Inca Religion

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INCA RELIGION . The pre-Columbian Andean cultures, of which the Inca empire was the final heir, extended over a geographical area that the Inca believed corresponded to the four quarters (tahuantinsuyu ) of the world. At the time of the Inca empire's fall to Spanish forces under Francisco Pizarro in 1532, the Inca occupied large portions of present-day Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. The great Andean civilizations flourished in this setting of contrasting ecosystems (coastal desert ribbed with fertile valleys, arable highlands at altitudes of more than four kilometers, Amazonian and montane rain forests) that offered resources for pursuing a variety of means of subsistence, including fishing, hunting and gathering, agriculture, and the herding of llamas, guanacos, and alpacas.

Historical Background

The great pre-Inca civilizations that flourished in what is now Peru were the Chavín (after about 800 bce), the Nazca and Moche (c. 100800 ce), the Tiahuanaco (c. 2001000), the Huari (c. 8001200), and the Chimu (c. 12001400). None of these cultures, the Inca included, appears to have possessed a written language, though this function was filled, to some extent, by the use of quipu s, or knotted strings. (The geometric plastic arts of the ancient Andean peoples may one day be shown to comprise a system of ideograms.) Aside from scattered archaeological evidenceincluding figurative and abstract images on stone and wood, funerary pieces, and some fresco fragmentswe possess documents (written in Spanish and, less frequently, in Quechua) that were composed during the years following the Conquest and that detail the religious practices of indigenous Andean peoples. (The Inca were reported to have painted mythological scenes on canvas and wood, but these are now lost.)

Despite their separation in time and the contrasts between their ecological milieus, the Andes high cultures and their religious systems manifested a common spirit. Religious practices permeated all aspects of public and private life. These religions for the most part included cults of the dead, of ancestors, of a founding culture hero, and of a divine king. Offerings and sacrifices (often human) were performed, and reflected beliefs in the needs of the "living corpse" and in the exigencies of the cosmic powers on which the cycles of nature depended. These deified powers were portrayed as monstrous beings that combined human, animal, and vegetable traits. The images of the principal deity throughout these cultures were basically variations on constant themes. This deity, which in images is variously characterized as an anthropomorphized feline (a puma or jaguar), a one- or two-headed serpent, a condor, or an ear of maize, is often portrayed brandishing weapons or other instruments.

The temples of the urban centers of these civilizations were built either in the form of truncated, stepped pyramids or as series of enclosures. Some possessed underground vaults, with or without labyrinths. In some locations, temple architecture is suggestive of the structure of the cosmos, comprising three vertical levels. Elsewhere, rows or circles of stones testify to astral observations and to cults connected to the organization of sacred time and space, in which the movements of the sun, moon, and stars, the alternations of day and night and dry and rainy seasons, the cycles of the earth and sea, and human, animal, and vegetable fecundity all seem to play a role. Calendars were based on the cyclesindividually or in combinationsof the sun, the moon, the planet Venus, and the Pleiades. The Sun and Moon pair of deities and the pair composed of this couple's sons (often seen as enemy twins) were important pan-Andean deities. Among coastal groups, the Moon, represented in bird form and associated with the sea and the dead, was the preeminent deity. Divine symbols and religious rites were not, however, always directly related to the ecosystem within which the particular culture flourished, as is evident when one compares pre-Inca iconography with Inca mythology and with the myths of present-day Amazonian peoples.

