Muisca Religion

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MUISCA RELIGION . Located high on the Colombian plateau, the territory of the Muisca people extended a scarce 300 kilometers long by 125 kilometers wide. To history, the Muisca have become known as the Chibcha, a name derived from Chibchacum, one of their major deities (Von Hagen, 1974, p. 78). Their state comprised two principal kingdoms that, for four generations of rulers preceding the Spanish conquest of this area in 1537, were ruled by two hereditary monarchs, the Zipa from Bacata in the south and the Zaque from Hunsa in the north. Independent allied territories bordered the northern region. The city of Sugamuxi, which was governed by an elected cacique ("leader") was an important religious center (Falchetti and Plazas de Nieto, 1973, pp. 3945).

Unlike the theocratic empires of Mexico and Peru, the fledgling Muisca state had no stone pyramids, temples, or sculpture. In common with the religions of other American theocracies, however, that of the Muisca placed special emphasis on the adoration of the sun. In Muisca cosmology, the supreme deity, Chiminigagua, was equated with light. Myth recounts how, in the beginning, darkness and silence reigned over a sterile world. Light existed only as the omniscient Chiminigagua within an impenetrable shell of clay. On the occasion of the first dawn, the god broke the shell and illuminated with beauty all that had previously been chaos. He then dispatched two ravens to the ends of the earth. As the birds flew, bright light emanated from their beaks, revealing all the creations of the omnipotent god: the sun, the moon, the vivid birds that animate the sky, and the animals and plants of the earth (Pérez de Barradas, 19501951, vol. 2, p. 372; Samper, in Camargo Pérez, 1937, p. 186).

Complementing this dawn-creation myth is the legend of Bachue, fecund mother and matrilineal deity. One spring morning, the sun's rays, like a luminescent emerald, projected sparkling colors over the bleak moor. Warm breezes cleared the early mists as brightly hued birds skimmed over Lake Iguaque. With the gentle murmur of waves, Bachue and her three-year-old son appeared from the waters. Bachue raised her son to maturity, at which point they married. With each pregnancy the prolific Bachue gave birth to five or six children and peopled the entire Muisca realm. With her consort, Bachue instructed the Muisca in the moral precepts of society. Finally, after many years, the couple returned to Iguaque, where they changed into snakes and disappeared into the depths of the lake. Thus Chiminigagua is the energizing power of the universe and Bachue is the progenetor of the Muisca people (Arango Cano, 1970, pp. 2940).

Bochica, the envoy of Chiminigagua, was a protective deity who saved the Muisca from a disastrous flood inflicted by the irate god Chibchacum (Triana, 1970, p. 82). From a rainbow Bochica hurled a golden staff that dispersed the menacing storm clouds and shattered the mountain below, allowing the flood waters to escape into the Tequendama Falls. For the cruelty he inflicted on the Muisca, Chibchacum was condemned for eternity to carry the earth on his shoulders; as he shifts the weight from one shoulder to another, earth tremors are felt (Arango Cano, 1970, pp. 6572). The conflict between the two deities is thought to symbolize the rivalry between the chiefs, whose patron was Bochica, and the merchant class, which was protected by Chibchacum (Pérez de Barradas, 19501951, vol. 2, p. 401).

Muisca gods were worshiped at the streams, lakes, waterfalls, and mountains of the territory. Rocks bearing the footprints of Bochica were venerated, and many cliff and rock surfaces were carved or painted with sacred designs (Pérez de Barradas, 19501951, vol. 2, pp. 340354). The holiest shrine was the Temple of the Sun, a circular building with cane walls that were whitened with mud daub and floors covered with fine esparto mats. On platforms against the walls lay the mummies of illustrious ancestors. In tribute to their forefathers, the faithful brought to the temple offerings of emeralds and gold that were placed in hollow wood or ceramic sculptures. The gold or tumbaga (an alloy of gold and copper) objects, known as tunja s, were anthropomorphic or zoomorphic, in the form of snakes, lizards, birds, monkeys, or felines. Kneeling reverently in the temple with arms held high, the supplicant chanted hymns to the omnipotent spirit of the Sun (Camargo Pérez, 1937, pp. 5359; Samper, in Camargo Pérez, 1937, p. 190).

