Andean Mountain Shrines


Traditional belief systems that still persist in a number of remote Andean villages link mountains, ancestor worship, ritual pilgrimage, and the sea as the ultimate source of water and fertility. The landscape is “animated” in the sense that unusual or prominent features are perceived to have a supernatural aspect. Local communities often regard themselves as the descen-dents of mountain deities; consequently mountain peaks—and especially volcanoes—occupy a prominent place in their cosmic beliefs and communal rituals. Mountains and mountain gods are seen as the controllers of rain, and their summits sometimes remain an important focus of ceremonial activity today. These metaphysical convictions do have a foundation in the physical world, in that prominent mountains have a strong effect on local meteorological phenomena.

These modern mythologies represent the remnants of belief systems stretching back at least as far as Inca times. Numerous shrines, both Incaic and more modern, have been discovered on hills and mountain peaks in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Sea shells and river stones were commonly offered to deities for water, but more macabre offerings have also been uncovered: human (including child) sacrifices. We know from the accounts of Spanish chroniclers that elaborate pilgrimages were involved in reaching these sacred places. But the intensity of conviction that motivated the expeditions still defies the imagination. Offerings have been found on mountain peaks as high as 6,000 meters (20,000 feet).

There is every reason to believe that some of the mountain pilgrimages were tied to specific calendrical rituals and that they were astronomically timed. Broadly similar sets of beliefs and practices in central Mexico provide more concrete evidence of calendrical and astronomical associations. However, the specific associations that regulated the Andean rituals remain largely unknown.

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