On the 24-hour bus from Cusco to Lima, my head is spinning. Leaving Cusco behind me after having spent almost three weeks there, feels strange, slightly sad, a bit exciting, and perhaps also a tiny little bit scary. What an interesting place to be it was. As I sit in my slightly uncomfortable seat, refusing to regret that I didn’t take a more expensive bus, the thousands of impressions that I have collected over the last few weeks are dancing before my eyes. Bright colours, intricate weaving patterns, dressed-up llamas, a thousand ruins, millions of street vendors, the churches, panflute music, magnificent food, and a dash of romance – they’re circling, twirling, getting caught up in one another. No wonder that I needed quite some time to write this piece. I needed my mind to calm down, the reminiscions to settle in, the distance.
Cusco is a city where history is incredibly present. Her citizens, the Cusqueños, and the people from the Holy Valley around seem to be proud of their history, wearing it on their sleeve. Quite literally, in their dress and their language (Quechua), but also in the symbols used in art and architecture which carry out the Andean cosmology, and in the way people dance. The Inca-past still strongly defines everyday life around here,including religion. One may think that Peru is one of the most Roman Catholic countries in the world. Now, in a way that is true. But there is a big fat sidenote to be made to this assumption.Almost as soon as I arrived to the Andes, I noticed that the concept of catholicism differed quite a bit from what it means to be a Christian in Europe.
For one, the formal language of religion is highly eclectic in this region (perhaps this is true for all of Latin America, really). Looking at the mural above, for example, that I found on the outside wall of Cusco’s cemetary, one can observe both Christian symbols and imagery stemming from the Incan culture. The painting clearly carries an at least partial Christian message as we see a crowned Mary with baby Jesus and people praying in devotion, but we also see ‘profane’ or even ‘pagan elements, like the woman-figure in indigenous dress holding a glass of chicha in her hand (directly in front of Mary). Chicha, or fermented corn beer, counted as a sacred substance during Incan times that performed an important role in their religious rituals and ceremonies. Furthermore, the outside frame carries a plethora of symbols stemming from both traditions and daily life, all gathered in the form of a snake – one of the three godly animails in the Inca-trinity, along with the puma and the eagle. Framing the painting are for example coca leaves, llamas (another Inca-symbol that expresses the sacred), chicha (corn), the sun (the Inti Rayma deity), a cacao bean, and something that looks like a phallus.
In a similar fashion, I found Jesus hanging from the cross on a dashboard of a bus in Ecuador, dangling next to beer crates, a bird claw, a rubber ducky, and a naked lady. Rather than demonstrating disrespect, this should be seen as a sincere expression of the bus driver’s religious reality. The sacred and the reality of daily life are just somehow closer to each other here than what I’m used to from Europe. That can also be observed from the photo below. When I walked into this scene in the museum of religious art in Cusco, my first tendency was to take it merely as a joke, a mockery of Christian faith (for its ‘kitchy-ness’, and especially for the overly animated facial expression of the pianist, that unfortunately can’t be observed from this photo – and is someone putting her thumb up toward Jesus on the cross?). I soon realised however that this scene was not meant as a pure joke, as I encountered it, after all, in a museum of religious art. Yes the scene might be light-hearted and flimsy, but that does not contradict the sincerity of the maker’s faith. In Europe, the same scene would be interpreted as pure mockery, but here it is not meant to be irreverent.
The huge eclecticism in the use of religious symbols demonstrates how effortlessly people’s Catholic beliefs blend in with local folklor.In ‘Daughter of the Lake’, a documentary I recently watched on the mineries in Cajamarca (north Peru), the lead character speaks to the lake as a living deity, ‘Mama Agua’, while at the same timealso calling on the local pastor for fatherly advise and comfort. In other words, for her there is no seperation or contradiction between Christianity and pre-Spanish beliefs – they are one.
