Cuzco is rich in culture and traditions, even hidden ones. Though the young are modernizing and forgetting some, many persevere. An important one that most outsiders do not know about has to do with the dead.
The people of Cuzco, like many other people in the world, visit the cemeteries to place flowers on the tombs of their dead. They also carry candles to light and to pray for their loved one. And, they will often take the skull of an ancestor or family member back to their house to keep and honor. You especially see this custom in the homes of older people, although it is deeply rooted in Cuzco and, perhaps, throughout Peru.
An ancient tradition, this comes from our ancestors. In Inca times the mummies of the dead Emperors would be kept in homes and maintained a very important role as leaders in Cuzco. Even though half a millennium has passed, we still keep an intimate relationship with the bodies of some of our dead. People say the skulls of loved ones are good company to have in the house. They draw love, memory, and affection, at the same time, just as they living, they are expected to do important things around the home.
People live with the skulls of their dead. They make altars for them and give them flowers and light candles for them. They pray to them so that they will watch over the home and make everything go well for the family.
Still, all this is a bit eerie and even frightening. You can tell this if you listen to people tell stories about the skulls. Every one either has some or has just heard some.
My sister-in-law, Martha, tells that when she was a little girl she would often play in the home of her cousin. She never realized they had a skull in the home.
One time she entered when no one was there. Everything was moving around all by it self. Somethings fell onto the floor suddenly and the air was heavy. Martha was very frightened.
At that moment her cousin arrived and said that her grandfather–the skull–was playing around the house.
Martha was impacted by what she heard. Her cousin said that her grandfather protected the house from thieves. He would make noise so that the thieves would be frightened and leave without taking anything.
When his mother died, my father says that after a good time he went to the cemetery to ask for his mother’s skull. He told the attendants they could burn the other bones.
But when they opened her casket they saw that she still had her hair on her head and her nails had grown. Her dress was still fully intact. They told my father that he would have to wait still for some time before he could come and take her skull home.
I never met my grandmother as she died before I was born. I wish we had her skull in our home so that I could ask her to look out for me and my things whenever I leave home. She is missing for us. We do not know what happened to her skull.
Most people insist the skulls help protect the home, even though they have their sense of humor. They protect from thieves and from bad energy in the home. It is said that some people can use the skulls to make black magic so bad things happen to other people.
People say that the skulls can even throw rocks at thieves or bad people. Their jaw rattles and can warn of earthquakes and impending problems. It can also fly and consume the unwary, if the skull is not well attended to. As a result, it is an obligation to have a skull. You have responsibility to it and must never leave it without offerings.
Sometimes, if you are talking a lot, people will come up to you and move their top fingers against their thumb, as if a jaw were snapping, as if in warning.
The skulls, called calaveras in Spanish, are very important in Cuzco, even if people do not talk much to outsiders about them.