Birds were sacrificed in the temple in great numbers. Especially valued were macaws and parrots that were taught to speak; after the sacrifice their heads were preserved. Human sacrifice took place prior to departure for war, and head trophies were taken from the enemy to adorn the temples. During the construction of a temple, posts were driven into the ground through the bodies of living slaves. In honor of the Sun, young boys known as moxa s were procured from alien territories and reared in the temples as priests. Believed capable of conversing with the Sun in song, these youths were considered sacred, and their movements were circumscribed by strict taboo. Sexually innocent, they were sacrificed in early puberty. To the chanting of hymns, the heart and viscera of a moxa were removed, his head severed, and his blood sprinkled on the temple posts. To placate the Sun in times of drought, a youth would be sacrificed before sunrise on a mountain peak, the east-facing rocks anointed with blood, and the body exposed on the mountain to be devoured by the Sun (Kroeber, 1946, p. 907).

Another important ceremonial offering took place at the Lake of Guatavita in commemoration of a legendary princess. Long ago, a ruler, upon discovering his wife's adulterous liaison with a young warrior, tortured and impaled the man and forced his wife to eat the heart and genitals of her lover. Grief stricken, the princess fled, seeking refuge with the guardian spirits of the sacred lake. Full of remorse, the ruler sent priests to reclaim his wife, but they found her in an enchanted palace protected by a great snake. In memory of his abused wife, the ruler promised to give bountiful gifts; thus, on nights of full moon, the princess appears above the waters of the lake to remind people of their obligation and to bring prosperity to the Muisca.

At the investiture of a ruler, offerings were made to obtain the benevolence of the lake's tutelary spirits. Before sunrise, to the sound of flutes and drums, the ruler, carried on the shoulders of painted warriors, approached the Lake of Guatavita. Boarding a raft, he shed his cloak and stood naked, his body anointed with fragrant resin and coated with gold dust. Accompanied by nobles and priests, the raft proceeded to the center of the lake, as worshipers along the banks intoned sacred hymns. When the first rays broke across the horizon, the gilded monarch, resplendent in the Sun's divine light, emitted a joyful cry that was echoed by his reverent subjects. Placing in the waters offerings of gold and emeralds, the ruler finally immersed himself in the lake to wash away the precious gold particles. And on his triumphant return to shore he was received with acclaim and celebration (Arango Cano, 1970, pp. 101119).


Arango Cano, Jesús. Mitos, leyendas y dioses Chibchas. Manizales, Colombia, 1970.

Camargo Pérez, Gabriel. La roma de los Chibchas. Boyacá, Colombia, 1937. This book also contains the article "El culto del sol," by G. Samper, pp. 184192.

Falchetti, Ana María, and Clemencia Plazas de Nieto. El territorio de los Muiscas a la llegada de los Españoles. Bogotá, 1973.

Kroeber, A. L. "The Chibcha." In Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian H. Steward, vol. 2, pp. 887909. Washington, D.C., 1946.

Pérez de Barradas, José. Los Muiscas antes de la Conquista. 2 vols. Madrid, 19501951.

Triana, Miguel. La civilización Chibcha (1922). Bogotá, 1970.

Von Hagen, Victor W. The Golden Man: A Quest for El Dorado. London, 1974.

New Sources

Llano Restrepo, María Clara. La Chicha, una Bebida Fermentata a Través de la Historia. Bogotá, 1994.

Rozo Gautá, José. Espacio y Tiempo entre los Muiscas. Bogotá, 1997.

Rozo Gautá, José. Mito y Rito entre los Muiscas. Santafé de Bogotá, 1997.

Rueda, Carl Henrik Langebaek. Regional Archaeology in the Muisca Territory: A Study of the Fúquene and Susa Valleys. Pittsburgh, Pa., 1995.

Urbina Rangel, Fernando, and Púa M. Giovanni. Vita Cotidiana de Las Culturas Amerindias. Aztecas, Muiscas, Uitatos, Araucanos. Bogotá, 2001.

Pita Kelekna (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Muisca Religion

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