Messianism: South American Messianism

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Messianism is not a universal religious phenomenon. It appears in some, but not all, societies of the world, and in some religious systems but not in others. South America is one of those regions prone to the development of messianism, regardless of the nature of a society. This entry shall explore how expressions of messianism may be found among the peasant inheritors of the high civilizations that developed in the Andes, as well as among hunters and gatherers of the Amazonian region. Although most evidence derives from the postconquest period, it is possible to identify certain structural concomitants and cultural motives associated with South American messianism that are different from Christian and European forms of this religious phenomenon. Hence the kind of messianism that this entry will discuss is a non-Western variety, although in some cases it may disguise itself in Christian trappings.

In contrast to Christian messianism, South America messianism is generally accompanied by a cyclical or static conception of time, which is believed to be encapsulated in fixed ages that are represented under a symbolic number, generally five or three. For Mesoamericans, these ages were also conceived as having ended as a result of a cosmic cataclysm that closed a period lasting either one thousand or five hundred years. In the Andes, the Quechua name for this catastrophic event was pachacuti, which literally means "transformation of the earth." The name for the thousand-year period was capac huatan, or "great year." Since the beginning of time, four capac huatan were thought to have taken place, along with nine pachacuti, given that during every capac huatan, an internal pachacuti divided it into two periods of five hundred years. Linked to this schema was the idea that the Incas, when they were conquered by the Spanish, were seen as emerging after an elapse of 4,500 years, after which they would eventually disappear at the close of the 5,000-year period.

In Mexico the means devised to avoid the interruption of the circulation of the sun, which produced the end of the ages, was the sacrifice of human beings. Among the Incas, however, the king was believed to have a divine nature, raising him to the level of the gods. Divine kingship was common to both cultural areas, but as Henri Frankfort noticed when comparing the Egyptian pharaohs with the kings of Mesopotamia and Israel, the position of the Inca king was next to the celestial gods, whereas the kings of Mesoamerica were considered to be closer to mortal beings. As such, the Inca king could command and punish the divinities, and he could even stop time. Consequently, some of the human sacrifices that took place in the Andes were intended to maintain the health of the Inca king, given that what really endangered the cosmic order was his death.

A paradigm of the capacity to maintain and restore order embodied in each Inca king can be found in one of the Incas who are generally listed as members of a dynastical order. His name is Pachacuti, and he occupies the ninth position within the dynastical list that is commonly found in old chronicles. Pachacuti holds the same name as the cataclysm described above because as the restorer of order and the initiator of a new age he is also part of the interregnum that marks the transition from chaos to order. Interestingly, Pachacuti's ninth position corresponds to the most ordered time cycle within the sequence of five agesthe last Inca dynasty that started in the 4,500th year.

It is under this conceptual framework that postcolonial Andean messianism tended to develop. It is manifested more clearly in a chronicle written during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries by a Peruvian Indian named Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala (15261614). The title of this manuscript is El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno (First new chronicle and good government), but given its messianic overtones, it could more properly be titled "Letter to the King." A careful reading reveals that for the author the Spanish conquest was not properly a historical event but a pachacuti that had been triggered by the intermingling of Spaniards and Indians, who represented two separate principles within a dualistic conception of order that conceived the principles as separate and in equilibrium. As a consequence of this cosmic event, the world was turned upside down. The social order had been altered by the introduction of circumstances that enabled the possibility of change, and the Indians lost their property and suffered innumerable injustices.

The best evidence that the conquest was seen as a pachacuti -type cataclysm is that throughout his chronicle Guamán Poma speaks about the existence of five ages, with the Incas being located in the fifth age. However, when he is forced to incorporate the conquest and its aftermath, he expands his schema of ages to include a tenth age, naming the sixth Pachacuti. But even more important is the fact that Guamán Poma estimates the duration of the world since its beginnings to be 6,613 years, a figure he obtains by adding the year in which he was writing his chronicle (1613) to a mythical 5,000-year period corresponding to the closing period of the five ages.

