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USC ANTH 372, Part 2: Inkarri, Consciousness and Resistance in Colonial and Contemporary Peru

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(This is Part 2 of a series of articles concerning “ANTH 372: Interpretation of Myth and Narrative”, a course I took at USC in Fall 2014. This essay is a long paper we were asked to submit, that analyzes the relationships between myth and the related people whose worldview it forms, using a case study. Read Part 1: The Inca Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Taytacha Qoyllur Rit’i.)

In an earlier paper [1], we discussed an Inca pilgrimage to the shrine of Taytacha Qoyllur Rit’i, located on the apu Colquepunku in the region of Cusco. The Inkarri was briefly alluded to as a contemporary Andean myth that is a fusion of the Inca and Viracocha, representing a result of an Andean cosmological cataclysm, known as the pachacuti, that occured with the Spanish conquest. While Qoyllur Rit’i is a ritual celebration of several Christian and Andean myths, most of its pre-Columbian origins can be traced to myths about the Inca sun God, Inti. However, there exists dances in the ritual that do not involve Inti, particularly the taqi oncoy, one in which the dancers do not reference the arrival of the Pleiades as a cause for celebration of good harvest and health, but rather a reason to deliver the world from a persistent state of chaos brought on by the indifference of the Spanish to not restore Viracocha that was intended by the pachacuti as a result of the civil war between the royal Inca brothers Huascar and Atahualpa  (both of them intending to abolish Huascar’s Inti lineage and cause an upheaval) [2]. The short paper [1] noted how these concepts of the pachacuti were ritualized in the pilgrimage at Colquepunku and Sinakara.

The Inkarri myth is relevant in Andean society in the present day as it may be seen as a product of the fundamental question of the indigenous Inca having to accept or reject the Spanish conquest [6]. In this paper, we examine the Inkarri myth in depth, as its syncretic yet opposing nature provides several insights into contemporary Andean consciousness. We devote a section of our analysis to the actual myth, its various versions and its ritual enactment. We then pursue the study of the relationships between the myth and contemporary Inca cosmology, a fusion of Inca and Christian ideas. We then look at resistance and rebellion in the Andes, particularly colonial and modern Peru, that are influenced by and often cite the Inkarri myth in their execution. The future of the myth of Inkarri and its implications are discussed in the conclusion.

1: The Myth of Inkarri

The Inti lineage of the Inca from the first Sapa Inca king Manco Capac was challenged by the myth of Viracocha, or “from the foam of the sea” [2]. Just as the rituals of Qoyllur Rit’i, where the dancers representing jungle dwellers ch’unchos or naupa machu are connected with the Eastern hurin or “lower” and the upper Quechua dwellers form the Western hanan, so was Viracocha, who arose from the Western sea was seen hanan compared with Inti (who rises in the East amidst the mountains).

The eighth Sapa king assumed the name Viracocha, thus signaling a pachacuti, where the weak Inti lineage was transformed into the more recent Viracocha. Manco Capac’s war with the Huayllas established an Inti lineage, and years later, the war with the ethnic Chancas, represented a pachacuti, where Viracocha’s son Inca Yupanqui called himself the eponymous Pachacuti. This was another overturn of Andean society in Cusco, where the Inti lineage was brought back until the reign of the father of Huascar and Atahualpa, Huayna Capac. The arrival of the Spanish was predicted by Topa Inca Yupanqui, and during the expansion of the empire under his leadership, Huayna Capac contracted smallpox and died a tragic death, far from the capital Cusco and not fit for a king. The conditions for the civil war between the brothers was thus setup, and a new order in Andean society was imminent, with the expected return of Viracocha [2].

Atahualpa did eventually defeat Huascar, and destroy the former Inca lineage, but his reign was short lived with the arrival of the Spanish. The transition from Inti to Viracocha was interrupted and a new myth was born, fusing Inti and Viracocha into the Inkarri. The most common version of the Inkarri myth is as follows [3] [4] [6].

