Time Warps

Andean Mythology: Life and death, sacrificial regeneration and continuity

'Events or processes transmited through oral traditions tend to be recounted neither in terms of time past nor time future in the lineal sense. Native American languages have no such tenses to express this, they speak rather of a perenial reality of the now.' '
Joseph Epes Brown

Most of the information that has reached us concerning Andean mythology was collected some 20 to 50 years after the Conquest by various Spanish chroniclers such as, amongst many others, Pedro Cieza de Leon in 'Crònica del Peru' or Garcillaso Inca de la Vega (of Inca aristocratic descent) in 'Comentarios Reales de los Incas'. Stories and 'fables' were gleaned from all over the Andes. Many elements, albeit truncated, originated from the vigorous oral tradition of the Aymara Indians, inhabitants of the Altiplano, blended with prolix elements from an Inca tradition still alive immediately after the conquest. Paradoxically one of the best and perhaps most reliable source is Francisco de Avila, the extirpator of idolitry, in his 'A narrative of the errors, false gods and other superstitions and diabolical rites...'. His aim was to penetrate the beliefs of the Andeans, for he thought that a thorough understanding of Andean cults and mythology would be the ransom of his sucess in erradicating the Indians' misguided beliefs. There is yet another source overlooked till this day because it does not readily unveil its secrets. It lends nevertheless some support to the interpretation of the sparce and disparate 'Fables of the natives' by providing a visual representation of a pan Andean symbolism which allows for many parallels to be drawn with the main mythological themes. As such, the prolific textile legacy married to the barely surviving oral tradition and the biased testimony of the Spanish conquerors allows us to take a step forward in deciphering the beliefs of the ancient Andeans.

It is significant that the Incas prized their textiles above their gold. The cloths hoarded in various depots around the empire were burnt rather than having them fall into enemy hands. Unfortunately, the conquerors were not interested in such loot as would have been rival Indian factions. Beyond the extraordinary work which was invested in their manufacture which indeed made them priceless, it was perhaps for the secrets which they alluded to or the sacred images which they represented that prompted their destruction. We shall therefore consider that a sacred knowledge was confined to these cloths, indeed whole cosmogonies. These artifacts were created to ensure the transmission of the tradition and contained precious elements to further our understanding of the fragmented mythology.

We could classify Andean mythology into four categories: creation of the universe, the creation of mankind, the deluge and the culture heroes. Moreover, there are broadly two complementary traditions, that of the highlands and that of the coast. The first category is probably the scantiest in terms of surviving information save of course for those versions, built upon the carcass of more ancient elements, which glorify the ascendance of the Incas. Nevertheless both cycles of myths are revealing of the cultures that engendered them and should be deemed to work in complement to each other.

In the highlands, the Creator is called Ticci Viracocha, he is by all accounts immanent and unknowable. This Supreme creator begot without the agency of a female deity two sons, Imaymama Viracocha and Tocapo Viracocha which are co-eternal with him in an inseperable trinity. Imaymama was charged with the creation of the highlands, its animals, fauna and people and to teach these latter, obviously the crowning glory of his creation, the name and uses of plants. Tocapo, on the other hand, was delegated to walk the path of the plain and to undertake there a task identical to that of his elder brother. After completing their day's work, they retreated to their celestial abode. Over time, however, the wickedness of the inhabitants of the earth irritated the father Ticci Viracocha. He decided to punish the ungrateful creatures and summoned a deluge which cast, in its aftermath, the world in darkness. After maintaining the world much time in this condition, he took human form to celebrate the new dawn. Viracocha came out of the island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca to preach and instruct the survivors in the highlands. Needless to say that in most villages drove him away. In spite of their punishment and the miracles he was performing in front of them, the heart of these people were still too hard. Many parables are recounted of this supernatural man and his heroic deeds. For our purpose we shall only cite one.

In the guise of an old man he came to a village of wicked men where he was not well received save by one young women who offered him drink to quench his thirst. He destroyed the place with rain and flood having warned the woman and her family of his intentions. They were saved by her disinterested gesture to this god in disguise.

