The Incan Milky way

30 Sep, 2012 | Laeticia Grevers

Urban living, Indigeneity, Nature and Tourism

A Path to Another World

On the border to Achumani , a neighbourhood in southeast La Paz, the star-filled sky is blocked out in places by the borders of the mountains that jump out from the earth, circumscribed in the thin air in shapes like lanky black ghosts. Here, the nighttime sky is at its clearest and the lights of the metropolis look like a reflection of the sky above, as if the stars’ mirror image were being cast back from a sea. Through the radiant sky, Centauri beams down – it belongs to the eighty-six constellations that can be observed during a clear winter night. But Inca astronomy does not recognize these constellations. It is unique from Western astronomy in that it identifies dark clouds as its constellations instead of their stellar counterparts.

The centre of the Milky Way – the spiral galaxy of which our solar system is a part of, and of which we can only see the central part from Earth – contains the highest quantity of stars. It’s the brightest part of the Milky Way, and it comprises several star constellations in addition to other deep-space objects, such as interstellar clouds of gas and dust. These can be observed while looking at the dark regions of the Milky Way. They are extremely visible because they contrast with the relatively bright background of galaxy’s star field. The clearness of the La Paz sky permits one to make these observations with the naked eye—no telescope required here.

These interstellar clouds of gas and dust were called yana phuyu by the Incans, which means ‘black clouds’. These dark areas against the light background of the Milky Way are identified with the silhouettes of animals.

The Milky Way is called the mayu, the Quechuan word for ‘river’. Figures of animals drink its waters and darken its luminescence with their shadows, according to the Manuscrito de Huarochirí, a testament of ancient and colonial Andean religion written around 1600. The llama, or yacana, is at the centre of the animal constellations in the mayu; it’s the dark spot between Scorpio and the Southern Cross. Its eyes – called llamacnawin by the Incas – are its only bright part: the stars Alpha and Beta Centauri (the thirdand fourth-brightest stars in the sky). Underneath, an upside-down baby llama drinks from its mother’s breast. The prominent position of the llama in the sky mirrors itself in Incan religious ceremonies, in which black llamas were sacrificed to appease the gods. Back in our Andean skyline, a bird’s nest is visible near the Southern Cross, with two black spots – yutu and hanp’atu – representing a partridge and a toad. Unfortunately, these figures are constantly under threat from the snake, machacuay, in the east and a fox, atoq, in the west. The fox blazes at them through its red burning eye – the star Antares.

The Incas worshipped the yacana and machacuay black clouds, who were believed to be in charge of their species. The Incas venerated them, and forbade their subjects from harming their earthly incarnations. All the animals and birds had their anologues in the sky, who were responsible for their procreation and the augmentation of their species, a sort-of cosmological Noah’s Ark. They were the celestial blueprint of every living thing on Earth.

Similarly, the mayu is the ideal of a terrestrial river, the Vilcanota River. It rises in the Andes to the southeast of Cuzco, near Puno in Peru, and flows northwest for 724 kilometers before joining the lower Apurímac River to form the Ucayali River. The mayu flows in the same direction as its terrestrial equivalent.

According to legend, the Incan god Viracocha crossed the mayu to reach the hurin pacha (upper world) after creation had been completed. Travelled by shamans, deities and spirits in trance, the mayu is also traversed by the souls of the deceased – or by humans in dreams. It is the connection between heaven and earth.

This connection between heaven and Earth is at its most significant during the Inti Raimi celebration. Just after the June solstice, the Inca himself presided over the most important ceremony of the year, the Solemn Feast of the Sun. All Incan nobles were required to come to Cuzco for this ceremony, and all Incans, nobles and commoners alike, were encouraged to participate. The ceremony, which is still practiced, is a ‘centering of the universe’ around the Inca in the Temple of the Sun at Cuzco. The timing of Inti Raimi in the ritual calendar coordinates with the mayu – the galaxy that the Earth itself is a part of – aligning with the Vilcanota River, when heaven and Earth come together and the sun rises and sets in the mayu.

The mayu partitions space and connects heaven and Earth. Similarly, it incorporates the perfect, ideal model of every terrestrial creature. It is a path that leads to the other world, as opposed to the Western interpretation of the Milky Way – a representation of godly milk, a metaphor for birth. And unlike Western astrology, the Incan sky – as brilliantly lit as it was – was more notable for its dark spaces, in which the ancient legends, animals and spirits resided.


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