The Inca empire flourished in ancient Peru between roughly A.D. 1400 and 1533, eventually extending across western South America from modern Ecuador into today’s Chile to the south. It was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America.
According to Inca lore, the father of the gods and the world’s creator was Viracocha. After creating humankind on an island in Lake Titicaca, on the border between modern-day Bolivia and Peru, Viracocha traveled widely, assigning territories, customs and dress to various tribal groups, effectively founding civilization. Then he disappeared westward across the Pacific, leaving matters in the hands of subordinate deities. (Another of his names was “Con-Tici” or “Kon-Tiki,” from which Thor Heyerdahl derived the name — and the idea — of his famous ocean-going balsawood raft.) However, Viracocha continued to care about his children and promised to return someday.
Viracocha was commonly pictured in human form as white and male. When the Spanish conquistadors entered Inca lands in the 16th century, landing on modern Peru’s Pacific coast, the Inca thought the Spaniards were deities because of their resemblance to popular conceptions of Viracocha. In turn, Spanish missionaries equated Viracocha with the Christian God.
There is some reason, however, to believe that Viracocha wasn’t always chief of the Inca pantheon. That role apparently once belonged to Inti, a solar god, whom many considered Viracocha’s son. He was represented by a flaming golden disk featuring a face, and visualized as a young Inca boy.
The Inca capital of Cusco was founded at Inti’s order, and the Koricancha (the “Golden Enclosure”), his chief temple and the most important shrine in the entire empire, was located there. The Koricancha was stripped of its treasures — its gold-plated walls, its life-sized gold and silver statues of animals, and its miniature golden cornfield that the emperor ceremonially “farmed” in an annual ritual — and mostly destroyed after the Spanish Conquest. Nonetheless, its superb Inca stonework still remains, forming the foundation of today’s church and convent of Santo Domingo.
Inti’s sister (and wife) was Mamaquilla or Kilyamama (“Mother Moon”), who was represented as a silver disk with a face. Entrusted with the cycles of the moon, she presided over calendars and an order of priestesses. According to some accounts, Inti and Mamaquilla were the parents of the founding Inca ancestor, Manco Capac. (Others identify Manco Capac as Viracocha’s son.) Accordingly, Inca rulers were regarded as Inti’s living representatives on earth.
Pachamama, or “Earth Mother,” promoted fertility and protected the fields and crops of her worshipers. Mamacocha (“Mother of Lakes”) was responsible for providing essential water.
Somewhat like Canaanite Baal and Norse Thor, Inti-Illapa or Illapa (“Thunder”) controlled the weather, including rain and lightning. Accordingly, he too had power over vital crops. He was visualized as a man wearing a sling that, when he used it, made the sound of thunder.
But these gods scarcely exhaust the deities of the Inca pantheon. There were also the so-called “stellar deities” (e.g. constellations). And anything in our terrestrial world believed to possess a supernatural spirit — whether person, place or material object — was called a “Huaca.” Among the Huacas, power and size were clearly correlated, with mountains, for instance, regarded as especially powerful.
The Inca worldview divided the universe into three “pachas” or (loosely) “worlds”:
The “hana pacha,” or “world above,” included astronomical objects such as the sun, the moon, the planets, the stars, the Milky Way, the constellations, and the sky itself. It was also the residence of the solar god Inti, the lunar goddess Mamaquilla, and the weather god Illapa. When Catholic missionaries arrived in the Andean region, they equated “hana pacha” with the Christian heaven.
The “ukhu pacha,” the “inner world” (i.e., within/under the earth) or "world below,” was the realm of the dead. Significantly, though, it was also the realm of new life, so it was associated with the harvesting of crops and included the residence of the fertility goddess, Pachamama. (Note the element “pacha” in her name.)
The “kay pacha,” "this world,” caught between the upper and lower realms, was the world in which we and all other mortal beings live. It was connected to the realm below it via springs and caves. Accordingly, ritual offerings for the dead were often brought to such places, and similar offerings were also made when farming and mining operations disturbed the soil, the lower world’s upper limit. Rainbows and lightning provided the connections between this world and the world above.
Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.