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KRONOS Vol IX, No. 2

The Cosmology Of Tawantinsuyu


See also Note (1).

The traditional view of Inca religion was built chiefly on the writings of Garcilaso de la Vega, Bartolome de las Casas, and Pedro Cieza de Leon. In the Commentarios Reales of the hispanicized Inca nobleman, Garcilaso de la Vega, the cult of the Sun is portrayed as supreme. The chief temple in Cuzco, 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 the deus otiosus 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 Cuzco", the Coricancha. The testimony of Cieza de Leon is substantially the same. The Coricancha is, according to him, "as old as the city of Cuzco", and is dedicated to the worship of the Sun.

Cristobal de Molina, a Spanish friar, wrote his Chronicle about the year 1573. He traces the cult of the Sun back to the reign of the first Inca, Manco Capac, and relates the first appearance of the Sun, together with that of the Moon, to the time immediately following the Deluge, these luminaries having been placed in the sky by the Creator. 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 Cuzco, 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 Creator; later a third cult, that of the Thunderbolt, is said to have been added by him.

The account of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (fl. 1532-1572) adds several significant details: "The natives of this country say that in the beginning, before the world wes created, there was one whom they called Viracocha. And he created the world dark and without the Sun, nor Moon, nor stars." 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 Cuzco 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".

With this information in hand, there was little reason to doubt the reality of an all-important solar cult in Tawantinsuyu. But a little over a century ago a series of momentous literary discoveries changed this situation very materially. In 1873 Clemens R. Markham, in the course of a survey of some of the collections of Madrid's Biblioteca Nacional, lighted upon a previously unknown sixteenth-century manuscript entitled Relacion de antiguedades deste reyno de Piru. Its author, an Aymara Indian named Pachacuti Sallkamaywa, was from a noble family, newly converted to Catholicism. The same library also yielded the Fabulos y ritos de los Incas by Cristobal de 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.

Until the publication of Juan Pachacuti's manuscript a century ago we lacked the evidence that could decisively counter the unanimous opinion of the various chroniclers that the Temple of Viracocha was dedicated to the Sun. However, Pachacuti included in his manuscript a rough drawing of the altar of that temple. The altar itself was destroyed soon after the conquest. This representation is crucial for an understanding of the cult of the Coricancha and, eo ipso, in Tawantinsuyu as a whole.

[*!* Image]

We may observe that the dominant deity depicted on the altar is not the Sun, but a large oblong disk which, the author tells us, was made of gold. This disk, by far the largest object on the altar, is flanked on either side by the Sun and Moon and by Venus, depicted in its two aspects as the Morning and Evening Star. Had the Sun been the chief object of worship in Tawantinsuyu, as the chroniclers have been assuring us thus far, we would expect its image to have the predominant place in the kingdom's chief temple, ostensibly dedicated to its worship. Instead, we find it relegated to a definitely subordinate position. As to the disk itself, Pachacuti describes it thus: "Dicen que fue ymagen del Hacedor del verdadero sol, del sol llamado Viracochan pachayachachiy" - "They say that it was the image of the Creator of the true sun, of the sun called Viracochan pachayachachiy." Viracochan pachayachachiy is usually translated as "Viracocha, Ruler of the Entire Earth". 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 criaturas, como a los hombres y sol y luna." Pachacuti does not tell us explicitly what the "Sun called Viracochan pachayachachiy" was, 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 .

A positive answer to this question would have been impossible, if not for the discovery of a work by an anonymous Jesuit of the early seventeenth century entitled De las costumbres antiguas de los naturales del Piru. This still largely neglected text, which saw publication in 1879 soon after its discovery in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, is by far the best informed of the post-conquest accounts as far as the nature of the Inca cult is concerned. 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 the 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, in English translation (my own):

They believed and said that the world, heaven and earth, sun and moon, had been created by one greater than they: they called him Illa Tecce, which means "Eternal Light". The moderns added another name, that is, Viracocha, which means "Great God of Pirua", meaning whom Pirua, the first settler of these lands, worshipped, and from whom the entire country and empire took the name Pirua, which the Spaniards have corrupted to Peru or Piru.

The Devil deceived them to the effect that this great and true God had passed on his divinity and power to various creatures, in order that each should operate according to the task and virtue assigned to it; and that these gods accompanied and advised the great God, and chiefly were in the heavens, as are the Sun, Moon, stars and planets.

For this reason the inhabitants of Peru were for a long period of years without idols, without statues, without images, for they worshipped solely the heavenly luminaries and the stars.

