Americas, Museum, Travel

Celestial Bodies in the Incan Empire

Sometime around the twelfth century, a group of Quechua-speaking people lived in modern-day Cusco, in the Andean highlands. They spent their days herding camelids, caring for crops (potato, quinoa, corn) and worshipping the forces that wielded the most influence over their agriculturally-oriented lives: thunder, the moon, the stars and especially the sun.

They were not unique in their reverence for this life-giving star. From about 500 to 1000 CE the greatest pilgrimage site in the Andes had been Tiwanaku city, near Lake Titicaca. The people of this region, like the Inca after them, were skillful farmers who used raised-field techniques, irrigated fields, canals and artificial ponds. They developed techniques to freeze-dry potatoes and sun-dry tomatoes in order to make harvests last longer. As in so many farming societies, observing changes in the seasons and in the sky was a very important part of life. Their famous Gateway of the Sun seems to have acted as some kind of solar calendar.



Detail from the Gateway of the Sun


To the Inca, Inti was the sun god and the father of all Inca kings. According to the Inca creation myth, the Sun was so moved by pity and disgust at seeing the wretchedness of the naked, root-grubbing people that he sent two of his children to earth to teach them to adore him so that their lives would improve. In The Royal Commentaries of the Inca, Garcilaso Inca de la Vega relates the oral tradition told him by his uncle:


“Our father the Sun set his two children down at a place eighty leagues [from Cuzco], on Lake Titicaca, and he gave them a rod of gold, a little shorter than a man’s arm and two fingers in thickness.

“‘Go where you will,’ he said to them, ‘and whenever you stop to eat or to sleep, plunge this rod into the earth. At the spot where, with one single thrust, it disappears entirely, there you must establish and hold your court. And the peoples whom you will have brought under your sway shall be maintained by you in a state of justice and reason, with piety, mercy and mildness.”


The sun’s children the man Manco Capac and the woman Occlo Huaco followed their father’s instructions. The first place the rod disappeared into the earth was in the Cuzco valley, at a place called Huanacauri. In thanks, they built a splendid Temple of the Sun in the area and explained to the local people that the Sun had sent them to improve their lives and started instructing them in the different skills necessary to lead a civilized life. Because the two Sun children looked so splendid and strange (wearing exquisite garments and with big ear piercings), the locals believed they were divine and agreed to follow their example.


Artist’s impression of Manco Capac in the Plaza de Armas


The Sun Temple, for the god Inti, was called Corichanca ‘golden enclosure’ and was considered the most sacred site of the Inca World. The Inca temple in partial repair at the site today is the same one described by people in the sixteenth century. As the Inca believed gold was the Sun’s sweat, the temple walls were decorated with beaten gold sheets and its rooms housed golden statues, scepters, vases and masks to be used in religious rites.


Sun mask from the La Tolita part of the Incan Empire (Original image by Andrew Howe. Uploaded by Katherine Dolan, published on 17/05/2019 under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms. Please note that content linked from this page may have different licensing terms.)


The sacred precinct was also beautified with silver and precious stones. According to Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, there was even a life-sized Garden of the Sun fashioned out of precious metals:


“They had a garden in which the lumps of earth were pieces of fine gold. These were cleverly sown with maize—the stalks, leaves and ears of which were all pure gold. They were so well planted that nothing would disturb them. Besides all this, they had more than twenty sheep with their young. The shepherds who guarded the sheep were armed with slings and staves made of gold and silver. Pots, vases and every kind of vessel were cast from fine gold.”


Mummies of Inca royalty were kept on the site to be brought out for special occasions. Worshippers were required to fast before entering and had to carry a heavy burden on their backs to emphasize their humility in the face of divine wonder.

Like other sacred sites, the Temple of the Sun doubled as an astronomical observatory. The Inca saw two different kinds of constellations. One kind was like our western star-groupings. The constellation known to us as the Pleiades they called the ‘seed sower’ because they watched it to know when to plant potatoes. The second kind of constellation took the form of a patch of darkness on the Milky Way. To them, the Milky Way was a river and the dark patches were animals that came to drink in it. 


Modern painting of some dark-shape constellations. Alpha and Beta Centauri form the mother llama’s big googly eyes


The great palace and temple complex on Machu Picchu was also used as an astronomy center. It was certainly used to calculate both the summer and winter solstices because two different windows are perfectly located to capture the sunlight on the dawn of each occasion.

The ridged rock on the floor seems to have been used as a measuring device with reference to a string weighted with a stone that cast a shadow


What’s more, a big mysterious stone that looks a bit like a sundial and has been (retroactively) named the ‘Indihuatana stone’ (sun-tying stone), clearly has an astronomical purpose. Dieter B. Herrmann, for instance has concluded that the gnomon was carefully designed at a 14-degree angle so it would not cast a shadow on the spring and autumn equinoctes. What’s more, on the December solstice, the sun sinks behind the Pumasillo mountain and at sunrise the light projects a triangle that highlights two concentric circles on the floor.


The Intihuatana stone at Machu Picchu


On display in the museum of Machu Picchu are several little stone tokens in the shape of animals that were probably used to make astronomical predictions and measurements. Our guide suggested that a court priest or magician might have used them to perform some kind of sympathetic magic.


1-porcupine 2-bird 3-anteater 4-a holy mountain 5-a llama 6-spear head


It’s interesting to think about how important the sun, stars and moon were to the people. If they believed the Inca, their rulers, were blood relations of the sun, no wonder they were so content to be ruled (as Garcilaso says they were)! And it’s not hard to see why they believed that the Inca really were divine, considering the incredible magnificence of the temples, and royal costumes, decorated as they were with the ‘sun’s sweat’. What’s more, the elite skill of determining dates relevant to agriculture might have seemed miraculous to those who were not familiar with the astronomer’s techniques. 


A sketch by Joan Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui of what he saw on a wall of Corichanca–a constellation chart. The thing that looks like a football goal (bottom centre) is Corichancha itself.

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