Customs

Cuzco’s Apus, Its Sacred Mountains

Apu Ausangate (Photo: Walter Coraza. M)

The people of the Andes who live among the mountains recognize in them the dominant character of their presence within nature and knowledge as well as the important position they hold in their worldview.

From ancient times, the ancestral religion of the Andes recognized these hills, their names, character, dominions, and ownership of humans.

They were considered the tutelary guides as well as patrons of peoples and counties.  Even today people turn to them in search of protection, guide, solace, aid, and strength in their daily lives.  People say God gives them the responsibility to protect people.  They are the pastors of mankind and the intermediaries between Hanan Pacha (the sky and heaven, the world of Gods) and Kay Pacha, this earthly world.

Apu Machu Picchu (Photo: Walter Coraza. M)
Apu Machu Picchu (Photo: Walter Coraza. M)

Etymologically, the word “apu” comes from the Quechua “apu” which means “lord”.  For the Incas, the Apus were holy divinities that were located in places such as mountains and snow-clad peaks.  That is where people found the spirits of their ancestors.  According to Andean tradition these Apus taught the people who lived on their slopes as well as those in their valleys that they watered with their streams and rivers.  In this way, the Apus determined the course of agricultural production.

Just as the word says in Quechua, “Lord” or “Lady”, the Apus also have their female version.  These are called Ñustas and are female spirits that care for animals and plants.  They also live in the hills.  When invoked in ceremonies, they appear from the earth while the masculine Apus come down from the heavens.  Between both the male and female there is communication and complementarity, since they form the important and basic Andean duality.

A View of an Apu from the Mountains (Photo: Walter Coraza. M)
A View of an Apu from the Mountains (Photo: Walter Coraza. M)

When the Spanish arrived and Christianized the Andes, Andean religion though challenged did not end.  The Catholic Church was not completely successful in inserting its dogmas into a people who had their own religion and their own way.  This people considered the earth as their great mother, and the Apus as mothers and fathers, the guides or day-to-day destiny for people.  Even though the Church tried to hide the sacred stories, what people often call myth, as well as the Andean legends within or beneath saints, processions, and popular feasts in order to build a new form of religiosity, this quest failed.  Today our Andean religion is based on syncretism, half Andean and half Christian.

Our Apus still live.  Even in 2013 they are present among the people of the Andes.  Every time you take a drink or you make a toast with chicha, what we call “aqha”, you are showing respect.  You offer drops of chicha by lifting it and flicking it with your fingers into the air.  While doing so you invoke the Apus by saying their names.  In this way through their spirit and their strength they accompany us in our daily activities.

Each Apu has its specialties and its furies.  The people of the Andes ask for their favors and continue to consider them even today as sacred places that deserve respect.  Andeans look to conserve them and retain them forever in the collective memory of their communities and cities.

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