Myths of the Inca

The WorldTravelerInnumerable legends entwine themselves around the Inca and their „empire of the four parts“. The biggest empire of South America with its grandiose architectural achievements still fascinates us today.

Founded around 1200, the Inca empire extended from present-day Quito to central Chile and from the Pacific coast to the rainforests of the Urubamba River when the Spanish arrived.

For almost 300 years, architectural masterpieces, but also boundlessness and violence shaped Inca society. Over 250 subjugated tribes suffered as a result. Of the 13 Inca rulers, the last five are historically confirmed; many legends are circulating about the others.

When the Spanish invaded the Inca Empire in 1532, it was already weakened by internal quarrels. With the capture and execution of their ruler Atahualpa by the Spaniards, a new rift developed in Inca society: one faction continued to defend itself against the conquerors, the other, which consisted mainly of the population oppressed by the Incas, allied itself with the Spaniards.

As nearly the whole history of the Inca was not recorded but only passed on orally, there is no one hundred percent knowledge and often, poetry and truth are mixed up. A knot writing made of knotted cords („Khipu“) served them only for the statistical registration of goods.

The Incas were deeply religious and worshipped the most different gods. They sacrificed animals and even people. With the help of rituals and in exchange with nature and deities, they were not only able to organize social life in the cities, but also to maintain order in a multi-ethnic state.

Lake Titicaca: The cradle of the Incas

Especially legendary is the deep blue Lake Titicaca at an altitude of 3,800 meters, which today belongs to Peru and Bolivia. The civilization of the Incas is said to have originated here. However, there are many different myths about the history of origin.

According to one of the legends, long ago, eternal night ruled on earth. There was neither law, religion nor order, and the people lived under unworthy conditions – almost like animals. Then the sun God Inti took pity on them and set his children Manco Cápac and his sister and wife Mama Ocllo on a rock on the „Isla del Sol“ (Island of the Sun). Proof of this event is said to be the two large footprints near the holy rock on the island, which the sun is said to have left on the earth during its visit.

Intis offspring, Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo, were to improve the world and introduce agriculture, cattle breeding, handicrafts and town planning to the earth. Mama Ocllo was chosen by her father for this mission because of her sharp mind. Her mission was to teach the women about weaving and house building. In mythology, Manco Cápac is considered the legendary founder of the Inca dynasty.

In another legend, Inti lifts Manco Cápac up from the depths of Lake Titicaca. In another legend Manco Cápac is described as the son of Wiraqucha (Spanish: Viracocha) – an important deity, the creator of civilization. This God in human form is said to have created the earth, sun, moon and stars as well as the tribes of the Andean people and taught them to live together in harmony. Many Andean peoples – though not the Incas – equate Wiraqucha with the creator of the world Pachakamaq (Pachacámac).

The foundation of Cusco

Also the foundation of the picturesque city of Cusco is shrouded in legend. In one of the many legends, the children of Inti, Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo go in search of a suitable place for their kingdom, after they were born on the sun island of Lake Titicaca.

The sun God had equipped them with a golden staff. There, where they could drive the staff into the ground with one stroke, they should found their domicile. After the two had wandered for a long time, they came to the valley of the river Río Huantanay. There Manco Cápac drove the golden staff deep into the earth. With this divine gesture, the place was chosen as the future capital of the Inca Empire: Qusqu (Cusco) was born – for the Incas the „navel of the world“.

Declared a World Heritage Site in 1983, the city of Cusco has retained its indigenous Andean character despite Spanish conquest. Although today Spanish squares, wooden balconies and the cathedral are very reminiscent of the colonial past, the precisely hewn stone walls leave no doubt as to who founded the city.

What great builders the Incas were, was already shown during a heavy earthquake in 1650: almost all Spanish colonial buildings were heavily damaged or collapsed. Only the mighty Inca foundations, in whose construction no mortar had been used, withstood the shocks.

The Gods of the Inca

For the Incas the earth (Pachamama) lay on the sea (Mamaqucha), which corresponded to the underworld, above which the sky arched. In their opinion, the mountains – „Pachamama’s breasts“ – created connections between earth, sky and the underworld. The water of Lake Titicaca, the „centre of the world“, was synonymous with the „water of the sea under the earth“.

The constellations and solstice days also played an important role: every place in the Inca Empire corresponded to a star, so that the land and star maps were identical. For the Incas the „worlds below and up there“ existed, which were connected by a bridge.