Inca Cosmology

The Inca religious system is usually attributed to either the Inca Tupac Yupanqui or his predecessor, the Inca Pachacuti, and dates to at most one hundred years before the European conquest. The expansion of Cuzco, the Inca capital, was carried out in the name of the superiority of its gods over those of other peoples who, once they were assimilated into the empire, left their principal idol (or its replica) in the Inca capital. The colonization, or federation, was founded on a system of reciprocity overseen by Cuzco. Certain cults and temples were richly endowed by the Inca (the title given the head of the empire); others were suppressed. The great social and religious leaders of the empire went regularly to the capital city, and the Inca brought colonies of collaborators (mitima ) to the temples of the empire and sometimes had himself named priest of honor. The sanctuaries of the provinces paid tribute in kind to Cuzco, contributing, for example, young children to be sacrificed during the Capacocha ceremony, which was held to ensure the Inca's health and prosperity. Rites of communion were held periodically to ensure the political and religious cohesion of the empire. Generally, these rites took place at the Temple of the Sun, in the center of the tahuantinsuyu, which center was located at the junction of the two rivers of Cuzco. Slow processions or rapid messengers departed from and returned to this center, traveling along the roads that divided the empire into four regions (chinchaysuyu to the northwest, antisuyu to the northeast, contisuyu to the southwest, and collasuyu to the southeast) or along the forty-one ceque (theoretical lines radiating from the center, on which 428 shrines were placed), and returned. Although the Inca authorized the conservation of certain regional religious structures in the cities of the empire, they also reproduced Cuzco's geometrical organization of sacred space and built replicas of the capital's principal temples in all the ceremonial centers. The bipartition of villages and adjacent territoriesthe distribution in halveswas common throughout the Andes. In Cuzco these halves were called hanan (which roughly means "high, superior, right, masculine") and hurin ("low, inferior, left, feminine"). Other categories of opposition and complementarity could intersect or be superimposed over this base, determining various socioreligious complexes. Such halves (or moieties) were linked respectively with the cosmic powers of the lower and upper worlds, and with two cardinal points.

The inhabitants of the Andean region worshiped a great number of gods, idols, and spirits, which were designated by the generic name huaca, a term that was also applied to the shrines. The oral traditions frequently related the adventures of the great huaca s (gods or parents of gods), their births and metamorphoses; the magical creation of wells, lakes, and irrigation canals; hunts, rivalries, wars, and conquests of lands, waters, and women who were captured by force or trickery; and the powers of the huaca s over men and men's duties toward them. All this took place "in the time when the huaca s were men afterward they were turned into stone." Each familyand, at the higher level, each village and provinceclaimed to descend from a given huaca (a particular man-god, conquering ancestor, founder, or civilizer), who represented a cosmic power and whom they venerated in the form of a mummy, a stone, an animal, or a constellation of stars. The codification of these beliefs was founded on the oppositions and complementaries of naturebinary or ternary (e.g., man-woman, the head and the two arms), biological and parental, or cultural (conqueror-conquered, interior-exterior, etc.)expressed in the representation of cosmic forces. Similarly, certain numbers, probably the results of astronomical calculations, gave order to the sacred.

Inca Gods

The kings of Cuzco, reputed to be sons of the Sun, formed a religious, cosmic, and territorial imperial structure in which the Sun reigned over the Andean highlands and the heavens and the god Pachacámac ruled over the lowlands and the underworld.

The Coricancha, the great Temple of the Sun in Cuzco, was flanked by two golden pumas and its walls were covered with gold and silver plaques. The halls contained statues and cosmic representations, and the mummiesor their replicasof earlier kings and queens. There were three sculptural triads of the Sun; each included a father and two sons, each triad symbolizing, respectively, the heavenly body, its light, and its vital warmth. One of these statues, Punchao, depicts two pumas between whom is seated a man with serpents at his waist and rays emanating from his shoulders. It contained a reliquary filled with a powder made from the entrails of dead kings. The temple sheltered a large number of priests (the first priest was a close relative of the Inca) and the "virgins of the Sun" (aclla ), who dedicated themselves to making cloth and corn beer for the cult of the Sun, and who also served as concubines to the Inca (who was himself the manifestation of the Sun) or to dignitaries.

From the dark bowels of the cosmos, Pachacámac caused earthquakes and sent pestilence. With his wife Pachamama ("mother of the earth"), he ruled the waters of the underworld, and, with his daughters, he controlled the depths of the sea. His temple was located at the seacoast. Although represented by a golden fox, he was also worshiped in the form of a wooden pillar, which was sculpted in a dark chamber atop a truncated adobe pyramid.

Illapa, who represented thunderbolts, lightning, rain, hail, snow, and frost, was venerated by a large cult in the highlands. He was conceived of as a triad (father, brother, and son). One of the three was represented by a man holding a club in one hand and a sling in the other. It was said that the huaca s, sons of Illapa from whom various tribes were descended, had been thrown off a mountaintop and were raised by humans. They were identified with the mountain and became masters of its animals and plants. The mountains were personified and arranged hierarchically and were the object of a cult.

