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Inca Mythology

The gods of the Inca were nothing if not a lively lot.

Take, for example, the fertility goddess, Cocomama. Cocomama was a flirtatious female deity who was eventually transformed into a coca plant after jealous male lovers cut her into pieces.

Her legacy did help her fellow women, for the male Incans came to reward themselves with a coca leaf only each time they were able to bring their female counterparts to an orgasm. As a result, Cocomama became known as the goddess of health and happiness.

Then there was Coniraya, a mischievous moon god who disguised his sperm as fruit once he found a virgin goddess whom he wished would bare his child. The goddess Cavillace consumed his sperm-filled fruit while eating lunch under a tree one day. Once she conceived her son, she set out to find his father by inviting all the gods to a dinner. When her son gravitated toward Coniraya, who was dressed as a beggar, she couldn't stand to know her son's father was such a lowly god. Cavillaca was so disgusted with herself that grabbed her son and fled to the beach, where they were transformed into rocks in the shallow sea.

The accentuation on sex was, of course, indicative of an agrarian society in which in which the sex lives of the gods were metaphors for the Inca’s preoccupation with preservation through abundant and healthy crops in Peru’s fertile plains. Goddesses in Incan mythology generally embody benevolent and life-giving qualities: Mama Zara, a grain goddess; Mama Allpa, a multi- breasted fertility goddess. There was also a nautical deity, Mama Cocha, who sheltered mariners and fishermen.

As with all myths, the stories and legends surrounding such figures are not consistent, since the Inca religion evolved in accordance with the political and geographical needs of the Inca empire, the largest and most powerful of a succession of competitive kingdoms that had developed during South America’s social evolution from its initial settlement, some archeologists propose, by Asian nomads during around 6500 BC.

When the Incan empire manifested in the 13th century, and ultimately conquered its rivals by the 15th, its leaders and priests promoted a supernatural history that transcended its actual history. Hence, for the Inca people, civilization began with the “grandfather” deity Viracocha, the progenitor of a succession of gods, most notably Inti, a Sun God, who destroyed an earlier civilization with a flood arising from Lake Titicaca, save for the siblings Manco Cápac (who was also an actual historical ruler) and Mama Occlo.

One interesting variation of the Viracocha legend attributes him to Christ-like qualities: he willingly surrenders his supernatural privileges in order to experience the sufferings of his subjects and thus understand compassion. In this incarnation, Viracocha is represented by wearing rags and large tear drops on his face.

However, this aspect of Viracocha was not exploited by the genocidal Catholic conquerors that arrived in the 15th century with their campaign of forced conversion. By contrast, the Spanish were able to appropriate the Inca Earth Mother, Pachamama, in their promotion of the new maternal deity, the Holy Virgin.

Nonetheless, the veneration of Inca deities also involved actions that by today’s standards would draw condemnation, especially the selective sacrifice of children and virgins during crop failures, or the death of an emperor. In the former case, specially chosen children were sacrificed to placate the dreaded underworld god, Supay. Nevertheless, most deities were believed to reside in the sky and ceremonies often took place on the highest peaks attainable in the Andes; rulers were buried on mountaintops for their proximity to the divine. The high altitude setting of Machu Picchu is an index of its use for religious services.

Most of what is known about Inca mythology was destroyed by the Spanish, but the former reverence accorded to it survives in some in folk festivals that combine Catholicism with pre-Columbian traditions.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Lake Titicaca: History Of Lake Titicaca and History Of Puno.

By Ricardo Segreda
Growing up in New York, Rick Segreda used to cut out of high school in order to hang out at the Museum of Modern Art and catch foreign-language...
24 Jun 2012

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