Skip to main content

Inca, And Other Religions of South America

There is some discussion in theosophical literature of the advanced Inca culture, but no mention of the rest of South America or of the religious ideas of native groups in the Caribbean — other than a passing reference by Helena P. Blavatsky to Voodoo (or Vodun) in Haiti (cf. SD II:209).

The most highly developed civilizations of South America were on the western side of the continent south of Ecuador. Archeological evidence shows that several remarkable civilizations preceded the Inca culture in that area. The earliest of these of which we have knowledge was the Chavin (fl. c. 700 - c. 200 BCE), named after Chavín de Huántar, the archaeological site in the northeast highland of Peru where remains of a highly developed and sophisticated civilization were found. The Chavin built large temples covered with painted bas relief sculptures of mythical animals, but what religious ideas these represent is unknown. They were succeeded by a people now known as the Paracas, named after the Paracas peninsula on the south coast of Peru where remains of their civilization were first found. Again, little is known about them, but it is believed that they were influenced by the Chavin culture. There is no mention of either of these people in theosophical literature.

About 100 BCE, the Mochica civilization developed on the coast of northern Peru. It is believed to have lasted for 1,000 years. The Mochicas were warriors who had a highly developed social and political organization. In addition to temples, they built stone pyramids and aqueducts of adobe brick for purposes of irrigation; they also created beautiful ceramics. The Mochica Pyramid of the Sun is the largest in South America. Again, we have no direct knowledge of their religious beliefs. They were succeeded in the same area sometime around 1200 CE by the Chimu. Like the Mochicas, the Chimus had a powerful military, a well-organized and complex social and political system, and well-planned cities with extensive irrigation systems. Their capital city, Chan Chan, near Trujillo in northern Peru, estimated to have had a population of 200,000, is thought to have been started around 800 CE, which would mean that it was originally a Mochica city, later occupied by the Chimus. The city was, in turn, absorbed into the Inca empire around 1460.

On the southern coast of Peru, meanwhile, the Nazca culture arose, apparently out of the Paracas culture. Named for the Nazca river valley in which archeological remains were first discovered, it flourished during the first millennium of the common era in the Nazca, Pisco, and Ica river valleys of that desert area. In addition to highly polished, expertly designed, polychrome pottery and beautiful textiles, the Nazca created on the ground a network of lines and giant animal figures which can only be viewed from the air. It is generally assumed that these figures were made to be seen by sky gods and may also be related to astronomy. Some people even speculate that the Nazca were able to plan the figures while traveling out of body (often called astral projection), since their size and proportions are such that it is difficult to understand how else they could be so well executed. The Nazcas apparently came under the influence of the Tiahuanaco culture until the Inca conquered the region in the 15th century.

Tiahuanaco, near Bolivia’s border with southern Peru, is the site of a culture which archeologists believe started as a rural village about 1000 BCE and grew to a great empire some time between 500 and 1300 CE, spreading through much of Chile and Peru as well as the Andean highlands of Bolivia and Argentina. Its buildings are characterized by massive blocks of stone, some weighing up to 100 tons (about 98.5 metric tons), brought from miles away without the use of wheels, and fitted together without mortar with a precision that even the Incas did not achieve. It is believed that these structures were later utilized by the Aymara, who, although conquered in 1538 by Hernando and Gonzalo Pizarro, have survived as an agrarian culture into the present time. Neither the Tiahuanacos nor the Aymaras are mentioned in theosophical literature, but it would be reasonable to hypothesize that both peoples may have been remote descendants of the Atlantean civilization, since it, too, is said to have constructed buildings of massive stone blocks. Both cultures are now a blend of aboriginal, Spanish colonial, and modern elements and their mythology may reflect this.

Several stories of the Tiahuanaco still exist in an oral tradition, one of which involves a creator god called Con Ticci Viracocha who first formed animals and a race of gigantic human beings who lived on earth in darkness because the sun and stars had not yet been created. According to the myth, that race was destroyed by a flood because of its immorality. Since darkness is a common metaphor in spiritual myths for ignorance, this sounds very much like some references in the Stanzas of Dzyan (e.g., Book Two, X. 40, XI. 44) to early mankind which had enormous stature, but worshiped stone images and were destroyed by a flood (XI. 45). Donna Rosenberg, in World Mythology (National Textbook Company, 2nd ed., 1996, p. 468), translates Con Ticci Viracocha as “creator emerging with thunder,” but later (p. 470) translates “virococha” as “foam of the sea,” since Viracocha and his creator-companions departed from the Tiahuanaco capital city of Cuzco by walking westward over the sea. After the flood receded and before leaving, Viracocha created several races of human beings, taught them which plants were good to eat, which would cure diseases, and which were deadly poisons. Rosenberg states that the Incas adopted Viracocha as their creator-god, indicating a direct connection between the Tiahuanaco, Aymara, and Inca cultures which apparently shared the same myths.

Inca. Blavatsky explicitly denies (IU I:545) that the Maya and Inca civilizations resulted from migrations to the Americas via the Bering Straits, stating that their cities “were probably built by the Atlanteans” as suggested above. The origin of the Incas is obscure, but we know that Inca civilization dates from the 12th century, following upon the Chavin, Paracas, Mochica, Chimu, Nazca, Tiahuanaco, and Aymara, cultures, so one has to assume that those previous cultures were also remote descendants of the Atlanteans. The Inca civilization was centered at Cuzco, Peru, founded, according to legend, by the first Inca ruler, Manco Capac. Incas believed themselves descendants from the sun god who gave his son Manco Capac and daughter Mama Ocello Huanco a golden rod “two fingers thick and shorter than the arm of a man” (Rosenberg, p. 475), and told them to settle wherever the staff would sink into the earth; it did so on a hill overlooking the present city of Cuzco. Historians believe the empire actually began about 1438 when the ninth ruler, Pachacuti, repulsed an invasion from the neighboring Chanca. At the height of their empire, the Incas dominated the entire Andean area ranging more than 2,500 miles (4,020 km) from Quito, Ecuador south to the Rio Maule in south central Chile.

