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The Inca culture of Western South America had a complex religion and one of their most important deities was Inti, the Sun. There were many temples to Inti and Sun worship affected many aspects of life for the Inca, including architecture, festivals and the semi-divine status of the royal family.
The Inca Empire
The Inca Empire stretched from present-day Colombia to Chile and included most of Peru and Ecuador. The Inca were an advanced, wealthy culture with sophisticated record-keeping, astronomy and art. Originally from the Lake Titicaca area, the Inca were once one tribe of many in the high Andes, but they began a systematic program of conquest and assimilation and by the time of their first contact with Europeans their Empire was vast and complex. Spanish conquistadors under Francisco Pizarro first encountered the Inca in 1533 and swiftly conquered the Empire.
Inca religion was complicated and incorporated many aspects of the sky and nature. The Inca had a pantheon of sorts: major Gods who had individual personalities and duties. The Inca also venerated countless huacas: these were minor spirits that inhabited places, things and sometimes people. A huaca could be anything that stood out from its surroundings: a large tree, a waterfall, or even a person with a curious birthmark. The Inca also venerated their dead and considered the royal family to be semi-divine, descended from the Sun.
Inti, the Sun God
Of the major gods, Inti, the Sun God, was second only to Viracocha, the creator god, in importance. Inti was higher-ranking than other gods such as the Thunder God and Pachamama, the Earth Mother. The Inca visualized Inti as a man: his wife was the Moon. Inti was the Sun and controlled all that implies: the Sun brings warmth, light and sunshine necessary for agriculture. The Sun (in conjunction with the Earth) had the power over all food: it was by his will that crops grew and animals thrived.
The Sun God and the Royal Family
The Inca royal family believed they were directly descended from Apu Inti ("Lord Sun") through the first great Inca ruler, Manco Capac. The Inca royal family was therefore considered semi-divine by the people. The Inca himself - the word Inca actually means "King" or "Emperor" although it now refers to the entire culture - was considered very special and subject to certain rules and privileges. Atahualpa, the last true Emperor of the Inca, was the only one observed by the Spaniards. As the descendant of the Sun, his every whim was fulfilled. Anything he touched was stored away, later to be burned: these included everything from half-eaten ears of corn to sumptuous cloaks and clothing. Because the Inca royal family identified themselves with the Sun, it is no accident that the greatest temples in the Empire were dedicated to Inti.
The Temple of Cuzco
The greatest temple in the Inca Empire was the temple of the Sun in Cuzco. The Inca people were rich in gold, and this temple was unrivalled in its magnificence. It was known as Coricancha ("Golden Temple") or Inti Cancha or Inti Wasi ("Temple of the Sun" or "House of the Sun"). The temple complex was massive, and included quarters for the priests and servants. There was a special building for the mamaconas, women who served the Sun and even slept in the same room as one of the Sun idols: they were said to be his wives. The Incas were master stonemasons and the temple represented the pinnacle of Inca stonework: parts of the temple are still visible today (the Spanish built a Dominican church and convent on the site). The temple was full of golden objects: some walls were covered in gold. Much of this gold was sent to Cajamarca as part of Atahualpa's Ransom.
Much Inca architecture was designed and built to assist in the worship of the Sun, Moon and stars. The Inca often built pillars which marked the position of the Sun at the solstices, which were celebrated by grand festivals. The Inca lords would preside at such festivals. In the great temple of the Sun, a high-ranking Inca woman - generally the sister of the reigning Inca, if one were available - was in charge of the cloistered women who served as the Sun's “wives.” The priests observed holy days such as solstices and prepared the appropriate sacrifices and offerings.
The Inca could not predict solar eclipses, and when one occurred, it tended to trouble them greatly. The diviners would attempt to figure out why Inti was displeased, and sacrifices would be offered. The Inca rarely practiced human sacrifice, but an eclipse sometimes was considered cause to do so. The reigning Inca would often fast for days after an eclipse and withdraw from public duties.
One of the most important religious events of the Inca was Inti Ramyi, the annual festival of the sun. It took place in the seventh month of the Inca Calendar on June 20 or 21, the date of the Summer Solstice. Inti Raymi was celebrated all over the Empire, but the main celebration took place in Cuzco, where the reigning Inca would preside over the ceremonies and festivities. It opened with the sacrifice of 100 llamas selected for brown fur. The festival lasted for several days. Statues of the Sun God and other gods were brought out, dressed up and paraded around and sacrifices were made to them. There was much drinking, singing and dancing. Special statues were made of wood, representing certain gods: these were burned at the end of the festival. After the festival, the ashes of the statues and sacrifices were brought to a special place on a hillside: only those disposing of these ashes were ever allowed to go there.
Inca Sun Worship
The Inca Sun god was relatively benign: he was not destructive or violent like some Aztec Sun Gods like Tonatiuh or Tezcatlipoca. He only showed his wrath when there was an eclipse, at which point the Inca priests would sacrifice people and animals to appease him.
The Spanish priests considered Sun Worship to be pagan at best (and thinly-disguised Devil worship at worst) and went to great lengths to stamp it out. Temples were destroyed, idols burned, festivals forbade. It is a grim testament to their zeal that very few Andeans practice any sort of traditional religion today.
Most of the great Inca goldwork at the Cuzco Temple of the Sun and elsewhere found its way into the melting fires of the Spanish conquistadors - countless artistic and cultural treasures were melted down and shipped to Spain. Father Bernabé Cobo tells the story of one Spanish soldier named Manso Serra who was awarded a massive Inca sun idol as his share of Atahualpa's Ransom. Serra lost the idol gambling and its eventual fate is unknown.
Inti is enjoying a bit of a comeback lately. After centuries of being forgotten, Inti Raymi is once more being celebrated in Cuzco and other parts of the former Inca Empire. The festival is popular among native Andeans, who see it as a way to reclaim their lost heritage, and tourists, who enjoy the colorful dancers.
De Betanzos, Juan. (translated and edited by Roland Hamilton and Dana Buchanan) Narrative of the Incas. Austin: the University of Texas Press, 2006 (1996).
Cobo, Father Bernabe. "Inca Religion and Customs." Roland Hamilton (Translator), Paperback, New Ed edition, University of Texas Press, May 1, 1990.
Sarmiento de Gamboa, Pedro. (translated by Sir Clement Markham). History of the Incas. 1907. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999.