Clouds fill the sky this morning, even though it is the dry season in Cuzco. Those clouds cause conversation, especially in August when many people talk about Las cabañuelas. An ancient means of forecasting the weather for the agricultural year, las cabañuelas has roots in Europe, even though it has connected with traditions from the Inca past. While in the city it is giving way to more high tech means of making forecasts, people still talk about it.
In many parts of the world people have paid attention to the sky to see when it would be good to plant or harvest, but science has shifted that focus all over the place. Meteorology and the weather forecast on TV or on the radio has wrested popularity from earlier means of trying to figure out the mystery of what future weather will be.
While people in the rural Andes watch the sky constantly, in Cuzco this is especially true in August. This is the month of the Pachamama, the earth, when she is argued to be open and needing attention. The first of the month people make a payment to her, although they continue to do so throughout the month. During this time of opening and ritual attention, the sky takes on particular importance. This is the time of the cabañuelas.
People divide the month into two periods from the first to mid month and on to the end of the month. Then they pay close attention to cloud formations and to weather it rains because of the implications they understand that to have for future months and especially agricultural production. Every day represents a future month.
In Cuzco’s countryside, the cabañuelas play an important role. They set up expectations for weather it will be a good rainy season or not. If not then people know to take appropriate ritual action to try to stem the negative effects.
While August is a time of generally sunny and breezy days in Cuzco, storm clouds do appear and sometimes they let loose in rain. If the right kind of clouds and rain appear before mid month in August, people take that to mean that this will be a good agricultural year and that they can proceed with planting. If they come in the last half of the month, then people fear their seeds will not get the moisture they need to grow once planted, since they rains will be late in coming or may be weak. As a result, they fear the harvest will be a disaster.
To predict future weather, the Andean priests, called papachos in Cuzco, base themselves on indicators like the form of the clouds, the direction of the wind, the characteristics oF the sun, the moon, the stars, the morning dew, rainbows, and any hail that falls.
While Andean priests have long used such observations to make sense of the weather, the cabañuelas specifically as a name and custom associated with August comes from the South of Spain and is widely spread in the Spanish New World, from New Mexico south.
There is debate as to the origin of the cabañuelas, among historians. with some locating it in the Jewish tradition of Spain and especially the feast of Sukkot. But the great Andeanist ethnohistorian, R. Tom Zuidema, draws connections deep into the ancient past of the Mediterranean.
He then argues that when the Spanish came to Peru, the Inca feast of Qoya Raymi, held in what we would call the month of September, reminded them of the Spanish cabañuelas. These, he argues, went beyond Jewish tradition to Roman and earlier to make a rich set of practices that seemed to the Spanish much like the Inca.
If Zuidema is right, then the cabañuelas and, indeed, much of August’s ritual, has deep roots into Cuzco’s Inca past.
So on a cloudy day like today we can remember that the clouds carry meaning for the future. And in that may be something as Inca as Machu Picchu.
R. Tom Zuidema, The Inca Feast of the Queen and the Spanish Feast of Cabañuelas. Journal of Latin American Lore, 20:1 (1997), 143-160.