The Inkarri was an Inca King, likely born the son of the Sun, Inti and a peasant woman. The Spanish conquistador Francesco Pizarro handed him a copy of the Holy Bible. Inkarri, unable to read, threw away the Bible, thus resulting in a desecration. This resulted in the massacre of the conquest, with Inkarri being decapitated. His head (possibly sent to Spain or Lima first) and body are separately buried. The Inkarri will return in the future, when the head and body will reunite and the order of the Inca will be reestablished.

With time, Christian influence due to the work of missionaries in Peru have resulted in many complex extensions of the Inkarri myth, with too many varied versions that are difficult to document [2]. Historically, Inkarri clearly refers to either Atahulapa, who made first direct contact with the Spanish, or Tupac Amaru, who was the last Inca king crowned in the Inca ceremonial way. Both kings were summarily executed [5]. But the nature of their execution was surprisingly decapitation and not burning, as was usual for pagans. Pedro Pizarro, brother of Francisco Pizarro, argues in his journal that considering the circumstances of his death and the expectation of his people for his return, Atahualpa allowed himself to be baptized to escape the death of a heretic [5]. The Quechua word for serpent is amaru, and it was also argued that since Atahualpa resided in the palace of the serpents, he is now amaru in the underworld that would one day return.

Later, in the early 17th century, the mestizo nobleman Guaman Poma, in seeing similar attitudes towards the death of Tupac Amaru (who had taken up the name for himself, and was also subject to a similar execution), fused the return of Atahualpa with that of Amaru. By then, the Christian influence in Peru was quite strong, and Guaman Poma himself, often struggled with his conflicting understandings of the Christian and indigenous origin of the Inca (we will develop the details of this sort of “opposing” syncretism in the following section). By the time the myth of Inkarri was recorded and compiled in the 20th century, several interesting versions emerged and some of them are noteworthy in the contemporary context [3] [4].

The folklore study of the Inkarri myth reveals two distinct traditions that have their origins in different geographical regions. The Inkarri-Qollari myth primarily originates from the southern valley regions of Peru, primarily belonging to the qollas (represented as the Aymara qhapaq qolla in the Qoyllur Rit’i ritual [1]). The second, Inkarri-Espanarri tradition, is far more widespread and encompasses a variety of narratives, including references to present day events in the world [3].

The Inkarri-Qollari tradition primarily deals with the Inkarri and his exploits and is considered an older traditions reflecting opposing hanan and hurin positions in the geography of the Andes¹.

In one version, Inkarri was again, the son of the sun God Inti and a peasant woman and ruled over the entire world, including the Spanish. However, in another version, Inkarri is a son of Atahualpa and a peasant woman, who was crucified by the Jews because he hated the Christian God (as can be seen, a highly convoluted version of the myth of Jesus Christ is presented here). In several other versions, Inkarri is a Creater-God, his brother was Espanarri, he is the God second in command from the Christian God, or he emerged as a God from the mountains.

Nonetheless, Inkarri’s heroic deeds are associated with the creation of several cities, including Cusco and Lima, being able to control the natural elements such as wind, ice and waterfalls, tying up the Sun (as a consequence an abundance of pastures for grazing), building roads and bridges (explaining the advanced Inca road and transportation system). Many of these relate to the pre-Columbian, Andean notion of the sacred geography also observed as the underlying driving mythology in rituals such as Qoyllur Rit’i [1] [2]. Oftentimes, the Christian God is also invoked in the exploits of the Inkarri, where he rejects the offerings of God and angers him by proudly proclaiming that he can do all that God can. For this he is duly punished by God himself, as he has committed sin. The greatest of the Inkarri’s achievements still remains the creation of the conditions that enable peasants to reap harvest in the countryside [3]. We will examine further, the relations between the indigenous peasants in contemporary Peru and Inkarri in a later section.

While Inkarri-Qollari avoids Spanish invaders in its narrative, the widespread Inkarri-Espanarri tradition has many versions as well, including the myth of the return of the Inca lineage, as mentioned previously. There are also references to Inkarri being killed by Jews. Another version follows a historical narrative, saying that Pizarro was commissioned by a second king (probably a reference to Spain’s Charles I), to kill him with his soldiers [3]. The most modern versions include Inkarri being opposed to the President of Peru [3], the Catholic Spanish priest, the schooling system in modern Peru, and even the United States and Russia [4].

