Mama-Ocllo (fl. around 12th c.)

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Mama-Ocllo (fl. around 12th c.)

Co-founder and queen of the Incan Empire . Name variations: Mama Ocllo; Mama Oello Huaco; Mana-Ocllo; Mana Ocllo; Mama-baco; Coya (queen). Probably born around the 12th century; died in Cuzco, in what is now Peru; according to Incan mythology, she was the daughter of the Sun, whose wife was his sister the Moon; possibly three sisters (names unknown) and four brothers, one of whom was Manco Capac (cofounder and first ruler of the Incan empire); married Manco Capac; children: daughter Mama Cora (later queen of the Inca Empire); son Sinche Roca (later ruler of the Inca Empire).

According to its own mythology, the great Incan Empire, which flourished in Peru for some 400 years before the arrival of Francisco Pizarro and his Spanish conquistadors, was founded by two Children of the Sun, Mama-Ocllo and her brother Manco Capac. Together they selected the site for the holy city of Cuzco; Manco Capac caused its stone fortifications to be built, and as coya, or queen, Mama-Ocllo taught the women of her people the arts of spinning and weaving. To ensure the purity of their royal line, brother and sister married and, with the births of their children Mama Cora and Sinche Roca, began the Incan ruling dynasty. (Like the Egyptian pharaohs, who also practiced intermarriage to keep their bloodline pure, Incan rulers strictly enforced the taboo of incest among their subjects.) Father Bernabe Cobo, the Spanish chronicler whose Historia del Nuevo mundo is an important source of information on Incan culture, visited Cuzco in the early 17th century and referred to a fountain belonging, or dedicated, to Mama-Ocllo in which "very great and ordinary sacrifices" were still made to her; he states that she "was the most venerated woman there was" among the Incas.

Although Manco Capac is the first historically verifiable Incan ruler, there is debate as to exactly when he and his sister-wife lived. While the empire is generally thought to have been founded some 400 years before the Spanish Conquest, experts point out that after Manco Capac's reign there were only 13 rulers up until the time of the Conquest, which would seem to suggest an interval of some 200, not 400, years. Some older sources offer dates of as far as 500 or 550 years before the Conquest, though with little supporting evidence. Adding confusion to these various claims is the fact that there are ruins in and around Cuzco and nearby Lake Titicaca that have been dated to a far earlier era.

After death, the bodies of Incan royalty were mummified and placed in the temple of the Sun in Cuzco, where they were worshipped. These mummies were hidden after Cuzco fell to the Spaniards in 1533. In 1559, the corregidor (head of the municipal government) in Cuzco, Juan Polo de Ondegardo, discovered the mummies of four rulers and three coyas, including Mama-Ocllo. Garcilaso de la Vega Inca, the famous contemporary chronicler who was himself a member of the Incan nobility on his mother's side, saw these mummies the following year, and in the words of W.H. Prescott described them thus: "They were dressed in their regal robes, with no insignia but the llautu [woolen headband] on their heads. They were in a sitting posture, and, to use his own expression, 'perfect as life, without so much as a hair or an eyebrow wanting.'" Prescott continues: "As they were carried through the streets, decently shrouded with a mantle, the Indians threw themselves on their knees, in sign of reverence, with many tears and groans, and were still more touched as they beheld some of the Spaniards themselves doffing their caps, in token of respect to departed royalty. The bodies were subsequently removed to Lima; and Father Acosta, who saw them there some twenty years later, speaks of them as still in perfect preservation."

sources and suggested reading:

Cobo, Father Bernabe. Inca Religion and Customs. Trans. and ed. by Roland Hamilton. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Griffin, Lynne, and Kelly McCann. The Book of Women: 300 Notable Women History Passed By. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1992.

Hemming, John. The Conquest of the Incas. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

Prescott, William H. History of the Conquest of Peru, 1847.