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Inca Religion

Whereas the pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica developed systems of writing, their Andean counterparts did not. As a result, only two Incan accounts by Native American authors survive. Both authors wrote in the second decade of the 17th century, in a mixture of Spanish and native languages. Neither man was ethnically Incan; both traced their ancestry to tribes that had been conquered by the Incas. Nueva Coronica y Buen Gobierno (translated as Letter to a King, 1978), by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, is a 1200-page letter addressed to the King of Spain, illustrated with the author's own line drawings. It was lost for nearly 300 years and was discovered in the royal library of Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1906. The second work is Relación de Antigüedades deste Regno del Pirú (about 1615; An Account of the Antiquities of Peru, 1873), by Joan de Santacruz Pachacuti Yamqui Salcamaygua, much of which is virtually incomprehensible because the author was only semiliterate. A third figure who could be considered a native author is Garcilaso de la Vega, called El Inca (Spanish for "The Inca"). He was born in Peru, the son of a Spanish father and an Incan mother. However, he went to Spain at the age of 21 and did not write Comentarios Reales de los Incas (1609; Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru, 1966), an account of Incan culture and history, until he was an old man.
The Nature of the Universe

Like the Mayas and Aztecs, the Incas believed in previous creations and destructions of the universe. However, the division of cosmological time into major epochs of creation was not a central concern of Incan religion. Instead, the Incas emphasized the arrangement of space into a sacred geography. A crucial aspect of this sacred geography was the concept of huaca. This term referred to any person, place, or thing with supernatural power; almost anything unusual was considered a huaca. Examples ranged from prominent features of the landscape (mountain peaks, stone outcroppings, springs) to oddly shaped or colored pebbles and plants. There were countless huacas in the Incan world, and major ones defined the organization of sacred space.

Cusco, the Incas' capital, was the center of their universe. More than 300 of the most important huacas in the area around Cusco were conceived of as lying along 41 lines called ceques. These lines radiated outward from the Coricancha, the principal temple of Incan state religion, and extended to the horizon or beyond. Like the Mayas and Aztecs, the Incas also saw the earth as being composed of four quarters, whose dividing lines intersected in Cusco. The ceques subdivided the four quarters. Each ceque belonged to one of the quarters, and the care of each huaca on each ceque was assigned to a particular group of people. In this way the ceques helped to coordinate social relations among people, as well as to organize sacred space.

Above the earth were the heavens, while the underworld lay below. Neither the heavens nor the underworld seems to have had the elaborate vertical layering common in Mesoamerican conceptions, but the heavens had a complex geography. Like the earth, the heavens were divided into four quarters, separated by a giant cross formed by the Milky Way as it passed through its zenith. The movement of astronomical bodies through the four quadrants determined the Incan agricultural and ceremonial calendars, and the ceques also served as sight lines for astronomical observations.

Gods and Goddesses 

As in other pre-Columbian religions, Incan gods and goddesses actually represented a number of shifting and overlapping divine powers. The upper pantheon contained a creator-sky-weather complex with three principal components: Viracocha, the creator; Inti, the sun god and ancestor of the ruling dynasty; and Illapa, the thunder or weather god. The most important female supernaturals were Pachamama, the earth; Mamacocha, the sea; and Mamaquilla, the moon. The core of Incan religion was ancestor worship. Ancestors were venerated as protective spirits, and the bodies and tombs of the dead were treated as sacred objects. Many other important huacas were also explicitly identified with the ancestors. For example, some of the most important shrines around Cusco were believed to be the petrified forebears of the Incas. The bodies of dead rulers were among the holiest huacas in the Inca realm. As sons of Inti and embodiments of Illapa, the mummies of past rulers were the direct, visible links between the Incas and their pantheon. Maintaining these links, and through them the proper order of the universe, required perpetual care of the royal mummies.Religious

Leadership and Rituals

The Incan ruler and the mummies of his predecessors were the most important religious leaders. They were assisted by a hierarchical priesthood headed by the high priest of the Coricancha. Important shrines also had staffs of female attendants who wove cloth and brewed chicha (maize beer) for use in festivals. Most ceremonies involved sacrifices of cloth, chicha, plants, or animals. Human sacrifice was practiced, but only on the most solemn occasions and in times of disaster. An elaborate ritual life surrounded the mummies of deceased rulers, who were treated as if they were still alive. They were maintained in state in their palaces, and they continued to own the property they had accumulated during their lifetimes. Their descendants managed the mummies' property for them, consulted them as oracles (bearers of messages from the gods), made sacrifices to them, ate and drank with them, took them to visit one another, and brought them out of their palaces to participate in major ceremonies. Much simpler rituals of ancestor worship were practiced in rural areas.

The Destination of Souls

The Incas had a more optimistic view of the afterlife than the Mayas or Aztecs. As protective ancestral spirits, dead Incas continued to play an active role in the world of the living. They revealed themselves through the huacas and were cared for and worshipped by their descendants. The Incas were strongly moralistic, and they believed the souls of virtuous people joined the sun in heaven. Those souls had plenty to eat and drink. They remained connected to their descendants, and their lives continued much as they had on earth. The souls of evildoers went to the underworld, a cold and barren place where there was nothing to eat but stones.


In the centuries following the Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru most Native Americans were at least nominally converted to Catholicism (see Roman Catholic Church). The blending of native and Catholic beliefs was a complicated process, and it followed different courses in different areas. In general, the Aztecs made Catholicism the core of a new religion that also incorporated native beliefs, while the Mayas retained native beliefs as the core of their religion and added Catholic elements. The Incan case, perhaps the most complicated of the three, represented an intricate blending of native and Catholic beliefs, aided by certain parallels between the two. In essence, the Spanish conquest of 1519-1521 destroyed the core of Aztec religion—the cult of warfare and human sacrifice. The Aztecs were no longer able to feed the sun, yet the universe survived, and Huitzilopochtli was discredited. Aztec religion had lost its focus by 1531, when, according to Catholic tradition, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to an Aztec man named Juan Diego. Devotion to the Virgin spread rapidly, and within six years 9 million Indians had been baptized as Catholics in central Mexico. Worship of some Aztec gods and goddesses, most notably ancient agricultural deities, persisted. These deities were blended with Catholic saints in the new religion. In contrast to the Aztec case, when the Spanish began their conquest of the Maya area, Maya religion was already fragmented. The great religious and political centers of the Classic period had been abandoned more than 600 years earlier, and even the Post-Classic centers were in decline. The religion practiced in hamlets and villages emphasized ancient agricultural deities—such as the rain gods (Chacs)—who proved to endure. Maya folk religion still centers on these agricultural deities, and Catholic and native beliefs are more distinct from each other than they are among the descendants of the Aztecs. The Incas, like the Aztecs, had a central imperial cult: the worship of the royal mummies. However, the Incan imperial cult, like the Mesoamerican worship of agricultural deities, was an expression of the ancient and widespread religious tradition of ancestor worship. The Spanish destroyed the royal Incan mummies and their cult, but not the underlying tradition of ancestor worship. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Incan and Catholic beliefs were blended, revealing parallels between the two traditions. For example, both the Incas and their Spanish conquerors made special commemoration of the dead during the month of November and had penitential rites that involved confessing sins to priests. In recent decades evangelical Protestantism, especially in the form of Pentecostalism (see Pentecostal Churches), has been spreading rapidly among Latin American Indians. At the same time, community-based social action movements are a growing force within Latin American Catholicism. Whether these are short- or long-term trends, and what effects they will have on native religious traditions, are unresolved questions.

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