Of the Sun they said that it was the son of the great Illa Tecce and that the physical light which it gave off was part of the divine nature which Illa Tecce had imparted to it, that it might direct and govern the days, the times, the years and the seasons, and also kings and kingdoms and lords and other things. Of the Moon they said that she was a sister and wife of the Sun, and that Illa Tecce had given to her a portion of his divinity, and made her mistress of the sea and of winds, of queens and princesses, of women's labor, and queen of heaven.

The Moon they called Coya, which means "queen".

Of Dawn [i.e., the Morning Star] they said that she was a goddess of young maidens and princesses, and originator of the flowers of the fields, and mistress of the dawn and twilight; and that it was she who threw dew onto the earth when she shook her hair, and they thus called her Chasca [i. e ., hairy ] .

Jupiter they called Pirua, saying, first of all, that it was this planet that the great Illa Tecce had commanded should be the guardian and lord of the empire and provinces of Piru, and of its government and of its lands; and for this they sacrificed to this planet all the first fruits of their harvests and all that which seemed most noteworthy and finest by its nature, such as an ear or grain of maize, or other harvests and fruits and trees. To this god they dedicated their granaries, their treasures, their storehouses, or the best ears of maize, or those first harvested, and they called the stores which they had in their houses, in which they kept their wealth and clothes, their tableware and arms, "Pirua". Secondly, they said that this great Pirua Pacaric Manco Inca, the first settler of these lands, when he died, was raised up to heaven to the house and station of this god called Pirua, and that there he was lodged and entertained by this god.

Mars - Aucayoc - they said they had charged with matters relating to wars and soldiers; Mercury - Catu Illa - with those having to do with merchants and travellers and messengers. Saturn - Haucha - they charged with pestilence and slaughter and famine, and lightning and thunder; and they said that he held a club and bows and arrows to hurt and punish men for their evils.

Besides the Coricancha the anonymous chronicler 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 pachayachachiy. 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.

That a celestial body should be called "the sun" and yet be something other than the Sun may at first appear strange. But a close parallel is available in Babylonia. In Babylonian astronomy Alap-Shamash, "the star of the sun", was Saturn. Ninib, another Babylonian designation for Saturn, "is said to shine like the sun". In India the appellative of the Sun, arki, was also applied to Saturn.(2)

In Sanscrit again arka means "belonging or relating to the sun". Arkam means "as far as the sun, even to the sun inclusively". Arki has become a name for Saturn, thought at that time to be the most distant planet. Arc means "to shine, be brilliant", and can mean "to cause to shine". Arkin means "radiant with light".

Arkaja, the name often applied to Saturn, designates it as an offspring of the Sun (Markandeya Purana). Diodorus of Sicily (II. 30. 3-4) reported that the Chaldeans called Kronos (Saturn) by the name Helios, or the Sun. Hyginus also wrote that Saturn was called "sun".(3) 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 Coricancha as referring actually to Saturn.

The evidence from China throws even more light on the cosmology of Tawantinsuyu; but in order to be able to use this evidence properly, we must first say something about the political organization of the Inca kingdom.

Tawantinsayu means "the four quarters" of which the Inca empire consisted - Chinchasuyu to the North, Qollasuyu to the South, Antisuyu to the East, and Kuntisuyu to the West. At the center of Tawantinsuyu was Cuzco, the capital, with the Inca ruler and the Coricancha. From Cuzco, four roads led toward each of the suyus or quarters. 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: "From the temple of the Sun went, as from the center, certain lines, which the Indians called ceques, and they were divided into four parts according to the four royal roads that went out of Cuzco. . . ." 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 that of the Chinese Empire.(4) 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.(5) 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 the Viracocha, the chief object of worship in that shrine, was none other than Saturn.(6)


1. Tawantinsuyu was the Inca's own name for their kingdom; literally, it means "the four quarters".
2. R. Temple, The Sirius Mystery (New York, 1976), p. 180.
3. De Astronomia 11. 42. 8-10.
4. The Chinese system may in fact go back to ancient Babylon. See Leopold de Saussure, Origine babylonienne de l'astronomie chinoise, Archives des sciences physiques et naturelles (January, 1923).
5. Leopold de Saussure, "Le systeme cosmologique sino-iranien, "Journal Asiatique 203, pp. 235-297 and idem, "La serie septenaire, cosmologique et planetaire," Journal Asiatique, 204 (1924), pp. 333-370. The polar position of Saturn is also referred to in neo-Platonist writings.
6. However, it cannot be entirely excluded that it was Jupiter - "the guardian and lord of the empire" - whom the Incas worshipped in their national shrine.

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