In the coastal regions we equally encounter myths of a similar nature where a divine duality undertakes to create the world and Man. Lopez de Gomara recounts one of the numerous myths of Con or Coniya. In the begining of time this Supreme Being, Giver of Life, roamed the earth as a man without bones and made it flourish. Like an artist he shaped the land and finally engendered a humanity to whom he gave all of the necessities of life in abundance. In time, however annoyed by their arrogance he dried up the land; presumably with a deluge which left a dried salty land after retiring. Then came Pachacamac, theCreator, who ousted Con's people by transforming them into monkeys to make way for his own creation. The impression that he left upon this new humanity was such, at least amongst the coastal people, that up to the time of the Incas his sanctuary, near Lima, was reputed the most magnificent in all of the Andes. People came from far and wide to receive the oracle and to offer their veneration and prayers. His name inspired such reverence that the Indians seldomly pronounced it aloud and his power instiled such awe that they fell to their knee at the mere thought. He founded the rites of sacrifice and votive offerings which will continue to exist until the conquest. Offerings to this god were in the form of seeds, fruits and vegetables but also of animals and human beings.

There is yet a third important tradition conserved in a manuscript written in Quechua which we owe to the efforts of the priest of San Damian, Francisco de Avila. It recounts the myth of Huarochiri, a Huaca (idol) of the Central highlands. Huarochiri ordered to the people of his land that all women who brought into the world two children would have to chose one to be sacrificed to him as food whilst the other should be brought up in the world of men. An important piece of information which seems at first innocuous is that the central part of the ceremony dedicated to Huarochiri calls for the separation of the seeds into two categories: those destined as food for the god and those destined for planting. We have in this agrarian ritual a natural analogy with the initial part of the myth where a young child's life is aborted to feed the god whilst the other will be encouraged to be developped to maturity to bear fruit and procreate.

Prima facies, there seems to be very little links between these myths and, unsurprisingly, they appeared non sensical to the chroniclers. There are, however, some common features to all of them in the expression of a structural duality. In fact, this is the feature which links these three myths together and each one can enlighten us on a different aspect of the global mythology. In the first two myths there is an emphasis on a creation punctuated by a destruction in the form of a deluge, sent by the Creator to punish the wickedness and the arrogance of a humanity which no longer respect the teachings that were imparted to them. Their life is so to speak aborted to make way for a new humanity.

In the second myth, the creation of Con sounds like a golden age of gatherers. The end of their existence in this garden of delights came abruptly as a consequence of their forgetfullness in carrying out the worship due to their creator cum benefactor, lulled as they were by the abundance of the providential world they inhabited. Con punished this humanity by making the earth arid. He will be replaced by a powerful god, Pachacamac, no doubt his brother, who sees to it that this new humanity will not be so forgetful. He prescribed the sacrifice, the rituals and the offerings in return for his benevolence. But should they fail, his wrath would bring woes, famine, decadence and destruction.

In the third myth, Huarochiri is in appearance cruel, he orders that for every living creature one must die for the other to live. Our modern mind rebels against such barbarity, however the symbolism contained in the myth disguises perhaps one of the most essential aspect of Andean theologal values.

The Andeans perceive an inexorable interdependence between the natural and supernatural spheres. In that sense there is a symbiotic relationship between the sphere of the gods and their creation. The Huacas, or divinities, are the life givers but they are also the destroyers if the subtle relationship of reciprocation is not observed. Thus, if humanity, their favored creation, fails in their votive offerings and indeed in their sacrifice, the divinities bring the world to an end, unwilling, perhaps incapable, of providing it further sustenance without due return. Regeneration on the other hand can only results from their intervention in which a new pact is concluded. There is here it seems the statement of a cyclical causality which operates in the manner of communicating vases. What grows below necessarily diminishes what is above, therefore the divine economy is regenerated by the offering of the seed (potential life) or virgin life itself to feed metaphorically and metaphysically what has been diminished.

In this manner, the cycle of life, growth and death in the world below is upheld in a relationship of equivalence by its mirror image in the world above. This relationship of correspondance explains the rites of the separation of the seeds between those to be planted in the earth and those to be fed to the Creator. Offerings of virgin life or of seeds to the deities ensures the liberation in the celestial sphere of this unblemished and unexpressed energy which in turn fertilises and fosters the growth of the natural sphere. The biological cycle in turn will bear fruit, seeds and progeny ensuring thereby continuity of food, lineage and society. Thus, death in the Andean psyche is a votive act of offering life to sustain life, it is an act of regenerative creation which is both real and symbolic leading to transformation and continuity.

