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Inca mythology is the universe of legends and collective memory of the Inca civilization, which took place in the current territories of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, incorporating in the first instance, systematically, the territories of the central highlands of Peru to the north.

Inca mythology was successful due to political, commercial, and military influence, before the conquest of the territories to the south and north of Cuzco, which later gave rise to the nascent empire. The identity of the Quechua peoples in Peru and Bolivia; and the Quichuas (Kichwa) in Ecuador; they share this spatial and religious perception that unites them through their most significant deity: the god Inti.

Inca mythology was nourished by a series of legends and myths of their own, which sustained the pantheist religion of the Inca Empire, centralized in Cusco. The Inca people worshiped their gods, as in other religions. Some names of gods were repeated or were called in the same way in different provinces of the Inca people. Later, all these gods were unified and formed what is called the true Inca pantheon.

What was applied by the Inca cosmogony in the field of beliefs should be considered as one of the most important instruments used in the process of the formation of the empire along with the economic, social, and administrative transformations.

In a general way, Inca mythology or religion includes many stories and legends that attempt to explain or symbolize Inca beliefs.[1]

Basic beliefs

Scholarly research demonstrates that Runa (Quechua speakers) belief systems were integrated with their view of the cosmos, especially in regard to the way that the Runa observed the motions of the Milky Way and the solar system as seen from Cusco, the capital of Tawantinsuyu whose name means "rock of the owl". From this perspective, their stories depict the movements of constellations, planets, and planetary formations, which are all connected to their agricultural cycles. This was especially important for the Runa, as they relied on cyclical agricultural seasons, which were not only connected to annual cycles, but to a much wider cycle of time (every 800 years at a time). This way of keeping time was deployed in order to ensure the cultural transmission of key information, in spite of regime change or social catastrophes.

After the Spanish conquest of Peru by Francisco Pizarro, colonial officials burned the records kept by the Runa.[citation needed] There is currently a theory put forward by Gary Urton that the quipus could have been a binary system capable of recording phonological or logographic data. Still, to date, all that is known is based on what was recorded by priests, from the iconography on Inca pottery and architecture, and from the myths and legends that have survived among the indigenous peoples of the Andes.

Inca foundation legends

Manco Cápac was the legendary founder of the Inca Dynasty in Peru and the Cusco Dynasty at Cusco. The legends and history surrounding him are very contradictory, especially those concerning his rule at Cuzco and his origins. In one legend, he was the son of Viracocha. In another, he was brought up from the depths of Lake Titicaca by the sun god Inti. However, commoners were not allowed to speak the name of Viracocha, which is possibly an explanation for the need for three foundation legends rather than just one.[2]

There were also many myths about Manco Cápac and his coming to power. In one myth, Manco Cápac and his brother Pacha Kamaq were sons of the sun god Inti. Manco Cápac was worshiped as the fire and sun god. In another myth, Manco Cápac was sent with Mama Ocllo (others even mention numerous siblings) to Lake Titicaca where they resurfaced and settled on the Isla Del Sol. According to this legend, Manco Cápac and his siblings were sent up to the earth by the sun god and emerged from the cave of Puma Orco at Paqariq Tampu carrying a golden staff called "tapac-yauri". They were instructed to create a Temple of the Sun in the spot where the staff sank into the earth to honor the sun god Inti, their father. During the journey, one of Manco's brothers (Ayar Cachi) was tricked into returning to Puma Urqu and sealed inside or alternatively was turned to ice, because his reckless and cruel behavior angered the tribes that they were attempting to rule. (huaca).

Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa wrote that there was a hill referred to as Tambotoco, about 33 kilometers from Cuzco, where eight men and women emerged as the original Inca's. The men were Manco Capac, Ayar Auca, Ayar Cachi, and Ayar Uchu. The women were Mama Ocllo, Mama Huaco, Mama Ipacura, and Mama Raua.[3]

In another version of this legend, instead of emerging from a cave in Cuzco, the siblings emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca. Since this was a later origin myth than that of Pacaritambo it may have been created as a ploy to bring the powerful Aymara tribes into the fold of the Tawantinsuyo.

