Viracocha and the Legendary Origins of the Inca

Viracocha
Viracocha. Artist: Guaman Poma

Viracocha and the Legendary Origins of the Inca:

The Inca people of the Andean region of South America had a complete creation myth which involved Viracocha, their Creator God. According to legend, Viracocha emerged from Lake Titicaca and created all of the things in the world, including man, before sailing off into the Pacific Ocean.

The Inca Culture:

The Inca culture of western South America was one of the most culturally rich and complex societies encountered by the Spanish during the Age of Conquest (1500-1550).

The Inca ruled a mighty empire that stretched from present-day Colombia to Chile. They had complicated society ruled by the emperor in the city of Cuzco. Their religion centered on a small pantheon of gods including Viracocha, the Creator, Inti, the Sun, and Chuqui Illa, the Thunder. The constellations in the night sky were revered as special celestial animals. They also worshiped huacas: places and things that were somehow extraordinary, like a cave, a waterfall, a river or even a rock that had an interesting shape.

Inca Record Keeping and the Spanish Chroniclers:

It is important to note that although the Inca did not have writing, they had a sophisticated record-keeping system. They had a whole class of individuals whose duty it was to remember oral histories, passed down from generation to generation. They also had quipus, sets of knotted strings which were remarkably accurate, especially when dealing with numbers.

It was by these means that the Inca creation myth was perpetuated. After the conquest, several Spanish chroniclers wrote down the creation myths they heard. Although they represent a valuable source, the Spanish were far from impartial: they thought they were hearing dangerous heresy and judged the information accordingly.

Therefore, several different versions of the Inca creation myth exist: what follows is a compilation of sorts of the major points on which the chroniclers agree.

Viracocha Creates the World:

In the beginning, all was darkness and nothing existed. Viracocha the Creator came forth from the waters of Lake Titicaca and created the land and the sky before returning to the lake. He also created a race of people - in some versions of the story they were giants. These people and their leaders displeased Viracocha, so he came out of the lake again and flooded the world to destroy them. He also turned some of the men into stones. Then Viracocha created the Sun, Moon and stars.

People are Made and Come Forth:

Then Viracocha made men to populate the different areas and regions of the world. He created people, but left them inside the Earth. The Inca referred to the first men as Vari Viracocharuna. Viracocha then created another group of men, also called viracochas. He spoke to these viracochas and made them remember the different characteristics of the peoples that would populate the world. Then he sent all of the viracochas forth except for two. These viracochas went to the caves, streams, rivers and waterfalls of the land - every place where Viracocha had determined that people would come forth from the Earth.

The viracochas spoke to the people in these places, telling them the time had come for them to come out of the Earth. The people came forth and populated the land.

Viracocha and the Canas People:

Viracocha then spoke to the two that had remained. He sent one to the east to the region called Andesuyo and the other to the west to Condesuyo. Their mission, like the other viracochas, was to awaken the people and tell them their stories. Viracocha himself set out in the direction of the city of Cuzco. As he went along, he awoke those people who were in his path but who had not yet been awakened. Along the way to Cuzco, he went to the province of Cacha and awoke the Canas people, who emerged from the Earth but did not recognize Viracocha. They attacked him and he made it rain fire upon a nearby mountain.

The Canas threw themselves at his feet and he forgave them.

Viracocha Founds Cuzco and Walks Over the Sea:

Viracocha continued to Urcos, where he sat on the high mountain and gave the people a special statue. Then Viracocha founded the city of Cuzco. There, he called forth from the Earth the Orejones: these "big-ears" (they placed large golden discs in their earlobes) would become the lords and ruling class of Cuzco. Viracocha also gave Cuzco its name. Once that was done, he walked to the sea, awakening people as he went. When he reached the ocean, the other viracochas were waiting for him. Together they walked off across the ocean after giving his people one last word of advice: beware of false men who would come and claim that they were the returned viracochas.

Variations of the Myth:

Because of the number of conquered cultures, the means of keeping the story and the unreliable Spaniards who first wrote it down, there are several variations of the myth. For example, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (1532-1592) tells a legend from the Cañari people (who lived south of Quito) in which two brothers escaped Viracocha’s destructive flood by climbing a mountain. After the waters went down, they made a hut. One day they came home to find food and drink there for them. This happened several times, so one day they hid and saw two Cañari women bring the food. The brothers came out of hiding but the women ran away. The men then prayed to Viracocha, asking him to send the women back. Viracocha granted their wish and the women came back: the legend says that all the Cañari are descended from these four people.

Father Bernabé Cobo (1582-1657) tells the same story in greater detail.

Importance of the Inca Creation Myth:

This creation myth was very important to the Inca people. The places where the people emerged from the Earth, such as waterfalls, caves and springs, were venerated as huacas - special places inhabited by a sort of semi-divine spirit. At the place in Cacha where Viracocha allegedly called fire down upon the belligerent Canas people, the Inca built a shrine and revered it as a huaca. At Urcos, where Viracocha had sat and given the people a statue, they built a shrine as well. They made a massive bench made of gold to hold the statue. Francisco Pizarro would later claim the bench as part of his share of the loot from Cuzco.

The nature of Inca religion was inclusive when it came to conquered cultures: when they conquered and subjugated a rival tribe, they incorporated that tribe's beliefs in their religion (although in a lesser position to their own gods and beliefs). This inclusive philosophy is in stark contrast to the Spanish, who imposed Christianity on the conquered Inca while attempting to stamp out all vestiges of native religion. Because the Inca people allowed their vassals to keep their religious culture (to an extent) there were several creation stories at the time of the conquest, as Father Bernabé Cobo points out:

"With regard to who these people may have been and where they escaped from that great inundation, they tell a thousand absurd stories. Each nation claims for itself the honor of having been the first people and that everyone else came from them." (Cobo, 11)

Nevertheless, the different origin legends have a few elements in common and Viracocha was universally revered in Inca lands as the creator. Nowadays, the traditional Quechua people of South America - the descendants of the Inca - know this legend and others, but most have converted to Christianity and no longer believe in these legends in a religious sense.

Sources:

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, 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.