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12.22: Religion in the Inca Empire

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    Learning Objective

    • Learn about the forms of worship of the Sun god Inti, the religious hierarchy, and the cultural assimilation of outlying clans in the Inca Empire

    Key Points

    • The Inca rulers worshipped the Sun god Inti and built the central temple, Qurikancha, in Cusco.
    • The Inca elite incorporated the varied populations into the empire by allowing the worship of other deities.
    • Various festivals celebrated the different aspects of the Sun. The most important of these festivals was Inti Raymi, which focused on abundance.



    The Earth goddess worshipped by many clans in outlying areas of the Inca Empire. Inca rulers enforced a religious system that favored Inti, but they incorporated the Earth goddess as a lesser deity.


    The central Sun god the Inca worshipped. He represented abundance, harvests, and fertility, and was considered more important than any other deity worshipped in the region.

    Inti Raymi

    The most important religious festival of the Inca year. It means “Sun Festival” and occurred close to the winter solstice, which happens in June in South America.

    The Inca religious system utilized oral traditions to pass down the mythology of their Sun god, Inti. This benevolent male deity was often represented as a gold disk with large rays and a human face. Golden disks were commonly displayed at temples across the Inca Empire and were also associated with the ruling emperor, who was supposed to be a direct descendent of Inti, and divinely powerful. Inti was also associated with the growth of crops and material abundance, especially in the high Andes, where the Inca centered their power.

    Some myths state that this benevolent entity, along with Mama Killa, the Moon goddess, had children. Inti ordered these children, named Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo, to descend from the sky and onto Earth with a divine golden wedge. This wedge penetrated the earth, and they built the capital of Cusco and civilization on that very spot.

    Inti Worship

    Royalty were considered to be direct descendants of Inti and, therefore, able to act as intermediaries between the physical and spiritual realms. The high priest of Inti was called the Willaq Umu. He was often the brother or a direct blood relation of the Sapa Inca, or emperor, and was the second most powerful person in the empire. The royal family oversaw the collection of goods, spiritual festivals, and the worship of Inti. Power consolidated around the cult of the Sun, and scholars suggest that the emperor Pachacuti expanded this Sun cult to garner greater power in the 15th century.

    An illustrated representation of the Sun god Inti. This image of Inti appears at the center of Argentina’s modern-day flag.

    Conquered provinces were expected to dedicate a third of their resources, such as herds and crops, directly to the worship of Inti. Each province also had a temple with male and female priests worshipping the Inti cult. Becoming a priest was considered one of the most honorable positions in society. Female priests were called mamakuna, or “the chosen women,” and they wove special cloth and brewed chicha for religious festivals.

    The main temple in the Inca Empire, called Qurikancha, was built in Cusco. The temple housed the bodies of deceased emperors and also contained a vast array of physical representations of Inti, many of which were removed or destroyed when the Spanish arrived. Qurikancha was also the main site of the religious festival Inti Raymi, which means “Sun Festival.” It was considered the most important festival of the year, and is still celebrated on the winter solstice in Cusco. It represents the mythical origin of the Inca and the hope for good crops in the coming year as the winter sun returns from darkness.

    The festival of Inti Raymi. This festival is celebrated in late June in the capital of Cusco every year. Thousands of visitors arrive to see the procession and rituals.

    Religious Expansion

    Religious life was centered in the Andes near Cusco, but as the Inca Empire expanded its sphere of influence, they had to incorporate a wide array of religious customs and traditions to avoid outright revolt. Ayllus, or family clans, often worshipped very localized entities and gods. The ruling Inca often incorporated these deities into the Inti cosmos. For example, Pachamama, the Earth goddess, was a long-worshipped deity before the Inca Empire. She was incorporated into Inca culture as a lower divine entity. Similarly, the Chimú along the northern coast of Peru worshipped the Moon, rather than the Sun, probably due to the hot, arid climate and their proximity to the ocean. The Inca also incorporated the Moon into their religious myths and practices in the form of Mama Killa.

    Sacrifice and the Afterlife

    The Inca believed in reincarnation. Death was a passage to the next world that was full of difficulties. The spirit of the dead, camaquen, would need to follow a long dark road. The trip required the assistance of a black dog that was able to see in the dark. Most Incas imagined the after world to be very similar to the Euro-American notion of heaven, with flower-covered fields and snow-capped mountains. It was important for the Inca to ensure they did not die as a result of burning or that the body of the deceased did not become incinerated. This is because of the underlying belief that a vital force would disappear and this would threaten their passage to the after world. Those who obeyed the Inca moral code (do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy) went to live in the “Sun’s warmth” while others spent their eternal days “in the cold earth.”

    Skull showing signs of artificial cranial deformation. Although this skull predates the Inca Empire, and is from the Nazca culture, Inca elites would reshape infants’ skulls in a similar manner to illustrate a higher class status.

    Human sacrifice has been exaggerated by myth, but it did play a role in Inca religious practices. As many as 4,000 servants, court officials, favorites, and concubines were killed upon the death of the Inca Huayna Capac in 1527, for example. The Incas also performed child sacrifices during or after important events, such as the death of the Sapa Inca or during a famine. These sacrifices were known as capacocha.

    The Inca also practiced cranial deformation. They achieved this by wrapping tight cloth straps around the heads of newborns in order to alter the shape of their soft skulls into a more conical form; this cranial deformation distinguished social classes of the communities, with only the nobility having it.

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