In the Inca Virachocha legend, Manco Cápac was the son of Inca Viracocha of Paqariq Tampu which is 25 km (16 mi) south of Cuzco. He and his brothers (Ayar Auca, Ayar Cachi, and Ayar Uchu); and sisters (Mama Ocllo, Mama Huaco, Mama Raua, and Mama Cura) lived near Cusco at Paqariq Tampu, and uniting their people and the ten ayllu they encountered in their travels to conquer the tribes of the Cusco Valley. This legend also incorporates the golden staff, which is thought to have been given to Manco Cápac by his father. Accounts vary, but according to some versions of the legend, the young Manco jealously betrayed his older brothers, killed them, and then became Cusco.


Supay, god of death, as interpreted in a carnival festival

Like the Romans, the Incas permitted the cultures they integrated into their empire to keep their individual religions. Below are some of the various gods worshiped by the peoples of the Inca empire, many of which have overlapping responsibilities and domains. Unless otherwise noted, it can safely be assumed these were worshipped by different ayllus or worshipped in particular former states.[4]

Representation of the cosmology of the Incas, according to Juan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui Salcamayhua (1613), after a picture in the Sun Temple Qurikancha in Cusco, with Inti (the Sun), Mama Killa (the Moon), Illapa (the Lightning), Pachamama (Mother Earth), Mama Qucha (Mother Sea), and Chakana (Southern Cross) with Saramama (Mother Corn) and Kukamama (Mother Coca).

Important beliefs

Important places

Inca cosmology was ordered in three spatio-temporal levels or Pachas.[8] These included:

The environment and geography were integral part of Inca mythology as well. Many prominent natural features within the Inca Empire were tied to important myths and legends amongst the Inca.[10] For example, Lake Titicaca, an important body of water on the Altiplano, was incorporated into Inca myths, as the lake of origins from which the world began.[10] Similarly, many of prominent Andean peaks played special roles within the mythology of the Incas. This is reflected in myths about the Paxil mountain, from which people were alleged to have been created from corn kernels that were scattered by the gods.[10] Terrestrial environments were not the only type of environment that was important to mythology. The Incas often incorporated the stars into legends and myths.[11] For example, many constellations were given names and were incorporated into stories, such as the star formations of the Great Llama and the Fox.[11] While perhaps not relating to a single physical feature per se, environmental sound was extremely important in Inca mythology. For example, in the creation myth of Viracocha the sound of the god's voice is particularly important. Additionally, myths were transmitted orally, so the acoustics and sound of a location were important for Inca mythology.[12] These examples demonstrate the power that environment held in creating and experiencing Inca myths.

The most important temple in the Inca Empire was known as Coricancha ("The Golden Temple" in Quechua) which was located in the heart of Inca Cusco and according to Inca legend was built by Manco Cápac as a place of worship for the principle deity of the Inca, the sun god Inti. During the reign of Pachakutiq Inca this temple was the home of the riches of the Inca Empire, housing gold, important religious artifacts, and gilded effigies of important Inca deities.[13] The Coricancha being in the heart of Cusco, which is in the heart of the Inca Empire, is the point of convergence of the 41 pathways leading out of Cusco into the rest of the empire with a system called ceque, which served a political, religious, and administrative role in the Inca Empire. The Coricancha was the site of important religious ceremonies, such as during the Inti Raymi in which after a procession through Cusco, the Sapa Inka would enter the Coricancha. In the temple concave mirrors would focus the sun's rays to light a fire for the sacrifice of llamas and in certain circumstances, children to please and pay tribute to the gods.[14] The Coricancha also functioned as an observatory for the Inca, as it aligned with the sun on important days of the year such as solstices and equinoxes, alining the heavens and the earth, an important theme in the beliefs and religion of the Inca. Coricancha's use as an observatory was also useful for understanding when in the year the Inca were, and what food would be available throughout the year.[15]

