earth shrines of the region.

Men become shamans by encountering and surviving the masculine Illapa (Rayo), or lightning. The highest shamans survive this encounter three times. By contrast, women become midwives by recognizing their calling in dreams or giving birth to children seen as special or unusual. The dreams of midwives often include images of the Virgin Mary or Catholic saints who may appear among herbs in a garden, which become central to the women's curative role. There is a confluence of Andean and Catholic imagery in the calling of the midwife suggesting that conversion to Protestantism may be incompatible with the traditional practice of midwifery.

In Northern Peru men and women work as curanderos, participating in the same tradition of curing through a mesa and the ingestion of the San Pedro cactus. Men are, however, more openly associated with this tradition of healing, whereas women are often identified as brujas, sorceresses who transform themselves into black cats, ducks, pigs, and goats, engage in reunions with the devil, and cast spells. Bonnie Glass-Coffin attributes this distinction to a fiction created by Spanish clergy who identified female curanderas as witchesa perception that became popularized. One result of this perception is that it is more difficult to find female curanderas because they hide their practices.

Among the Warao in Venezuela, couples serve together as shamans. The wife of a male light shaman comes to be known as shinakarani (Mother of Seizure) because of her ability to save her husband from seizures resulting from ritualized nicotine consumption. The shinakarani' s role is modeled after that of the experience of the first light shaman, who suffers a nicotine seizure when he enters the celestial House of Tobacco Smoke and is saved by his wife who transforms into a frigate bird and covers the light shaman with her body and wings to save him from the seizure.

Catholicism and Protestantism

Until the 1960s most men and women in South America identified themselves as Catholic, although their practices might have included distinctly indigenous elements. In the 1950s and 1960s a new form of Catholicism strongly influenced by the Second Vatican Council and the rise of liberation theology was established in many South American countries. This Catholicism, which emphasized the transformative potential of this life rather than focusing on salvation in the next life, had an especially strong impact among women. In rural communities, indigenous women came to serve as Catholic catechists whose role was to discuss church doctrine and the bible with their communities. In urban communities, especially those composed of recent migrants from rural areas, Catholic women formed associations for prayer and community service. Comedores populares (community kitchens) were established by women with the assistance of lay and religious Catholic leaders. Through these associations women began to redefine their place in society and their relations with men.

During the same period of the 1960s and 1970s, a number of Protestant denominations, as well as Jehovah's Witnesses, Church of Latter-day Saints, and other religious groups, began to attract converts in South America. Protestants have, so far, received the greatest attention from researchers. Those who have focused on women's conversion emphasize the opportunity that Protestantism offered women to escape the system of fiestas, which was associated with alcohol consumption and costly expenditures. Lesley Gill suggests that Protestantism offered women migrants in new urban communities a means of explaining and coping with suffering. She also argues that Protestantism allows women to exert indirect control over abusive or neglectful spouses. Finally, Gill emphasizes that many women identify simultaneously as Protestant and Catholic or may go through a series of conversions rather than retaining a fixed religious identity. By converting to a new faith, women and men change their religious beliefs and practices and gain a means of transforming gender norms and thus their relations with each other and with society. Indeed, because religion is central to South America, where it reflects and reproduces gender norms, it is also central to understanding changes in gender and society.

See Also

Inca Religion; Liberation Theology; Shamanism, article on South American Shamanism.


Primary Sources

Cobo, Bernabé. History of the Inca Empire (1653). Translated by John Howland Rowe. Austin, Tex., 1979. Bernabé Cobo, a seventeenth-century Spanish Jesuit missionary, provides an overview of Andean customs and a treatise on Inca legends, history, and social institutions which offers insight into gender and religion in pre-Colombian society.

de Acosta, José. The Natural and Moral History of the Indies (1604). Translated by Clements R. Markham. New York, n.d. José de Acosta, a Spanish Jesuit missionary who traveled throughout the New World and worked extensively in Southern Peru, the heart of the Inca Empire, offers insight into Andean and Inca religion and society with reference to gender.

