Inca: Religion and Worship

This overview of the Inca religion and religious practice 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

From all that I have said already, you will easily understand that the Sun has never been worshipped more directly or with more devotion than in Peru. It was he whom the Peruvians regarded as sovereign lord of the world, king of the heaven and the earth. His Peruvian name was Inti, "Light." The villages were usually built so as to look eastward, in order that the inhabitants might salute the supreme god as soon as he appeared in the morning. The most usual representation of him was a golden disk representing a human face surrounded by rays and flames. In Peru, as everywhere else, a feeling existed that there was a certain relation between the substance of gold and that of the great luminary. In the nuggets torn from the mountain sides they thought they saw the Sun's tears. The great periodic fêtes of the year, the imperial and national festivals in which every one took part, were those held in honour of the Sun.

Immediately after him came his sister and consort the Moon, Mama Quilla. Her image was a disk of silver bearing human features, and silver played the same part in her worship that gold did in that of the Sun. It appears, however, that they performed fewer sacrifices to her than to her august consort, which is quite in harmony with the inferior position assigned to woman in the Peruvian civilization. Like Selene amongst the Greeks, Mama Quilla, and her incarnation in human form, Mama Ogllo, were weavers. And that is why the latter was said to have taught the Peruvian women the art of spinning and weaving. This is a mythological conception suggested by likening the moonbeams to twisted threads, out of which on fair clear nights the brilliant verdure in which the earth is clad is spun.

But before going on to the gods who form the usual retinue of these two official and imperial deities, I must speak of two great Peruvian gods whose worship was likewise widely spread, but who nevertheless are not attached to the solar family, or at least are only so attached by an after-thought and by dint of harmonizing efforts which the Incas had their motives of policy for favouring: I mean the two great deities, Viracocha and Pachacamac.

William Hickling Prescott was an American historian and Hispanist, who is widely recognized by historiographers to have been the first American scientific historian.
— Orly

The myth of Viracocha is the first instance we shall cite of traces of a certain civilization prior to the Incas, or at any rate of a belief widely spread in some parts of Peru that civilization had not really been, as the legend of the Incas would have it, the sole work of that sacerdotal family. The name of Viracocha must be very ancient, for it became a generic name to signify divine beings. It was given to Manco Capac himself as a title of honour, and the Spaniards on their arrival passed as Viracochas in the eyes of the people. This name, according to Spanish authorities, followed by Prescott, signifies Foam of the sea or of the lake. This would make the deity a male Aphrodite. He was represented with a long beard, and human victims were sacrificed to him. At the same time, they said that he had neither flesh nor bone, that he ran swiftly, and that he lowered mountains and lifted up valleys. The following legend was told of him.

There were men on the earth before the Sun appeared, and the temples of Viracocha, for instance, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, are older than the Sun. One day Viracocha rose out of the lake. He made the sun, the moon, the stars, and prescribed their course for them. Then he made stone statues, put life into them, and commanded them to go out of the caverns in which he had made them and follow him to Cuzco. There he summoned the inhabitants, and set a man over them called Allca Vica, who was the common ancestor of the Incas. Then he departed and disappeared in the water.

Evidently this myth belongs to a different body of tradition from that of the Incas. When it says that the earth was peopled before the Sun appeared, it is only a mythical way of asserting that there were men and even cities in Peru before the establishment of Sun-worship by the Incas. Now the latter claimed direct descent from the Sun, the supreme god, and they would not have readily allowed that this supreme deity had been made by another. One is rather tempted to find in this myth the echo of the claims put forward with equal resignation and persistency by a priesthood of Viracocha, that bowed its head before the supremacy acquired by the solar priesthood, but insisted all the same upon the fact that it was itself its elder brother.


But to what element can we affiliate the god Viracocha himself?