Having conceived in these terms the sorrowful sentiments awakened by colonial domination, the only solution sought by this Indian writer is that somebody proportional to the cosmic nature of the crisis might overcome it. For him this person was the king of Spain, but the king of Spain conceived as an Inca kingthat is, as a kind of metaphysical being capable of confronting a problem whose solution was beyond the power of common mortals. Guamán Poma thus addresses his chronicle to the king of Spain, not as a humble Indian but as the descendant of the "Second Person" of the Inca (who, as king of Chinchaysuyo, was a leader next in hierarchy below the Inca king and the one who held the highest position among the kings of the four quarters) and as the unified voice of the Indians of the four quarters. This perhaps explains why he chose to call himself Guaman (a bird associated with the upper realm) and Poma (a feline linked to a lower moiety), since this image conveys a sense of unity through complementary opposites.

After Guamán Poma, the figure of the Inca king became central to the numerous messianic expressions that developed in the Andes, even up to the present day. However the first messianic movement recorded for this area does not clearly show that this heroic figure would have been present. Instead, those who figure prominently are a type of Andean divinity known as guacas.

The first messianic movement known to have emerged in the Andean region was the Taqui Onqoy, a Quechua term that literally means "dance illness." One of the characteristics of this movement was that followers entered a state of trance provoked by dancing and oscillating their heads under the rhythm of a repetitive chant and the consumption of large amounts of coca leaf and brewed maize. This movement dates from around 1564; a priest named Cristóbal de Albornoz had an important role in its discovery and in its extirpation. Through him and other priests we learn that the preachers of this movement explained to their followers that the Spaniards dominated the Indians because their God had defeated the guacas. However, a change was taking place, and the guacas were becoming stronger and were in the process of defeating the Christian God. Under the framework of a dual conception of the world, the followers of the movement grouped around two important religious centersone associated with an upper moiety, and the other with a lower one. The first site had as its central divinity the god Pachácamac and was located towards the north in Chinchaysuyo; the second had the god Titicaca and was located in Collasuyo, towards the south. To attain final triumph, which would consist of a reversal of time analogous to a pachacuti, the preachers directed the Indians to avoid Christian practices and resume those from before the Hispanic period.

Perhaps because the Inca rulers were still actively resisting the Spanish in Vilcabamba, this messianic movement does not recall the presence of an Inca image (as in later movements), and instead addresses the guacas. However, the movement shares with Guamán Poma's messianism the expectation of a cosmic reversal of the world associated with a cyclical view of time and an image of a unified Indian world, an image represented by the two most important religious centers located in opposite but complementary moieties.

Evidence of the centrality of the Inca in Andean messianism can be found in the movements headed by Juan Santos Atahuallpa (forest of central Peru) and José Gabriel Condorcanqui (Cuzco) during the eighteenth century. Two representative movements of the nineteenth century are those of Atusparia (Ancash) and Rumi Maqui (Puno). The twentieth century witnessed the vast expansion of the Inkarri myth and the embodiment of this myth in such messianic leaders as Ezequiel Ataucusi Gamonal, the founder of the Israelites of the New Universal Covenant. The Inkarri myth has many versions, but those with more messianic connotations describe a hero named Inkarri (a combination of inka and rey, or king), who is the offspring of the Sun and a herder woman. After being beheaded by the Spaniards, Inkarri was said to be in the process of magically reconstituting himself. Once this process was complete, order would be reintroduced to the Andean world.

This myth was prominent primarily in the highlands, although stories of a hero known as "Inca" (or "Inka") spread among the inhabitants of the Amazonian lowlands. This figure also carried messianic overtones, but they were unlike those associated with the highland hero. Rather, this figure resembled other Amazonian heroes who suggest the Cargo cults of Melanesia. For the Ashaninka of the Peruvian central Amazon, Inka was the ruler of their territory and a great shaman "who voyaged downriver on a raft at a time when a great flood was produced by the Caucasians. This enabled the Caucasians, whose territory is downriver, to capture Inka and force him to manufacture the superior artifacts which they now possess. Inka remains a captive downriver to this day, wishing to return to his people but restrained by the Caucasians. If he ever did return, the existing relationship between the Campa and Caucasians would of course be reversed" (Weiss, 1969, p. 109).

