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Inca Myths

Inca Myths

An introduction to the land and people of the Andes, and some of the myths of these peoples.

Sales restrictions: For sale in the United States, its dependencies, Canada, and Latin America only
January 1999
This book is out of print and no longer available.
80 pages | 24 b&w photos, 10 line drawings, 2 maps |

Inca Myths begins with an introduction to the land and people of the Andes and reviews the sources of our current knowledge of Inca mythology. Gary Urton then recounts various creation myths, including a selection from various ethnic groups and regions around the empire. Finally, he draws upon his extensive knowledge of the history and ethnography of the Incas to illuminate the nature and relationships of myth and history.

The contents include:

  • Introduction
  • Creation myths
  • Origin myths of the founding of the Inca empire
  • Myths of the works and deeds of the Inca kings
  • Selection of myths from around the empire
  • Animal myths
  • Myths from the Spanish Conquest
  • Conclusions


  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Memory, Writing, and Record Keeping in the Inka Empire
  • Chapter 2. Theory and Methods in the Study of Khipu Binary Coding
  • Chapter 3. The Physical Components of Khipu Binary Coding
  • Chapter 4. The Linguistic Components of Khipu Binary Coding
  • Chapter 5. Khipu Sign Capacity and Code Conversion
  • Chapter 6. Sign Theory, Markedness, and Parallelism in the Khipu Information System
  • Chapter 7. Conclusions
  • Appendix. Tabular Description of Khipu UR19 from Chachapoyas
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Gary Urton is the Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies, Harvard University. He is the author of many works on Andean studies.


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The land and people of Tahuantinsuyu

The Andes, home of the Incas, are made up of three parallel chains of mountains in western South America which run like a colossal nerve fibre from north-west to south-east, through the centre of the modern nation-states of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia (see map). The northern boundary of the empire lay near the present-day border between Ecuador and Colombia, while its southern reaches extended nearly halfway down the length of what is now Chile and eastwards into north-western Argentina. The Incas divided this territory into four parts, and they knew this land, and their empire, by the name Tahuantinsuyu, 'the four united quarters'.

Although the Inca empire is commonly referred to as an 'Andean civilization', a phrase evoking the image of a society adapted to a rugged, essentially mountainous terrain, this view in fact obscures the great environmental complexity and ecological diversity that existed within the territory controlled by this ancient society. For while the rugged terrain of the Andes mountains did indeed make up the core of Inca territory, it was the relationship between the highlands and two adjacent strips of lowlands which gave Inca civilization its true environmental richness and cultural complexity.

One of these lowland strips is an exceptionally dry coastal desert lying along the western edge of the continental shelf, washed by the frigid waters of the Humboldt Current. Numerous rivers emerge from the foothills of the Andes to flow westward to the Pacific Ocean across this dry coastal plain, forming fertile ribbon-like oases which were the home sites of numerous pre-Columbian civilizations. The other lowland region, stretching along the eastern edge of the Andes, includes the humid tropical forest watersheds of the Amazon and Paraná river basins.

Within Peru, the core of Inca territory, several large intermontane tributaries of the Amazon, such as the Marañón, Huallaga and Ucayali rivers, start out by flowing northwards but then break out of the mountains toward the east, running down through rugged foothills into the tropical forest lowlands. These riverine arteries, connecting the upper Amazon with the eastern Andean foothills, have served for millennia as important routes of travel and communication linking the human populations of these two vast ecological regions.

The environmental setting in which Inca civilization thrived thus incorporated the three major ecological zones of coast, mountains and tropical forest, each of which was home to a seeming myriad local and regional ethnic groups. Through years of archaeological research and the study of early colonial documents, researchers have arrived at a widely shared understanding of how the Incas and their neighbours adapted their social, economic, political and ritual institutions to the land of Tahuantinsuyu. In some cases, this involved reliance on tried-and-true practices inherited from earlier civilizations; in other cases, the Incas were challenged to devise new institutions, adaptive strategies, and principles and practices of rulership. In the broadest terms, we should give special emphasis to one institution in particular and describe its relationship to a widespread strategy of adaptation by means of which at least late pre-Hispanic Andean societies met the challenges of adapting to this particular environmental setting. The institution in question was the ayllu, and the strategy was the exploitation of resources in multiple ecological zones.