His aquatic name, Foam of the sea or lake, in itself leads us to suppose that he was closely related to the water. The supposition is confirmed by the saying that he had neither flesh nor bone, and yet ran swiftly. We can understand, too, why he lowers mountains and raises valleys. He rises from the water and disappears in it. He is bearded, like all aquatic gods, with their fringes of reeds. Finally, his consort and sister Cocha is the lake itself, and also the goddess of rain. An old Peruvian hymn that was chanted under the Incas, and has fortunately been preserved, raises the character we have assigned to Viracocha above all doubt. The goddess Cocha is represented as carrying an urn full of water and snow on her head. Her brother Viracocha breaks the urn, that its contents may spread over the earth. Here is the hymn, which is composed in nineteen short verses or lines:

  1. Fair Princess,

  3. Thy urn

  2. Thy brother

  4. Shatters.

  5. At the blow

  6. It thunders, lightens

  7. Flashes;

  8. But thou, Princess,

10. Rainest down

  9. Thy waters.

11. At the same time

12. Hailest,

13. Snowest.

14. World-former,

15. World-animator,

16. Viracocha,

17. To this office

18. Thee has destined,

19. Consecrated.

It admits of no doubt, therefore, that Viracocha held a place in the Peruvian Pantheon closely analogous to that of Tlaloc, the rain-god, in its Mexican counterpart. The blow with which he breaks his sister's urn is the thunder-stroke. Inasmuch as rain is a fertilizing agent, Viracocha represents its generative force. His resemblance to Tlaloc extends to his demand for human victims, in which he is less ferociously insatiable, but quite as pronounced, as his Mexican analogue. Since his legend makes him rise out of the Lake of Titicaca, we must think of him as the chief god of the religion in honour before that of the Incas rose to supremacy. When it is said that after accomplishing his task he disappeared, we are reminded that the river Desaguadero, which carries off the waters of Lake Titicaca, sinks into the earth and is lost to sight.

But there was yet another great deity whose pretensions the Incas had allowed by making room for him in the official religion, although he really belonged to a totally different group of mythical formations: I refer to Pachacamac, whose name signifies "animator of the earth," from caman, "to animate," and pacha, "earth." The primitive centre of his worship was in the valley of Lurin, south of Lima, as well as in that valley of Rimac which has given its name to the city of Lima itself, for the latter is but a transformation of Rimac. It was there that Pachacamac's colossal temple rose. It was left standing by the Incas, but is now in ruins. The branch of the Yuncas who resided there were already possessed of a certain civilization when the Inca Pachacutec annexed their country, at the close of the fourteenth century, partly by persuasion and partly by terror. Pachacamac was the divine civilizer who had taught this people the arts and crafts. It would even seem that he had supplanted a still more ancient worship of Viracocha in these same valleys, for it is said that the latter was worsted in war by him and put to flight, upon which the new god renewed the world by changing the people he found on the earth into jaguars and monkeys, and creating a new and higher race. This opposition to Viracocha, god of the waters, puts us on the traces of Pachacamac's original significance. He must have been a god of fire, and especially of the internal fire of the earth, which displays itself in the volcanos and warms the spirit of man. He was a kind of Peruvian Dionysus. There was something gloomy and violent about his worship. He demanded human victims. The valley of Rimac really means the valley of the Speaker, of him who answers when questioned. There was a kind of oracle inspired by the god of internal fire there. A certain feeling of mystery, as though in Pachacamac they had to do with a god less visible, less palpable, more spiritual than the rest, seems to have impressed itself upon his Peruvian worshippers.  Garcilasso, who perhaps exaggerates a little, here as elsewhere, goes near to making him a god who could only be adored in the heart, without temple and without sacrifices.

Garcilaso de la Vega, 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

Thus, if the myth of Viracocha, god of the waters, makes the stars and the earth rise out of the moist element which he has fertilized and organized, the myth of Pachacamac makes him a kind of demiurge working within to form the world and enlighten mankind. I need not stay to point out what close analogies these two conceptions find in several of the cosmogonies of the Old World.