The serpent Amaru represented the striking thunderbolt and also the animal or monster who, according to the myths, rose from the lake and moved toward the upper world. With one head at each of his extremities, Amaru symbolized communication between the upper and lower parts of the cosmos.

Women were the principal participants in the cult of Quilla, the Moon, who was the sister and wife of the Sun. The Coya ("queen") was believed to be the daughter of the Moon, just as the Inca was believed to be the son of the Sun. The anthropomorphic statues of Quilla were silver, while those of the Sun were gold. A lunar calendar was used along with a solar calendar. Quilla was associated with the earth and the dead. Traditionally, she pursued dead thieves into the underworld at night. One month of the year was especially sacred to her. Men also worshiped her, in Cuzco and elsewhere, particularly in the temple of Nusta, which was located on an island in Lake Titicaca.

When they were not visible, the stars, like the sun and the moon, were believed to go under the earth. The Milky Waythought of as two riversmay have inspired the construction of the Coricancha at the junction of the two rivers of Cuzco. Among the constellations, that of the llama, visible during the dry season, was of special importance to cattle raisers. The Pleiades were associated with the rainy season. If they appeared clearly at the end of May, a good harvest was augured.

After death, one of the two souls that were attributed to a man returned to its place of origin, either before or after a journey strewn with obstacles, and dwelt in the land of the souls, which was not unlike the world of the living. The kind of afterlife enjoyed by this soul was conditional on the type of death, social rank, and virtues of the dead. The other soul remained in the body, which had to be preserved intact, and which had the same needs as the living person. The bodies of nobles, kings, and queens were mummified, kept by their families, and often moved about. The mummies of ancient kingsor their replicaswere set out hierarchically in parallel series (hanan and hurin ) of four. At the head was the common founding ancestor, theoretically androgynous, of whom the first was Manco Capac. The ancestors, associated with the netherworld and germination, were considered oracles of the past, the future, and distant events, and they were consulted by expert priests.

Viracocha was the supreme god of the Inca. The Spanish missionariesmonotheists and monogenistswould have liked to make him or perhaps Pachacámac into a creator god who was unique, abstract, and infinite. But in Andean thought, each tribe had been transformed (rather than created) from water, earth, animals, and so forth, by a particular god at the beginning of a cosmic cycle, and the role of all deities was to have given, and to continue to give, the breath of life and strength (cama) to humankind and to nature.

Viracocha was one of these personified gods. He was also a complex deity and was thought of as both one and many, the principle of transformation. Two others of his names were Con-Ticsi-Viracocha and Pachayachachic ("he who gives order to the world") and he had a large family with several sanctuaries. Viracocha was associated with water and the foam of Lake Titicaca, whence he had come, and with the foam of rivers and the surface of the ocean, where, according to some myths, he (in human form) disappeared to the northwest, walking on the waves. These attributes associated him with the rainy season, and others made him the representative of the fire of the heavens and of the triumphant Sun. Under the name of Huari Viracocha (an androgynous being) he was able to draw to himself all the cosmic functions of the upper and lower worlds. He had created the sun, the moon, the stars, and the prototypes of the Andean tribesincluding the Incathus separating night from day and ushering in the solar cosmic cycle, which he entrusted to the Inca Manco Capac. The latter, accompanied by his brothers and sisters (the Ayars), was plunged into the earth by Viracocha and reemerged from the central window of Pacaritambo, to the south of Cuzco, at dawn, in order to reflect the first appearance of the sun. Viracocha's sons, Imaymana and Tocapu, taught the Andeans the names and virtues of the flora and fauna. Their travels, like Viracocha's, may have corresponded to astronomical observations.

Some prayers to Viracocha have been preserved. Around 1575, a number of prayers were recorded by Fray Cristóbal de Molina (collected in Las crónicas de los Molinas, Lima, 1943). The first of these may be rendered in English as follows:

O Creator, you who are at the ends of the earth, peerless, who has given being and force to men, who has said, "Let this one be man and that one be woman." You made them, you gave them shape, you gave them being. Let them live in health, free from danger, in peace. Wherever you may be, whether up in the heavens, below with Thunder, or with the clouds of the storm, listen to me, answer me, grant me my prayer, give us eternal life. Keep us forever in your hand. This offering, receive it, wherever you are, O Creator.

