Inca: Festivals, Morals and the Future Life

This overview of the festivals, the religious ethics, and the ideas of a future life of the Inca is a lecture given by Albert Reville, D.D., part of the Hibbert Lectures delivered at Oxford and London. Albert Reville was a professor of the Science of Religion a the College de France.
— Orly

The Peruvian cultus had given birth to the temple; and, indeed, it is highly interesting to witness what one may call the "genesis of the temple" on this soil, so different from those of the Old World. There were temples, indeed, before the Incas, but they differed both in style and in signification from those reared under their patronage. In Peru, as in Mexico, the temples were originally neither more nor less than extremely lofty altars; that is to say, artificial elevations, on the summit of which the sacrifices were presented, while a little chapel served to contain the image of the god or gods adored. Round this great altar were grouped other chapels, galleries and columns, as though to accompany the great central altar formed by the eminence itself. Under the Incas, the crowning chapel increased so enormously that it encircled the altar and became the essential part of the sacred structure. The Inca temples were veritable palaces, destined as abodes for the gods. None of them remain; but their ruins attest the fact that the architects aimed rather at colossal than at beautiful effects. They contained gigantic stone statues, gates cut out of monoliths, and the well-known pyramidal structures of which we have spoken already. The most imposing of the temples was the one at Cuzco, which consisted in a vast central edifice, flanked with a number of adjacent buildings. Gold was so prodigally lavished on its interior that it bore the name of Coricancha, that is to say, "the place of gold." The roof was formed by timber-work of precious woods plated with gold, but was covered, as in the case of all the houses of the land, with a simple thatch of maize straw. The doors opened to the East, and at the far end, above the altar, was the golden disk of the Sun, placed so as to reflect the first rays of the morning on its brilliant surface, and, as it were, reproduce the great luminary. And note that the mummies of the departed Incas, children of the Sun, were ranged in a semicircle round the sacred disk on golden thrones, so that the morning rays came day by day to shine on their august remains. The adjacent buildings were abodes of the deities who formed the retinue of the Sun. The principal one was sacred to the Moon, his consort, who had her disk of silver, and ranged around her the ancient queens, the departed Coyas. Others served as the abodes of Chaska, our planet Venus, the Pleiades, the Thunder, the Rainbow, and finally the officiating priests of the temple. In the provinces, the Incas reared a number of temples of the Sun on the model of that at Cuzco, but on a smaller scale.

The Incas, however, had been anticipated in this striking development of the temple by the religions anterior or adjacent to their own. Witness the great temple of Pachacamac, which they left standing in the valley of Lurin, and the remarkable ruins of another great temple situated at some miles distance from Lake Titicaca, which has quite recently been made the subject of a careful reconstructive study by your compatriot Mr. Inwards.

The offerings presented to the gods were very varied in kind. Flowers, fragrant incense, especially from preparations of coca, vegetables, fruits, maize, prepared drinks offered in cups of gold. At some of the feasts the officiating priest moistened the tips of his fingers in the cup and flung the drops towards the Sun. We also find in Peru a very special form of that remnant of self-immolation which enters, in more or less reduced and restricted shape, into the devotions of so many peoples and assumes such varied forms. The Red-skin offers his sweat; the Black offers his saliva or his teeth; the more poetical Greek, a lock of his hair, or even all of it. The Peruvian pulled out a hair from his eyebrow and blew it towards the idol!

But there were also sacrifices of blood. A llama was sacrificed every day at Cuzco. Before setting out on war, the Peruvians sacrificed a black llama that they had previously kept fasting, that the heart of their enemies might fail as did his. This was the Peruvian application of the principle that lies at the base of all those superstitious ceremonies intended to provoke or stimulate a desired effect by reproducing its analogue in advance. Small birds, rabbits, and, for the health of the Inca, black dogs, were also sacrificed frequently. All these offerings were as a rule burned, that they might so be transmitted to the gods. It should be noted that they only sacrificed edible animals, which is a clear proof that the intention was to feed the gods. The sacrificing priest turned the animal's eyes towards the Sun, and opened its body to take out its heart, lungs and viscera, and offer them to the idols. It is a characteristic fact that when the victim was not burned, its flesh was divided amongst the sacrificers and eaten raw. The Peruvians had long learned to cook their meat, but this rite carries us back to a high antiquity, when cooking food was still an innovation which the power of tradition excluded from the ritual. It is to analogous causes that we must attribute the continued use of stone instruments in the religious ceremonies of peoples who are acquainted with iron and use it in ordinary life. In conclusion, they smeared the idols and the doors of the temples with the blood of the victims in order to appease the gods. 

