Conopas and Illas, Miniatures and Amulets in Andean Religion

Religion was one of the fundamental principles of the Inca Epoch. The people were polytheists, since they worshipped various gods. Their principal divinities were gods of nature, such as the rivers, mountains, the sun, lightning, the rainbow, and more.  But they also believed in a superior god who was the creator of the whole universe, called Wiracocha.

They had a set of rites and beliefs that were related with a mythological system. Religion in the Inca Empire was manifested in every aspect of their life: in the ceremonies, in work, in agriculture, etc.

In the agricultural activities of Tawantinsuyo they practiced a variety of ceremonies and rites that were considered vital for good production and a good harvest. When they cultivated a food product, the best of the harvest was selected for carrying out a ceremony in thanksgiving to the Pachamama, the Earth Mother for this food.  By doing this ceremony they were able to have their harvest give more than what they simply lifted from the earth. They called the best fruits and vegetables “conopas” and they believed that each of the products of the ground had a spirit that protected them.

To each product—vegetables or fruits—were given a particular name. For example, the conopa for potatoes was called Papamama or Mother Potato.  Following the same model, corn is Saramama, or Mother Corn. The other things were similarly named.

Corn as a Cannopa (Photo: Wayra)
Corn as a Canopa (Photo: Wayra)

Unlike other ceremonies where the whole population participated, the conopa ceremony was different, since only the members of the household participated.

Domestic animals also had protective spirits and these were called illas. These were miniatures of animal made in stone that were buried in the corrals or hills in order that they might protect the animals and increase their production.

The small statues of stone generally had the shape of a llama or an alpaca. They were said to control the power of reproduction for the animals in benefit of their owner. Called enqa, as well as illa, they were also an amulet for the protection of the families and communities.

One prominent theory argues that the name Inca is the same as enqa, given the rules of pronunciation of Quechua. As a result the emperors and nobility were considered a kind of transcendent protector and producer of food and life.

In llama form the illas had a specific function. They were placed in tombs to accompany the dead, since the llama was considered the vehicle for transporting the dead to the next word.

There were also illas for agriculture. These were representations in stone of the fruits of the earth, such as ears of corn. They were finely worked. They too were called conopas and were also buried in the earth before the work of sewing could commence  so that they might protect the products and so their would be an abundant crop at the time of harvest.

If we visit the museums we can see illas for architecture. These too were made of stone and had the form of a construction.  They were used to protect and to guarantee good workmanship.

Illas and Other Old Things (Photo; Wayra)
Yllas and Other Old Things (Photo; Wayra)

Sometimes the illas were carried as amulets for good health, good luck, and good fortune. They were passed from parents to their eldest child.  In the cases where there was no one to inherit them, they were given to the closest relative.  In the case where there was no one, they were buried in the house or were placed in the tomb of someone who had died.

Today, we can consider the ceramic bulls from Pucara that are placed on the roofs of Cuzco a kind of colonial illa or conopa.  People consider them amulets for the protection of the home and the familia.

Though the Incas have long since disappeared as an empire, this religious culture of conopas and illa continues to be very important among amany families today.

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