The Quest for Cuzco: A Look Into the Mythical Genesis of the Inca Empire

Myth of Manco Capac y Mama Ocllo | Date Unknown | Published by Mapi New | Courtesy of Machu Picchu New

When we think about myths the words magic, fantasy and adventure usually come to mind. Nevertheless, throughout history, myths and legends have been used as an excellent form of oral transmission of culture, customs, and history in most pre-Columbian civilizations that lacked a concise writing system. Most of these fantastical stories explained the origins of the civilizations. For that, they are essential if the understanding of social patterns is the goal of any research. One of the civilizations that possessed several fantastical stories was the Inca civilization, which came to captivate the conquerors through their stories about the creation and formation of the Inca empire. In the vast and multiform vein of Andean folklore, the myths of the towns are relevant for both the magical aura of their stories, as well as the deep content that each of them contains. For in traditions, all the character and features of its people is manifested; in a legend, many times, the dark and long historical process of the region is summed up. Among these stories, two in particular are highlighted: the legend of Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, and the Ayar Brothers.

It can be assured that in the Andean sphere there was no historical sense of events, as we traditionally understand it. The supposed veracity and exact chronology of the events was neither required nor considered necessary. The Cuzco custom of intentionally omitting every episode that bothered the new Lord confirms the opposite. In the change of command in the Inca society, in many cases, it went as far as to ignore certain Incas who had reigned so as not to upset the Inca in turn. Oblivion took over events and people. Only the members of the ayllus or the panacas affected by this order kept their traditions hidden. This way of disrupting the events and memories, added to the lack of writing, explains the contradictory narratives of many of the chronicles and the misrepresentation of the facts motivated by the Spanish misunderstanding. Therefore, with the passage of time and the arrival of the Spanish influence, the Andean people became aware of history, and when trying to look to the past, they could only recover the myths and legends that remained between the separate civilizations.1

Despite the apparent confusion, this Inca story should not be described as purely mythical, as many researchers around the world claim. The documents, relations and numerous testimonies in which the natives claim to have known and seen the last Incas, are irrefutable proof of the existence of this civilization, and therefore, of the Tahuantinsuyu. Human beings, without the support of the written word, can remember two and even three generations previous to them.2

Ayar Brothers | Date Unknown | Author Unknown | Courtesy of Americas Webpage

One of the main myths about the origin of the Incas was that of the Ayar brothers, out of a cave called Pacaratimbo. This place was in the hill Tambotoco. This hill had three windows: Maras Toco, from which it came “without parent generation,” to a spontaneous generation, the group of the Maras; Sutic, window that gave rise to the group of Tampus, and Capac Toco, from which four brothers came out whose names were Ayar Uchu, Ayar Cachi, Ayar Mango and Ayar Auca. They were accompanied by their four sisters, Mama Ocllo, Mama Huaco, Mama Ipacura and Mama Raua. The legendary Ayar brothers and their sisters began a slow walk through mountain ranges and creeks, with the purpose of finding an appropriate place to settle.3

The Ayar brothers soon got rid of Ayar Cachi for fear of his magical powers, because with a single shot of his sling he could tear down hills or cause cracks to emerge. With deceit, they convinced him to return to Pacaritambo to bring the napa, badge of lords, and some golden glasses that they had forgotten, called topacusi. Once Ayar Cachi entered the cave, they closed it with blocks of stone, where he was trapped forever. After getting rid of Ayar Cachi, the brothers continued their journey through the mountains.4

Upon continuing their pilgrimage, the brothers arrived at a place called Guanacancha, four leagues from Cuzco. There they stayed a time sowing and reaping. But not happy, they resumed their march to Tamboquiro, where they spent a few years. Then they continued their journey until they reached Quirirmanta, at the foot of a hill. In that place, a council was held among all the brothers, in which they decided that Ayar Uchu should remain in that place transformed into a main huaca called Huanacauri; however, this did not prevent him from continuing to communicate with his brothers. Mama Huaco, considered as “very strong and right-handed” when arriving at the town of Matagua, took two golden rods and threw them to the north, a key in Colcabamba, but the hard earth did not allow it to swell. However, the second was thrown into a field called Guayanaypata where it penetrated gently.5