Garcilaso de la Vega (12 April 1539 – 23 April 1616), born Gómez Suárez de Figueroa and known as El Inca or Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, was a chronicler and writer born in the Spanish Empire’s Viceroyalty of Peru.
— Orly

All this is sufficiently crude and material, and rests upon the same premisses as those which drove the Mexicans to the frightful excesses which I have previously described. But humanity was far less outraged in the Peruvian than in the Mexican religion. Garcilasso deceives himself, or is attempting to deceive his readers, when he gives his ancestors, the Incas, the honour of having put an end to human sacrifices. It is certain that in the religion of Pachacamac more especially this kind of sacrifice was frequent, and for that matter we know that it was universal in the primitive epochs. All that we can allow to the descendant of the Incas is, that they did not encourage, and were rather disposed to restrain, human sacrifice. But for all that, when the reigning Inca was ill, they sacrificed one of his sons to the Sun, and prayed him to accept the substitution of the son for the father. At certain feasts a young infant was immolated. Others were sacrificed to the subterranean spirits when a new Inca was enthroned. To the same category we must attach the custom which enjoined upon wives, especially those of the Incas, the duty of burying themselves alive on the death of their husbands. It is asserted that when Huayna Capac died, a thousand members of his household incurred a voluntary death that they might go with him to serve him. The widows, however, were not compelled to take this step, and we know that the Incas had organized the support of widows without resources. But public opinion was not favourable to those who refused to follow their husbands to the tomb. It was regarded as a species of infidelity. We see, however, from other well-established facts, that the Peruvian religion had been gradually softened. In Peru, as in China, instead of the living beings that they used formerly to bury with the dead, they now placed statuettes of men and women with him in his tomb to represent his wives and his servants.

We must also mention those "columns of the Sun" which appear never to have been absent in countries dominated by a solar worship. We have already seen them in Central America and in Mexico, and we also find them in Egypt, in Syria, in Asia Minor, in Palestine, at Carthage and elsewhere. In these columns the idea of fertilization is associated with that of the pleasure the Sun must feel in tracing out their shadows as he caresses their faces and summits with his rays. The earliest quadrants were traced at the foot of these columns. In Peru, they were levelled at the top, and were regarded as "seats of the Sun," who loved to rest upon them. At the equinoxes and solstices they placed golden thrones upon them for him to sit upon. Those nearest to the equator were held in greatest veneration, because the shadows were shorter there than elsewhere, and the Sun appeared to rest vertically upon them.

Prayer, in the proper sense of the word, asserted its place but feebly in the Peruvian religion. But hymns to the Sun were chanted at the great festivals and by the people as they went to cultivate the lands of the Sun. Every strophe ended with the cry, Hailly, or "triumph." It was the Peruvian Io Pæan. These chants, as far as they are still known to us, have something soft and sad about them. The rule of the Incas, paternal indeed, but monotonous in the extreme, must have tended to produce melancholy. In 1555, a Spanish composer wrote a mass upon the themes of these indigenous airs. It was sung in chorus, and it is chiefly to it that we owe the preservation of these chants.

But the grand form of religious demonstration among the Peruvians was the dance. They were very assiduous in this form of devotion, and indeed we know what a large place the earliest of the arts occupied in the primitive religions generally. The dance was the first and chief means adopted by pre-historic humanity of entering into active union with the deity adored. The first idea was to imitate the measured movements of the god, or at any rate what were supposed to be such. Afterwards, this fundamental motive was more or less forgotten; but the rite remained in force, like so many other religious forms which tradition and habit sustained even when the spirit was gone. In Peru, this tradition was still full of life. The name of the principal Peruvian festivals, Raymi, signifies "dance." The performances were so animated, that the dancers seemed to the Europeans to be out of their senses. It is noteworthy that the Incas themselves took no part in these violent dances, but had an "Incas' dance" of their own, which was grave and measured.