In this high culture, different gods were worshipped. The most important of these were – besides nature gods earth, sea, rain and thunder – the creator god Wiraqucha as well as ruler and main god Inti, the sun god. His „chosen children of the sun“ were the Incas themselves. The Inca rulers regarded themselves as direct descendants of these Gods, which they had spread over their empire with divine power.

Goddesses also played an important role in Inca mythology, such as Inti’s wife and sister Mama Quilla: The goddess of the moon or „Golden Mother“ protected especially married women. As daughter of the sea goddess Mama Cocha and the god Wiraqucha as well as mother of Manco Cápac, Mama Ocllo and creator god Pachacámac, she symbolized the power of the natural lunar cycles that every woman could rely on – until men created a calendar with months of varying lengths.

Mama Quilla was often depicted as a golden or silver disc with a human face and female features. It was said that she would be devoured by a celestial jaguar during a lunar eclipse. According to legend, the goddess still oversees the Inca calendar, weddings and holidays. Since many ceremonies are based on the lunar calendar, they are under the protection of Mama Quilla.

The lake of the stone puma

According to this legend, a long time ago, there was a very fertile valley at Lake Titicaca, where people lived happily and contentedly together. Envy, hate, death and resentment were unknown to them. They suffered neither hunger nor need. The gods of the mountains, the Apus, protected the people. In return, they demanded nothing more than to respect a ban: that no one should ever go into the mountains where the sacred fire was kindled.

None of the lucky inhabitants had the idea to betray the gods and gain access to the fire. But the devil, who had to live his life in darkness, did not like this harmony at all. He began to sow discord among the people and challenge them: „Have you no courage? Do you not dare to bring the sacred fire from the mountains?“

He harassed the people until one morning they set off for the mountains. But after a short walk they were surprised by the gods who wanted to punish them for their disobedience: They sent thousands of pumas after the unfortunate men. They begged the demon for help, but the demon did not show itself.

When the sun god Inti had to watch this tragedy, he shed bitter tears. There were so many that after 40 days the whole valley had filled with water. Only one man and one woman could save themselves from the flood in the boat. When the sun rose again, they saw a huge lake. The lifeless bodies of the pumas, which had turned into stone statues, floated in the floods. That’s why Lake Titicaca is called „Lake of Stone Pumas“.

Together against the drought

When the Incas ran out of water, supernatural forces provided relief. Mama Micay intervened when the Inca population in the valley of Cusco could no longer irrigate their corn fields: The wife of Inca Roca let her magical powers work and the water started flowing again. This legend is true insofar as the family of Micay owned the water rights in Cusco and the surrounding area.

And God Wiraqucha could even make water gush out of a rock: The creator deity, who was worshipped by all the peoples of the Andean region before the arrival of the Spanish, could not be ignored in the religious life of the inhabitants of the barren Andean region, if only because of these extraordinary abilities.

In their legends, the Incas often referred to themselves as the inventors of artificial irrigation. However, they were not, but rather earlier cultures such as the Chimú (1000-1470): their canals carried the water to places up to 100 kilometers away and thus contributed to the fertility of the valleys and the nutrition of the population.

But the Incas are also famous for their irrigation technology, which they further developed and expanded into a comprehensive, effective irrigation system. In the mountains, they built terraces to make the best use of small amounts of water by guiding it from one terrace level to the next.

Besides all the Gods that were involved, the technical and organizational skills of the Incas also helped to maintain the irrigation systems. Without this masterly craftsmanship, it would hardly have been possible to distribute the water to the right places over a day or a whole year.

From crystal bowl to state religion

When the Inca Yupanqui wanted to visit his father Viracocha near Cusco before his accession to the throne, he had a memorable experience: On his hike he saw a crystal bowl falling into the water at the Sursurpuqio spring. And the strangest thing about it: on its glittering surface he saw an Indian with three shining rays of sunlight at the back of his head. Snakes were winding around his armpits, and he was wearing the headband of the Inca rulers.

Yupanqui was so frightened that he fled. But the Indian shouted after him: „Yupanqui, do not be afraid! I am your father, the sun god! You will subjugate many nations and show me reverence. Think of me when you make sacrifices!“

Then he disappeared, but the crystal bowl was left behind. Yupanqui took it home and kept it safe in the palace. When he picked it up again later, it mirrored everything he wanted to see. He was so impressed that after his accession to the throne, he had a statue of the sun god Inti created, the shape of which reminded him of the spring where he had once found it.

