The Religious Beliefs of the Incas

Mountaintops were thought to be sacred places, or huaca, to the Inca.
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The Inca civilization originated in what is now Peru and controlled a massive empire on the west coast of South America. The Incan culture thrived until 1533 when the last Inca leader, Atahualpa, was slain by Spanish conquerors. The Incan religion frequently involved human sacrifice while attributing sacredness to a rock formation. Their religion also emphasized ancestor worship. At its basis, Incan religious beliefs were intimately connected with nature and included the belief that Inca rulers were direct descendants of the sun god, Inti.

1 The Gods

The most powerful god of the Inca religion was Viracocha. He was considered the creator of the universe. However, the Inca are more closely associated with Viracocha's most important servant god, Inti, the sun god. The Inca leader, Pachacuti, proclaimed Inti the patron god of the Incas' sacred city, Cuzco, and erected a magnificent Temple of The Sun in the god's honor. Inti's image became the emblem of the Inca religion. Pachacuti also proclaimed that he ruled by divine right and asserted himself as descended from the sun god. The Incas became known as "The Children of The Sun."

2 Ancestor Worship

The expansion of the Incan empire beginning with Pachacuti's rule may be the result of the Incan leader's greater emphasis on ancestor worship. Pacachuti ruled that descendants of Incan rulers would inherit their father's earthly powers, but the father's possessions would be used to continue glorifying the father by paying homage to and maintaining his mummy, and by recognizing his continued influence. The ruler's son, or successor, would be responsible for making his own conquests and expanding the empire's wealth.

3 Huaca

The mummified body of an ancestor was a form of huaca, a natural object that was believed by the Inca to have supernatural powers. A rock formation, a spring, or an oddly shaped pebble could be considered huaca. Sacred spaces would be organized around huaca. Cuzco is one such space and is the location of hundreds of huaca. Mountaintops also were viewed as huaca. Shrines were constructed on mountaintops and human sacrifices often were performed there. These huaca, because they were visible from great distances, helped maintain unity in the vast Incan empire by reminding the citizenry of their shared beliefs.

4 The Afterlife

The Incas believed that in the afterlife, a member of the Incan royalty returned to a happy life with the sun, even if he had not been a moral man on earth. A common man could share in this same afterlife of warmth and content if he led a virtuous earthly life. However, an immoral common man would be sentenced to an afterlife that was cold and devoid of comfort. For the Incas, a virtuous earthly life was achieved by following a simple rule of behavior: "Do not steal; do not lie; do not be lazy."

Laura Leddy Turner began her writing career in 1976. She has worked in the newspaper industry as an illustrator, columnist, staff writer and copy editor, including with Gannett and the Asbury Park Press. Turner holds a B.A. in literature and English from Ramapo College of New Jersey, with postgraduate coursework in business law.