The Dark Constellations of the Inca Empire

The Milky Way
The Milky Way. Image by NASA

The stars in the sky were very important to the religion of the Inca. They identified constellations and individual stars and assigned them a purpose. According to the Inca, many of the stars were there to protect animals: every animal had a corresponding star or constellation which would look out for it. Today, traditional Quechua communities still see the same constellations in the sky as they did centuries ago.

Inca Culture and Religion

The Inca culture thrived in the Andes Mountains in western South America from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries. Although they started out as one ethnic group among many in the region, they embarked upon a campaign of conquest and assimilation and by the fifteenth century they had achieved pre-eminence in the Andes and controlled an empire which stretched from present-day Colombia to Chile. Their religion was complicated. They had a pantheon of greater gods which included Viracocha, the creator, Inti, the Sun, and Chuqui Illa, the thunder god. They also worshiped huacas, which were spirits which could inhabit just about any remarkable phenomenon, such as a waterfall, large boulder or tree.

The Inca and the Stars

The sky was very important to the Inca culture. The sun and moon were considered gods and temples and pillars were laid out specifically so that heavenly bodies such as the sun would pass over pillars or through windows on certain days, such as the summer solstice.

The stars played an important role in Inca cosmology. The Inca believed that Viracocha had planned for the protection of all living things, and that to each star corresponded a particular sort of animal or bird. The star grouping known as the Pleiades held particular influence over the lives of animals and birds.

This group of stars was not considered a greater god but rather a huaca, and Inca shamans would regularly make sacrifices to it.

Inca Constellations

Like many other cultures, the Inca grouped the stars into constellations. They saw many animals and other things from their daily lives when they looked to the stars. There were two sorts of constellations for the Inca. The first are of the common variety, where groupings of stars are linked in connect-the-dots fashion to make images of gods, animals, heroes, etc. The Inca saw some such constellations in the sky, but considered them inanimate. The other constellations were seen in the absence of stars: these dark blotches on the Milky Way were seen as animals and were considered living or animate. They lived in the Milky Way, which was considered a river. The Inca were one of very few cultures who found their constellations in the absence in stars.

Mach’acuay – the Serpent

One of the major "dark" constellations was Mach'acuay, the Serpent. Although snakes are rare at the high altitudes where the Inca Empire thrived, there are a few, and the Amazon River basin is not far away to the east. The Inca saw serpents as highly mythological animals: rainbows were said to be serpents named amarus.

Mach'acuay was said to oversee all snakes on Earth, protecting them and helping them procreate. The constellation Mach'acuay is a wavy dark band located on the Milky Way between Canis Major and the Southern Cross. The constellation serpent "emerges" head-first in the Inca region in August and begins to set in February: interestingly, this mirrors the activity of real snakes in the zone, which are more active during the Andean rainy season of December to February.

Hanp’atu – the Toad

In a somewhat surprising twist on nature, Hanp'atu the Toad chases Mach'acuay the Serpent out of the Earth in August as that segment of the Milky Way becomes visible in Peru. Hanp'atu is seen in a lumpish dark cloud between Mach'acuay's tail and the Southern Cross. Like the snake, the toad was an important animal to the Inca.

The nocturnal croaking and chirping of frogs and toads was listened to attentively by Inca diviners, who believed that the more these amphibians croaked, the more likely it was to rain soon. Also like the snakes, the Andean toads are more active during the rainy season; in addition, they croak more at night when their constellation is visible in the sky. Hanp'atu also had the added significance that his appearance in the night sky coincided with the beginning of the Inca agricultural cycle: when he showed up, it meant that the time to plant had come.

Yutu – the Tinamou

Tinamous are clumsy ground birds similar to partridges, common in the Andean region. Located at the base of the Southern Cross, Yutu is the next dark constellation to emerge as the Milky Way becomes visible in the night sky. Yutu is a dark, kite-shaped spot which corresponds to the Coal Sack Nebula. It chases Hanp'atu, which makes some sense because tinamous are known to eat small frogs and lizards. The tinamou may have been selected (as opposed to any other bird) because it exhibits remarkable social behavior: male tinamous attract and mate with females, who lay their eggs in his nest before leaving to repeat the process with another male. Males therefore incubate the eggs, which could come from 2-5 mating partners.

Urcuchillay – the Llama

The next constellation to emerge is the llama, perhaps the most important of the constellations to the Inca. The Although the llama is a dark constellation, the stars Alpha and Beta Centauri serve as its “eyes” and are the first to emerge when the llama rises in November. The constellation consists of two llamas, a mother and baby. Llamas were of great importance to the Inca: they were food, beasts of burden and sacrifices to the gods. These sacrifices often took place at certain times with astronomical significance such as equinoxes and solstices. Llama herders were particularly attentive to the movements of the celestial llama and offered it sacrifices.

Atoq – the Fox

The fox is a small black splotch at the feet of the llama: this is appropriate because Andean foxes eat baby vicuñas.

When they foxes come by, however, the adult vicuñas gang up and attempt to trample the foxes to death. This constellation has a connection to earthly foxes: the Sun passes through the constellation in December, the time when baby foxes are born.

Significance of Inca Star Worship

The Inca constellations and their worship - or at least a certain respect for them and an understanding of their role in the agricultural cycle - are one of few aspects of Inca culture that survived the conquest, colonial era and 500 years of forced assimilation. The original Spanish chroniclers mentioned the constellations and their importance, but not in any great detail: fortunately, modern researchers have been able to fill in the gaps by making friends and doing fieldwork in rural, traditional Andean Quechua communities where people still see the same constellations their ancestors saw centuries ago.

The nature of Inca reverence for their dark constellations reveals much about Inca culture and religion. To the Inca, everything was connected: "The universe of the Quechuas is not composed of a series of discrete phenomena and events, but rather there is a powerful synthetic principle underlying the perception and ordering of objects and events in the physical environment." (Urton 126). The snake in the sky had the same cycle as earthly snakes and lived in a certain harmony with the other celestial animals. Consider this in contrast to traditional western constellations, which were a series of images (scorpion, hunter, scales, etc) that really didn't interact with one another or events here on Earth (except for vague fortunetelling).


Cobo, Bernabé. (translated by Roland Hamilton) Inca Religion and Customs. Austin: the University of Texas Press, 1990.

Sarmiento de Gamboa, Pedro. (translated by Sir Clement Markham). History of the Incas. 1907. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999.

Urton, Gary. Animals and Astronomy in the Quechua Universe. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. Vol. 125, No. 2. (April 30, 1981). P. 110-127.