In other Ashaninka versions of this myth, the owner of these attributes is Pachakamaite, the son of the Sun and his wife, Mamantziki. Pachakamaite has the power to manufacture guns, ammunition, pots, salt, and other objects important to the wider society. Stéfano Varese's informants told him that in the past their ancestors, who were poor, could obtain these objects by acceding to this divinity after a long journey during which they met a number of dangerous beings. But this is no longer possible because white people have appropriated these goods to sell them to the Ashaninka. They have thus interrupted the route to Pachakamaite's realm by raising fences to keep natives from obtaining what Pachakamaite has promised them (Varese, 1973, p. 360).

Mythical heroes with similar characteristics are also found among other Peruvian Amazonian groups, including the Amuesha and Machiguenga, and among natives of other South American countries. Among some Ge Indians of central Brazil, for example, heroes of this nature are reported with names associated with their particular dialects. Some of these heroes became the focus of messianic movements. This is the case with the Ramkókamekra-Canelas Indians of Maranhao, who in 1963 developed a messianic movement headed by a woman prophet called Kee-khwei. According to William Crocker, Kee-khwei predicted that civilized people would be thrown into the forest to live as hunters, and the Indians would go to the cities, where they would direct road construction and pilot planes. Kee-khwei obtained this prediction from a revelation granted to her by a mythical hero known as Aukhé, who spoke to her through a daughter she carried in her womb. The unborn daughter was thought to be the hero's sister, and it was explained that she was coming to this world because her brother was tired of the ill treatment that white people imposed on Indians. Certain rituals consisting mostly of dancing were conducted to ensure the materialization of this prediction, which was to occur at the moment the child was born. The more intense the dance and the greater the offerings, the more plentiful the wealth that would be received in the new life. Not performing the rituals or contributing money to the movement would result in severe punishments from a group of youngsters who served Kee-khwei. In addition, followers were free to seize the cattle of any person because the cattle was said to belong to Aukhé. Followers did not fear repression because it was stated that the mythical hero would divert bullets and that a great fire would annihilate aggressors (Crocker, 1976, p. 516).

Almost twelve years before this movement, around 1951, a similar messianic movement had developed among the Krahó, an eastern Timbira group. Here again the expectations focused on appropriating material objects belonging to white people through the mediation of a divine hero. Although the characterization of this divinity as a bearded man with curly hair and holding a gun do not correspond to the mythical pantheon of this group, the linkage of this hero with rain makes him similar to Aukhé (Sullivan, 1988, p. 584). According to Julio César Melatti, the movement unfolded around a prophet named Rópkur Txortxó Kraté, also known as José Nogueira, who incorporated the powers of the divinity to punish Christians and to transform the Indians into civilized people. Because the divinity was associated with rain, thunder was the main weapon with which he was to inflict his punishments, which were considered revenge for Indians who had been killed and a means for the Indians to avoid being dispossessed from their lands. Among the methods suggested for becoming civilized was the building of a big house to store the merchandise that would arrive in a riverboat and the performance of both traditional and Western dances on certain days of the week. In addition, the consumption of specified foods, particularly meat, during certain days was prohibited in order to accelerate the Indians' transformation into civilized people.

As reported by Roberto Da Matta (1967, 1970), Julio César Melatti (1972), and Lawrence Sullivan (1988), all of these movements were inspired by the image of Aukhé, a hero who became widely known among several Ge groups. This personage was always associated with water and with the wealth of the whites, which the Indians believed was rightfully destined to belong to them. The resemblance of this hero with the Amazonian Inka and Pachakamaite is well known. All these cases, however, can be contrasted with the messianism that developed in the Andes. Whereas that of the Amazon suggests an inclination to accede to Western civilization, the messianism of the Andes suggests a wish to express a rejection. In both cases, white people are evil, but in the Amazon it is because they have developed obstacles to the Indians' access to wealth, whereas in the Andes it is because white people have altered the Indians' normal conditions of existence.