Inca Rites

The Inca was considered to be the son of the Sun and the Earth, Viracocha's chosen one and equal. In this world, between the two vertical halves of the cosmos, he was the synthesis of their opposition, acting as center and mediator. A huaca himself, he had ambiguous powers over the huaca s, with whom he either negotiated or made war. He contributed to the upkeep and vigor of the cosmic cycle in which he lived by seeing that the order of Pachayachachic was respected. Specialized priests (for such matters as divination, interpreting oracles, making sacrifices, hearing confessions, etc.) conducted the rites that measured the cycles of agriculture and husbandry, which were spread throughout the year, and which corresponded to the solstices and equinoxes, the alternation of rainy (October to March) and dry seasons, and the alternation of day and night. Each month a particular segment of Cuzco society dedicated itself to the prevailing cult. One of the most important festivals was Hanan Raymi (held at seedtime in December), during which the initiation rites of the young nobility took place, and after which the Citua was celebrated to expel the illnesses brought on by the rains. Another important ceremony was Inti Raymi, which took place at harvest time in June.

The great religious ceremonies were publicly celebrated in Cuzco. The sacrifices were designed to nourish and placate the gods, and offerings were selected from the great complementary ecosystems of nature (plants, birds, shells, the blood of animalsparticularly llamasand humans) and culture (maize, coca, pepper, corn beer, cloth, statuettes). At the center of the ceremonial place was the usnu, a small edifice on which the Inca sat enthroned and that was pierced at its base by underground canals leading to the temples of Viracocha, the Sun, and Illapa. Here the Sun was given "drink," which acted to placate and balance the powers of the lower and upper worlds. The usnu may also have served as an astronomical observatory. The golden statues of Viracocha, the Sun, and Illapa, the silver statue of the Moon, and the mummies of dead sovereignsor their replicaswere set out on ceremonial occasions.

The performance of these ritual duties was also intended to ward off cataclysms (pachacuti), especially those caused by excessive heat ("suns of fire") or water (floods). Such cataclysms were believed to result from the dissatisfaction of the cosmic powers of the upper and lower worlds. They were believed to have occurred before, ushering in new cycles, and it was thought that they could happen again. These ideas, which were based on the observation of the movements of the sun and moon and the oppositions of day and night, dry and rainy seasons, and fire and water, were projected through time to construct an explanation of the history of the world. In any case, the important Quechua word pacha means both "time" and "space."


It is impossible to show in this short essay the wealth and the complexity of the official Inca religion, which was itself superimposed over the no less rich religions of the conquered provinces. Religion imbued and governed all private and public activities of the Andean people. Daily tasks and major undertakings alike were performed with equal passion and competitive spirit, for the dualism of the religion imparted its dynamism to society. The great ritual festivals of participation and communion involved the population from the capital as well as that from the countryside, thus assuring the cohesion of the social and ethnic groups of the empire. The deification of power guaranteed its intangibility and the stability of the social order. Finally, it is known that piety was general, and that members of the elite did not hesitate to offer their children for sacrifice.

To be sure, no Andean religious books exist. But there is much to discover in the colonial documents. Recent years have seen considerable progress, especially in scholarly knowledge of Andean astronomy. Religion, culture, and philosophy were built around several fundamental ideas: the opposition of contraries, the search for their conciliation in a harmonious equilibrium, and concern for the natural and human laws, which religion had as its object to predict and to regulate.

But this religion also had its failings in regard to the social order, owing especially to the importance attributed to the oracles and to the divinization of the Inca, factors that certainly facilitated the conquest of the empire by the Spaniards. Given the present state of Andean studies, it is difficult to talk about theology in connection with Inca religion. One can, however, speak of a complex metaphysic in connection with the major god Viracocha, the conception of whom was forced to enrich and complexify itself during the final days of the empire.

The religious spirit of the Andeans revealed its full intensity after the Spanish conquest, especially in the cruel but vain attempts to make the indigenous priests confess the locations of hidden treasures. After the official religion had been forbidden and destroyed by the invaders, after it had disappeared with the empire, the rural religions, which in general antedated the Inca conquest, continued to be practiced secretly despite the fierce assaults of the itinerant Inquisition upon the Indians. During the colonial centuries, the indigenous religions formed the core around that crystallized the spirit of resistance and the preservation of the cultural identity of the Andeans.

