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Inca customs around death and the afterlife not only involved mummification – they were also influenced ...
2021-10-12 09:00:00

Descendants of the Sun
Death and the Inca

Illustration by Joanna Grochocka
Descendants of the Sun
Descendants of the Sun

When an Inca ruler died, he was mummified. But that was not the end of his earthly journey. The mummy began a new, at times rather luxuriant, life – the type of life that generates costs.

Read in 11 minutes

Europeans only had the chance to meet the last Inca emperor: Atahualpa. They held him captive for eight months, learning about his habits and talking to him (apparently, he even learned to play chess). They also observed the attitude of the ruler’s subordinates towards him.

Before he was imprisoned, he spoke to the newly arrived Spaniards from behind a veil, allowing him to observe his interlocutors without them seeing him. When Hernando Pizarro – brother of Francis, the conqueror of the Inca Empire – approached Atahualpa on horseback, ostentatiously disregarding the emperor’s authority, he came so close that foam from his horse’s mouth stained the emperor’s clothing. Atahualpa, however, did not flinch, even though the animal was unknown to him and aroused widespread terror among his bodyguards (those who had showed their fear of the animal were executed with their families that same evening).

Anything Atahualpa touched was kept by his people in chests. The conquistadors saw boxes full of clothing, basket-work, and even ears of corn and bird bones that had been gnawed by the emperor. When asked why these items were collected, the servants explained that at the appointed time of year, the items would all be burned and their ashes scattered. When the emperor wanted to spit, he did so on the hands of a servant woman rather than on the ground. Once, while in captivity, he was visited by a local cacique who was shaking with excitement to the extent that he was unable to stand up straight. When Pedro Pizarro admired the delicacy of Atahualpa’s cloak, the emperor revealed that it was made of bat hair – there was a certain province in the Empire where the only job of the inhabitants was to catch bats to make these cloaks.

Inca means king

To better understand the character of Atahualpa, we must remember that he was the link between the two worlds of the humans and the gods. The Incas did not write down their mythology, meaning it changed over time and was susceptible to the influence of short-term political interests. Nonetheless, based on the general mythological formula, we can pinpoint the moment the two worlds – the divine and the earthly – came together. The sun god, Inti, let his children go down to Earth. Their presence brought about great changes – the sun god’s descendants introduced wise laws, technology and civilization, and ushered in a sacred dynasty. As with the Egyptian rulers of the Ptolemaic period, the importance assigned to the dynastic line sometimes led to incestuous marriages (in his book The Incas, Terence N. D’Altroy states that an Inca could have hundreds, if not thousands, of wives or concubines from various ethnic groups, but they always had a lower status than that of a sister-wife or cousin-wife).

‘King of the Incas’ is actually a pleonasm, because ‘inca’ means ‘king’. The ideology of conquest and empire-building was largely based on the cult of the sun and the process of civilization of the conquered peoples, for which the dynasty introduced a divine order. Therefore, one of the basic imperial motivations was to spread the solar cult. In fact, the Incas did not destroy the religions of the peoples they ‘civilized’; they merely demanded their submission and recognition of the superiority of the Incan deities. So this was not a case of the ‘conversion’ we know from the great universalist religions. Sculptures of subordinate gods and idols were sometimes taken to Cusco and stored in the temple. We can imagine that this accumulation of powerful objects greatly increased the sanctity of the capital.

Atahualpa wore huge gold earrings, a gold ring on his chest, and bracelets; he carried a golden mace and a golden halberd. He was carried around in a gilded sedan. When the chiefs and governors came for their regular meetings with the ruler in Cusco, they brought tributes: wares made from gold and silver, gold and silver ores, and gold powder. The armies wore armour made of gold plate. One of the gardens in Cusco was made up entirely of gold, featuring life-size gold animal figures, bushes, trees and flowers.

After his capture, Atahualpa quickly realized that the Spaniards were only interested in gold and silver. However, he was wrong in thinking that if he gave them an unearthly ransom, they would release him. According to a report sent to the King of Spain, Atahualpa complied with the agreement and handed over “a house full of gold, twenty feet tall and eighteen wide” and “such a large amount of silver that it could not be estimated”. After that, he was deemed useless and executed by strangling.

The rich life of mummies

When an Incan king died, his entrails were removed, put into special vessels and buried in a safe place. The body was mummified – embalmed and dried in the sun. A crowd would gather and spend several days lamenting loudly, dancing and singing sombre songs while getting drunk on chicha (corn beer). The king could not go to the afterlife alone; his favourite wives were strangled, along with his faithful servants, all of whom would accompany the king’s soul. According to the account of the Jesuit Bernabé Cobo, most of the chosen ones welcomed such a death with joy as a great honour. If someone disagreed, they were considered immoral.