It is to be noted that the two traditions are immediately distinguishable by examining who is opposed to Inkarri. The Qollari tradition mostly refers to the naupa machu as the primary enemies (i.e. the war between Inti and the jungle dwellers), while the Espanarri traditions refer mainly to the Spanish as enemies [3]. Interestingly, the early post-Conquest Inca referred to the Spanish as “Viracochas”, stemming from their expectation of the Spanish to establish the lineage, which eventually resulted in disappointment. This way, we see the fusion of Inca and Viracocha in the Inkarri myth by the invocation of the pre-Columbian and post-Conquest enemies of the respective lineages in two distinct traditional narratives.

In general, the myth of Inkarri has strong connotations for resistance against authority in a contemporary sense, and shows a contradictory attitude that opposes the very Christian nature of the Spanish conquest, while simultaneously invoking several Christian motifs in its narratives. It is thus useful to examine these relations comprehensively.

2: Messiah, Judgement Day and Andean Consciousness

In collecting folklore, the fate of the head and body of Inkarri and his eventual return cannot be excluded [3]. Most versions mention that the head of Inkarri was sent to Spain or Lima for money. Both the body and the head are said to to still growing just as if they were one (the head of the Inkarri is golden and grows in Spain – a possible reference to the looting of precious metals during the conquest). In other versions, Jesus Christ is also alluded to: the Inkarri was taken down from a cross first, before his body was buried.

Inkarri may or may not return, and in the version where he does return, there are several similarities with the return of Jesus Christ himself, i.e. the Judgement Day when “all men, both Christian and gentile will find each other” [3]. This ofcourse, will happen with the fusion of the head and the body.

With growing evidence of Inkarri, related myths and rituals and ethno-political events in Peru, it is becoming increasingly clear that the conversion of the natives did not result in a syncretic, Catholic religion, but rather a complex association of a forced religious tradition onto their own worldview that still persists [4] [5].

To examine the relations of Inkarri to the Judgement Day, it is useful to study the political situation in Western Europe at the time of the conquest. The incarnation of Christ was seen as the beginning of the sixth age that would subsequently end with the arrival of the anti-Christ. Historically, the conquest of the Americas was inaugurated due to the the “anti-Christ” Ottomans who had captured Constantinople towards the end of the 15th century. Furthermore, the protestant reformers considered the Pope as also the anti-Christ, and during the reign of Charles I of Spain, Pope Clement commissioned Michelangelo to paint the last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel in 1533 (the year Atahualpa died), taking care not to reference any recent events involving the Protestants [5]. The notion of Judgement and renewal was also clear in the journals of Christopher Columbus, where he references Joachim’s Apocalypse, by stating that the world would come to an end 150 years after his conquest of America, as he had discovered a new route to Jerusalem.

By the end of the 16th century, the ideas had produced enough conviction in the pacification of the Indians to the Christian faith, while also encouraging critical analysis on the real origin of the Inca. Guaman Poma was convinced that God was Christian, but he always put Spain and its religious order behind the great Kings of the former Inca Empire. His illustrations in Nueva coronica indicate that the Andean peasant must bow to a Christian saint, while the saint himself must bow to the Andean King [5]. He also imagines the concepts of hell and heaven but with Peruvian motifs. Castille in Spain (Peru was called “New Castille”) is hurin compared to hanan Peru. Only an Inca king and the disappearance of the Spanish from the Andes can restore order, but the king himself is Phillip III of Spain [4] and this is in agreement with the plans of God. Guaman Poma interpreted the eruption of the volcano Huaynaputina in 1600 both as the punishment of God and an indication of pachacuti.

