To the people of Tahuantinsuyu, or Inca Peru, it seemed only natural to worship the Sun and to believe that there were gods who made thunderstorms, earthquakes and rain.
It seemed natural, too, to believe that spirits living in the earth made the crops grow, or controlled the flow of the streams and rivers. After all, without the Sun, the world would die, and without rain the crops would fail. And if a thunderstorm or earthquake occurred, the result could be disaster, destruction and death.
Offering Prayers and Sacrifices
Like all peoples who depend on agriculture in order to live, the Incas were always at risk from the unpredictability of Nature. This was why it was so important for them to make regular sacrifices and offer prayers to Illapa, the thunder god: otherwise, he might pour down floods of rain and destroy fields and houses.
Similarly, the great god Viracocha, who had created the world, needed to be kept in a good mood or he might make volcanoes erupt and split the earth open, releasing the fire-devils that lay beneath, ready to burn everything and everyone to ashes in great conflagrations of fire.
Pleasing the gods was so vital to the Incas and so much part of their everyday life that the year was virtually one long succession of rituals, ceremonies and prayers.
Dressing up for the Festivities
The very names of the months in the Inca calendar were those of religious festivals: Airiway (April) meant Dance of Young Maize. Almuari (May) meant Song of the Harvest. There was also Uma Raymi (October), the Festival of Water.
At these and other important Inca religious ceremonies, dressing up in brilliant clothes formed a prominent part of the festivities. The Incas believed that it pleased their gods to see them colorfully dressed in fresh new garments. This was never more so than in the festival of Inti Raymi, the greatest festival of all which honored the Sun god Inti.
In the third week of June, the winter solstice occurred in the southern hemisphere. The Sun began to move southwards from the northern hemisphere towards the Equator, so heralding the end of winter. At that time, the hills around the Inca capital, Cuzco, were the scene of great ceremonial and celebration as Incas prepared to honor the great god of the Sun.
Celebrating Inti Raymi, the Great Sun Festival
This was when Inca men put on brilliant patterned head-dresses and collars made of brightly colored feathers. They also painted their faces red with cinnabar or purple with achoive or genipa plants.
Inti Raymi began at dawn and while the priests chanted hymns and prayers, young children were led round a huge idol of the Sun god. This consisted of a golden disc, usually in the form of a human face with great rays spreading out all around it.
Then, the children, who were usually aged about ten or twelve, were buried alive together with gold and silver objects, llamas and ground seashells. Afterwards, there was a great banquet and people danced and sang in the main square of Cuzco.
The Inca Approach to Human Sacrifice
Unlike the Aztecs of Mexico, who believed they had to “nourish” the Sun with daily humanhearts, the Incas did not make frequent sacrifices for the sake of their religion. Boys under age ten were considered suitable for the purpose, but only if they belonged to a family which had numerous sons.
In addition, human sacrifice was performed only on especially important occasions. One of them was Inti Raymi and another was the coronation of a new Sapa Inca when as many as two hundred children might be killed as sacrifices.
They were usually about ten years old and the girls among them would be taken from the Acilahuasi, the houses of the Chosen Women. The children were given a great deal of food and encouraged to get drunk on great quantities of chica.
Afterwards, they were killed and offered to Inti, to ensure that the Sapa Inca, who personified the Sun, would enjoy good health, long life and a successful reign. If by any chance he fell ill, a ceremony called Capaccocha took place, in which two infants were sacrificed.
Sacrificing Animals, Food and Ornaments
It was much more usual, though, for the Incas to sacrifice llamas, guinea pigs, coca leaves, maize, gold and silver ornaments, small human-shaped wood carvings and sometimes beads, shells and feathers. Occasionally, too, they plucked out a few hairs from their eyebrows or eyelashes and sacrificed them to the gods. Or like the Aztecs, they pricked their ear-lobes and offered the blood that flowed from them.
Food was another offering made to the Inca gods and each day, at the Curi-Cancha in Cuzco, a wood fire was lit at sunrise and sprinkled with food for the Sun god to eat. Later in the day, priests sacrificed a dark red-colored llama, which was then burned on a coca wood fire.