The Andean mythology is a heritage of the Inca culture, present in current day Peru, Bolivia and the north of Argentina. Since there’s no written source from the Incas, the collection of the mythology is only based on the chronicles of the conquering Spaniards which were produced 20-50 years after the conquests, and the oral traditions of Andean people.

Cosmos in the Andean mythology

In the Andean mythology cosmos (Pacha) is a notion of totality and abundance of time and space. Pacha is divided into 3 levels: our world is Akapacha, the upper world is Ajaxpacha, the lower world is Manquapacha. In Ajaxpacha live the Sun, the Moon, the lightning and the stars. In Akapacha are the rivers, the mountains, the plants, the animals and the humans. And in Manquapacha live, for instance, the minerals, the roots and Pachamama or Mother Earth. These 3 worlds are symbolized by 3 animals: Akapacha is a Condor, Ajaxpacha is a Puma and Manquapacha is a Snake. These worlds constantly interact with each other, for example between Ajaxpacha and Akapacha the Condor is the means of communication, and the Frog and Snake are the links between Akapacha and Manquapacha. These worlds are not to be understood as good or bad as heaven and hell in Christian world explanations, but all of them can be good or bad. For example Manquapacha is responsible for soil fertility but also for illnesses.

andean cosmology pachamama cafayate
Representation of Andean cosmology in Cafayate, Argentina

Have you heard of Pachamama?

Pachamama is the most well-known character nowadays across South America. Pacha in Quechua (the language of the Incas) means “universe, world, time, space” while mama is “mother”. She is the highest feminine deity of the mountains – which are central in the Andean culture. People present her with offerings (valuable consumables, such as coca leaves) when asking for good harvest, or to avoid illnesses or to help them with luck during travels, among others. These gifts are placed in a hole in the stone while murmuring prayers. Pachamama is believed to live in the mountains and religious paintings often depict her in a mountain. Read more about Pachamama en español.

andean cosmology inca ruin offering coca leaves
Coca leaves offerings in a shell left by a visitor to Pachamama at Qenqo Chico Inca ruins in Cusco, Peru

After the Conquest

Before the Spaniards conquered the region of the Andes, this was a strong mythology which is still alive today among indigenous groups. After the Spanish conquest, heavy and forced Evangelisation was carried out and a lot of religious art was produced in the Colonies to educate the indigenous. At this time artists fused the Andean cultural imagery with Christian in order to make the latter religion accepted. This fusion in art is called syncretism. For example in the Andean culture it was customary to decorate headpieces with feathers and there are many paintings where Mary is wearing not only a crown, but feathers too. Another, well-known example is a painting about the holy trinity, where the Virgin’s dress is depicted in a shape of a mountain (Cerro Rico in Potosi), like Pachamama.

andean cosmology colonial church syncretism
Syncretism in architecture: rich decoration of regional flower and fruit motifs on the facade of Iglesia de San Lorenzo, Potosi

Due to the violence that the Spaniards used on those indigenous people who didn’t want to become Christian, natives learnt to lie and hide their true belief. There is evidence that they hid sacred objects of the Andean cosmology in between Christian religious artefacts. For example they hid little stone llama figures, called illas, into their home shrines that depicted scenes from the Bible. The illas were considered to be the protective spirits of domestic animals in the Andean mythology but natives were not allowed to worship them under Christianity.

The polytheist Andean mythology co-exists with Christianity nowadays. High proportion of the population goes to church regularly and consider themselves Christian. However, reaching mountain tops or visiting ruins of sacred Inca places, we encounter coca leaves in a hole left by believers, several traditional rituals are still carried out by some (eg. burning llama fetus for good luck) and illas are still passed on within families. Read more about Inca ceremonies of the Inca Empire.

Andean mythology: Inca ceremony today

Around Cusco many communities have Andean religious practices regularly, and we were lucky to be able to take part in one during our stay in Urubamba.

The ceremony took place in a mountain shaped space made of see-through plastic. The interior is decorated with sun symbols and there’s a mountain shaped stone with 5 candles in the middle. The participants are standing in silence facing east, while the ceremony master and 4 other people chant prayers to Pachamama while lighting up the candles. The ceremony master talks about Inti, the Inca God of the Sun that is followed by reciting and chanting together. The ceremony ends with everyone hugging each other and wishing a nice day.

Had you heard of the Pachamama before? Which other name(s) could we give to the Mother Nature? Share your thoughts in the comments!



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Who am I?

Anna is a world citizen, an avid traveller, a passionate environmentalist and a digital nomad. Writing about her year backpacking through South America, she tries to encourage everyone to discover this beautiful continent as a traveller or a digital nomad and pass on her love for responsible travel.

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