Brown and dry, the hills surround Cuzco as August begins. The month of wind when many Cuzqueños pull out their kites and raise them high into the sky, August is also when many Cuzqueños make an offering to the earth.
August first, today, many people have called the wise ones, the Andean priests, to their homes and have gone to the markets to buy the elements that go into a mesa — a mass and table — to feed the earth. They will undergo the ritual of putting the mesa together and offering it to the earth today.
This joining of two Spanish words, mesa for table, and misa for the mass, the ritual of Catholicism. Though this combination depends on the fact that to a Quechua speaking ear they sound the same since “e” and “i” are to them the same, it also depends on the fact that at the center of the Catholic ceremony lies a ritual meal.
Holy Communion is a celebration of the Eucharist, the drinking of wine and eating of the host (an unleavened wafer), that is reminiscent of the last supper. That moment when Jesus and his disciples gathered for a meal has been enshrined in Christian art, including the famous colonial painting, by Marcos Zapata of the Cuzco School found in the Cuzco Cathedral, where a guinea pig –a cuy– is ostensibly the essence of the shared feast.
The Eucharist is not an ordinary meal, however. It is charged with what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called heightened meaning. So much is significant and has spiritual weight, not simply nutritional value.
Similarly today’s offerings to the earth are a meal, with llama fat, sweets, and seeds, but each element has symbolic value as well as cosmic and spiritual meaning. The wise one will blow across a k’intu, a trinity of coca leaves, as an offering to the Apus, the sacred sites one after another. Some of the hills have the names of Christian saints and so the cycle of saints also is invoked.
Figures molded from colored sugar, k’intus of coca leaves, flower petals, seeds and sweets are laid out on colored paper like that which wraps a gift in order. The wise one knows how they should be laid out to give a message to the earth and to create a reality in the world of the people making the offering.
One can buy packages in the San Pedro market pre-combined for different kinds of despachos, or sending-aways, as the offering is also called. But the wise one picks and choses among the elements to know what is important and what not and he decides how to lay them out in the assembled offering so that like a three dimensional weaving it contains message on top of message.
Many people feel it important to share a meal with the earth on August first because, they say, this is when the earth comes back awake after resting since the feast of Inti Raymi. Others say that this is when the earth is open and needing feed after the winter drouth.
In rural communities this is when the agricultural season begins with the opening of the fields and the festivities accompanying first plowing. In the cities it is a time to obtain the good will of the earth for your homes and businesses. In some places people seek blessings for vehicles as well as for themselves.
Though officially Catholic, Cuzco has a long history of maintaining and questioning its traditional devotions, such as to mother earth. She is popular today for many reasons. And her worship is also controversial.
To some people this is all a pagan ritual to demons, when people should be dedicating themselves to proper worship of Christ and the Saints. Evangelicals see it as an example of non-Biblical devil worship. But, to the officials of Cuzco offerings to the earth fit with their official policy of Inca revitalization, what they would call “re-vindication”.
In any case, behind closed doors many, many people will prepare a ritual meal to feed the earth today. Once the wise one has the gift in its shiny bright paper completed, he folds the bundle and then an intense fire is lit and the offering is consumed. The earth has eaten the gift–a kind of dish composed of many ingredients properly put together–as well as the smoke, the coca blown to it, and the words of the wise one and the people, as well as the wishes of their hearts.
Though the payment to the earth is controversial, even more people will sprinkle sweet wine and cane alcohol on their house and properti today. They will also scatter sweets and will drop colored confetti on the house as an offering. But it is more. It is a reduced form of the larger and more formal payment. Much less controversial and more generalized, this one is still a sharing of food–the drink and the sweets–with the earth, as well as the brightly colored specks of paper.
With luck, and the good will of the earth, this will be a good year. To do their best for it to be such, people gather in families to eat. By sharing food they hope to make they year wonderful.