Inca symbols

Chakana on an Inca Uncu


Mythology served many purposes within the Inca Empire. Mythology could often be used to explain natural phenomena or to give the many denizens of the empire a way of thinking about the world. For example, there is a well-known origin myth that describes how the Inca Empire began at its center in Cusco. In this origin myth, four men and women emerged from a cave near Cusco, and began to settle within the Valley of Cusco, much to the chagrin of the Hualla people who had already been inhabiting the land.[17] The Hualla subsided by growing coca and chili peppers, which the Incas associated with the peoples of the Amazon and who were perceived to be inferior and wild.[17] The Inca engaged in battle with the Hualla, fighting quite viciously, and eventually the Inca emerged victorious. The myth alleges these first Inca people would plant corn, a mainstay of the Inca diet, on the location where they viciously defeated the Hualla.[17] Thus, the myth continues, the Inca came to rule over the entire Cusco Valley, before eventually going on to conquer much of the Andean world.[17]

In creating this myth, the Incas reinforced their authority over the empire. Firstly, by associating the Hualla with plants from the jungle, the Inca's origin myth would have likely caused the listener to think that the Hualla were primitive compared to the superior Inca. Thus, the Inca's defeat of the Hualla and their supposed development of maize based agriculture, supported the notion that the Inca were the rightful stewards of the land, as they were able to make the land productive and tame.[17] These myths were reinforced in the many festivals and rites that were celebrated throughout the Inca Empire. For example, there were corn festivals that were celebrated annually during the harvest. During these festivals the Inca elite were celebrated alongside the corn and the main deity of the Inca, Inti.[17] As such, the myth of original Inca's planting of the corn crop was utilized to associate the ruling Inca elite with the gods, as well as portraying them as being the bringers of the harvest. In this way, the origin myths of the Inca were used to justify the elite position of the Inca within their vast, multiethnic empire. Within the Inca Empire, the Inca held a special status of "Inca by Blood", that granted them significant privileges over non-Inca peoples.[18] The ability of the Inca to support their elite position was no small feat, given that less than fifty thousand Inca were able to rule over millions of non-Inca peoples. Mythology was an important way by which the Inca were able to justify both the legitimacy of the Inca state, as well as their privileged position with the state.

The strategic deployment of Inca mythology did not end after the Inca empire was colonized by the Spanish. In fact, Inca mythology was utilized in order to resist and challenge the authority of the Spanish colonial authorities. Many Inca myths were utilized to criticize the wanton greed of European imperialism. There was widespread killing and rape of women and children in Peru by the European soldiers. For example, there are myths among the indigenous people of the former Inca empire that tell the stories of foreigners who come into the Andes and destroy valuable objects.[19] One such myth is the tale of Atoqhuarco amongst the Quechua, which describes how an indigenous woman is destroyed in an act of rebellion against a lascivious foreigner who in turn is eventually transformed into a predatory fox.[19] Powerful colonial institutions are also critiqued in some of these myths, with the Catholic Church being frequently lambasted. For example, the story of the Priest and Sexton highlights the hypocrisy and abusive nature of a Catholic Priest and his callous treatment of his indigenous parishioners.[19] As such, these myths show that Inca mythology was strategically deployed to subvert and rebel against Spanish rule in the former Inca Empire.

Inca mythology continues to be a powerful force in contemporary Andean communities. After the nations that were once a part of the Inca Empire gained their independence from Spain, many of these nations struggled to find a suitable origin myth to support the legitimacy of their state.[20] In the early twentieth century, there was a resurgence of interest about the indigenous heritage of these new nations. While these references to Inca mythology can be more overt, such as the presence of Inti on the Argentine flag, other references to the Inca mythology can be subtler.[21] For example, in the late twentieth century the Peruvian Revolutionary government made reference to Inca myths about Pachamama, an Inca Mother Earth figure, in order to justify their land distribution programs.[20] Additionally, modern governments continue to make reference to the former Inca Empire in order to support their claims of legitimacy, to the point that there are municipally funded observances of rituals referencing Inca mythology, especially in and around Cusco.[20] The power of Inca mythology resonates in contemporary politics, with politicians like Alejandro Toledo making references to Inca mythology and imagery during their candidacies and tenures.[22] While the Inca Empire may have ceased to exist hundreds of years ago, its vibrant mythology continues to influence life throughout Peru today.

