Interpreting Andean religion post-colonially

By Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar
6 Mar 2011

Important questions in my research on Andean religion are how to analyse and interpret cultural diversity and change, and to look into the processes which shape our understanding of these phenomena.

In methodological terms this means that we need to analyse the sources critically, asking, for example, how and in which dialogic situation they originated; and we have to familiarise ourselves with different languages and worldviews (including the reflection upon our own), in their historical depth as well as in their contemporary multiplicity.

When studying the cultural sphere traditionally labelled as ‘religion’, in theoretical terms we will be confronted with questions such as: what does ‘supernatural’ and ‘deity’ mean – are these useful concepts; what is ‘syncretism’ or ‘hybridity’; how are language and culture, even language and thinking, related; what does the concept of colonialism imply; is ‘religion’ a concept that can be studied separately at all; how does our own cultural and research tradition and focus influence our analysis as well as that of the authors we consult?

It is not my aim to answer these questions, but rather in my contributions I will address them through brief ‘case-studies’ which, as examples, I hope will add to current debates.

‘Kay pacha paqarinmantan kaya Pachamamaqa niq kasqa: “Ñuqan kani Santa Tirra, Uywaq, ñuñuq, ñuqan kani. Pacha Tirra, Pacha Ñusta, Pacha Virgenñuqan kani”, ñiq kasqa. …’

‘Since the birth of the world Pachamama [World Mother] has said: “I am the Holy Earth, the Nurturer, the Breastfeeder am I. I am World Earth, World Inca Princess, World Virgin.” Therefore she has had to be respected since the beginning of the world. “You will call me. You will blow towards me [with offerings]. On Annunciation Day you must not work me. This is my day. Only to me you bring offerings for the three persons together: World Earth, World Inca Princess, World Virgin. On that day I will begin to speak. You must by no means touch the Sacred Earth.” Thus used to speak Pachamama.’

(From: Bernabé Condori and Rosalind Gow: Kay Pacha, Cuzco 1976: 10-12, translation from the Quechua: Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar.)

This is how a Quechua farmer from highland Peru describes his understanding and relationship with Pachamama, traditionally translated and understood as ‘Earth Mother’.

Still today Pachamama is very important in Andean highland culture, not only in the remote villages, but also in the cities, where certain days are celebrated and dedicated to her. The most important day is the 1st of August, when she has to rest and must not be worked on. Libations, incense and more complex offerings are made to her: from a simple challa (sprinkling the earth) before having a drink of alcohol to elaborate burnt offerings for the whole family’s wellbeing.

Therefore, it seems to be more apt to see Pachamama as the ‘principle of life’ because she is everywhere and thus, although she is gendered, she is universal. Pacha means more than ‘earth’: it refers to the ‘world’, integrating both meanings, ‘time’ and ‘space’.

On an analytical level this understanding incorporates words and concepts from different languages and cultural spheres, inter-connected to describe and understand one supernatural being.

Words and concepts – When we look at the words and concepts used, we note that they come from different languages. Pacha is a Quechua word and, as already mentioned, means ‘world, space-time’, mama is Quechua as well and means ‘mother’. Tierra is Spanish and means ‘earth’; virgen is Spanish and refers to the Virgin Mary. Ñusta is ancient Quechua and means ‘Inca princess, a princess of the highest nobility in the pre-European Inca empire of the early 16th century’. The combination of these words shows that in naming the one being, different languages and cultural spheres are present.

Different languages and cultural spheres – Quechua is the common native language of – even nowadays – almost 10 million people in the Andes; it was also spoken and spread by the Incas who ruled the Andes before the arrival of the Spanish. Therefore, by using ñusta, the being thus named is associated with pre-European times and ancient wealth and splendour. Moreover, these Andean concepts are compounded with those represented by Spanish words (now the official language of the Andean nation states, brought by the European colonisers): tierra, ‘earth’, is the equivalent Europeans use to express pacha, but it does not, of course, cover the complex meaning of the Quechua word. Finally the fact that the Virgin Mary has become a component of Pachamama indicates a profound fusion of indigenous and introduced concepts of a mother deity. Thus Pachamama incorporates several cultural strands which together have moulded contemporary Andean culture.

Supernatural beings – Of course, terms such as ‘supernatural being’ or ‘deity’ can have a multiplicity of meanings (depending on the researcher’s theoretical framework and cultural tradition). Not unlike the concept of the God of the Old Testament, Andean deities are believed to be ambiguous in character: they care for our wellbeing, but they can also wreak havoc upon us when we do not treat them with the necessary respect. This shows an important underlying understanding of social relationships (among humans as well as between them and ‘deities’), which is reciprocity. Integrating these beings into the human interaction sphere does not mean that they are equal to us: they are definitely more powerful than human beings. However, it does show that they are part of nature as an all-comprising structure which cannot be separated into categories, such as ‘natural’ as opposed to ‘supernatural’. In the Andes, these powerful forces are always present in people’s lives and are integrated into their daily routine.

Inter-connectedness and multiplicity – The fact that the narrator presents Pachamama as one and yet as ‘three persons’ is a clear connection to the Christian Trinity, which the 16th and 17th century colonial priests tried to explain to the indigenous people in the Quechua language by using the Spanish loanword ‘persona’ to form kimsa persona, ‘three persons’. This poses the challenging question if, at least in this particular community, Pachamama is their complementary or even counter-concept to the Christian Trinity – challenging not only because of its Trinitarian character, but also because Pachamama is THE feminine principle per se. Some chronicle texts and a few myths, written down in the early colonial era, show that Andean peoples were familiar with multiple deities, several manifest in one. In this text, the verb forms used are sometimes singular and sometimes plural. In Quechua marking the singular and the plural is not as important as in other languages – thus it could just be a grammatical characteristic. But it is, of course, also possible that this usage shows the complexity of the concept as One and yet Several.

How to explain these complex ‘fusions’? Of course, the colonial rule of the Spanish in the Andes was repressive. But the contemporary worldview of the Quechua people shows that the decision of the European rulers to use the native languages to teach the indigenous peoples the new faith influenced how those people managed old and new concepts. It also shows that, rather than passive ‘victims’, the Quechua people were creative innovators who integrated different approaches to deal with the (super-)natural into a system that would continue to be meaningful to them.

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© Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar is Senior Lecturer in Latin American and Amerindian Studies at the University of Stirling. More on her work, background and publications history is summarised here.


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