Ayllus—a Quechua word meaning 'family', 'lineage' or 'part'—of which there were perhaps several tens of thousands spread throughout that part of the Andes incorporated within the Inca empire, were kinship, land holding and ritual-ceremonial groupings. The membership of each ayllu was distributed discontinuously over a wide area. That is, some members of the ayllu would live at a mid-altitudinal setting; others would inhabit the high puna (tundra) zone; and still others would occupy settlements in lower-lying areas, including the intermontane valleys and the coastal and/or tropical forest lowlands. The economy of each ayllu was based on the exchange of goods among members who lived in different ecological zones. Such exchanges may have gone on both through the relatively continuous movement of individuals belonging to the group as they travelled (probably in llama caravans) between ayllu settlements, as well as during annual gatherings, or festivals, of ayllu members held at some central settlement. We know that the ayllus maintained ancestral mummies, which were venerated by the group as a whole. Ayllu festivals would have provided the setting both for the veneration of these ancestral mummies, and for the retelling of the origin myths of the ayllus.

In addition to ayllus, researchers often speak of the presence of different 'ethnic groups' in the Inca empire. In the Inca case, this nomenclature refers to groupings of ayllus that recognized a higher-level unity among themselves, often tracing their common origins back to the ancestor(s) of the ancestors of the various ayllus. Such collectivities of ayllus also constituted what are referred to (particularly in the southern Andes) as confederations. Another common, intermediate-level of organization throughout the empire were two-part—so-called 'moiety'—groupings of ayllus. In many cases, the two parts, which were commonly referred to as 'upper' (hanan) and 'lower' (hurin), derived from a locally important topographic and hydrological division, recognized most clearly in the distribution of water through a network of irrigation canals. In addition, the ancestors of the moieties were often thought to have had different origins and/or, specializations (e.g., farmers/herders, or autochthonous peoples/invaders).

The genius of Inca civilization was its successful integration of these many and varied peoples and resources into a single, hierarchically organized society. This was achieved by processes of conquest and alliance, as well as by a high level of bureaucratic organization, which allowed the state not only to co-ordinate and direct the activities of these numerous ayllus, ethnic groups and confederations, but also to integrate and synthesize what I will term below the 'mythic-histories' of these various groups. In this regard, it will be useful to establish from the beginning two important, interrelated distinctions that should be made concerning religious and mythic traditions in the pre-Columbian Andes. One distinction is that between Andean religion and Inca religion, while the other is that between Andean myths and Inca myths.

As it is generally understood by specialists working in the Andes, 'Andean religion' refers to locally based sets of beliefs and practices that identify and pay homage to local earth, mountain, and water spirits and to the deities that were linked to local (i.e., provincial) ayllus and ethnic groups and their ancestors throughout the empire. These beliefs and practices were linked to, and explicated by, cosmic origin myths, myths of primordial relations between humans and animals, and accounts of mythical encounters between the ancestors of different ayllus and ethnic groups within a given area that were retained by the story-tellers within that region.

'Inca religion', on the other hand, encompasses the beliefs, ceremonies and ritual practices that were promoted by the Inca nobility and their priestly and political agents for the benefit of the Inca state. Inca mythology refers to the mythological traditions that contextualized, explained and justified state beliefs and practices to the subjects of the Incas. Although there were numerous similarities and interconnections between the two, the focus of Andean religion and mythology was on the unity and perpetuation of each of the myriad ayllus and ethnic groups, whereas the driving force behind Inca religion and mythology was the unification of all such local groups within the empire in the service, and under the hegemony, of the Incas.

Central to the practice of Inca and Andean religion was the worship of and care for mummies. Reverence for and continuous care of the mummies of the Inca kings, as well as the ancestral mummies, called mallquis, of ayllus were important practices in the religion of people throughout the Inca empire. Numerous myths were told by the Incas and their provincial subjects concerning the life and deeds of those individuals whose mummified remains were prominently displayed in public places, or were stored in caves near the towns where their descendants lived. It was believed that caring for, redressing, and offering food and drink to the ancestral mummies were requirements for maintaining cosmic order, as well as the continued fertility of the crops and herd animals. Such beliefs and practices continued to haunt the Spanish priests who struggled for centuries to stamp out such 'idolatrous' practices and to Christianize the descendants of the Incas and their provincial subjects.