This confusion and rivalry of the Peruvian gods has left its traces in the crude and obscure legend of the Collas, or mountaineers of Pacari Tambo, to the south-west of Cuzco. "From the caves of Pacari Tambo (i.e. 'the house of the dawn') issued one day four brothers and four sisters. The eldest ascended a mountain, and flung stones towards the four cardinal points, which was his way of taking possession of all the land. This aroused the displeasure of the other three. The youngest of all was the cunningest, and he resolved to get rid of his three brothers and reign alone. He persuaded his eldest brother to enter a cave, and as soon as he had done so closed the mouth with an enormous stone, and imprisoned him there for ever." This seems to refer to the quasi-subterranean cultus of Pachacamac, the internal fire, the first revelation of whom must have been a volcano hurling stones in every direction.—"The youngest brother then persuaded the second to ascend a high mountain with him, to seek their lost brother, and when they stood on the summit he hurled him down the precipice and changed him into a stone by a spell." I cannot say to what special deity this part of the legend alludes, unless it simply refers to an ancient worship of stones or rocks, many vestiges of which remained under the Incas, though it ceased to have any official importance in presence of the radiant worship of the Sun promulgated and favoured by the ruling family.—"Then the third brother fled in terror." This fleeing god must be Viracocha, the god of showers, who flees before the Sun.—"Then the youngest brother built Cuzco, caused himself to be adored as child of the Sun under the name of Pirrhua Manco, and likewise built other cities on the same model."

This last trait puts it out of doubt that the legend is really an attempt to explain how the religion of Manco Capac established at Cuzco had succeeded in eclipsing all others, owing to the superior skill of its priesthood. It is a formal confirmation of all that I have told you of the consummate art with which the Incas gradually extended the circle of their political and religious dominion. Pirrhua is the contraction of Viracocha, taken in the generic sense of "divine being." Pirrhua Manco was an alternative name of Manco Capac.

Of course this legend was not officially received under the Incas. The latter, being unable or unwilling to abolish the worship of Viracocha and of Pachacamac, took up a far more conciliatory attitude than that of the legends I have given. The supreme god, the Sun, was admitted to have had three sons, Kon or Viracocha, Pachacamac and Manco Capac; but the latter was declared to have been quite specially designed by the common father to instruct and govern men. By this arrangement every one was satisfied,—and especially the Incas.


We may now return to the other deities who were officially incorporated in the family or retinue of the Sun.

The rainbow, Cuycha, was the object of great veneration as the servant of the Sun and Moon. He had his chapel contiguous with the temple of the Sun, and his image was made of plates of gold of various shades, which covered a whole wall of the edifice. When a rainbow appeared in the clouds, the Peruvian closed his mouth for fear of having all his teeth spoilt.

The planet Venus, Chasca or the "long-haired star," so called from its extraordinary radiance, was looked upon as a male being and as the page of the Sun, sometimes preceding and sometimes following his master. The Pleiades were next most venerated. Comets foreboded the wrath of the gods. The other stars were the Moon's maids of honour.

The worship of the elements, too, held a prominent place in this complicated system of nature-worship. For example, Fire, considered as derived from the Sun, was the object of profound veneration, and the worship rendered it must have served admirably as a link between the religion of the Incas and that of Pachacamac. Strange as it may seem at first sight, the symbols of fire were stones. But our surprise will cease when we remember that stones were thought, in a high antiquity, to be animated by the fire that was supposed to be shut up within them, since it could be made to issue forth by a sharp blow. The Peruvian religion likewise adds its testimony to that of all the religions of the Old World, as to the importance which long attached to the preservation amongst the tribes of men of that living fire which it was so difficult to recover if once it had been allowed to escape. A perpetual fire burned in the temple of the Sun and in the abode of the Virgins of the Sun, of whom we shall have to speak presently. The wide-spread idea that fire becomes polluted at last and loses its divine virtue by too long contact with men,[196] meets us once more. The fire must be renewed from time to time, and this act was performed yearly by the chief-priest of Peru, who kindled wood by means of a concave golden mirror. This miracle is very easy for us to explain, but we cannot doubt that the priests and people of Peru saw something supernatural in the phenomenon.