Joachim’s writings were widely circulated in Peru at this time, and the events of the conquest were thought of as God aiding the conquerors, but the only reason was to save Indians from the reformers. amaru was used interchangeably with the anti-Christ (i.e. the serpent), and in general, both the Inca and the Spaniards were looking for a general theological framework with which to analyze their role in the Andes [5]. Furthermore, the Christian God played both a positive and negative role (allusions to a sort of trickster diety), and with the saving of the Andean souls, the Spaniards were no longer needed for the determination of the future of the people.

Two examples in Andean rituals are of importance, and can be stated here. The first was the taqui onquy of the 1560s, a peaceful Andean movement where Inca religious leaders tried to mobilize the peasants and encouraged the rejection of the Spanish, by preaching the ancient myths. The taqui oncoy was strongly influenced by rituals such as Oncoymita which celebrated the arrival of the Pleiadas. Years later, a rebellion (details of which are discussed in the following section) would result in Oncoymita being transformed into the syncretic ritual of the pilgrimage to the Christian shrine of Qoyllur Rit’i [1]. The taqui oncoy movement also gave birth to the Quechua play The Tragedy of the Death of Inca Atawallpa, which is still performed in the present day. Still however, taqui oncoy was partially a Christian movement of the Andes, and the religious leaders often took on Christian names [4].

The other example is seen in Andean Christian art, particular paintings created by artists of post-Conquest, colonial Peru [5]. Paintings created in this time period depicted the Christ and other saintly figures resting on rainbows (an Inca motif for the bringing of a new order i.e. a pachacuti) and in the presence of serpents, thus pushing forward their Andean origins even in a subtle manner.

Nevertheless, the colonial empire persisted, and the hope for a judgement day and the arrival of the savior gave way quickly to feelings of despair. There was a “messianic potential”, and cause for rebellion in Andean society that persists to the present day [4].

3: Resistance, Rebellion and Indigenous Rights

The major rebellions in Peru of the 17th and 18th centuries give strong evidence of contemporary Inca Indians as Christians, but nevertheless wanting to resolve their turbulent history with the Spanish. Of particular note are the Tupac Amaru II rebellion of 1780 and the rebellion of the 1667. In both cases, the leaders of the revolutions assumed names of earlier Inca kings, Tupac Amaru and Atahualpa respectively [2] [5] [6]².

While both rebellions were unsuccessful (but eventually leading to the independence of the colonies), it is apparent that many reasons were preached to justify the killing the Spaniards in the 1780 rebellion [9]. The Inkarri myth was “priceless raw material” in the hands of the followers of Tupac Amaru II [8], while the belief in the huacas and that a pachacuti was imminent were regenerated. The Spanish brought Christianity to the Andes, but were themselves not followers of the religion due to the gruesome nature of the conquest and their apparent greed that offended God, thereby needing to be eliminated. Thus, God would cleanse the world, destroy Lima, while saving the now Christian Indians [8] [9]. Historically, both rebellions were a result of several economic reforms in the colonies in 1700s particularly against the Indian peasants, leading to excessive taxation, seizing of land and the destruction of native crops. Torture and imprisonment were rampant and were usually inflicted by the priests themselves, culminating in the Indians believing that a Christian God would never approve of such actions [8].

These reasons can be seen in the light of the relationships between Inkarri and relevant, present day issues such as indigenous rights in the Andes [6] [7]. It is argued that rebellions such as the Tupac Amaru that are heavily based on the Inkarri myth give a reason for Eurocentric definitions of indigenous rights to not take into account the cultural traditions of the aborigines [6]. For a global organization such as the United Nations (UN), it becomes hard to define the term indigenous to classify the people of Peru, as Tupac Amaru II himself was mestizo and several ethnic groups subjucated by the Incas before the arrival of the Spanish were against the rebellion. Thereby, the political and economic aspirations of Indians is often not regarded entirely.

