Inca Myths and Cuzco

Five centuries have passed since the Inca Empire was destroyed and yet images and stories of the Incas abound in Cuzco and its region.  A lot of history, new stories, and new events have taken place in that time, but the Inca–or at least a single Inca, Pachacutec — reigns supreme both in people’s memory, in stories, in statues, and in murals on walls.

There is, for example, the story of Cuzco’s founding told in two distinctive ways.  One narrative is about a set of eight brothers and sisters, four pairs, while the other is about the founding couple.  These stories find their home in the “chroniclers,” those people who wrote in the sixteenth and seventeenth century to tell about the Incas as the Empire waned.  Of course, they also found a home in dance and art as the people of the Inca reworked their traditions in a Spanish-dominated society.  But they also made their way into school curricula and, much later, onto the internet.

History of Cuzco in the Wall
History of Cuzco on the Wall

In the first story the eight brothers and sisters come from one of three openings in a mountain in a place called Pacariqtambo and make their way slowly to Cuzco.  Along the way they have adventures and most of the brothers are consigned to the earth where they can serve to help and protect the Incas, such as on the hill Guanacauri where Inca youth would go as part of an important rite of passage to adulthood. Only Manco Capac made it into the city and especially to the hill where the Temple of the Sun would later be built to found the Inca people.

In the other story the couple Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo came from a cliff on the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca and made their way slowly to Cuzco carrying a golden bar.  When it sank into the ground in what became an important field they knew that was the place to settle.  Thus they established the Inca people in Cuzco.

Machupicchu Picture in a Wall
Machu Picchu Picture on a Wall

Though these stories tell of the migration of the founding couple from somewhere else to Cuzco, where they found people already living and who they displaced, the anthropologist Tom Zuidema reminds us that “there is no reason to believe that the culture and political institutions did not had deep roots in these three valleys” that make up Cuzco (p 4).

Nevertheless, the stories tie the Incas to key places, such as Pacariqtambo, Guanacauri, the Qori Cancha (Temple of the Sun), and the Island of the Sun along with Lake Titicaca.  The migrations they tell are ones in which a place, Cuzco, is created and in which it has relationships with other important places. The Titicaca narrative also ties it into an even more ancient set of tales sometimes called The Viracocha cyle, which narrates of a sacred hero that traversed the landscape.


Even if only in a very reduced form, the story of the first Inca couple, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, whether from Pacariqtambo or Titicaca, still has resonance with the people of Cuzco.

Similarly the Inca Pachacutec has weight and presence for Cuzqueños.  His statue atop a tall stone tower in a roundabout or on the side of the hill is one of the first things seen by visitors to the city and has   He also now graces the fountain in the Plaza de Armas, the Main Square.

The Inka At the Main Square
The Inka At the Main Square

But more than this, Pachacutec comes to stand for the entire dynasty, the empire, Cuzco’s glorious past, and its present as a major tourist destination.  But the figure of Pachacutec is also fascinating.

He is credited with expanding the empire beyond the immediate area of the city and its neighboring valleys as well as designing and constructing the Inca city which lies under and within the current one.

There is a famous story about this.  Pachacutec, originally called Inca Yupanqui, was not the one chosen by his father to become the next Inca.  At this time the Chanca people from neighboring Andahuaylas threatened to come with a massive army to attack Cuzco.  The emperor, Pachacutec’s father, abandoned the city to take refuge in the Sacred Valley.  But Pachacutec, troubled by the advancing army, received a vision in which Viracocha the great god, or maybe it was the Sun, appeared to Pachacutec as a man and told him he would defend him and Cuzco.

Pachacutec Statue
Pachacutec Statue

Inca Yupanqui and his friends went out onto a plain above the city called Yawarpampa, the plain of blood, to defend against the advancing army that far outnumbered them.  As battle was enjoined, the stones of the earth became soldiers and helped defeat the enormous and ferocious Chanca Army.

Pachacutec took his new name, the “earth/time changer”  and the Sun was enshrined in the figure of a boy, an adult male, and an old man within the Qori Cancha (Golden Enclosure) on a hill where the mornings’ rays would strike early while the rest of the valley floor remained in darkness.  But his name also carries hopes of another story.

Sacsayhuaman in the Wall
Sacsayhuaman on the Wall

It is said that at another time of pachacuti, when the earth will change, the Inca will come forth from the ground again and a new world will begin.  This story is called the Inkarri cycle and is quite widespread.

Five centuries have passed since Atahuallpa, the last native emperor was assassinated by the Spanish, but the stories of Inca origins and greatness still cary force and serve to fascinate visitors as well as motivate the people of Cuzco.

Jungle Picture
Jungle Picture on the Wall

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