The power of the mountains

Life in the Andes is still threatened today by landslides, avalanches, earthquakes and storms. Water, in turn, means life for the Andean people, as it ensures that crops and livestock can thrive in the barren mountain world and the livelihood of the population is secured. In order to appease the gods, rituals that focus on the mountains have been preserved to this day. In the Inca belief, they are the seat of ancestral spirits: they control the fertility of the herds of cattle, the fields and even the weather. They also control raw materials and wild animals.

In the area around Cusco, the mountains Ausangate and Salcantay, which are over 6,000 meters high, are especially revered. No „ordinary mortal“, but only a priest who is very familiar with the rituals is allowed to include these powerful mountains in his ceremonies.

About 90 kilometers from Nazca, in Puqio, the mountains are also honored: Here, in ancient times, the inhabitants could even follow the water veins to the center of the Sacred Mountains, it is reported. For this reason, to this day a group of men who are well versed in the rituals climb a peak near Puqio and offer sacrifices to it to give water.

Other mountain dwellers even believe that the local deities reside in the mountains and that there is a city in one of the mountains: They say that the spirits of the dead came to live on Coropuno Mountain in Inca times. In order to put themselves in the service of the mountain gods, men from a nearby village climb this mountain, also in August. And as has been proven in the meantime, the myth about the city does not seem to be so far-fetched: Ruins have been found there.

The emergence of the empire

From a trip to Tambotoco Manco Cápac brought back a sacred object that looked like a bird and was called „Inti“ or „brother“. Each Inca was in possession of a similar sacred object, which was passed on to the descendants and kept in a box woven from straw. Five generations were not allowed to open this box. The fourth ruler of the kingdom of Cusco, Mayta Cápac (Quechua: Mayta Qhapaq), whose mother is said to have given birth to him after only three months, finally did. Barely freed from the box, the bird „Inti“ began to talk to him and give him advice on warfare.

In fact, Mayta Cápac’s reign was marked by battles for the city of Cusco, which his people fought with their neighbors, the Allcahuiza. In chronicles he is described as a great warrior, who also occupied more distant areas such as Lake Titicaca, Potosi and Arequipa. Although his dominion was limited to the Cusco Valley, he eventually defeated his enemies, the Allcahuiza.

His descendants also waged wars – and on a larger scale: the Incas conquered more and more new lands and oppressed almost 250 peoples in their heyday: as the bird had prophesied, a huge empire had emerged as a result of Inca warfare.

The gate to the land of the Gods

When the Spanish conquistadors, after landing in Peru, began to steal the gold and silver treasures of the Incas, something extraordinary happened: the local priest Aramu Maru was able to flee from his temple to the mountains of Hayu Marca near Lake Titicaca with the help of a golden disk. Legend has it that he performed a ritual with another shaman, which resulted in the opening of a gate seven metres wide and seven metres high, from which a glistening blue light came out. Aramu Maru handed over the golden disk to the shaman and entered. He was never seen again.

Even researchers and visitors have reportedly seen tunnels, stars and lights while visiting this mystical place, some have heard „strange music“. Although these statements are not taken very seriously, there have been repeated reports in local newspapers for decades that the local population had seen flying objects in the area – long before the ruins of the door were discovered by chance by a tourist guide. Inside, the guide came across a smaller grotto with a diameter of two metres.

After this find became known, the place was suddenly teeming with archaeologists, all of whom had already heard of the „Gateway to the Land of the Gods“. According to other legends about this structure, long ago the greatest warriors had passed through this gate to unite with the gods in a new life of immortality.

The great flood

As in many other parts of the world, legends about a great flood were circulating among the Incas. So it is said that in ancient times people were stingy and violent and did not pay the gods the respect they deserved.

Only in the Andes highlands did the inhabitants not behave like these unbelieving barbarians. One fine day, two righteous brothers who worked as shepherds noticed that their lamas made a very sad impression. They asked about the reason and the animals told them that a heavy flood would come and destroy everything.

Without hesitation the men informed their families, packed their things, herded the herds together and left the endangered area. Just in time they were able to take refuge in higher caves when the torrential rains began. It rained for months until the whole world among them drowned in the floods.

When there was nothing left, the sun god Inti appeared and dried the wet earth with his warm smile. Families descended from the caves and repopulated the land. According to legend, people have spread all over the world. But the lamas still remember the Flood too well and prefer the safe highlands as their habitat.