It is also seen that former international laws concerning indigenous people, are greatly affected by the very natural laws of Christianity, where human races are classified in a hierarchical manner. For example, the victory of Chile over Peru in the War of the Pacific of 1880s, was seen primarily as a victory of the European ethnic population of Chile over the degenerate race of Peruvians. While in recent years, the UN seeks to uphold self-determination of the Natives, the nature of the society and land allocation does not take into account the cultural concepts of the state in these indigenous societies, thereby enforcing European idealogy. The attempts at “indigenization” of international laws is perceived as a threat for existing states, just as the Inkarri myth attempts at an upheaval of the societal order created by the Spaniards in colonial Peru [6].

In the 20th century, many Marxist rebellions have cited the Inkarri myth as an inspiration to mobilize the peasants of Peru. Of particular importance is the Shining Path movement, which is classified as a terrorist organization by a majority of countries in the Americas. The revolutionaries highlighted the 199th anniversary of the rebellion of Tupac Amaru II (in 1980), thus implying that the 200th year was the year of the upheaval. While the Marxist agenda was against the state and politics of Peru at that time, there is strong evidence that the Inkarri myth and other motifs were used only as mobilization agents, and the movement itself was not “Indian”. This is clearly seen by the death toll resulted by the Shining Path; about 20000, mostly Quechua peasants [7]. Nevertheless, the very existence and inspirations of these movements indicates the deeply rooted nature of the Inkarri myth, and how it operates to create tension and encourage liberalism in the highly classified society of Peru.

4: The Future of Inkarri

We have described the myth of Inkarri in Peru as a very complex myth involving contemporary Andean consciousness and being a cause for several social tensions in the region. The myth itself is a result of a series of events, both historical and cosmological, dating back to the very foundation of the Inca empire, right up to the present day issues of indigenous rights and rebellion.

In some sense, the use of the myth remains central in the future of the Andes, as it “expresses the idea of a pagan past, a presence of painful Christianity and a future open to the restoration of traditional Andean values by means of a revolution”, aptly described by the author in [3]. In the short paper [1], we discussed a particular expression of the ideas presented in the myth of Inkarri in the rituals at Qoyllur Rit’i. This expansion of the myth to encompass the structure of Andean society and cosmology, provides several insights into the worldview of the indigenous people of Peru.


¹Several parallels may be drawn with the Inkarri-Qollari and the great conflict and resolution between the mountain and valley dwellers occuring in the Qoyllur Rit’i rituals, also dealing with opposing communities from Collao and Cusco [1] [2].

²Comprehensive historical/chronological details of the rebellion of 1780-1782 are provided in [8].


[1] S. Subramanian, “The Inca Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Taytacha Qoyllur Rit’i”, Short Paper; ANTH 372: Interpretation of Myth and Narrative, University of Southern California, pp. 1-6, Oct. 2014.

[2] R. Randall, “Qoyllur Rit’i: An Inca Fiesta of the Pleiades”, Bulletin de l’Institut Francais des Etudes Andines, Vol. 11, No. 1-2, pp. 37-81, 1982.

[3] J.A. Vazquez, “The Reconstruction of the Myth of Inkarri”, Latin American Indian Literatures Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 92-109, 1986.

[4] F. Hardy, “Despair and Hope of the Defeated – Andean Messianism”, Religious Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 257-264, 1975.

[5] S. MacCormack, “Pachacuti: Miracles, Punishments, and Last Judgment: Visionary Past and Prophetic Future in Early Colonial Peru”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 93, No. 4, pp. 960-1006, 1988.

[6] E. Cirkovic, “The Myth of the Inkarri: Colonial Foundations in International Law and Indigenous Struggles”, York Centre for International and Security Studies; Working Paper, No. 39, Apr. 2006.

[7] S. Varese, “The ethnopolitics of Indian resistance in Latin America”, Latin American Perspectives: Ethnicity and Class in Latin America, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 58-71, 1996.

[8] N.A. Robins, “Genocide and Millennialism in Upper Peru: The Great Rebellion of 1780-1782”, Praeger, May 2002.

[9] J. Szeminski, “Why Kill the Spaniard? New Perspectives on Andean Insurrectionary Ideology in the 18th Century”, Resistance, Rebellion and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World, 18th to 20th Centuries, University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 166-192, 1987.

Written by sushilsub

December 6, 2014 at 9:34 am