This kind of blending of both religious traditions, called ‘syncretism’ amongst scholars, can also be observed from the religious calendar. During my first week in Cusco, I walked into a celebration of a certain saint held in a big space that opened on to the street.I could see a large group of people inside that were seated in a circle, talking, laughing and celebrating, while beer and chicha seemed to be flowing abundantly (once again, the latter considered to be a sacred substance during Incan times). What I took from this experience is that the concept of what is honouring and respectful towards God differs greatly from what I was taught during my childhood about Christian values. In this instant, getting drunk at a Christian event did not seem to contradict each other. A final example of the merging between the two traditions is that the two biggest festivals held in Cusco are the Corpus Christi (introduced by the Spaniards and remembering the Body of Christ sixty days after Easter) and the Inti Rayma (stemming from the Incan empire and honouring the Sun). They are held within only a couple of weeks from each other.
How did such a situation come about, is what I wondered. The answer, of course, as with many things, lies in colonial relationships. When the Spaniards came to rule over most of South America in the sixteenth century, they tried their best to convict everyone crossing their path to Christianity. Needless to say that they did not shrew using violence while doing so. Problem was, however, that the people they encountered already had their own, indigenous, deities that differed from the One and Only that the Spaniards believed in. I imagine that the Spaniards initially did not really know what to do with this information, but after a while a silent agreement was being reached that more or less worked for both sides -namely that the indigenous gods could take the shape of the Christian saints. This way, the indigenous could continue to honour the gods that were important to them, albeit with a different cover, and so resistance wouldn’t be that strong.
To state that this ‘keeping up of apearances’ was merely a way to hush Spanish conscience and enable the colonialists to sleep at night would, however, be a simplification of matters. As some scholars have pointed out, “for the 16th Century Spaniard it was difficult to accept that God had left all of humanity in complete ignorance of the truths of faith with the resulting impossibility of obtaining their salvation.”*This consideration, along with the persistence of the natives to preserve their beliefs, lies at the source of the symbiosis between pagan and Christian elements. (Known cases of this symbiosis are for example the identification of the Tunapa god with Saint Bartholomew, and the Illapa deity with the image of Grandpa Santiago.*)
The most important figure in this creole mix-up is no doubt the figure of Virgen Mary, that seamlessly melted with the image of the most important goddess of pre-Hispanic Andean culture – Pachamama, also known as ‘Mother Earth’. This goddess was one of the principle deities in the Inca-cosmology, second ony to the Sun, and was associated with fertility, presiding over planting and harvesting, embodying the mountains, and causing earthquakes. Significantly, in pre-Hispanic culture Pachamama is often a cruel goddess, eager to collect her sacrifices. In modern Andean culture, however, she is mostly regarded as benevolent and giving – more like Mother Mary. Interestingly, in Andean paintings of the Virgen one can often retrace the contours of a mountain, the symbol for Pachamama. The most famous example is Virgen del Cerro (Potosí, Bolovia), in which Mary’s dress rises above her head, but this is only one case out of many.
La Vírgen del Cerro, anonymous, siglo XVIII, Casa de la Moneda, Potosí
No matter what shapes she takes, sure thing is that the cult of Pachamama is still very much alive, and practiced on a daily basis. Every time people bring out a toast, for example, they make sure to spill a few drops of chicha on the floor first before they start drinking as a way to thank and feed Mother Earth (the habit is calle challa). On a similar note, the Martes de Challa is still celebrated every year in many regions of the Andes, a festival with which food and beverages are buried underneath the ground as a gift to Pachamama, inviting reciprocity. Interestingly, the festival coincides with the catholic Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the lent period). Another challa festival takes place in August. On top of all this, the symbol of Pachamama is still woven into many a beautifully decorated garment (aside from the llama, the chakana -the Andean cross- and the Sun). In other words, there is no doubt that the goddess still plays a central role in people’s lives.
In conclusion, the existence of both Catholicism – which in foundation a monotheistic religion – and pagan cults seems to be a great paradox. It is not in our western nature to believe in more than One Truth at the same time (that seems mental trickery to us). The religion of people from the Andes,however, reflects the acceptance of a certain ambiguity, or an ability to believe in more than one truth at the same time, which might be exactly what attracts me to this culture so strongly. I realize that many of my friends and family would disagree with me when I say this, but I must say that I quite like the idea that all gods can be one and the same. I find it quite a relief personally that mixed forms of religion might be possible. At the very least, it would help for tolerance if more people were able to live that way. That is the biggest lesson that I’m taking with me from Peru.