The organization of the Inca empire

At the centre of the empire was the capital city, Cusco, located in a fertile valley in the south-central Andes of Peru at an altitude of about 3,400 m (11,000 ft) above sea level. Cusco was home to the royal lineage of the Incas, from which was drawn the dozen kings who ruled the empire from sometime near the beginning of the 1400s until the Spanish conquest of the Andes in 1532. The population of the city, and by extension the empire as a whole, was divided into four ritual and administrative districts, called suyus ('part', 'quarter'). Beginning in the north-west and going clockwise, the four quarters were called Chinchaysuyu, Antisuyu, Collasuyu and Cuntisuyu. The quarters were produced by a complicated intersection of two dual divisions within the city of Cusco. The true centre of the city of Cusco and of the four quarters of the city and the empire was the set of a half-dozen or so buildings called the Coricancha ('golden enclosure'), which is sometimes referred to as the Temple of the Sun.

One room of the Coricancha housed the mummies of past kings of the empire. These were taken out of the Coricancha during important ritual celebrations and, riding on litters, were paraded around the central plaza of the city. In other rooms of the Coricancha were images and idols depicting and dedicated to the creator deity (Viracocha), the Sun, the Moon, Venus (of the Morning and Evening), Thunder, the Rainbow, and other lesser objects of worship. While the Coricancha was the focal point of ritual life within the capital, the palaces, shrines and population of Cusco represented the focal point of the empire of Tahuantinsuyu as a whole.

At the top of the imperial hierarchy stood the Inca king, called sapa ('unique', 'sole') Inca. The ruling Inca was believed to be the direct descendant of the first king, Manco Capac, as well as the earthly manifestation of the sun (inti), whose light and warmth made the world of the high Andes habitable. Alongside the king was his primary wife, called the qoya ('queen'), who was, at least in late imperial times, also his sister. The queen was considered to be the human embodiment of the moon (quilla), the celestial body whose monthly rhythm of waxing and waning established the tempo of ritual life in the capital. Around the Inca king and queen were the nobility—the descendants of the dozen or so royal ayllus, or kin groups (called panacas), that occupied the capital. The panaca groupings were ranked hierarchically depending on their closeness to the line(s) of kings descended from Manco Capac.

In addition to his primary wife, the king had numerous secondary wives—different Spanish sources say between forty and a hundred. These women were often the daughters of high-ranking provincial aristocrats whose marriage to the Inca elevated the rank of their natal lineage and ayllu. Children of secondary wives were considered to be lower-ranking nobles, and many became administrative officials of the empire. They were supplemented by accountants, record-keepers, diviners, military commanders and other functionaries who belonged to lineages of panacas or ayllus composing the lesser nobility. 

From the capital, administrators went out to the four quarters of the empire to oversee and regulate affairs of state, especially to oversee the performance of state labour. In the Inca empire 'tribute' was assessed in the form of public labour, the local ayllus having the obligation to work the lands, or herd the flocks of camelids, of the king and the gods in their local communities, as well as to perform 'turns of service' (mit'a) at state installations. For such purposes, the tribute-payers were organized into decimal groupings (i.e., groupings of 5, 10, 100, 500, 1000, etc. households). The state administration was similarly organized in a decimal fashion, with overseers designated to direct the affairs of different levels of decimal household groupings, keeping records on a device, called a quipu ('knot', see p. 26), that recorded the information in a decimal-based numeration. Imperial runners (chaskis) carried messages between the capital and its provincial administrative centres, located at ecologically and demographically critical nodal points throughout the empire.

Numerous rituals and state ceremonies, such as the daily sacrifice of a hundred llamas in the plaza in Cusco and the celebration of two great festivals of the sun at the times of the solstices in December and June, as well as a festival of the moon in October, sanctified the unity and antiquity of collective life under the stewardship of the Incas.