The thunder, likewise, was personified and adored in certain provinces under the name of Catequil, but it is a peculiarity of the Peruvian religion that it assigns a subordinate rank in the hierarchy to the god of thunder, who elsewhere generally takes the supreme place. In Peru, he was but one of the Sun's servants, though the most redoubtable of them all. The Peruvians are remarkable for their childish dread of thunder. A great projecting rock, often one that had been struck by the thunder, passed for the deity's favoured residence. Catequil appears in three forms: Chuquilla (thunder), Catuilla (lightning), and Intiallapa (thunderbolt). His remaining name, Illapa, also means thunder. He had special temples, in which he was represented as armed with a sling and a club.[88] They sacrificed children, but more especially llamas, to him. Twins were regarded as children of the lightning, and if they died young their skeletons were preserved as precious relics. And, finally, we find in Peru the same idea that prevails in a great part of southern Africa, viz. that a house or field that has been struck by lightning cannot be used again. Catequil has taken possession of it, and it would be dangerous to dispute it with him.

We have seen how the element of water was adored under the names of Viracocha and his sister Mama Cocha. The earth was worshipped in grottos or caves, often considered as the places whence men and gods had taken their origin, and as giving oracles. There were also trees and plants that were clothed with a divine character, especially the esculent plants, such as the maize, personified as Zarap Conopa, and the potato, as Papap Conopa. A female statue was often made of maize orcoca leaves, and adored as the mother of plants.

Thus we descend quite gently from the official heights of the religion of the Incas towards those substrata of religious thought which always maintain themselves beneath the higher religion that more or less expressly patronizes them, but to which they are not really bound by any necessary tie. They are the survivals of old superstitions, to which the common people are often far more attached than they are to the exalted doctrines which they are taught officially. And it is thus, for example, that we note in Peru the very popular worship of numerous animals, mounting, without doubt, to a much higher antiquity than was reached by the religion of the Incas. Indeed, I should be inclined to ascribe to the religious diplomacy of the children of the Sun the Peruvian belief which established a connection of origin between each kind of animal and a particular star. The serpent, especially, seems to have been, in Peru as in Africa, the object of great veneration. We find it reproduced in wood and stone on an enormous number of the greater and smaller relics of Peruvian art. The god of subterranean treasures, Urcaguay, was a great serpent, with little chains of gold at his tail, and a head adorned with stag-like horns. The dwellers by the shore worshipped the whale and the shark. There were fish-gods, too, in the temple of Pachacamac, no doubt because of the enormous power of reproduction possessed by fishes. The condor was a messenger of the Sun, and his image was graven on the sceptre of the Incas. It is remarkable that the llama does not appear amongst these divine animals, probably because it was so completely domesticated and wholly subject to man.

In the Quechuan languages of South America, a huaca or wak’a is an object that represents something revered, typically a monument of some kind. The term huaca can refer to natural locations, such as immense rocks. Some huacas have been associated with veneration and ritual. The Quechua people traditionally believed every object has a physical presence and two camaquen (spirits), one to create it and another to animate it. They would invoke its spirits for the object to function.
— Orly

And finally, when we come to the Guacas, or Huacas, we reach the point where the Peruvian religion sinks into absolute fetichism.

The meaning of the word Guaca, or Huaca, was not very precise in the mouths of the Peruvians themselves. On the one hand, it was applied to everything that bore a religious character, whether an object of worship, the person of the priests, a temple, a tomb, or what not. The Sun himself was Huaca. The chief priest of Cuzco bore amongst other names that of Huacapvillac, "he who converses with huaca beings." On the other hand, in ordinary language, this same term was used to signify those wood, stone and metal objects which were so abundant in Peru, of which we still possess numerous specimens, and of which we must now say a few words. Some of these huacas, especially the stone ones, were of considerable size, and no doubt dated from the pre-historic religion before the Incas. But as a rule they were small and portable, were private and hereditary property, and were regarded as veritable fetiches, that is to say, as the dwelling-places of spirits. Animism, in fact, never ceased to haunt the imaginations of the Peruvians, especially amongst the lower orders, whether the spirits were dreaded as malevolent sprites, or courted as protectors and revealers. These huacas represented (as true fetiches should) forms which were sometimes animal, sometimes human, sometimes simply grotesque, but always ugly and exaggerated. Every valley, every tribe, every temple, every chief, had a guardian spirit. Those which were analogous to pænates publici were recognized by the Incas, who endowed them with flocks and various presents. Often a stone in the middle of the village passed as the abode of the patron spirit of the place. It was the huacacoal, the stone of the huaca, whereas the huacas of the family or house were distinguished as conopas. Meteorites or thunderbolts were in great demand as huacas, and especially amongst lovers, since they were supposed to inspire a reciprocity of affection. The Christian missionaries had more difficulty in rooting out the worship of the Huacas than in abolishing that of the Sun and Moon, and we may still detect numerous traces of this ancient superstition amongst the natives of Peru.