de Arriaga, Father Pablo José. The Extirpation of Idolatry in Peru (1621). Translated by L. Clark Keating. Lexington, Ky., 1968. Father Pablo José de Arriaga was responsible for imposing Catholic orthodoxy by violently destroying the last vestiges of Inca and Andean religion in Peru's indigenous communities in the seventeenth century. The account details the religious practices de Arriaga found and his efforts to destroy them with incidental references to gender.

de Betanzos, Juan. Narrative of the Incas. Translated and edited by Roland Hamilton and Dana Buchanan. Austin, Tex., 1996. Juan de Betanzos, a Spanish official who married an Inca woman and learned Quechua, provides one of the earliest accounts of Inca and Andean religion.

de Molina, Cristóbal. Relacion de las fabulas y ritos de los Incas (1573). Lima, Peru, 1943. Instruction to Spanish clergy and officials for discovering Inca sites of worship provides insight into Inca religious practices.

de Murua, Martin. Historia del origin y geneologia real de los Incas (1590). Madrid, 1946. Sixteenth-century Spanish Chronicle of the Incas by Fray Martin de Murua.

Duviols, Pierre. Cultura andina y repression: Procesos y visitas de idolatries y hechicerias. Cajatambo. Siglo XVII. Cusco, Peru, 1986. Compilation of documents from the extirpation of idolatries in seventeenth-century Peru.

Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, El Primero nueva cronica y buen gobierno (1631?). Edited by John Victor Murra and Rolena Adorno, Mexico City, 1980. Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, a native Quechua speaker from Peru, provides a unique account of Inca religion and society and prescriptions for creating a just society combining Spanish and Andean norms. The text combines a written history of the region with nearly four hundred drawn images depicting daily life under the Incas, the Spanish Conquest, and colonial society.

Garcilaso de la Vega, El Inca. Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru (1609, 1616). Translated by H. V. Livermore. Austin, Tex., 1966. El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega was the son of an Inca princess and a Spanish conquistador who wrote his account of Inca society and history from Spain. Provides insight into the Inca elite family structure as well as into specific practices of worship.

The Huarochirí Manuscript. Translated by Frank Salomon and George L. Urioste with annotations and introductory essay by Frank Salomon. Austin, Tex., 1991. Seventeenth-century account written in Quechua of mythology and rituals of Andean people in the region of Huarochirí which provides insight into gender and has been used to suggest the centrality of an androgynous ideal in Andean gender relations.

Secondary Sources

Allen, Catherine J. The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community. Washington, D.C., 1988. Anthropological account of contemporary community life in the Southern Andes provides core insight into religion and gender by focusing on religious rituals and the structure of family and community.

Bastien, Joseph W. Healers of the Andes: Kallawaya Herbalists and Their Medicinal Plants. Salt Lake City, 1987. Anthropological account of healers, their methods, rituals, and medicines in the Andes of Bolivia with some specific insight into gendered practices of healing.

Bruhns, Karen Olsen, and Karen E. Stothert. Women in Ancient America. Norman, Okla., 1999. Broad overview of secondary literature in anthropology, archaeology, history, and art history which provides insight into women in ancient America with their role in religion providing one component of the overview.

Burns, Kathryn. Colonial Habits: Convents and the Spiritual Economy of Cuzco, Peru. Durham, N.C., 1999. Historical account of the establishment of two Catholic convents in the Inca capital of Cuzco during the Spanish colonial period and the role of women in the emerging colonial society. The author emphasizes the centrality of religion in transforming mestiza girls into culturally Spanish women who would worship the Spanish God, become conquistadores' wives, and participate in the spiritual economy of the society.

Burns, Kathryn. "Beatas, 'decencia' y poder: la formación de una elite indígena en el Cuzco colonial." In Incas e indios cristianos. Elites indígenas e identidades cristianas en lso Andes colonials, edited by Jean-Jacques Decoster. Lima, Peru, 2002. Brief article examining the foundation of Andean beatas as a counterpart to Spanish Catholic convents. Illustrates the role religion might play in granting Andean women a measure of autonomy.