In the provinces, the majority of the population was made up of commoners, or hatunruna ('the great people'), who were organized into a multitude of ayllus. Among the settlements occupying any given region, the highest-ranking lineage(s) among those groups held hereditary lordships, called curacas. The curacas acted as local authorities and imperial agents, overseeing affairs of state on behalf of the Incas within their home territories.

One particularly dramatic ceremonial expression of the unity between the Inca in the capital and the people in the countryside was the annual sacrifice of specially designated victims (usually children) called capacochas. These individuals were sent from the provinces to Cusco where they were sanctified by the priests of the Incas. The capacochas were then returned to their home territories, marching in sacred procession along straight lines (ceques), where they were sacrificed. We learn from colonial documents of capacochas being buried alive in specially constructed shaft-tombs, and recently there have been discoveries of capacochas sacrificed by being clubbed and their bodies left on high mountain tops. In all such cases, the sacrifices sealed bonds of alliance between the home community and the Inca in Cusco. The sacrifice of the capacochas also served to reaffirm the hierarchical relation between the Incas at the centre and high-ranking lineages in the provinces.

The Incas also employed a strategy of population control and economic organization whereby certain ayllus, or segments of them, were moved from their home territories, at the will of the Inca, for purposes such as working on state projects or serving as guards at frontier outposts. These transplanted people were called mitimaes. Such movements and the consequent mixing of people in imperial times undoubtedly had a profound impact on notions of origin places and (mythical) histories retained by ethnic groups throughout the empire. Finally, there was a hereditary class of servants known as yanaconas ('dark/servant people'). These were retainers of the royalty—people who lived on and worked the lands of the kings and the high nobility.

Like the myths of other ancient civilizations around the world, the cosmic creation myths and the origin myths of the Incas legitimized their rule and validated the hierarchical social, political and economic relations organizing society as a whole. It is important to stress, however, that the Incas drew on a store of knowledge, beliefs and practices that came down to them from earlier civilizations. This is not unusual, as few if any states of the ancient world arose entirely independently of earlier kingdom or chiefdom-level societies.

The archaeological remains of Inca and pre-Inca civilizations from Ecuador southward through Peru, Bolivia and Chile are extensive and extremely varied. For many of these cultures, we possess numerous examples of works of art displaying rich and complex iconographic representations of humans, animals, and human-animal composites that appear to represent supernatural entities. Such images and scenes as those of important personages standing serenely among subordinates, winged figures, and anthropomorphized animals, plants and aquatic creatures that we see painted on ceramics, woven into textiles or hammered from lumps of gold offer modest clues as to the nature of and relations among indigenous deities, spirits and other mythological beings before the time of the Incas. Thus, exercising appropriate caution, we can contextualize, enrich and enlighten our understanding of Inca mythology by surveying the archaeological and iconographic records from pre-Inca civilizations.

Precursors to the Incas

The Incas were not the first Andean civilization to unify the peoples of western South America. In fact, it is evident to archaeologists that the Incas were able to affect unification as rapidly as they did (over a few centuries) by building on pre-existing relations, institutions of state, and habits of empire inherited from earlier peoples. Archaeologists divide Peruvian prehistory into five major periods, primarily on the basis of continuities and changes in ceramic shapes and styles over time and across space. Three of these periods are known as 'horizons', a term that is meant to indicate that these were periods of relative unity in art, architecture, ritualism and economy over broad regions in the central Andes. Intervening between the three horizons were two so-called 'intermediate' periods, which designate times and processes of local and regional (rather than pan-Andean) development.

Period Approximate Time Range
Early Horizon 900-200 BC
Early Intermediate 200 BC-AD 500
Middle Horizon AD 500-1000
Late Intermediate AD 1000-1400
Late Horizon AD 1400-1532

One of the earliest civilizations ancestral to the Incas is known as Chavín. This culture, whose extension in time and space defines the Early Horizon, takes its name from the site of Chavín de Huantar, which is situated at the point of union of two small rivers near the headwaters of the Marañon and Santa rivers, in the central Peruvian highlands. Chavín de Huantar exhibits all the trappings of Andean ceremonial centres: stone-faced pyramids with internal passageways converging on oracular chambers; open plazas situated between mounds that extend arm-like outward from the pyramids; and a complex arrangement of carved stone stelae and free-standing statuary bearing distinctive iconographic images. The themes of Chavín art are drawn from the animals, plants and aquatic life of the coast, highlands and tropical forest. Similarly, sites displaying this distinctive imagery are located from the upper Amazon westward, through the high intermontane valleys of the Andes mountains to the lush river valleys of the Pacific coastal desert.