See Also

Calendars, article on South American Calendars; Knots.


Duviols, Pierre. La lutte contre les religions autochtones dans le Pérou colonial: "L'extirpation de l'idolâtrie" entre 1532 et 1660. Lima, 1971. A history of the itinerant Inquisition (called "the extirpation of idolatry") against the Indians, its methods and the reactions of the indigenous peoples.

Duviols, Pierre. "Punchao, ídolo mayor del Coricancha: Historia y tipología." Antropología andina 1 (1976): 156182. Shows the continuity in one of the representations of the Andean solar god.

Duviols, Pierre. La destrucción de las religiones andinas: Conquista y colonia. Mexico City, 1977. Studies the means used to suppress the Andean religions and the efforts to replace them with Christianity.

Lumbreras, Luis G. The Peoples and Cultures of Ancient Peru. Washington, D.C., 1974.

Mariscotti de Görlitz, Ana María. Pachamama Santa Tierra. Berlin, 1978. Monograph on this topic.

Murra, John V. The Economic Organization of the Inca State. Greenwich, Conn., 1980. Numerous references to the economics of religion.

Pease, Franklin. El pensamiento mítico. Lima, 1982. Anthology of ancient Andean myth, preceded by a study.

Platt, Tristan. "Symétries en miroir: Le concept de yanantin chez les Macha de Bolivia." Annales, economies, sociétés, civilisations 33 (1978): 10811107. Analysis of the concepts of reflection and the double among the Macha of Bolivia.

Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, María. Estructuras andinas del poder: Ideología religiosa y política. Lima, 1983. Study of a large number of current works, focusing on the theme of dualism.

Rowe, John Howland. "The Origins of Creator Worship among the Incas." In Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, edited by Stanley Diamond, pp. 408429. New York, 1960.

Taylor, Gerald. "Camay, Camac, et camasca dans le manuscrit Quechua de Huarochiri." Journal de la Société des Americanistes 63 (19741976): 231244. Analyzes an important concept in Andean thought.

Urbano, Henrique. Wiracocha y Ayar: Héroes y funciones en las sociedades andinas. Cuzco, Peru, 1981. Anthology of ancient Andean myths, preceded by an attempt at interpretation using the trifunctional model of Georges Dumézil.

Urton, Gary. At the Crossroads of the Earth and Sky: An Andean Cosmology. Austin, 1981. Analysis of contemporary Andean astrological beliefs in terms of pre-Columbian Andean astronomy.

Zuidema, R. Tom. The Ceque System of Cuzco: The Social Organization of the Capital of the Inca. Leiden, 1962. Analyzes the geometrical and arithmetical organization of the sacred space of Cuzco.

Zuidema, R. Tom. "Mito e historia en el antiguo Perú." Allpanchis (Cuzco) 10 (1977): 1552.

Zuidema, R. Tom. "Hierarchy and Space in Incaic Social Organization." Ethnohistory 30 (1983): 4975.

New Sources

Bauer, Brian S. The Sacred Language of the Inca: The Cusco Ceque System. Austin, Tex., 1998.

Dean, Carolyn. Inka Bodies and the Body of Christ: Corpus Christi in Colonial Cuzco, Peru. Durham, N.C., 1999.

Drasat, Penny. Elemental Meanings: Symbolic Expression in Inka Miniature Figurines. London, 1995.

MacCormack, Sabine. Religion of the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Early Colonial Peru. Princeton, N.J., 1991.

Salles-Reese, Veronica. From Viracocha to the Virgin of Copacabana: Representation of the Sacred at Lake Titicaca. Austin, Tex., 1997.

Sullivan, William. Secret of the Incas: Myth, Astronomy and the War against Time. New York, 1996.

Urton, Gary. The History of a Myth: Pacariqtamba and the Origin of the Inkas. Austin, Tex., 1990.

Villoldo, Alberto, and Erik Jenresen. Journey to the Island of the Sun: The Return to the Lost City of Gold. San Francisco, 1992.

Pierre Duviols (1987)

Translated from French by Erica Meltzer
Revised Bibliography