Another South American messianic expression that has attracted the attention of scholars is the search for the land without evil by several native groups, in particular the Tupi-Guaraníes. Curt Nimuendajú (1978) and Alfred Métraux (1973) suggest that this search began before the arrival of Europeans. Once more this expression incorporates an idea of temporal cycles that end in cataclysms, the presence of a divine figure, various beliefs about the afterlife, and the presence of shamans as leaders. The most overt manifestation of this kind of messianism is the mobilization of vast contingents of Indians throughout Brazilian, Peruvian, and Paraguayan territory. These were led by shamans who preached the imminent destruction of the world, with the only possible salvation being to settle in a land without evil. In traditional mythology this place was the settlement of Nanderuvusú, the creator, and of his wife, Ñandesy. It was described as a realm where plants grew without being cultivated and fruits ripened at the spot. It was commonly said to be located at the center of the earth, which was identified as existing in the east. Only the souls of the children could arrive there after overcoming dangers. It was also said that if the creator had the power to create the world, he could destroy it. By ordering his son Ñanderikey to remove the east-westoriented pole located at the center world, Nanderuvusú could cause the world to collapse. However, there was a magical solution for escaping this threat. The solution involved dancing and migrating in an easterly direction.

Among the Quechua Indians of southern Peru, an equivalent to this land without evil is Paititi. A settlement with this name, located towards the east in the southern forest, was known as early as the sixteenth century. Even the eighteenth-century rebel Tupac Amarú II mentioned Paititi as part of his dominion as an Inca. Today, Paititi is described as a kind of urban paradise, with golden buildings where Incas from the past continue living. According to some versions, only Indians who speak an uncontaminated Quechua language are permitted to enter Paititi. Ezequiel Ataucusi Gamonal, the prophet of the Israelites of the New Covenant, is sometimes included as one of its visitors.

Such is the permanence and expansion of this belief that not only did the Israelites of the New Covenant succumb to it, but other syncretic movements did as well, including that developed in the Peruvian Amazon by José Francisco de la Cruz, who began his movement in the 1960s in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Peru, and Colombia. In Peru the name of the church he founded is Cruzada Católica Apostólica Evangélica del Perú (Catholic, Apostolic, Evangelical Crusade of Peru). In Peru this church has about four thousand followers. In Brazil, where there are approximately twenty thousand followers, the main center of the church is located in the village of Vila Santa next to the Putumayo river, an area regarded as a land without evil (Regan, 1993, p. 341). Like many syncretic messianic movements, this one departs from the idea of salvation in the face of an imminent end of the world. To overcome this threat, the symbol of the cross and the search for the land without evil is assigned an important role, which has had great appeal among natives of the Tupi Guarani family and acculturated Cocamas, Cocamillas, and Omahuas, who believe that those who search for the land without evil will have larger harvests (Regan, 1993, p. 360).

Another syncretic movementthis time of Andean originthat has incorporated belief in a land without evil is the Israelites of the New Universal Covenant. Followers of this movement hold that salvation in the face of the imminent end of the world will be possible only by becoming a member of this religious organization, whose leader, Ezequiel Ataucusi Gamonal, is seen as the new Christ and the incarnation of the Holy Ghost, as well as a new Inca. They call themselves "Israelites" because they have incorporated into their movement the ancient ritual practices of the Israelites of the Old Testament including wearing the kinds of garments the Hebrews used in the past during their celebrations. To this form of nativism they also proclaim a restoration of Inca practices, and it is according to these practices that they model the colonies they have developed in the Amazonian region. Moreover, this Inca "utopia" became the headquarters of the political party the group established to support the candidacy of Ezequiel Ataucusi Gamonal to the presidency of the Republic of Peru.

The colonies, therefore, represent the materialization of the Inca utopia, and as such they become the land without evil, where all the Israelites should go to wait for the end of the world; it is from here that they will be transported to Canaan, once more located in the east, to attain complete salvation. The Israelites of the New Covenant represent a synthesis of almost all the varieties of messianism that developed in South America, although this group added a biblical dimension that is a variation of Adventism.


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Juan M. Ossio (2005)

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Messianism: South American Messianism

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