Incan Religion

Like many ancient Andean people before them, the Incas viewed death in two ways. One was biological death, when the body ceased functionally and was cremated, buried, or mummified. The other was social death, when certain privileged individuals remained active in the minds, souls, and daily lives of the living until they were forgotten or replaced by other prominent figures. Some ancestors were never forgotten, however. They were considered heroic figures who gave the Inca their identity. Their corpses were mummified, revered, and saved as sacred objects. Ancestor veneration frightened the Spanish crown and clergy, who destroyed the burial chambers, or huacas, of these corpses in an attempt to undermine the ancestral foundation of the Incan empire.

The ancient Inca Empire developed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries C.E. and spanned more than 2,000 miles from Ecuador to Chile at the time of the Spanish arrival in 1515. Hereditary lords ruled the empire. The basic social unit of the Inca was the ayllu, a collective of kinsmen who cooperated in the management of land and camelid herds. Common ancestors gave ayllus their ethnic identity. Ruling over the local ayllus were karacas. Lords and karacas claimed close kinship ties with important deities and ancestors and acted as intermediaries between heaven and the earth, interceding with the supernatural forces on behalf of their subjects' well being. The countryside was viewed as being alive with supernatural forces, solar deities, and ancestral figures. Even today the indigenous Quechua and Aymara people of the Andes see the land animated with these figures.

The Incas believed they were the children of the sun, Inti. The exaltation of Inti was basic to the creation of an imperial cult. Inti became the deified royal progenitor, and his role as dynastic ancestor is described by early Spanish scholars. In each imperial city a temple to Inti was built and served by special priests.

Both in Cuzco, the capital of the empire, and the surrounding countryside, numerous sanctuaries and huacas were situated on ceques, or imaginary lines. Ceques were divided into four sections, or quarters, as defined by the principal roads radiating from the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco in the direction of the four quarters of the Inca Empire. The ceques played an important part in the calendrical system and in Inca religion in general, including child sacrifice.

In the mid-1500s, the Spanish scholar Bernardo Cobo reported that after the Incas conquered a town or province they would divide the cultivated land into three parts: the first for the state religion and temples, the second for the Inca ruler himself, and the remaining third for the community itself. Temple lands were often used to cultivate corn, whose religious significance was important, and possibly other products required for ceremonial purposes, as well as provide food for the priests of powerful deities.

Inca rulers were extremely powerful and revered by most followers. Veneration of the rulers did not end with their death; they were mummified and displayed during special public rituals so their legends would be retained as a living presence. Their mummies were served by panacas, royal descendants of the dead lord endowed with great wealth. The panacas' role was to conserve the dead ruler's mummy and to immortalize his life and achievements with the help of chants and rituals performed on ceremonial occasions in the presence of the succeeding lord and the mummies of other dead Inca lords. These rites were passed on from generation to generation. Placed in the temporary tombs of the lord's were llama and women sculpted in gold, as well as different kinds of golden vessels, exquisite textiles, and other fine objects. Royal members of the lord's court and local karacas were not mummified but placed in elaborate tombs with lavish offerings. Most commoners were buried in simple surroundings.

See also: Aztec Religion ; Maya Religion ; Mummification


Cobo, Bernard. History of the Inca Empire, translated by Roland Hamilton. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979.

MacCormack, Sabina. Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Early Colonial Peru. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Morris, Craig, and Adriana Von Hagen. The Inca Empire and Its Andean Origins. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.


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