Let us now turn to the priesthood which presided over the worship of these numerous deities.

There was no sacerdotal caste in Peru, or, to speak more correctly, the Inca family constituted the only sacerdotal caste in the strict sense of the word. This family retained for itself all the highest positions in the priesthood, as well as in the army and administration. These priests of the higher rank bore special garments and insignia, while the lower clergy wore the ordinary costume. At the head of all the priests of the empire, first after the reigning Inca, stood the Villac Oumau, "the chief sacrificer," also, as we have seen, called the Huacapvillac. He was nominated by the reigning Inca, and in his turn nominated all his subordinates. His name indicates that he was the living oracle, the interpreter of the will of the Sun. You can understand, therefore, how important it was for the policy of the Incas that he should himself be subject to the authority and discretion of the sovereign. After him came the rest of the chief priests, also members of the Inca family, whom he put in charge of the provincial temples of the Sun. At Cuzco itself all the priests had to be Incas. They were divided into squadrons, which attended in succession, according to the quarters of the moon, to the elaborate ritual of the service. And here we must admire the consummate art with which the Incas had planned everything in their empire to secure their supremacy against all attaint, in religion as in all else, while still leaving the successively annexed populations a certain measure of religious freedom. In the provinces, the Inca family, numerous as it was, could not have provided priests for all the sanctuaries; and, moreover, there would be local rites, traditions, perhaps even priesthoods, which could not well be fitted into the framework of the official religion. The Incas therefore had decided that the priests of the local deities should be affiliated to the imperial priesthood, but in such a way that the chief priests of the local deities should at the same time be subordinate priests of the deities of the empire. What a wonderful stroke of political genius! What happier method could have been found of teaching the subject populations, while still maintaining their traditional forms of worship, to regard the imperial cultus patronized by the reigning Inca as superior to all others? And what an invaluable guarantee of obedience was obtained by this association of the non-Inca priests with the official priesthood, the honours and advantages of which they were thus made to share, without any room for an aspiration after independence! I regard this organization of the priesthood in ancient Peru as one of the most striking proofs of the political genius of the Incas, and as one of the facts which best explain how a theocracy, which was after all based on the absolute and exclusive pretensions of one special mythology, was able to consolidate itself and endure for centuries, while exercising a large toleration towards other traditions and forms of worship.

An Inca aclla, virgin of the Sun.

An Inca aclla, virgin of the Sun.