Animals in Inca religion

Like other Native American cultures, the Inca society was heavily influenced by the local animal populations, both as food, textile, and transportational sources as well as religious and cultural cornerstones. Many myths and legends of the Inca include or are solely about an animal or a mix of animals and their interactions with the gods, humans, and or natural surroundings. Animals were also important in Inca astronomy, with the Milky Way symbolized as a river, with the stars within it being symbolized as animals that the Inca were familiar with in and around this river.[23]


Llamas were important to the economy of the vast Inca Empire, they could be used for wool, transportation of goods, and food. They also played a major role in the religious lives of the Inca, being a valuable sacrifice to the Gods and used in important religious ceremonies as offerings.[24] Urcuchillay was a god worshipped by the Inca, in particular llama herders, Urcuchillay was believed to protect and watch over the llamas of the land. Llama artwork created by the Inca shows further reverence towards llamas, an example of this is a depiction of a llama constructed out of pure gold, an extremely valuable material for the Inca because of its religious significance as it was considered the sweat of the sun, the most worshipped deity for the Inca, Inti.[25]


The Inca had religious reverence for the cougar, commonly known as a puma in South America. The Incas believed the puma to represent power and strength, as well as patience and wisdom. The original Inca Capital Cusco took the shape of a puma, with the massive citadel of Sacsayhuaman representing the head of the puma.[26] The site of Qenko north of Cusco contains monoliths and astronomically aligned structures, which on certain days create light and shadow effects. At the June solstice sunrise, light passes through a carefully designed fissure aligned to illuminate first one of the gnomons and then the other, with both casting shadows that create an image. The result is known as “the awakening of the puma”[27] The puma is also associated with wealth and prosperity. The Huarochiri Manuscript mentions how it was a practice of the Inca to wear puma skins to display their wealth.[28]


For the Inca, the condor was believed to connect the earthly world of man, Kay Pacha, with the upper world and the gods, Hanan Pacha. Believed to be the messengers of heaven to men, and the Inca to their patron deity, Inti.[29] Today, the people of the Andes still hold the condor as sacred. In some towns, the Andean ritual of the "Yawar Fiesta", or Blood Festival, is still being celebrated, in this festival condors fight bulls, with the condor representing the Inca, while the bull represents the Spaniards.[30]


The Inca bred dogs for hunting and scavenging but rarely for religious purposes. The Huanca people, however, had a much more religious basis for their consumption of dog meat as in Inca mythology Paria Caca, their god, was pictured as feeding solely on dog after he defeated another god, Huallallo Carhuincho, in a skirmish. In some parts of South America the Huanca are referred to as "the dog-eating Huanca". This behaviour of eating dog was looked down upon in other parts of the empire.[31]

There also exists a city named Alqollacta, or "Dog town", which contains statues of dogs and are thought to represent the souls of dogs that have died. The people would often save up bones and leave them at the statues so that it would give them a better standing in the afterlife.

Dogs were sometimes believed to be able of moving between life and death and also see the soul of the dead. In addition, the Inca believed that unhappy dead souls could visit people in the form of black dogs. The Aymara people of Bolivia were reported to believe that dogs were associated with death and incest. They believed that those who die must cross an ocean to the afterlife in the ear of, or on the nose of, a black dog. Additionally, some sources report that women who sleep alone at night were capable of being impregnated by ghosts which would yield a baby with dog feet.[31]


Despite there only being one bear species in South America (the spectacled bear, Tremarctus ornatus), the story of The Bear's Wife and Children is a prominent story among the Inca.[31] The Andean people believed that bears represented the sexual habits of men and women and the girls were warned of "bear-rape". This story details a bear who disguises himself as a man who subdues a girl and takes her to his cave where he feeds her and takes care of her. Soon after, she bares two half bear half human children. With the help of the children the three are able to escape the cave and return to human society. The bear children are given to the town's priest who attempts to kill the cubs several times (by throwing them off buildings, sending them into the wild, sending them to fight officers) but is only capable of getting the younger bear-child killed.[31] The older bear beats the trials and is sent to fight a damned soul, which he defeats and saves from damnation. The soul gives the bear his estate and wealth and the now fully grown bear man leaves human society as a white dove. This tale could be interpreted as a Native American's plight story against the Hispanic society in which they find them in, which becomes more believable as this folklore become more prominent after the Spanish Conquest.[31]