There were four great official festivals in the year, coinciding with the equinoxes and the solstices. The first was the festival of the Winter solstice, which fell in June. It was the Raymi, or festival par excellence, the Citoc Raymi, the feast of the diminished and (henceforth) growing Sun. It lasted nine days, the first three of which were given up to fasting. On the morning of the great day, a grand procession, led by the reigning Inca and his family, followed by the nobles and the people, proceeded, with insignia, banners and symbolic masks, towards the place of the dawn and the rising Sun. When the luminary appeared, the crowd fell to the earth and threw him kisses. The Inca presented the sacred beverage to the Sun, drank some of it himself, and passed it on to his suite. This was a sort of solar communion. Then they went to the temple of the Sun to sacrifice a black llama there. After this, they kindled the new fire by means of the concave mirror, and slaughtered a number of llamas, representing the Sun's present to the people. The pieces were distributed to the families, where they were eaten with the sacred cakes prepared by the Virgins of the Sun. This was the second act of communion with the luminary to whom the day was sacred. The remaining days of the festival were passed in rejoicings, when the people seem to have made themselves ample amends for the fast with which they had begun.

The second great festival, that of Spring, which fell in September, was the Citua Raymi, the feast of Purification. But do not attach any essentially moral significance to the idea of purification. The object in view was to purify the territory from all influences hostile to the health, security and prosperity of the inhabitants. Ball-shaped cakes were eaten on this occasion, in which was mixed the blood of victims or of young children, who were not slaughtered however, but bled above the nose, which is evidence of a previous custom of far greater ferocity, and of the gradual softening of the Peruvian ritual. With this bread the people rubbed their bodies all over, and the doors of their houses likewise. Then, a little before sunset, a very strange ceremony was performed. An Inca, clad in precious armour and lance in hand, descended from the fortress of Cuzco, followed by four relatives whom the Sun had specially charged with the task of chasing away by open force all the maladies from the city and its environs. They traversed the chief streets of Cuzco at full speed, amid the acclamations of the inhabitants, and then surrendered their lances to others, who were relieved in their turn, till the limits of the ancient state of Cuzco were reached. There the lances were fixed in the ground, as so many talismans against evil influences. At night there was a great torch-light procession, at the close of which the torches were hurled into the river, and thus the evil spirits of the night were expelled, as those of the day had been by the lancers of the Sun.  Observe that in Africa, amongst the Blacks, a kind of "chase of the evil spirits" is practised (though accompanied with far fewer ceremonies than in Peru), in which the inhabitants of a village, armed with sticks and uttering formulæ of exorcism, expel the evil spirits from their houses and from their streets, and pursue them into the desert or the interior of a forest. But notice here, again, with what art the Incas had contrived to turn an old superstition to account in the interests of their own prestige. If maladies did not decimate the people of Cuzco, it was to their Incas that they owed their safety.

The third great festival, the Aymorai, which fell in May, celebrated the Harvest. A statue was constructed out of grains of corn glued together, and was adored under the name of Pirrhua, which in this case may well be a contraction of Viracocha, the god of fertilizing moisture. On this occasion a number of sacrifices were made at home by the householders.[111]

The fourth great feast fell in December. It was the Capac Raymi, the festival of Power, in which the god of thunder was the object of a special worship by the side of the Sun. On this occasion the young Incas, after fasts, tournaments and other tests, received the investiture of manhood by having their ears pierced, and receiving a scarf, an axe and a crown of flowers. The young Curacas of the same age were also admitted to the privileges and duties of their rank, and shared with the Inca the sacred bread in token of indissoluble communion with him.

There were also a number of other and less important feasts. Each month had one of its own. Then there were occasional feasts, to celebrate the triumphal return of a victorious Inca for example, or when the tournaments of the young nobles, to[230] which a religious value was attached, took place, or when silent processions lasting a day and night, and followed by dances, were instituted to avert threatening calamities, and so forth. In Peru, as in so many other regions, eclipses were the subject of great terror. The eclipses of the Sun were attributed to his own anger, those of the Moon to an illness caused by the attack of an evil spirit, to frighten which away and put it to flight a hideous yelling was raised.

