What was the Religion of the Incas?


The Incan empire flourished from 1400 to 1533 CE in South America and originated in the capital city Cuzco (modern-day southern Peru). The Incas were also a people with a fascinating religious life that we will acknowledge in this entry.

We are fortunate to know some things about Incan religion as earlier civilizations, such as the Chavín (900-200 BCE) and the Chimú (1200-1400 CE), have left historians in the dark due to the lack of a written language. But we can hazard some guesses to the general religiosity of these cultures; for example, temples seemed to have been used for sacrifices, including human sacrifice, and they had rites relating to calendars describing the movement of heavenly bodies. We also know that the Sun and the Moon were important gods and that deities often took form in the image of animals such as the puma.

Various gods and goddesses

The religion of the Incas was a mixture of the beliefs and practices of preceding cults. The central temple of the Sun may have been linked to the Milky Way, which was seen as a river, and the Sun god Inti was central in temple rituals at Cuzco. The Thunder god was another deity of importance who shared the temple with the Sun god. There was the Moon goddess Mama Quilla particularly revered by women. The gods were believed to regulate time and change the seasons.

The Supreme Being was the Sun god Viracocha who arranged things at the beginning of the era. Many Incas, especially those within the aristocracy, prayed to Viracocha who, according to one surviving prayer, is revered as being without equal and for creating life, especially human life. The Supreme Being could also be approached through sacrifice. Prayer and sacrifice were believed to help the Incas live free of danger and in peace and health. Viracocha was also the protector. He apparently appeared to the ruler Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (d. 1471 CE) in a dream when the Incas were being attacked by a nearby group called the Chanca. When the Incas won this battle, Pachacuti had a temple built to the Supreme Being in Cuzco. There were numerous other deities such as the agricultural deity Apu Illapu, the Earth goddess Pachamama, the Earth-maker Pachamac, the mother of the forest Sachamama, Ayar Cachi the god who caused earthquakes, Qochamama the goddess of the sea, and more.

There were other lesser beings beneath the greater gods which suggests that the Incas held to a hierarchical view of the gods. These lesser deities were particularly popular with Incas living in villages where they were believed to help with agriculture and fight against illness and death.

Polarities and the Emporer

On the doctrinal level the idea of polarities played an important binary role; according to one historian of religion, “[S]ome great store seems to have been set by the binary oppositions of the cosmos: male—female, Sun—Moon, and so on. Likewise villages were divided into two halves, and the whole earthly and cosmic system was seen as both in conflict and capable of being harmonized… There are echoes of the Chinese search for harmony amid the polarities of Yin and Yang” (1).

For the Incas, the imperial ideology represented the emperor as responsible for the welfare of his kingdom. This gave him significant power, especially as he was as responsible for the overseeing the intersection between his subjects and the great gods. The emperor was also considered a god and the offspring of the Sun. With the responsibility of ensuring harmony, he made offerings to the gods and oversaw the functioning of public rituals. The capital city was home to many elaborate rituals. During rituals, the emperor would sit upon his golden throne and preside over sacrifices. All of this contributed to a centralized control of the empire, which is probably what made it easy for the Spanish under Francisco Pizarro (d. 1541) to strike at the heart of its existence.

Temples and Practices

Temples and shrines were the living domains of priests. There were also women selected to live in them and perform duties such as maintaining the sacred fire (somewhat similar to the Vestal Virgins in the Roman pagan religion) and making clothes for ritual use. The Sun Temple in Cuzco was elaborate with gold models of cornstalks, llamas, and lumps of Earth within it. Many temples were constructed in new areas when the empire expanded through conquest. In addition, there were sacred locations called huacas. These were popular and could range from temples to mountains, hills, or bridges where ceremonies were held and offerings of animals or precious goods were given.

Prayer was a common practice, especially during difficult times of famine or drought. The Incas practiced fire sacrifice of animals such as guinea pigs and llamas. They also offered children who would be taken on pilgrimages into the mountains where they would be fattened up and then sacrificed. Human sacrifices were often made in response to tragic events such as defeats in battle, famine, and pestilence.

Another practice was divination in which priests would interpret messages from the gods. Nothing important was decided without divination. It was used to predict the future, especially of battles and conflicts, in matters of uncovering crime, and diagnosing sicknesses. Divination could involve the diviner consuming a psychedelic brew made from plants that affected the central nervous system and allowed him to communicate with the gods.


1. Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge University Press. p. 183

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