If the gods destroyed the previous humanity it was because they had failed to respect this quintessential principle; hence the drying up of the earth which in turn required a deluge to fertilise it anew. In the same sense, the disguised god who receives water from the woman saves her and her family but destroys the remainder of the inhabitants of the village who failed to ensure his regeneration by quenching his thirst. This parabole resembles so much that of Jesus with the good Samaritain woman at the well of Jacob that one wonders if there has not been some king of interpolation. If this parable is truly Andean, we have here a symbolism of surprising analogy with our own tradition.

The cyclical death and renewal of the world by the agency of the deluge has of course a direct correspondance in the Andean mind with the yearly cycle of seasonal death and renewal of nature. The two seeds may also correspond in an elementary way to the cycle of fire and water. Indeed, the Andean life cycle in response to the inhospitability of the land and perhaps to a greater degree than anywhere else in the world was dependent on this extreme confrontation between the fertilising rain and the desertifying sun. The subtle balance between the two could only be acheived in a supernatural manner. Receiving implied giving, like for like, of two seeds, of two lives. The first seed offered to the god(s) its life energy liberated by the sacrifice to nourrish the other seed planted in the earth. This theme seems to have been explored in a multiplicity of ways by the Nazca culture who perhaps more than any other, living in part in an arid desert partly on a river oasis, were continuously subjected to extreme manifestations of this Sun - water cycle.

In the same train of thought we could perhaps offer other relationships of equivalence. The Indians were never very prolix in providing details to the Spanish conquerors concerning their concept of the after life. Yet, their preoccupation with the dead, their minute attention to detail and their zeal in honoring those ancestors long passed away shrouds their intention in mystery. Why did they weave these extraordinary mantles which would adorn the mumies of Paracas and Nazca ? Why did they renew periodically these sumptous offerings which took perhaps many years of hard endeavors by the master weavers to be stored away upon completion in burial grounds ?

Ancestor worship is linked to the idea that the Ancestor himself is the seed of the lineage. He must therefore be revered and preserved to ensure the continuity of his descendance. Interruptions, carelessness and forgetfullness of the rites will result in the destruction of the lineage. Dynastic continuity depends on the strict observance of the rites of offering (the gift) and the sacrifice of endless hours of the most skillful and artful craft of those times, weaving. It is also of interest to consider that most shamanic cultures used and continue to believe that the seed of regeneration is contained in the bones. The shaman is regenerated from his skeleton and this may explain in part the great care taken in the process of mumification and preservation of the dead kings, priests, dignitaries. (cf. Mircea Eliade Shamanism)

By the same token, one who is not conversant with Andean cultures will be justified in asking what is the object of this brutal, savage and diabolical cult of the trophy head ? The trophy head or severed head is probably the most ubiquitous theme to be encountered in Andean iconography. Such representations are common from the earliest days of Chavin culture to the latter days of the Inca Empire. In the Paracas and Nazca cultures they proliferate on every textile. They also feature prominently in the iconography of the Tihuanaco - Huari culture. Another myth provides a bit of insight on this theme. From the severed head of the Huaca Maka Qualla (after being planted in the earth) eventually grows a new body, arms and legs. Thus the head is considered to be a seed from which life can spring. The head is the centre of activity of consciousness. We could venture to advance that the belief of preserving heads was linked to the concept of the renewal of consciousness and a method to communicate with the spirit world. Much of this is still practiced by many tribes in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia or in the islands of the Pacific Bassin where the shaman rests his head during sleep on the smoked head of the ancestor so that the oracle or the vision imparted by his spirit will appear in dreams.

Textiles played a great part in keeping the memory of the tradition alive. They illustrated, as a universal leitmotif, this fundamental idea of mirror effects and correspondance between the sphere of the gods, the world and the underworld. They illuminate the mythology by emphasizing repeatedly images, signs and symbols, albeit mysterious on their own, which take a whole new meaning when read in conjunction with each other.

Although the Andeans were very circumspect about their beliefs in the afterlife, the few clues provided by their myths, illustrated in great part by their textile, should sway us to believe, that in the image of the natural cycle they believed in a mystical as well as a natural regeneration of life. They lived and continue to live in an eternal now where the frontier between past and future provides only the unfolding thread of continuity.

There are of course many other myths and their corresponding images which could be explored in conjunction with textiles but many more pages would be required at the peril of losing the good grace of the reader. Such themes will be explored in more detail in a forthcoming publication titled "Art Weave".