By the side of the priests there were also priestesses; and they were clothed with a very special function. I refer to those Virgins of the Sun (acllia = chosen ones), those Peruvian nuns, who so much impressed the early historians of Peru. There were convents of these Virgins at Cuzco and in the chief cities of the empire. At Cuzco there were five hundred of them, drawn for the most part from the families of the Incas and the Curacas or nobles, although (for a reason which will be apparent presently) great beauty gave even a daughter of the people a sufficient title to enter the sacred abode. They had a lady president—I had almost said a "mother abbess"—who selected them while yet quite young; and under her superior direction, matrons, or Mamaconas, superintended the young flock. They lived cloistered, in absolute retreat, without any relationship with the outside world. Only the reigning Inca, his chief wife, the Coya, and the chief priest, were allowed to penetrate this sanctuary of the virgins. Now these visits of the Inca's were not exactly disinterested. The fact is, that it was here he generally looked for recruits for his harem. You will ask how that could be reconciled with the vow of chastity which the maidens had taken; but their promise had been never to take any consort except the Sun, or him to whom the Sun should give them. Now the Inca, the child of the Sun, his representative and incarnation upon earth, began by assigning the most beautiful to himself, after which he might give some of those who had not found special favour in his eyes to his Curacas. And thus the vow was kept intact. In other respects, the most absolute chastity was sternly enforced. If any nun violated her vow, or was unhappy enough to allow the sacred fire that burned day and night in the austere abode to be extinguished, the penalty was death. And the strange thing is, that the mode of death was identical with that which awaited the Roman vestal guilty of the same offences. The culprit was buried alive. This illustrates the value of the theories started by those authors who can never discover any resemblance of rites or beliefs between two peoples without forthwith setting about to inquire which of the two borrowed from the other! It will hardly be maintained that the Peruvians borrowed this cruel custom from the ancient Romans, and assuredly the Romans did not get it from Peru. Whence, then, can the resemblance spring? From the same train of ideas leading to the same conclusion. By the sacrilege of the culprit, the gods of heaven and of light, the protecting and benevolent deities, were offended and incensed, and the whole country would feel the tokens of their wrath. To disarm their anger, its unhappy cause must expiate her guilt, and at the same time must be removed from their sight and given over to the powers of darkness, for she was no longer worthy to see the light. And that is why the dark tomb must swallow her. She had betrayed her spouse the Sun—let her henceforth be the spouse and the slave of darkness; and let her be sent alive to those dark powers, that they might do with her as they would. We must add that the guilty nun's accomplice was strangled, and that her whole family from first to last was put to death.

The ordinary occupations of the Virgins of the Sun consisted in making garments for the members of the imperial family and tapestries destined to adorn the temples and palaces, in kneading and baking the sacred loaves, preparing the sacred drinks, and, finally, in watching and feeding the sacred fire. You perceive that it was not exactly the ascetic principle which had given rise to these convents—as in the case of the Buddhist and Christian institutions, for example—but rather the desire to do honour to the Sun, the supreme god, by consecrating seraglios to him, in which his numerous consorts, protected by a severe rule, could be kept from all except himself and those to whom he might give them; accomplishing, meanwhile, those menial tasks which, especially under the rule of polygamy, woman is required to perform in the abode of her lord and master.

All this shows us once more, Gentlemen, how the same fundamental logic of the human mind asserts itself across a thousand diversities, and re-appears under every conceivable form in every climate and every race. Only let us look close enough and with the requisite information, and we shall find in every case that all is explained, that all holds together, that all is justified, by some underlying principle, and that "that idiot of a word," chance, is never anything but a veil for our ignorance. And thus, when we notice anything paradoxical, grotesque, and unexplained by the resources we command at present, we must be very careful not to pronounce it inexplicable. We should rather suspend our judgment, wait till wider reflection and renewed investigation have shown us the middle terms, and meanwhile keep silence rather than attribute to chance or to influences which escape all human reason the phenomena that seem abnormal.

For instance, you have heard sometimes of the strange custom in accordance with which the father of a new-born child goes to bed and is nursed as an invalid. You are perhaps aware that this custom, that appears so strange to us and is now restricted to a few savage tribes, was noted in ancient times in Europe itself, and has been preserved almost to our own time in certain cantons of the Pyrenees. It must therefore have been extremely wide-spread. Yet for a long time it seemed inexplicable. But now, thanks to investigations and comparisons, the explanation has been found. There is no doubt that the custom in question rested on the idea that there was a close solidarity between the health of the father and that of the new-born babe, so that if the father should fall sick, his far weaker child would die. The father, therefore, must be guarded from all over-exertion, must abstain from all excess—in short, was best in bed!

So, too, in the present case. How are we to explain the resemblance between the treatment of the Vestals at Rome and the Virgins of the Sun at Cuzco? It was once impossible, but now that we are better acquainted with the genesis, the spirit, the inner logic of the primitive religions, and the modes of life, the wants and the apprehensions proper to the pre-historic ages, we have no difficulty in attaching two parallel customs to a single religious principle which had found acceptance alike in Italy and Peru. And this is one of the chief tasks, and one of the greatest charms, of the branch of study which I have the honour of professing. It shows us that even in human error, human reason has never abdicated its throne.



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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