The Inca empire was also called Quechúa or Kechúa, after their language. Interestingly, they had little written literature except some dramas dealing with military victories and everyday life. They kept official records (e.g., concerning crop yields and population) by knotting groups of colored strings, called quipus; the knotting was based on the decimal system and was decipherable only by specially trained officials. Religious lore was passed on orally by teachers (amatauas). It is upon Spanish accounts of their oral tradition that their myths have been reconstructed (cf. Rosenberg, pp. 470-6). However the Incas were masters of stone masonry, building their cities and fortresses of huge stone blocks, brought from a distance over rugged terrain without wheeled vehicles, as in the Tiahuanaco culture. The most noted of these is Machu Picchu, a fortress city about 50 miles (80 km) northwest of Cuzco, perched high on a rock between two mountain peaks and overlooking the Urubamba River some 2,000 feet (600 m) below. It is 5 square miles (13 sq. km.) in size and its buildings and terraces are connected by over 3,000 steps. The stones are fitted so tightly together without mortar that one cannot slip a knife blade between them. Another noted masterpiece of stone construction is the Sacsahuamán fortress near Cuzco, built in the 15th century. Blavatsky compares Inca construction with that found at “Nagkon Wat” (i.e., Nakhon Wat located in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand) (IU I:567).

Cuzco itself had massive palaces and temples, the most notable being the Temple of the Sun. Blavatsky writes of it, “It was roofed with thick plates of gold, and the walls were covered with the same precious metal; the eave-troughs were also of solid gold. In the west wall the architects had contrived an aperture in such a way that when the sunbeams reached it, it focused them inside the building. Stretching like a golden chain from one sparkling point to another, they encircled the walls, illuminating the grim idols, and disclosing certain mystic signs at other times invisible” (IU I:597). She also claims that there are still Inca treasures hidden in subterranean caves or tunnels “running many miles under ground” (IU I:596). Some of these treasures, before being hidden, were given as a ransom to Francisco Pizarro for the Inca ruler, Atahualpa, who nevertheless was executed by the Spaniards. He was succeeded by a second named Manco Capac, who led a rebellion against the Spanish 1536-1544; after he was captured, again a ransom was demanded and given. The treasure was hidden, Blavatsky says, when Hernando Pizarro, like Francisco, also broke his promise and killed Manco Capac in 1544.

In addition to Viracocha, the Incas identified several of that sun god’s servants, the foremost being Inti. There were also gods of weather (especially thunder), the moon, stars, earth, and sea. Religion was controlled by a priestly hierarchy and emphasized rituals, celebrations, divination, feasts and fasts, and various types of plant and animal (mainly llama) sacrifice — human sacrifices being done only at times of crisis. When Blavatsky was in Peru c. 1855, she learned that “Magical ceremonies practiced by their forefathers still prevail among them [the descendants of the Incas], and magical phenomena occur” (IU I:546). Also that there are subterranean passages leading to a mysterious city in which “some central authority” keeps the ancient traditions and practices alive (ibid., p. 547).

Like North American natives, the Inca considered various places and things to be sacred (huaca) and every household had one or more images of things they considered huaca. Religious ceremonies were held frequently on important days and included prayers, songs, parades, dances, feasts, and games. Divination was important and no decisions, large or small, were made without priests consulting the movement of animals, the flames of a fire, animal entrails, etc. Priests also performed temple rites and were considered healers, often using various herbs and plants as medicine. Incas buried their dead and believed in an afterlife, pleasant or unpleasant depending on how one led one’s life, a belief essentially the same as that found in theosophy.

The Incas were invaded by the Spanish in 1532 and Francisco Pizarro plundered Cuzco the following year. The modern descendants of the Incas form an integral part of the populations of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, and to a lesser extent of northwest Argentina and Chile. The Columbia Encyclopedia comments, “As engineers the Inca were unsurpassed in ancient America. Their agricultural terraces are still in use, and the extensive network of roads and bridges that spanned their empire would merit the envy of modern road builders; but their cities and fortresses remain their towering achievement. . . . The Inca also excelled at stone carving and metalwork, achieving in this latter art a degree of perfection comparable to that reached anywhere in the world.” They had a system of relaying messages from village to village on foot which could cover 150 miles in one day, a distance the colonial post of their Spanish conquerors took almost two weeks to cover.

The main group of Indians in the central South American tropical region were (and still are) the Tupí (or Tupinambá) of the Amazon region of Brazil and the Guaraní in southern Brazil and Paraguay. They had an elaborate mythology and a rich body of folklore expressed in stories and dance. They also practiced cannibalism. Among the original inhabitants of the marginal area were the Tehuelches of the Patagonia, a vast, wind-swept, semi-arid plateau with some fertile valleys and lakes fed by glaciers. South of Patagonia, at the southern tip of South America, is Tierra del Fuego (Spanish for “Land of Fire”), inhabited by several hunter-fisher tribes. Unfortunately, the original inhabitants of that archipelago have been killed off by disease, so we have no knowledge of their previous religious ideas nor of those originally held by the Tehuelches. None of these cultures are mentioned in theosophical literature.