The wandering brothers tried to reach the designated place, but finding resistance among the natives, were forced to return to Matagua. While they were there, Manco Capac ordered Ayar Auca to populate the place indicated by the stick. Following the order of his brother, Auca flew to that place, but when he stepped on the ground, he became stone. In this way, under the lithic aspect, Auca was the first to occupy the chosen site, so long desired, and ordered Ayar Mango to name himself, henceforth, Manco Capac.6

Peruvian Andes Landscape | 17 August 2007 | Gustavo Madico | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

This myth, being simple and precise, gives us great informative data about the Inca social structure and especially the role of religion within this society. Interestingly, multiple authors allude to the relationship between the Ayar brothers as incestuous. In the psychoanalytic analysis of the myth, the two fundamental prohibitions are not found: that of incest and that of parricide, and rather, the existence of a behavior of fraternal relationships in which incest appears is given. In this myth, there is no spouse, only the mother–son or brother–sister binomial relationship. Within such a system of relationships, the interdiction made by the father inside the triangle is absent. The kinship system present in the Ayar myth seems to imply, from this perspective, a dual relationship between those mentioned.7 On the other hand, the transformation to stone of one of the brothers is also mentioned. Adopting the lithic form was, in the Andean sphere, a way of perpetuating divinity or sacralizing a character; in this way, the stony form assumed did not prevent him from communicating with his relatives.8

In this narrative, in addition, one of the two women of Manco Capac played a special role: despite being a woman, Mama Huaco was the leader who threw the founding rod for the symbolic possession of Cuzco. In this way, a prototype of a strong and warrior woman is formed, who actively participates in the conquest of Cuzco, fighting alongside men and captaining an army, which definitely illustrates the feminine situation in a mythical time, and demonstrates her social position. A clear equity that constitutes a social structure that is, one could say, egalitarian.9

The second most important myth about the origin of Cuzco (and that will helps us more to project the Inca society) is the Coya myth—also known as the myth of Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo. This myth, notwithstanding, according to historians, is not so pure in its Andean essence, because it was first reported in the Royal Comments of the Incas of the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, a book focused on the Spanish understanding of the new territory known as Peru. Inca Garcilaso talked on one of his trips to Cuzco with his uncle, an Inca who had survived the tyranny of Atahualpa, and when asked who was the first of the Incas, he responded with the following:

In the olden times the whole of this region (Peru) was covered with brush and heath, and people lived in those times like wild beasts, with no religion or government and no towns or houses, and without tilling or sowing the soil, or clothing or covering their flesh, for they did not know how to weave cotton or wool to make clothes. They lived in twos and threes as chance brought them together in caves and crannies in rocks and underground caverns. Like wild beasts they ate the herbs of the field and roots of the trees and fruits growing wild and also human flesh. They covered their bodies with leaves and the bark of trees and animals’ skins. Others went naked. In short, they lived like deer or other game, for they knew nothing of having separate wives.10

Uros floating islands, Titicaca Lake, Peru | August 1st 2015 | Diego Delso (Diego Delso, delso.photo, Licencia CC-BY-SA) | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Sun, seeing men in that state, took pity and was sorry for them, and sent from heaven to earth a son and a daughter of his to indoctrinate them in knowledge of himself, that they might worship him and adopt him as their god, and to give them precepts and laws by which they would live as reasonable and civilized men, and dwell in houses and settled towns, and learn to till the soil, and grow plants and crops, and breed flocks, and use the fruits of the earth like rational beings and not like beasts. With this order and mandate, the Sun set these two children of his in Lake Titicaca,  eighty leagues from here (Cuzco), and bade them go where they would, and wherever they stopped to eat or sleep to try to thrust into the ground a golden wand half a yard long and two fingers in thickness, which he gave them as a sign and token: when this wand should sink into the ground at a single thrust, there the Sun wished them to stop and set up their court.11

Finally the Sun told them: “When you have reduced these people to our service, you shall maintain them in reason and justice, showing mercy, clemency, and always treating them as a merciful father treats his beloved and tender children. Imitate my example in this. I do good to all the world. I give them my light and brightness that they may see and go about their business; I warm them when they are cold; and I grow their pastures and crops, and bring fruit to their trees, and multiply their flocks. I bring rain and calm weather in turn, and I take care to go around the world once a day to observe the wants that exist in the world and to fill and supply them as the one who sustains and benefits men. I wish you as children of mine to follow this example sent down to earth to teach and benefit those men who lived like beasts. And henceforward I establish and nominate you as kings and lords over all the people you may thus instruct with your reason, government, and good works.”12

