by Jan Sammer
from JanSammer Website
The traditional view of Inca religion has been built chiefly on the writings of Garcilaso de la Vega, Bartolomé de las Casas, and Pedro Cieza de Leon. In the Comentarios Reales of the hispanicized Inca nobleman Garcilaso de la Vega, the cult of the Sun is portrayed as supreme. The chief temple in Cusco, the Coricancha, is said to have been dedicated to the Sun (II.9) with similar Sun-temples scattered throughout the provinces; the Inca rulers allegedly prided themselves on being descended from the Sun.
The sacrifices to the Sun are described at length (II.8). While Garcilaso makes mention of a god named Pachacamac, and includes a passing reference to Viracocha, we learn almost nothing of the real nature of these divinities. Bartolome de las Casas, the great defender of the Indians, comes closer to the truth when he portrays the solar cult as an outgrowth of the cult of Viracocha, the Sun being worshipped as the most glorious of the manifestations of Viracocha’s creation, and a constant reminder of his supreme power.
The establishment of
the solar cult is ascribed to the Inca Pachacuti, its principal seat being
“aquel grandisimo y riquisimo templo de la ciudad de Cusco,” the
The testimony of Cieza de Leon is substantially the same. The Coricancha is,
according to him, “as old as the city of Cusco,” and is dedicated to the
worship of the Sun.
Manco Capac, who lived in the
first post-diluvian era, made a covenant with the Sun that he and his
descendants would adopt this luminary as their divine parent. Whether the
Sun was the chief object of worship at this time is, however, open to
question, since one of Manco Capac’s descendants, Inca Yupanqui, is said to
have built up the temple of Viracocha in Cusco, which before him had been
small and poor, having been inspired to this task by a vision. He is also
credited with introducing the cult of the Sun alongside that of the
later a third cult, that of the Thunderbolt, was said to have been added by
The Sun, according to Sarmiento’s narrative, emerged only after the Deluge. Sarmiento has much to say about Viracocha and his deeds, and also tells of the Sun’s worship in Cusco and other places.
But while Sarmiento conveys
invaluable information about the early ages as remembered among the Quechuas
of the Altiplano, his account of the cult of the empire is scanty and of
little value, being colored by his arrogant and hostile attitude towards a
culture that, only a few years earlier had been trampled underfoot by his
compatriots. He relates some of the traditions collected by him under the
heading: “The Fable of the Origin of these Barbaric Indians according to
their Blind Opinions.”
The same library yielded also the Fabulas y ritos de los Incas by Cristobal Molina, that had been consigned to obscurity since its composition three centuries earlier (Markham published a translation of both in the same year 1873) and soon thereafter an anonymous seventeenth-century treatise De las costumbres antiguas de los naturales del Piru,. came to light, appearing in print in 1879.
The publication of these manuscripts with their precious new
information on Inca religion and culture should have engendered a wholesale
reassessment of the traditional views on these questions. While a
reassessment of sorts did take place, it did not result in any significant
changes in the accepted views on the political and religious life of Tawantinsuyu. A thorough re-evaluation is overdue. In particular, the notion
that a solar cult was supreme in Tawantinsuyu is no longer tenable.
This representation is crucial for an understanding of the cult of the Coricancha and, thus in Tawantinsuyu as a whole.
As to the disk itself, Pachacuti describes it thus:
This statement betrays some confusion: Viracocha is called the “true sun” obviously to distinguish him from our familiar luminary. The latter is also depicted, and labeled Inti, i.e., Sun. According to the quoted sentence, not Viracocha but his nameless Creator was depicted on the altar. But, as we have seen, Sarmiento was told that Viracocha himself was the Creator, and this appears to be the common Inca view.
The golden image in the center of the altar should be identified as Viracocha. It was, after all, the most holy object in Viracocha’s Temple. Pachacuti tells of the origin of the image: It was first fashioned by Manco Capac of pure gold and was meant to signify the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Manco Capac placed it in a large house called Corichancha, which means “the golden enclosure.” For some unexplained reason, in the time of the Inca Mayta Capac, the golden plate needed to be restored; at the same time, new ceremonies and festivals were established for the worship of Viracocha.