After the Spaniards killed Atahualpa, a group of his lovers interrupted the funeral by running in and throwing themselves on the king’s body; the women took their own lives that same evening.

Mummification ensured the deceased a continued rich social life. The kings’ mummies were kept in their palaces or in the temple of the sun, seated, wearing golden masks and festive robes. They were cared for by their relatives, priests and servants, who brought them food and carried them in a sedan to places they had particularly valued during their lifetime, or to visit other homes. Apparently, some of them talked to the mummies to find out what they wanted. One can imagine the bewilderment of those Spaniards who, on agreeing to marry a princess, were directed to her mummified father. The servants also took care of the mummies’ physiological needs, such as urination. Some of the kings had been landowners, so certain provinces worked to support a specific mummy. During the Civil War, as part of the struggle for the throne, one of Atahualpa’s men destroyed the mummy of Túpac Inca Yupanqui, which shows that the mummies played an important political role.

Admission to the temples in Cusco was reserved for the aristocracy, priests and priestesses, so the most important religious holidays were celebrated in the central square in front of the temple. The mummies would be brought out and placed around the table. Each had their own priests, and a servant whose chief role was to chase flies away. The job of the bards was to extol the great deeds of the deceased.

Sometimes, the life of a mummy was based on a plan made by the ruler when they were still alive. According to the notes of Juan de Betanzos, Túpac Inca Yupanqui planned an entire, intricate ceremony which was to take place one year after his death and last several weeks. All residents were ordered to leave the capital and go to the surrounding mountains, visiting places important to the king along the way. His great deeds were remembered, and a battle he won was staged (with women playing the warriors). At the end of the celebrations, a great fire was lit and all of Túpac’s robes were thrown onto it, along with leaves of the sacred coca plant and a thousand lambs. In addition, a thousand boys and girls were sacrificed and buried. When the celebrations were over, it was announced that Túpac Inca Yupanqui was now in heaven with the sun.

In their book Religion and Empire: The Dynamics of Aztec and Inca Expansionism, Geoffrey W. Conrad and Arthur A. Demarest argued that both the Aztec and Inca empires had largely collapsed under the weight of their own religious demands. In the case of the Incas, this relates to the increasing costs of the cult of the deceased rulers, as indicated by another example: Huayna Capac went on a three-year military expedition solely to obtain the items – mainly gold – needed for his mother’s funeral rites. When he returned, a two-month funeral was held, during which numerous offerings were made, scenes from his mother’s life were staged, and banqueters drank chicha from golden goblets.

The mummies were huacas – objects imbued with sacred power. But it was not just the mummies themselves that represented the royal huaca: there were also many doubles that could replace the king at religious ceremonies or on the battlefield. According to one account, Atahualpa ordered an effigy of himself to be made, which he endowed with his own hair and nails, naming it ‘brother of the Inca’. Figures like these were worshipped like the ruler himself. The king could also ‘act’ in the guise of stones to which he gave his name. In front of the entrance to Cusco there was a huge sacred stone, considered to be a petrified former emperor guarding the capital city and the dynasty residing within (the cult of stones was widespread within the Empire – according to certain traditions, the stones came to life to support the Inca army, and after winning they returned to their previous form).

It is worth adding that Inca cosmology was based on a balance between the opposing qualities of hanan and hurin. The first category included all that was masculine, older, and related to the daytime; the second included all that was feminine, the unknown, the underground, and related to the night. According to this cosmology, the Inca state relied on a division into male and female cults, organizations and practices. Regrettably, we know almost nothing about the female elements. Men were in charge of the temple of the sun; we know that there were priestesses of the moon and that, by analogy, they were led by a queen. But this segment of Inca culture was beyond the scope of the missionaries’ and conquistadors’ enquiries, which focused on information relating to men. The men, meanwhile, were not privy to the feminine mysteries and knew nothing about them. The privileges of aristocratic women in the Inca state were much greater than those of their contemporary noblewomen in Europe.

The Empire and its defeat

The Europeans developed two main fantasies about the Incas. The first concerns their fabulous wealth; the second, the socialist structure of the state. It seems the former was much closer to the truth. Contrary to 18th-century European utopian interpretations, the Inca state was not a socialist country. In fact, according to Alfred Métraux, there was an ideology of despotism driven by a certain group – the aristocracy and their administration – who awarded surplus products to their own kind rather than distribute them fairly (or earmarked them for provisions for workers and soldiers).