Chavín images include animals, especially felines, in human-like poses, as well as harpy eagles, falcons and a profusion of serpents, many of which are rendered with formidable canine teeth. A common element that appears ubiquitously in Chavín art, and will reappear in art down to the time of the Spanish conquest, is the so-called 'staff deity'. These are standing frontal figures, perhaps representing human-animal composites or masked humans, both male and female, holding staffs or corn stalks in either hand. We do not know the precise meaning or significance of the staff deities for the Chavín peoples themselves. However, given the prominence and ubiquity with which such figures appear during Chavín times in architecture and on portable works of art in sites throughout much of present-day Peru, it is fairly certain that this character represented a supernatural force and personality of exceptional importance, perhaps a creator deity, of sorts. This conclusion is made all the more likely in view of the fact that staff deities of similar posture and with similar accoutrements appear commonly in artistic representations from Chavín until—and including—Inca times.

The Early Horizon was followed by another period of roughly equal length in which a number of regional chiefdoms allied and competed with each other for control of people and resources over the ecologically varied landscape of the Andes. It would be a mistake to think of the period following the Early Horizon, known as the Early Intermediate Period (z00 BC-AD 500), as a time of chaos and cultural degeneration, despite the fact that the Incas themselves tended to portray such periods of decentralization and regionalism in precisely these terms. Instead, a number of major social, political and artistic innovations were achieved during this period.

For instance, city-building on the part of the chiefdom- or kingdom-level societies on the north coast of Peru produced urban centres of astonishing complexity. This occurred in and around such sites as the Huaca del Sol, in the Moche valley, and Pampa Grande, in the Lambayeque valley. The recent discovery of the tombs of the lords of Sipan, near present-day Chiclayo, Peru, display a level of sophistication in metallurgy matched only by later Andean civilizations. Such works of art, rich in the imagery of feline, jaguar-human and other animal representations, recall in certain respects the art of Chavín. The mythology that underlay and gave meaning to such iconography was undoubtedly shared by (or at least known to) other contemporary civilizations of the north coast of Peru, as well as by earlier and later Andean civilizations.

One body of artistic work from north coastal Peru that has been the focus of a considerable amount of study and speculation by scholars interested in iconographic depictions of Andean mythological traditions is the modelled and painted imagery of Moche ceramics. Here, particularly in scenes painted on the bodies of stirrup-spout vessels, we see figures of humans and anthropomorphized animals, birds and marine creatures, some of which are thought to have been important characters in north coastal (Moche) mythology. Several of the figures are shown in postures and groupings that are so standardized, and are repeated with such regularity, that scholars have suggested that the scenes depict a fairly limited number (e.g., a couple of dozen) of widely shared mythic ritual 'themes'. The ritual circumstances and mythological settings include such scenes as the capture and sacrifice of enemy warriors, the offering of drink—which in some cases seems to represent goblets filled with the blood of sacrificial victims—by subordinates to high lords, or deities, and the passage of a character through the starry sky in a moon-shaped boat.

When we look to the south coast of Peru during the Early Intermediate Period, we find less emphasis on, or at least less evidence for, the development of large, urban centres than is evident at this same time on the north coast. Nonetheless, there were numerous ceremonial centres, such as those in the Pisco, Ica and Nazca river drainages, that probably served as regional pilgrimage centres visited by peoples belonging to different ethnic groups who gathered at these centres for a variety of ritual and economic motives. In addition, there are many cemeteries located within the south coastal Peruvian river valleys dating to the Early Horizon and Early Intermediate Period that are notable for the burial and display of mummies. Many such mummified remains are wrapped in beautifully woven and embroidered textiles displaying a wide array of both natural and supernatural iconographic images. The latter have been interpreted by researchers as having been linked to ritual practices (especially in agriculture and warfare) and mythological traditions of the valley residents.

