“Watch out for lightning!. Make sure you are not wearing any metal when you are out in the street: rings, watch, or anything. Metal attracts lightning.”
This advice was given to me by a woman in the window seat of our flight from Lima to Cusco as we looked out on Mount Salkantay from our window. It looked close enough to almost touch. But after acknowledging that fact, we did not talk about the glaciated and jagged peaks. Instead, in her native San Jeronimo accent she warned me about lightning because the rains had now started and lightning had come to the highlands.
She called it the “rayo”, the ray, suggesting its jagged, zig zag form.
“Be careful you do not wear anything of silver or gold. Lightning particularly likes precious metals. It is drawn to gold and silver.”
She then told me the story that has been all over Peru’s media of a player for Sport Aguila, Joao Contreras, was recently struck by lightning during a game for the Peru Cup held in the intermountain valley city of Huancayo.
“The lightning didn’t hit him directly. It assed right by his face. It was probably drawn to him by his earrings. They were probably gold. You know how athletes wear earrings these days.”
In the past, lightning was a deity in the Andes, known for being dangerous but also for fertility. His characteristics were more than the booming sound of lightning strikes and rolling thunder. They included his bright, shining light, something that suggests the sacred and holy power throughout the Andes and into the Amazon.
Yanomami shaman, Davi Kopenawa writes in his book The Falling Sky (coauthored and translated from Yanomami to French by anthropologist Bruce Albert) that the spirits, the xapiri, come on filaments of bright light.
Just as shamans among the Yanomami on the distant region between Venezuela and Brazil become ritual specialists and healers by learning to converse and entertain the xapiri and their light, so too the high specialists and healers around Cusco, called Alto Misayoq, are often said to have been struck by lightning and survived. That fact qualifies them to become healers and specialists since they can survive interactions with the powerful shining light of the high mountains.
Today, lightning is still known for fertility. People talk about how when lightning strikes local mushrooms appear in that area and they are good food. One of the classic dishes of Cuzco, a K’apchi de Cetas, is made from them. It will soon be on menus throughout the city, now that the rains and lightning have arrived.
It also is said to be remembered in all the statues of St. James, Santiago, on his horse. He is often shown with Indigenous people under its hooves. The Patron Saint of Spain, St. James quickly became affiliated with the Indigenous lightning and supported an idea that Peter Gose elaborates, an indigenous resistance to colonialism by appropriated the Spanish and their deities for their own cosmos.
When I told friends in Cusco about the conversation with the woman from San Jeronimo on the airplane, they all told me that where lightning strikes there is likely to be a treasure, gold or silver. They said that lightning especially likes silver.
A bit of this notion is enshrined in the sacred site of Qoyllu Rit’i, where the snow shines like the light that lightning composes in a bright flash. The entrance to the glaciated area is called Qollquepunku, the gateway of silver (although this word can refer as well to wealth and well being).
Silver is indeed associated in Cusco with lightning, whether as fertility or as treasure hidden deep in the earth.
The national Newspaper, El Comercio, acknowledged the strike on the footballer, but then gave advice on how to avoid lightning. It sounded like the same advice given all over the world: “stay close to the ground, do not be the tallest thing around, stay away from open windows, shut down your cell, etc.”
As a result, the advise of the woman from San Geronimo stands out. It represents a deep cultural logic still alive an well in Cuzco. Do not wear metal if you are outside, especially gold or silver.
Peter Gose, Invaders as Ancestors: On the Intercultural Making and Unmaking of Spanish Colonialism in the Andes (University of Toronto Press, 2013)