Spirits of the Sacred Skies

22 Jan

The ancient peoples of the vast continent of South America never formed a coherent cultural unit. They cannot, therefore be treated as such in describing their religions and mythologies. Thousands of languages and dialects were spoken throughout South America, but there were no writing systems before the Spanish conquest. The sources of ancient myths are therefore native oral records transcribed by Europeans or European-trained natives in Spanish, Portuguese or, in a few cases, Quecha (the language of the Incas), accounts by contemporary chroniclers and modern anthropological studies. Legends and mythological accounts, together with deductions based on archaeological evidence, constituted the religions of South American societies. Like all peoples, they felt compelled to explain the important things in their universe, beginning with where they came from and their place in the larger scheme of things. Despite the regional and cultural diversity of South America, there were common elements, some almost universal. In most regions, for example, there was a named creator god. Among the Andean civilizations Viracocha, with many variations, was the creator. Although his worship was prevalent among coastal civilizations, there was also confusion and/or rivalry with the supreme god Pachacamac. Among the Amazonian tribes, four almost universal themes can be recognised. First is the presence and power of shamans, and the associated use of hallucinogenic drugs to gain access into the spirit world for the wellbeing and guidance of humankind. Second is the belief in the power and ancient divinity of jaguars. Third is the practice of cannibalism and fourth, less widespread, is headhunting, a practice steeped in supernatural and ritual significance for the purpose of capturing an enemy’s soul.


Creator deities and creation myths feature in all the ancient South American cultures. Among the ancient civilizations of the Andes and the adjacent western coastal valleys, two supreme creator gods were particularly prominent: Viracocha and Pachacamac. The former had numerous manifestations and names, but most accounts portray him as a creator who once walked among the people and taught them. Pachacamac was somewhat more remote, more an oracle to be consulted than a missionary. Common features were the creation of the sun and the moon, and the emergence of humankind from underground. Most myths name the Titicaca Basin as the place of creation; indeed, so all-pervading was its importance that the Inca sought to link their own origin to Tiahuanaco in Titicaca, and went to great lengths to embrace the accounts of all the peoples they conquered. Among the rain forest tribes of the Amazon drainage, eastern coasts, pampas and Patagonia, accounts of creation are more discursive. All tribes have beliefs about where people came from and how they came into being, but there is less emphasis on detail, and wider variation in the place of origin. For example, humans came either from underground or from the sky. After creating the world, however, rain forest gods take little further interest in humankind’s day-to-day existence. A prominent theme is that jaguars were the masters of the earth before humans, and that the jaguars’ powers were acquired by humans after they had been adopted by jaguars and had betrayed them.

For the peoples of ancient Andean and coastal civilizations the endless cycle of time began with the daily movement of the sun across the sky and then progressed through seasonal change to repetitious decades to the religious concept of pachacuti, or the ‘revolution of time and space’.  Andean and western coastal peoples believed in the existence of an overall supreme power, and that the course of history and civilization formed an inevitable succession of repetition and renewal. Collecting and collating their own beliefs and those of the peoples they conquered, the Incas believed in an elaborate succession of worlds or creations, inhabited by different races of beings and/or civilizations. Each ‘Age’ was referred to as being ruled over by a sun, and the general course of development was from the more primitive to the sophisticated. Each world ended in its destruction by some catastrophic event. Naturally, they considered the Inca Empire to be the supreme achievement in this progression, and manipulated the creation myths to convince themselves and their subjects of their divine right to rule. That the Spanish conquest has merely interrupted this course of events is embodied in the concept of Inkarri, the return of the Inca king.

The Incas regarded their emperor, Sapa Inca, as the divine sun’s representative on earth, and his principal wife, the Qoya, as the moon’s. Persistent iconography and religious imagery makes it logical to interpret these beliefs as the culmination of attitudes in earlier Andean civilizations. One pre-Inca example is the ruler Nayamlap in the Lambayeque Valley, who contrived with his priests to convince his subjects of his divine nature after death. Rich Moche, Sican and Chimu burials similarly indicate the development of the idea of divine kingship. Despite the official state view, however, rulership of the Inca Empire began and ended in rivalry – in the conflict between Urco and Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui over the succession to Viracocha Inca and when the Inca ideal of rulership by divine right of descent went awry in a bloody civil war, less than a decade before the Spanish conquest. Ancestor worship was widespread among Andean civilizations. Physical manifestations of such reverence are well documented among the Inca in the mummified remains – mallquis – of Inca rulers. Dedicated cults cared for mallquis, housed in the Coricancha Temple in Cuzco and accorded them special honours at ceremonies. Similarly, the mallquis of rulers and ancestors of provincial towns were kept in special buildings or in caves and honoured at ceremonies. The care for and elaborate nature of these burials, show that reverence for ancestors was a theme that began in the earliest Andean civilizations.

An integral part of ancient Andean religion was the designation of features and objects throughout the landscape as sacred sites. Known as huacas, such locations could be as large as a mountain or as small as a boulder; or a cave, spring, field or other place in which an important event had occurred, or an artificial object such as a stone pillar. Sacred places were individually significant and collectively linked by ritual lines, one elaborate system of which – the ceques – was used by the Incas. Ritual lines could be conventional terrestrial routes between huacas, or virtual networks – for example, lines of sight from one huaca to another on the horizon for astronomical observations. Similarly, in earlier cultures among the coastal valleys from Nazca in the south to Moche in the north, lines marked out in the desert landscape to form anthropomorphic animal, plant and geometric figures – called geoglyphs – were used as ritual pathways for ceremonial progressions. They appear to be lineage or kinship routes, some used for a single occasion, others over generations.


Every ancient culture of the Andes worshipped the sun; most also worshipped the moon, and observation and recording of the movements of the heavenly bodies were considered vital. As well as recognition of the importance of solar and lunar cycles, and their effects on the weather and seasons, the night sky – and in particular Mayu, the Milky Way – was regarded as a vast source of inspiration and mythic meaning. Mayu was seen as the celestial river, and its progression of positions through the night sky, tallied with the seasons, was the starting point for all calendrical correlations. In this vast galactic body, the Incas recognised not just points and regions of light, but also the dark bodies of stellar voids, the ‘dark-cloud constellations’ which, to them, were just as important. As with other major themes in Andean civilizations, imagery and iconography reveal the antiquity of sun worship, from deities with haloed radiations emanating from their heads to the sheet-gold sun masks of the Incas.

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