Superstition and the People of Peru, a Jesuit’s Account

Sometimes it is fun to read the chroniclers, the Spanish and Mestizos who investigated and wrote down about Inca life and that of the people of Peru after they invaded. I will share a bit of one with you today.

Father Blas Valera wrote An Account of the Ancient Customs of the Natives of Peru, written at the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth, a time of great struggle over Andean religion and conversion to Christianity. The text was published anonymously though scholars attribute it to Valera.

Bas Valera was a Jesuit born in Peru to a Spanish Father and native mother spent years in Cusco, as well as elsewhere in Peru, and developed “unorthodox” ideas about Inca religion and such. In this case, Valera is one of a handful of mixed Spanish-Indigenous people who were beginning to ground a Peruvian Christianity at the same time they challenged traditional ideas about Inca society.

This was an important moment in time, one in which the Virgin of Candelabra would appear as the Virgin of Copacabana and claim an ancient and central Inca holy site for Christianity in the hands of the descendent of the Inca and the high priest to the sun, Tito Yupanqui. She soon came to be the image of Mary most venerated by Indigenous Peruvians and many people elsewhere.

Today is the first procession of another important Peruvian image affiliated with an ancient holy site, the Lord of Miracles. But not all is about great images, devotion and processions.

After writing about gods, temples, offerings, confessions, and sacrifices, you know, the big stuff of religion in his mind. Bas Valera scribed:

“I do not believe there have ever been gentiles as given to superstition as the Peruvians; in some provinces were used more and in some less but generally the entire kingdom had the same amount. Because, apart from that which concerns their false religion . . . they used to depend upon superstitions from childhood, because they saw omens in all their acts and in their occupations, and in almost everything they saw a mystery that indicated good or evil. The trembling of an eye; the ringing of an ear; stretching the body; coughing; sneezing; yawning; stepping with the right or left foot; stumbling over one’s feet more with this one than with that one; the saliva going to the right or forcefully when they spit; encountering, after daybreak, the first man or woman with this or that look; seeing another person first, or the reverse; seeing animals, snakes, or insects fighting or mating; in all of these things they used to find evil or good omens. They used to say that the barking or howling of dogs signified brawls or deaths; the hooting of an owl, that someone in the house in which the bird sang would die; seeing the rainbow, that there would be fevers; pointing at it with the finger, that ones body would rot with abscesses or cancer.

For this protection the Peruvians, down to the little girls, used various types of good luck charms: in the grain o corn; in the cob of an ear of corn; in the saliva thrown into the palm of a hand; and in another thousand things. In the colored clouds of the morning sky they observed not only the quality of the weather, if it was airy, if rainy, if serene, but also omens and augurs. Finally, they were so given to these superstitions that in all their corporal acts, and in all things, they found omens to observe and to note.”

Despite the hyperbole (since Blas Valera ignores the powerful superstition of European societies which had already come and was beginning to mingle with the Inca concern for omens and good and bad fortune, a better rendering than “good” or “evil”) the Jesuit write about many things that in one way or another still beat in the heart and move the feet of the people of Cusco.

Reference: Sabine Hyland, Gods of the Andes: An Early Jesuit Account of Inca Religion and Andean Christianity (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011) pp 87-88.

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