In addition to this story, half bear half human beings called Ukuku are thought to be the only being that are able to bring ice from the top of mountains as they have the intelligence of men but the strength of bears. Ukuku clowns can be seen in the Corpus Christi celebrations of Cuzco where they undergo pilgrimage to a nearby glacier and spend the night on the ice as an initiation of manhood.[32]


The fox did not generally have a good reputation among the Inca or people of the Andes and was seen as an omen. Sacrifices to the gods included a variety of goods and animals, including humans, but were never seen to ever include foxes. Inca mythology contains references to gods being deceived by foxes. In one encounter, the deity Cuniraya Viracocha was angered by a fox and stated that "As for you, even when you skulk around keeping your distance, people will thoroughly despise you and say ‘That fox is a thief!’. When they kill you they'll carelessly throw you away and your skin too".[33] In other narratives, the fox is said to have tried to steal the moon but the moon hugged the fox close which resulted in the spots on the moon. Finally, the fox still plays a role in current Andean society where the howling of a fox in the month of August is perceived as a sign of good luck.[31]

The Inca had indigenous names for constellations as well as interstellar clouds (dark nebulae) visible from the Southern hemisphere. The fox (Atoq in quechua) is the name for one dark nebulae in the milky way, and Andean narratives, including Inca ones, may refer to the dark nebulae rather than the animal.

Pre-Inca Andean beliefs

Prior to the founding of the Inca Empire, there were several other cultures in various areas of Peru with their own beliefs, including cultures of the Chavín, Paracas, Moche, and Nazca. Additional pre-Inca beliefs can be found in the Huarochirí Manuscript, a 17th-century text that records the myths, culture, and beliefs of people in the Huarochirí Province of the Western Andes.[34]

One of the most important figures in Pre-Inca Andean beliefs is the creator deity Viracocha, who even during Inca times was one of the most important deities in the Inca pantheon and seen as the creator of all things, or the substance from which all things are created, and intimately associated with the sea.[35]