There were sorcerers in Peru as everywhere else; but in Peru too, as everywhere else where a priesthood has acquired a regular organization and made its authority respected, sorcery was hardly resorted to save by the lower classes. In fact, the sorcerer is the priest of backward tribes, and the priest is the developed sorcerer. By his superior knowledge, by the more stable guarantees which he can give as the member of an imposing organization, by the nature of the religion of which he is the organ, and which raises him above the incoherent puerilities of animism, the priest eclipses the sorcerer and relegates him to the lower strata of society, which is just where his own titles to superiority are least appreciated. The sorcerer sinks in proportion as the priest rises. For the rest, the official priesthood had its own diviners, who could foretel the future, the Huacarimachi, or "they who make the gods speak." The oracles of the valley of Rimac or Lima were much frequented; and, moreover, the Peruvians, like so many peoples of the Old World, thought that they could read the future in the entrails of the victims offered in sacrifice. This wide-spread belief rests on the idea that immolation unites the victim so closely to the deity that it enters into communion with his thoughts and intentions, so that its heart, liver, and all other organs supposed to be affected by mental and moral dispositions, receive the impress of the divine  prevision. Is it not passing strange, Gentlemen, that this mode of divination, which appears so absurd to us, which has no rational basis whatever, which rests on a singularly subtle conception of the relations between the creature sacrificed and the being to whom it is offered, has secured the prolonged confidence of the peoples of the Old World, and appears again in Peru, where it cannot have been imitated from any one?

It has been asked whether the native religion of Peru rested any system of elevated morals on its fundamental principles. Gentlemen, I am persuaded that religion and morals unite together and interpenetrate each other in the higher regions of thought and life. Perhaps the most distinct result of our Christian education is the full comprehension of the fact that what is moral is religious, and that immorality cannot on any pretext be allowed as legitimately religious. But we must certainly yield to the overwhelming evidence that in the lower stages of religion this union of the two sisters is present only in germ. Religion, still quite selfish in its character, pursues its own way and seeks its own satisfactions independently of all moral considerations, and almost always lives in a state of separation from morality. We ought therefore to expect that in systems such as that of Peru—which have already risen much above the low level of the primitive religions, but are still far below that of the higher ones—we should find a certain religious ethic, a certain moral tendency in religion, but likewise all kinds of inconsistencies, and constant relapses towards the ancient separation of the two sisters. As a general rule, we may say that even where the Peruvian religion seems to undertake the elevation and protection of morals, it does so rather with a utilitarian and selfish view, than with any real purpose of sanctifying the heart and will.

Thus we have noted ceremonies which forcibly recal the Communion. But the great object in view was to secure to the communicants the safety and well-being that would result from their union with the Sun or his representatives. The moral idea occupies but a small place in this communion, though it is but right to add that the great social laws were placed under the patronage and sanction of the Sun, whose legislation the Incas were held responsible for enforcing. In the same way we find in Peru something that closely resembles baptism. From fifteen to twenty days after birth the child received its first name, after being plunged into water. But this purification had nothing to do with the ideas of sin and regeneration. It was but a form of exorcism, destined to secure the child from the evil spirits and their malign influences. Between the ages of ten and twelve, the child's definitive name was conferred. On this occasion his hair and nails were cut off, and offered to the Sun and the guardian spirits. This represented the consecration of his person, but its main object was to secure him the protection of the divine power.

There was likewise a sacerdotal confession, but it was an institution of state and of police rather than a sacrament with a moral purpose. The great object was to discover all actions, whether voluntary or not, which might bring misfortune upon the state if not expiated by the appropriate penances and rites. The father confessors of Peru were inquisitors charged with the searching out of secret faults and the exaction of their avowal. A refusal to confess might provoke severe measures. A proof of the small influence of the moral element in the whole system of inquisition may be found in the fact that the priest relied on purely fortuitous tests in deciding whether or not to give absolution. For instance, he would take a pinch of maize grains, and if the number turned out to be even, he would declare the confession good, and give absolution, otherwise he would say the penitent must have concealed something, and would make him confess again.


Our conviction that the Peruvian religion had but a very elementary moral significance, receives a final confirmation from the beliefs concerning the future life.