When the Sun had thus made manifest his will to his two children, he bade them farewell. They left Titicaca and traveled northwards, and wherever they stopped on the way, they thrust the golden wand into the earth, but it never sank in. Thus they reached a small inn or resthouse seven or eight leagues south of this city. Today it is called Pacárec Tampu, “inn or resthouse of the dawn.” The Inca gave it this name because he set out from it about daybreak. It is one of the towns the prince later ordered to be founded, and its inhabitants to this day boast greatly of its name because our first Inca bestowed it. From this place he and his wife reached the valley of Cuzco, which was then a wilderness.13

Inca religion was unusual compared with the pre-Inca civilizations, in that it was inclusive rather than exclusive. The Inca religion took a much more tolerant view, and the peoples incorporated into the Inca Empire were allowed to keep their native religions as long as they were willing to also revere and honor the Inca gods. The Inca objective was to use the official religion as a means to legitimize the Inca conquests. The main deity of the Incas was Inti (sun in Quechua), who was but one of a triad of gods. The other two were the creator god Viracocha and Illapa, the god of weather or thunder. Other important deities were Mama Quilla, the moon, and Pachamama, mother earth. As the functions of the gods often seemed to merge or overlap, and since no Inca deity was considered supreme (not knowing monotheism), researchers have different positions regarding the importance of these divinities, Inti or Viracocha, for the Incas. The Andean worldview in which the Incas participated was based on the principles of duality and reciprocity. This is found in myriad forms: night and day; sun and moon; sky and earth; or the chthonic; above and below; gold and silver; and so on. The world was viewed as being balanced between a series of dual opposing forces. Duality encompasses a division of the social and cosmological world on the vertical plane. This equilibrium was animated by reciprocal exchanges between the active elements. Changes in state in the real world were the direct result of asymmetry in reciprocal relationships, an imbalance between forces, which basically means that the quarrels of the gods affected the real world.14

However, the religious life of the common and subject population of the empire had little to do with the abstract and universal manifestations of the official state religion. At the local level, the cult rather revolved around beings or sacred spirits that lived in places or objects called huacas, or sacred sites. These places included mountains, springs, lakes, rocky outcrops, ancient ruins and caves, as well as objects such as effigies, mummies, oracles: everything man-made. As sacred sites or objects, the huacas were revered by the population that filled them with presents, such as llama and guinea pig meat, brightly colored mineral powders, clothing, coca leaves and chicha (fermented or non-fermented beverages of Latin America, emerging from the Andes and Amazonia regions). The huacas often became temples and were attended by priests maintained with the production of the village camps destined for that purpose.15

Machu Picchu | 18 May 2018 | Zielonamapa.pl (If you want to use this image on your website please credit to zielonamapa.pl with a „do-follow” attribute. Please be respectful to my terms and conditions.) | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The first settlement they made in this valley was on the hill called Huanacauri, to the south of this city. There they tried to thrust the golden wand into the earth and it easily sank in at the first blow and they saw it no more. Then the Inca said to his wife: “Our father the Sun bids us to remain in this valley and make it our dwelling place and home in fulfilment of his will. It is therefore right, queen and sister, that each of us should go out and call together these people so as to instruct them and benefit them as the Sun has ordained.” The first rulers set out from the hill of Huanacauri, each in a different direction, to call the people together, and as that was the first place we know they trod with their feet and because they went out from it to do good to mankind, and made there a temple of the worship of the Sun of his merciful beneficence towards the world. The prince went northwards, and the princess south. They spoke to all the men and women they found in that wilderness and said that their father the Sun had sent them from the sky to be teachers and benefactors to the dwellers in all that land, delivering them from the wild lives they led and in obedience to the commands given by the Sun, their father, calling them together and removing them from those heaths and moors, bringing them to dwell in settled valleys and giving them the food of men instead of that of beasts to eat. The king and queen said these and similar things to the first savages they found in those mountains and heaths, and as the savages beheld two persons clad and adorned with the ornaments that the Sun had given them—and a very different dress from their own—with their ears pierced and opened in the way we their descendants have, and saw that their words and countenances showed them to be children of the Sun, and that they came to mankind to give them towns to dwell in and food to eat, they wondered at what they saw and were at the same time attracted by the promises that were held out to them. Thus they fully credited all they were told, and worshiped and venerated the strangers as children of the Sun and obeyed them as kings. These savages gathered others and repeated the wonders they had seen and heard, and a great number of men and women collected and set out to follow the king and queen wherever they might lead.16