The next era of cultural unification in the pre-Columbian Andes, a period known as the Middle Horizon (AD 500-1000), saw the emergence of two political and ritual centres. One, called Tiahuanaco, was located on the high Bolivian plateau (altiplano) not far inland from the south shore of Lake Titicaca; the other, called Huari, was situated in the south-central Peruvian highlands. The societies represented by these co-existing centres have been named after them.

While there were certainly numerous characteristics distinguishing Tiahuanaco and Huari societies, there were at the same time a number of notable similarities. Chief among the latter was a rich and complex iconography rendered in diverse media, particularly stone, cloth, ceramics and shell. Many images of religious and mythological significance appear commonly in the art of both Tiahuanaco and Huari. These include staff deities, as well as winged, running falcon-headed figures that are often shown in profile holding clubs and in some cases decapitated heads. The posture and location in architectural and other compositions of Tiahuanaco and Huari staff deities emphasize the centrality of this character in Tiahuanaco and Huari culture and attest to its probable religious, ritual and mythological continuity from similar figures in Chavín times. It is quite likely that, like the so-called creator gods of Inca times, such as Viracocha and Pachacamac, the staff deities of the Tiahuanaco and Huari peoples were considered to be responsible for the origin of humans and the fertility of crops and animals.

The staff deities and numerous free-standing, carved stone images at the site of Tiahuanaco are striking when seen in situ by tourists today, just as they were when viewed by travellers and pilgrims in Inca times. Inca informants in the early years following the Spanish invasion told their conquerors that the statues at Tiahuanaco represented an earlier race of giants whose origins were in an era before the appearance of the Inca kings. In fact, as we shall see, a ubiquitous theme in the mythology both of the Incas and of their provincial subjects throughout much of present-day Peru was the claim that their ancestors came from Lake Titicaca and the site of Tiahuanaco itself.

The Late Intermediate Period (AD 1000-1400) was a second period of regional development in central Andean prehistory. This period falls between the Middle Horizon societies of Tiahuanaco and Huari and the emergence of Inca civilization, whose widespread distribution in space and time is referred to as the Late Horizon (c. AD 1400-1532). One society that emerged during the Late Intermediate Period and is of particular interest in terms of the study of Andean and Inca myths is that of the Chimu peoples. Chimu was a statelevel society of north coastal Peru whose capital was at Chan Chan, in the Moche river valley. At Chan Chan and other sites that were incorporated into the Chimu state, we find the remains of massive, royal compounds containing open plazas, burial mounds and administrative quarters. Such sites display a variety of decorative adobe friezes, including repeated images of marine birds and sea creatures, as well as what has been interpreted as double-headed rainbow serpents.

Chimu, which is often referred to under the geographic-linguistic label Yunga ('lowlands'), is especially important in the study of Inca myths for two reasons: first, in the early colonial documentation we possess a number of accounts detailing relations between Chimu and Inca kings in mythic times, as well as encounters between the idols of these respective societies; second, the Chimu state represents perhaps the only other pre-Inca Andean state from which we have extant versions of origin myths. We will discuss the shape and contents of these myths later.

The above survey provides a highly schematic overview of the succession of cultures and a periodization of the developmental phases in Andean prehistory that led up to the emergence of the Incas. Cultural developments up to the time of the Incas in the Late Horizon included kingship, a highly centralized and bureaucratic statecraft, local (ayllu-based) and state redistribution of economic resources, a priesthood, ancestor worship, and rich traditions of art and iconography in a variety of media. Although our colonial sources do not speak directly on the matter of long-term continuities of deities and mythic themes uniting one civilization and cultural phase to the next, the persistence of certain iconographic themes (e.g., feline-human hybrids, staff deities, falcon-headed warriors, or 'spirits'), and an archaeological record of the mixing and blending of cultures over time, rather than the wholesale replacement of one culture by another, lend strong support to the notion that Inca mythological traditions were the products of a long and complex process of innovation, borrowing and reworking of myths among a succession of Andean societies.

In the next chapter, we will review the early colonial sources that detail the results of these continuing Andean traditions of cosmic, state and local myths.