It is clear that no very definite ideas on this point had become generally established. In fact, we find amongst the Peruvians at the time of the conquest the underlying conceptions of the most widely severed peoples, all mingled together. Thus the common people of Peru, like all savages, thought of the future life as a continuation, pure and simple, of the present life. This explains the custom of burying all kinds of useful and desirable objects with the dead—giving him an emigrant's outfit, in short. The worship of ancestors is easily grafted upon this conception of the life beyond the grave. These ancestors may still succour, protect and inspire their descendants. I am assured at first hand that to this very day, and in spite of the efforts of the Catholic clergy, the worship of ancestors is still widely practised by the native population. There was not the least idea of a resurrection of the body. If the corpse was preserved, especially in the case of departed Incas, it was because the Peruvians believed that the soul which had left it still retained a marked predilection for its ancient abode and liked to return to it from time to time; and also because they attributed magic virtues to the remains thus preserved. No idea of recompense is as yet associated with this purely animistic and primitive conception of the life beyond the tomb.

Amongst the higher classes, the ideas entertained on this same subject had become a little less naive. The Incas were supposed to be transported to the mansion of the Sun, their father, where they still lived together as his family. The Curacas or nobles would either follow them there, or would still live under the earth beneath the sceptre of the god of the dead, Supay, the Hades or Pluto of the Peruvian mythology. Do not identify this deity with a Satan or Ahriman of any kind. He was not a wicked, but rather a sinister god, the conception of whom could wake no joyous or even serene emotions. He was a voracious deity, of insatiable appetite. At Quito, at any rate before the conquest of the country by the Incas, a hundred children were sacrificed to him every year. There is no idea of positive suffering inflicted on the wicked under his direction. But the subterranean abode is gloomy and dismal, like the place of shades in the Odyssey. Exceptional considerations of birth, rank or valour in war, determine the passage of chosen souls to heaven, where their lot will of course be far more brilliant and happy than that of the souls that remain in the subterranean regions. Thus the aristocratic point of view, barely modified by the high importance attributed to the warlike virtues, still dominates the ideas of a future life in ancient Peru, as in Mexico, in Polynesia and in Africa. This is a final proof that the moral element was but feebly present in the ancient Peruvian religion. For wherever a clear and definite belief in a conscious life beyond the grave is united to a sense of the religious character of morality, it is likewise held, by an obvious connection of ideas, that the lot of departed souls will depend completely upon their moral condition, without distinction of birth or rank.

This Peruvian religion, then, in spite of its elevation and refinement in some respects, forcibly reminds us of the walls of its own temples, all plated with gold, but covered in with straw, and poor and unvaried in architecture. A monotonous, unformed, gloomy spirit seems to pervade the whole institution, in spite of its brilliant exterior. The air of the convent broods over it. Those thousands of functionaries who spent their lives in superintending the furniture, the dress, the work, the very cookery, of the families under their charge, and inflicting corporal chastisement on those whom they surprised in a fault, might succeed in forming a correct and regular society, drilled like the bees in a hive, might form a nation of submissive slaves, but could never make a nation of men; and this is the deep cause that explains the irremediable collapse of this Peruvian society under the vigorous blows of a handful of unscrupulous Spaniards. It was a skilfully constructed machine, which worked like a chronometer; but when once the mainspring was broken, all was over.

It is no part of our task to tell the story of the conversion of the natives to Roman Catholic Christianity. It was comparatively easily effected. The fall of the Incas was a mortal blow to the religious, no less than to the political, edifice in which they were the key-stone of the arch. It was evident that the Sun had been unable or unwilling to protect his children. The conqueror imposed his religion on Peru, as on Mexico, by open force; and the Spanish Inquisition, though not giving rise to such numerous and terrible spectacles in the former as in the latter country, yet carried out its work of terror and oppression there too. The result was that peculiar character of the Catholicism of the natives of Peru which strikes every traveller, and consists in a kind of timid and superstitious submission, without confidence and without zeal, associated with the obstinate preservation of customs which mount back to the former religious régime, and with memories of the golden age of the Inca rule under which their ancestors were privileged to live, but which has gone to return no more.



Source:  The Hibbert Lectures, 1884.  Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Native Religions of Mexico and Peru.

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