The Incas ruled areas where several hundred languages were spoken, and the peoples inhabited deserts, mountains, coasts and jungles. Historians have pointed out that no other civilization of that time was able to cover all possible ecosystems, from equatorial to sub-arctic. The emperor made all the major decisions based on meticulously conducted censuses and information from officials and local caciques. The official language of Quechua was introduced for the needs of the Empire and a 70,000 kilometre-long road network was developed. Huge groups of people were relocated, sometimes to places thousands of kilometres from their home regions (although efforts were made to place them somewhere with the same conditions and climate as where they had lived before).

Authority within the Empire was structured like a pyramid. The role played by the king is well illustrated by the fact that the Empire completely disintegrated following the sudden death of Atahualpa. Without him, it was not possible to organize armed resistance, which was one of the reasons for the rapid and quite bizarre defeat of the mighty state in the fight against the much smaller army of the foreign aggressor.

No one can deny the size, administrative prowess, and engineering and architectural genius of the Inca Empire, but it should be remembered that – like the Aztec Empire, which benefited from the earlier achievements of the Toltecs, among others – the Incas also drew on the achievements of their predecessors (for example, their masterful gold working could have originated from the Kingdom of Chimor, and the fundamental cult of the sun from Tiwanaku).

Diplomacy was the first port of call for the Incas: they persuaded the peoples they encountered to submit to Inca rule, rewarding them and telling them about the advantages of their decision, but also threatening them with what would happen if they refused. Only when diplomacy failed did they resort to violence and cruelty. Following successful military expeditions, the troops would return to the capital, celebrating their victory, with the heads of their opponents impaled on their spears. Necklaces were made from the teeth of their enemies. Another interesting example of the grotesquery of the Incas were the drums made from the skin of those who had fallen to the victors: the skin was stretched in such a way that when the drum was played, it gave the impression that a miniature version of the deceased was playing on its own belly.

There was a special prison for those suspected of rebellion – a locked building in which jaguars roamed. If the prisoner survived there for three days, it was thought that the gods wanted him to continue living. His property was confiscated, and he spent the rest of his life in service at the temple.

According to Polish researchers Jan Szemiński and Mariusz Ziółkowski, the Incas practised wartime cannibalism, symbolically treating the defeated enemy as an animal that is not negotiated with, but destroyed. For a culture that valued mummification, bodily annihilation must have been deemed truly horrific.

Human sacrifice was not seen on the same scale among the Incas as among the Aztecs, or even within the Pachacámac culture, but it did occur – during the most important holidays, or in situations of great danger, cataclysm, epidemic, crop failure, or the king falling ill. It has been difficult to establish the scale of child and infant sacrifices. The victims came from different parts of the Empire; they were intoxicated with alcohol and then either strangled or buried alive. They had to be physically perfect – any mark on their skin disqualified them. We know that the victims were very well cared for and prepared for the ceremony over many months. If some researchers are to be believed, as in the case of the king’s lovers and servants, these victims also felt that their sacrifice was a great honour and a guarantee that they would enter the afterlife. Most frequently, however, the subjects of sacrifice were llamas. During festivities, a sanko cake was soaked in their blood and then eaten. The resemblance to the Catholic Mass here is quite intriguing.

Historians have pointed to one more reason for the defeat of the Incas (analogous to the defeat of the Aztecs): the aversion of the people to oppressive rulers and their eagerness to join the Spaniards during the conquest. However, when it transpired that the Europeans brought with them much greater levels of oppression and cruelty, the Incas began to hanker after the rule of a divine dynasty. Notions of former greatness and glory found their expression in the writings of Inca Garcilas de la Vega, and became motives for the subsequent uprisings striving for independence.

According to the beliefs of today’s Quechua people, the Spanish conquest destroyed the balance between heaven and earth. However, this balance is set to return. Andean folklore includes the legend of Atahualpa’s head, buried somewhere in Cusco, from which a body is slowly growing back into the earth. When the king is resurrected, he will emerge from Lake Titicaca to judge those who have harmed people and nature.

Illustration by Joanna Grochocka
Illustration by Joanna Grochocka

I used the following books: T.N. D’Altroy, The Incas, edition II; J. Szemiński & M. Ziółkowski, Mity, rytuały i polityka Inków [Myths, Rituals and Politics of the Incas]; Å. Hultkrantz, The Religions of the American Indians; and A. Métraux, Les Incas [The History of the Incas], and an article by J.W. Bastien, Atahuallpa, [in:] The Encyclopedia of Religion (ed. M. Eliade), vol. I.


Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster

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