Inti Raymi and the Solstice

During the time of the Inca, the approach of the winter solstice was a time to gather the llamas to choose those for sacrifice. The Inca and his subjects would come to the temple Sacsayhuaman for rituals to appease the Sun god, Inti. “The Incas believed that the spilling of llama blood would ensure Inti and his life giving warmth and would return; crops would grow and thus save them from starvation.” (1) Their knowledge of the sun and its movements bespeaks centuries of observation.

However, “In 1572 the vicreroy Francisco Alvarez De Toledo prohibited the fiesta (along with the rest of the major indigeneous ceremonias) because they were considered pagen and contrary to the Catholic faith. The ceremony continued clandestinely as a protest to the “expatriation of idolatry” (2)

The reenactment of Inti Raymi, held on the June solstice, celebrates the Inca’s devotion to Inti, the Sun. These are festivals and much celebrating, feasting, and dancing. They are known as the time when the sun stands still. (3)

The Inca at the Intio Raymi (Walter Coraza Morveli)
The Inca at the Intio Raymi (Walter Coraza Morveli)

According to some translations, Inti Raymi means “the sun stands still” (4) There are six days where the length of the day changes less than one minute – so it is like the sun standing still before the rotation of the earth shortens or lengthens the day. This is a time of many sun festivals across the Americas.

North of the equator, the sun has reached its zenith. In Utah, solstice means longer days. It made me wonder how much shorter the days were in Cusco, now that they had reached their shortest days.

The least amount of daylight in Cusco is 11 hours 19 min and 43 seconds. For comparison, the longest day of the year – December 21st 12 hours and 54 min. That equates to a difference of 1hour 35 minutes.

It is interesting as we go through out days, sometimes we lose track of time, but we all carry timepieces – phones, watches or clocks that keep our lives regulated. The Inca didn’t have the same types of devices, but they tracked the day down to the precision of knowing exactly the dates of the solstices. They also knew the moment of the equinox – and the Intihuatana stone , such as in Machu Picchu– the hitching post of the sun – ties the sun to the earth during the spring and fall equinoxes. The Intihuantana stone is in Machu Pichu. (5)

The remembrance of the solstice in North America has more to do with the first day of summer, the longest day of the year and the shortest night. In Utah, the day length is 15 hours and 6 minutes on summer solstice, a difference of 5 hours and 51 minutes from the winter solstice. The daylight stays almost 6 hours longer on this day than it does on winter solstice.

Six hours more daylight is a lot to celebrate!

Sunrise over Cuzco
Sunrise over Cuzco

The solstice has been celebrated in Northern climes for hundreds of years for just that reason. Folklore, and ritual also about regarding the date. Across Europe, bonfires are set on Midsummer or St. John’s Eve. There are folk stories about faeries that come to dance on these solstice nights, and the ashes from the fire can be formed into an amulet for protection throughout the year. According to, two of the three “top festivals with bonfires” are held on solstice nights.(The other is close – it is New Year) The first is St. Juan festival in Andalucía, Spain, the second is in Scotland and the third is Inti Raymi.

In the Andes the feast of San Juan is traditionally celebrated with a bonfire and is still honored even though the new Inti Raymi comes on top of it on the 24th. For many Andeans tonight is a night of awaiting and greeting the rising sun as part of a new celebration of the Andean New Year.

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