Cadena, Marisol de la. "Matrimonio y etnicidad en comunidades andinas (Chitapampa, Cusco)." In Más allá del Silencio: Las Fronteras de género en los Andes, compiled by Denise J. Arnold. La Paz, Bolivia, 1997. Article uses an anthropological approach to examine the relationship between ethnicity and marriage strategies in contemporary southern Peru.

Castro Aguilar, Rosa. "Religion and Family: Catholic Experiences in Peru." In Christianity and Social Change, and Globalization in the Americas, edited by Anna L. Peterson, Manuel A. Vásquez, and Philip J. Williams. New Brunswick, N.J., 2001. Article examines the role that liberation theology and postVatican II Catholicism played among women in poor urban settlements in contemporary Peru.

Chávez Hualpa, Fabiola. "Mujeres que curan, mujeres que creen: un perfil de la medicina feminina." In "Despierta, remedio, cuenta ": adivinos y medicos del Ande, compiled by Mario Polia Meconi. Lima, Peru, 1996. Chapter focusing specifically on women as part of a larger compilation of work on traditional practices of health and healing in the Andean region.

Gill, Lesley. "Religious Mobility and the Many Words of God in La Paz, Bolivia." In Rethinking Protestantism in Latin America, edited by Virginia Garrard-Burnett and David Stoll. Philadelphia, 1993. Article examines the role that contemporary Protestantism plays in offering women a means of transforming gender relations and gaining a measure of autonomy in contemporary Andean society.

Glass-Coffin, Bonnie. The Gift of Life: Female Spirituality and Healing in Northern Peru. Albuquerque, 1998. Anthropological account focusing specifically on female curanderas in northern Peru, while also providing insight into the experience of a woman researcher who sought to become a curandera.

Harris, Olivia. "Complementarity and Conflict: An Andean View of Women and Men." In Sex and Age as Principles of Social Differentiation, edited by J. S. La Fontaine. London, 1978. Article provides key insight into gender complementarity in contemporary Andean society.

Matteson Langdon, E. Jean, and Gerhard Baer, eds. Portals of Power: Shamanism in South America. Albuquerque, 1992. Overview of Shamanism in South America with some specific details about gender.

Murra, John V. The Economic Organization of the Inca State. Greenwich, Conn., 1980. Analysis of the organization of the Inca state using Spanish chronicles to reconstruct the physical, political, and economic structure of society.

Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, María. Estructuras Andinas del poder: Ideología religiosa y política. Lima, Peru, 1983. Among the first works to include an analysis of the role of gender in Andean power structures.

Sánchez, Ana. "Pecados secretos, públicas virtudes: El acoso sexual en el confesionario." Revista Andina 14 (1996): 121148. Article focuses specifically on the Catholic rite of confession and its association with clerical abuse of Andean, Spanish, and mestiza women.

Sikkink, Lyn. "El poder mediador del cambio de agues: género y el cuerpo politico condeño." In Más allá del Silencio: Las Fronteras de género en los Andes, compiled by Denise J. Arnold. La Paz, Bolivia, 1997. Analysis of gender and social and political structure in contemporary Andean Bolivian community.

Silverblatt, Irene. Moon, Sun, and Witches: Gender Ideologies and Class in Inca and Colonial Peru. Princeton, N.J., 1987. Among the first works to examine gender and religion. Provides key insight into gender parallelism and complementarity and the Inca's use of gender to extend control over Andean people.

Wilbert, Johannes. Tobacco and Shamanism in South America. New Haven, Conn., 1987. Overview of secondary literature detailing the practices, rituals, and beliefs of tobacco shamans in South America with some reference to gender specificity of practices.

Susan Fitzpatrick Behrens (2005)

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Gender and Religion: Gender and South American Religions