When the princes saw the great crowd that had formed there, they ordered that some should set about supplying open-air meals from them all, so that they should not be driven by hunger to disperse again across the heaths. Others were ordered to work on building huts and houses according to plans made by the Inca. Thus an imperial city began to be settled: it was divided into two halves called Hanan Cuzco, which means upper Cuzco, and Hurin Cuzco, or lower Cuzco. The king wished those he had brought to people Hanan Cuzco, therefore called the upper, and those the queen had brought to people Hurin Cuzco, which was called the lower. The distinction did not imply that the inhabitants of one half should excel those of the other in privileges and exemptions. All were equal like brothers, the children of one father and one mother. The Inca only wished that there should be only one difference and acknowledgement of superiority among them, that those of upper Cuzco be considered and respected as first-born and elder brothers, and those of lower Cuzco be as younger children. In short, they were to be as the right side and the left in any question of the precedence of place and office, since those of the upper town had been gathered by the men and those of the lower by women. In imitation of this, there was later the same division in all towns, great or small, of the empire, which were divided by wards or by lineages, known as hanan aillu and hurin aillu, the upper and lower lineage, or hanan suyu and hurin suyu, the upper and lower district.17

The Sapa (supreme) Inca stood on the cusp of the Inca State embodying the State. The Incas considered him as the son of the God Sun Inti (as seen in the Coya myth), and he was, in effect, both man and god, and his subjects were the “sons of God.” It is believed that the original importance of the Sun God Inti was derived from the origin of corn cultivation in the Andes, which thrives directly at low heights, where the sun’s heat is most intense, and the danger of frost less severe. Anthropologists believe that this crop was crucial for the Incas, since it is easily produced and transported for the livelihoods of imperial armies. The coincidence of imperialism, solarization and corn production was no chance.18

Efigies de los incas o reyes del Perú | 1837 | Marcos Chillitupac Inca | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Sapa Inca married one of his sisters in order to maintain the royal lineage, which becomes coya or queen. As her husband was the son of the Sun, she was the daughter of the Moon and the representative of all women. This duality based on the masculine and feminine gender-sun and moon-day and night constitutes part of the organizing principle upon which Inca cosmogony and society arose. From the social point of view, this duality translates into the broadest sense of reciprocity and complementarity. There is some evidence that the coya had some political authority in the empire, for example, ruling in the absence of the Inca or advising her husband on important points. Despite this, being “queen of women,” his authority was exercised primarily over the women of the empire. In Cuzco, in the official ceremonies of Cuzco, they kissed the queen’s hand, just as the men will pay similar prayers to the king.19

The method of choosing the Sapa Inca is not known. The chroniclers assumed that the Incas were governed according to the rules of birthright or succession of the eldest son as among the kings of Spain. However, in a report to the king Felipe II in 1572, Viceroy Toledo wrote that the son who showed the greatest capacity to govern the Inca Empire became the emperor. Such a method opened the way for differences of opinion and intrigues in imperial succession, and stories about difficulties struggling for power effectively abound in Inca history. The division of factions and the struggles for power became more common as the empire grew and the rulers spent longer periods outside the capital. The legendary civil war between Huáscar and Atahualpa, his supposedly illegitimate brother, opened the way to the Spanish conquest, was a fight for imperial succession.20

On the other hand, when we talk about economic models in pre-Hispanic Peru, it is necessary to take into consideration that these are economies that did not know the use of money and that, in addition, were not organized by the market institution. The Inca economic model has been described as re-distributive due to the functions performed by the government itself. This means that much of the country’s production was monopolized by the State, which in turn distributed it according to its interests. Moreover, societies dominated by redistribution, production and distribution of goods are organized according to a center — whether it is a chief, a lord, a temple or a despot. This lord gathers the products, accumulates them and redistributes them to give back to their agents, to ensure the maintenance and defense of the common services and to preserve the social and political order.21

Mama Ocllo | Painting circa 1840 | San Antonio Museum of Art | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In replacement of the markets, the Incas and their former predecessors developed an autarchic system that was called “vertical archipelagos.” Its objective was to diversify the production and with it the consumption, according to the different Andean ecologies and climates. In this system, the mountain centers developed a series of settlements in different heights and micro-climates where they produced food and goods with which they complemented the communal production. The population of these settlements was made up of farmers and llama shepherds, who transported the products to the centers.22