See also


  1. ^ Handbook of Inca Mythology by Paul Richard Steele, Catherine J. Alen
  2. ^ The History of the Incas by Pedro Sarmiento De Gamboa, Brian S. Bauer, Vania Smith
  3. ^ Bauer, Brian (1996). "Legitimization of The State in Inca Myth and Ritual". American Anthropologist. 98 (2): 332. doi:10.1525/aa.1996.98.2.02a00090. ProQuest 198096887.
  4. ^ Roza, Greg (2008). Incan Mythology and Other Myths of the Andes. The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.
  5. ^ Sacred Mountain Expedition: April 2007
  6. ^ Gose, Peter (2008). Invaders as Ancestors: On the Intercultural Making and Unmaking of Spanish Colonialism in the Andes. University of Toronto Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-0802096173.
  7. ^ Cartwright, Mark. "Inca Mummies".
  8. ^ Heydt-Coca, Magda von der (1999). "When Worlds Collide: The Incorporation Of The Andean World Into The Emerging World-Economy In The Colonial Period". Dialectical Anthropology. 24 (1): 1–43.
  9. ^ Steele, Richard James (2004). Handbook of Inca Mythology. ABC-CLIO.
  10. ^ a b c Toohey, Jason (Jul–Sep 2013). "Feeding the Mountains: Sacred Landscapes, Mountain Worship, and Sacrifice in the Maya and Inca Worlds". Reviews in Anthropology. 42 (3): 161–178. doi:10.1080/00938157.2013.817870. S2CID 162295781.
  11. ^ a b Bryan, Penprase (2017). The Power of Stars. Chem: Springer. pp. 81–84. ISBN 978-3-319-52595-2.
  12. ^ Classen, Constance (Nov 1990). "Sweet colors, fragrant songs: sensory models of the Andes and the Amazon". American Ethnologist. 17 (4): 722–735. doi:10.1525/ae.1990.17.4.02a00070.
  13. ^ Farrington, Ian (2018). development of the imperial capital. The Oxford Handbook of the Incas. p. 71.
  14. ^ Krupp, Edwin (1994). Echoes of the Ancient Skies: The Astronomy of Lost Civilizations. Oxford University Press. pp. 44–47.
  15. ^ Gullberg, S. R. (2019). "Inca astronomy: Horizon, light, and shadow". Astronomische Nachrichten. 340 (1–3). Astronomical Notes: 23–29. Bibcode:2019AN....340...23G. doi:10.1002/asna.201913553. S2CID 132251616.
  16. ^ Moyano, Ricardo (2014). Astronomical Observations on Inca Ushnus in the Southern Andes. London: NASA. p. 189.
  17. ^ a b c d e f Bauer, Brian (June 1996). "Legitimization of the State in Inca Myth and Ritual". American Anthropologist. 98 (2): 327–337. doi:10.1525/aa.1996.98.2.02a00090.
  18. ^ Peregrine, Peter N; Ember, Ember (2007). Encyclopedia of Prehistory (7 ed.). Boston: Springer. pp. 150–194.
  19. ^ a b c Marín-Dale, Margarita (2016). Decoding Andean Mythology. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. ISBN 9781607815099.
  20. ^ a b c Molinié, Antionette (Sep 2004). "The resurrection of the Inca: the role of Indian representations in the invention of the Peruvian nation". History & Anthropology. 15 (3): 233. doi:10.1080/0275720042000257467. S2CID 162202435.
  21. ^ Busaniche, José Luis (1965). Historia Argentina. Buenos Aires: Solar.
  22. ^ Greene, Shane (February 2005). "Incas, Indios and Indigenism in Peru". NACLA Report on the Americas. 38 (4): 34–69. doi:10.1080/10714839.2005.11724499. S2CID 157493498.
  23. ^ Gullberg, Steven. "A Comparison of Dark Constellations of the Milky Way".
  24. ^ Flores-Blanco, Luis (2022). "Reconstructing the sequence of an Inca Period (1470-1532 CE) camelid sacrifice at El Pacífico, Peru". Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. 41: 103247. Bibcode:2022JArSR..41j3247F. doi:10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.103247. S2CID 244700830.
  25. ^ Lourie, Peter (1998). Sweat of the Sun, Tears of the Moon: A Chronicle of an Incan Treasure. Bison Books. ISBN 0803279809.
  26. ^ Branca, Domencio (2021). Cusco: Profile of an Andean city. 113: Cities.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location (link)
  27. ^ Gullberg, Steven (2019). "Cultural Astronomy for Inspiration". Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union. 15: 265–268. doi:10.1017/S1743921321000612. hdl:11244/334969. S2CID 245386633.
  28. ^ Steele, Paul Richard (2004). Handbook of Inca Mythology. abc-cilo. p. 164.
  29. ^ Highfield, Johnathan (2004). "The dreaming quipucamayoq: Myth and landscape in Wilson Harris' The Dark Jester". Atlantic Studies. 1 (2): 196–209. doi:10.1080/1478881042000270800. S2CID 161250701.
  30. ^ Arguedas, Jose Maria (2002). Yawar Fiesta. Waveland Press. ISBN 1577662458.
  31. ^ a b c d e f Handbook of Inca Mythology. Allen, Catherine (Hardcover ed.). Santa Barbara, California: ABC CLIO. 2004. ISBN 1-57607-354-8.((cite book)): CS1 maint: others (link)
  32. ^ de Molina, Christobal (2011). Account of the Fables and Rites of the Incas. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.
  33. ^ Saloman, Frank (1991). The Huarochiri Manuscript: a testament of ancient and colonial Andean religion. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.
  34. ^ Mills, Alice (2005). Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies. Global Book Publishing. pp. 494–497. ISBN 1740480910.
  35. ^ Dover, Robert V. H. (1992). Andean cosmologies through time: persistence and emergence. Caribbean and Latin American studies. Indiana University Press. p. 274. ISBN 0-253-31815-7.