Andean animals in the ancient Inca and Pre-Inca religions
30 September 2019
The Inca’s religion was a living manifestation of the legends and collective memories of the people who inhabited the Andes Mountains in the 14th and 15th centuries. Inca religious cosmology was pantheistic, that is, built around a complex pantheon of gods and multiple deities.
Andean religion was also animistic, in that many of its deities were inanimate objects, such as celestial bodies, mountains, streams, rock formations, and weather phenomena.
Andean fauna was also an important element of Andean religion. Andean animals had great religious significance for the region’s ancient people, and many of their myths were based around human interactions with sacred animals.
Inca religious worship centered around Viracocha, the creator god, and Inti, the sun, and Inca kings were considered direct descendants of the sun. The moon, or Mama Killa, was also worshipped, along with Pachamama, the Earth Mother.
Certain stars, and larger mountains or Apus, were considered important protectors. Apu Ausangate, south of Cusco, was the most important Apu in the southern Andes, and is still today revered by traditional Quechua people who inhabit southern Peru.
Inca cosmology envisioned three levels- the upper or celestial world, Hanan Pacha, the world of here and now, or Kay Pacha, and Uku Pacha, the underworld or land of the dead.
This belief was connected to the Southern Cross constellation, and in turn to the symbolic Andean cross, the chakana, which unites this vision of the universe.
And the chakana, which some consider the Inca’s Tree of Life, embodied three important totem Andean animals that represented each level of the Inca cosmos.
The Upper World was symbolized by the condor, the largest bird, flying high above. The condor was a sacred messenger, and was believed to transport the dead to the afterlife.
The Present World was embodied in the strong, stealthy puma , or mountain lion. Importantly, the Incas designed the ancient city of Cusco in the shape of a puma, with the ceremonial center of Sacsayhuaman as its head.
A related feline, the jaguar, was a principal deity for the pre-Inca Chavin culture in the north-central Andes, and is also depicted in the relics of other cultures.
And the snake, as a wise creature, represented the Underworld, not a hell, but a positive realm where the dead rested and life was renewed.
All three animals appear painted or carved in many Inca and pre-Inca ceramics, sculptures and buildings. In Cusco, shoppers can find modern Andean handicrafts of all kinds that include chakanas, condors, pumas and snakes.
Other animals were considered lesser metaphysical beings. Dogs were intermediaries between the living and the dead, and were an important deity for the pre-Inca Wanca culture, who bred the Andean dog. On the other hand, foxes were seen as bad omens and deceivers.
Bears, of which the Spectacled Bear is the only species in the Andes, were present in myth as beings that would kidnap young women to reproduce with them. The bear children would return to the town, and after undergoing a series of trials, would gain their souls and fly off as white doves.
Bears are also represented by half-bear, half-human Ukukus, jesters that participate actively in June’s traditional Corpus Christi celebrations near Cusco.
Of course, llamas and alpacas had very special importance for the Andean people, and were sometimes sacrificed to appease the angry gods.
Today, the ancient Inca religion is less prevalent in the Andes, and in many cases has combined with Catholic rituals. But it remains an intrinsic part of Andean culture, as seen in festivals, dances, artwork and crafts.
You can be certain that Cusco is the very best place to experience the fascinating history, archeology and architecture of the Incas. Please contact us at andeanlodges.com to reserve one of our acclimatization programs, during which you can see all the best of Inca culture first-hand.
Then, follow this with an exciting trek to Apu Ausangate, the majestic sacred mountain. There, at our superb mountain ecolodges, you’ll meet and enjoy the excellent services of our friendly staff, the Quechua descendants of the Incas.