Despite the predominance of the vertical principle in the Inca empire, there is evidence that there was some form of exchanges that involved trade and bartering. A large number of merchants apparently traveled between Chincha and Cusco, as well as Ecuador. Perhaps they carried shells and dried fish from the coast and used copper pieces as a form of currency. The kingdom of Tahuantinsuyu — the land of the four parts — was the largest and, to some extent, the most complex that the South American continent has ever seen. From a compact nucleus of no more than two hundred kilometers around the valley of Cuzco, where its most important stone constructions, impressive terraces, irrigation works and meticulously decorated temples are located, the Incas extended their domain until integrating dozens of different ethnic groups, reaching up to twelve million people along some four thousand kilometers of the Andean backbone of South America. They achieved this development by resorting not only to sophisticated military and diplomatic means, but also to a flexible centralism that allowed their subjects to preserve much of their local culture and traditions. To effectively control and manage such an extensive empire, the Incas built a complex political formation that included a vast bureaucracy, a tax system, a complicated resettlement and integration system, and a common “lingua franca” in a linguistically diverse area.23

At the same time, in peopling the city, the Inca showed the male Indians which tasks were proper to men: breaking and tilling the land, sowing crops, seeds, and vegetables, which he showed to be good to eat and fruitful, and for which purpose he taught them how to make plows and other necessary instruments, and bade them and showed them how to draw irrigation channels from the streams that run through the valley of Cuzco, and even showed them how to make the footwear we use. On her side, the queen trained the Indian women in all the feminine occupations: spinning and weaving cotton and wool and making clothes for themselves and their husbands and children. She told them how to do these and other duties of domestic service. In short, there was nothing relating to human life that the princes failed to teach their first vassals, the Inca king acting as master for the men and the Coya queen, mistress of the women.”24

  1. María Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, Historia del Tahuantinsuyu (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2019), 13.
  2. María Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, Historia del Tahuantinsuyu (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2019), 13.
  3. María Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, Historia del Tahuantinsuyu (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2019), 31-32.
  4. María Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, Historia del Tahuantinsuyu (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2019), 32.
  5. María Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, Historia del Tahuantinsuyu (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2019), 32.
  6. María Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, Historia del Tahuantinsuyu (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2019), 34.
  7. María Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, Historia del Tahuantinsuyu (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2019), 33.
  8. María Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, Historia del Tahuantinsuyu (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2019), 34.
  9. María Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, Historia del Tahuantinsuyu (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2019), 34.
  10. Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Royal Commentaries of the Incas (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1966), 41.
  11. Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Royal Commentaries of the Incas (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1966), 42.
  12. Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Royal Commentaries of the Incas (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1966), 42.
  13. Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Royal Commentaries of the Incas (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1966), 43.
  14. Gordon F. McEwan, The Incas: New Perspectives (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2006), 137; Paul R. Steele and Catherine J. Allen, Handbook of Inca Mythology (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 18.
  15. Peter F. Klarén, Nación y Sociedad en la Historia del Perú (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2014), 42.
  16. Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Royal Commentaries of the Incas (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1966), 43.
  17. Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Royal Commentaries of the Incas (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1966), 44.
  18. Peter F. Klarén, Nación y Sociedad en la Historia del Perú (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2014), 44.
  19. Peter F. Klarén, Nación y Sociedad en la Historia del Perú (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2014), 44.
  20. Peter F. Klarén, Nación y Sociedad en la Historia del Perú (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2014), 44.
  21. María Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, Historia del Tahuantinsuyu (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2019), 179.
  22. Peter F. Klarén, Nación y Sociedad en la Historia del Perú (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2014), 53.
  23. Peter F. Klarén, Nación y Sociedad en la Historia del Perú (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2014), 54.
  24. Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Royal Commentaries of the Incas (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1966), 45.

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22 Responses

  1. I really liked this article because it showed how Inca’s whole community was shaped by religion to them and myths for us. It helps put into perceptive that these people also have culture and have their own origins. Sometimes you forget this because your so distracted by other civilizations advancements that you don’t see their culture. Besides that this article was really well made and I can tell that you made a lot of effort into making this.

  2. I loved that this article told a story. It was easy to follow and very enjoyable. We often forget that there is a very big world beyond the continents. This story brought the history that ma very well be beneath or feet to life and I loved it.

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