All other objects of worship
were downgraded: “menospreciando a todas las cosas, elementos y creaturas,
como a los hombres y sol y luna.” Pachacuti does not tell us
what was the “Sun called Viracochan pachayachachi” only that
it was not our
Sun, which he designates as Inti. The solution to this puzzle will obviously
provide us with a most important clue to the real cult of Tawantinsuyu.
Alone among the chroniclers our author quotes extensively from the quipus consulted by him, that is, Indians charged with keeping the quipu records, in whose minds these knotted ropes still brought forth recollections of past events. This is something that most other contemporary writers failed to do. His sources are manifold. Besides the quipus, he refers also to Spanish authors, among them to several whose writings are now lost. On the basis of his sources he feels confident in refuting many of the assertions that writers such as Polo de Ondegardo had made about Inca religion and customs. Brief as the Jesuit’s chronicle is, it overturns the standard notions of an Inca solar cult.
Since to my knowledge it has not been reissued since it first appeared in print over a hundred years ago, and has never been translated into English, I shall quote from it at some length (my translation):
What is really astounding about this passage is the close similarity of the characteristics ascribed in it to the major planets to those common among the Greeks and the Romans. Among the Incas, just as among the Greeks and the Romans, Zeus, or Jupiter, was known as supreme among the gods. Ares, or Mars, was the god of war, Hermes, or Mercury, of travelers and merchants. The word “merchant” in fact comes from the Latin mercari= “to trade” (Webster’s, 2nd ed.), which is one of the functions of the Roman Mercurius. Saturn’s malevolent nature was also recognized among the Greeks and Romans. How can these similarities be explained?
At least three possibilities suggest themselves:
Whatever the explanation for the similarities with the mythology of the Old World, the anonymous Jesuit provides important information about the nature of the Inca cult. Besides the Coricancha he mentions a Temple of Viracocha, a Temple of the Planet Jupiter, and one which we may call a “Dragon Temple.”
“The Temple of the Sun,” the writer tells us, was later converted into the Church of Santo Domingo--but according to Martin de Morua and other writers, the Church of Santo Domingo is the former Coricancha.
Thus the “Temple of the Sun” and the Coricancha are one and the same temple. But we have already examined the altar of the Coricancha and found no evidence that the Sun’s cult was pre-eminent there. Its chief object of worship is identified as Viracochan Pachayachachi. The cult of the Coricancha was, it seems, some heavenly body which was called “sun” before the Inti, the sun of our days was created. Was it Jupiter who, according to the chronicler, was given sovereignty over the whole land? But Jupiter had a temple separate from the Coricancha. Was it Saturn?
Saturn, or Haucha, is not otherwise depicted on
the altar and no separate temple to this planet is known to exist. Saturn
seems a more likely choice than Jupiter; however, the sources on
Tawantinsuyu presently at our disposal give no direct indication of the true
nature of the chief cult of the empire with its sanctuary, the Coricancha;
the surmise that it was Saturn must be based on extraneous sources, mainly
from Babylonia and China. We have gone as far as we could on the basis of
the native evidence; now we need to see if the cosmologies of other ancient
peoples may shed any light on the question.
Hyginus also wrote that
Saturn was called “sun.” (De Astronomia II. 42. 8-10.) These examples
demonstrate that there is no incongruity in interpreting the reports of the
Inca devotion for the sun and of the cult of the sun in the
referring actually to Saturn.
These roads, described in detail by Polo de Ondegardo, had a significance that went far beyond their value as means of communication. Here is Polo’s description:
And Polo goes on to describe in great detail the shrines that were situated along the ceques and the roads. The organization of the Inca kingdom resembles closely the political organization of the Chinese Empire. According to the Han historian Ssuma Ts'ien, the planet Saturn “corresponds to the center.” The four other planets represented the four cardinal points; Saturn was placed at the pole, and the entire stellar sphere was said to revolve around it.
The earthly kingdom was set up to reflect the heavenly sphere. Just as Saturn occupied the central position in the sky, so the imperial palace and the emperor occupied the central location in the Chinese empire. At the center of the Inca empire stood the Coricancha, the shrine of Viracocha.
If we may on this basis draw the surmise that the center of
Tawantinsuyu, too, was dedicated to Saturn, it would then follow that the
Coricancha was a temple of Saturn, and Viracocha, the chief object of
worship in that shrine, was none other than Saturn.