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Kay Pacha: Quechua Spirituality

The power of the earth is infinite and encompasses all. That which has no roots in the earth is not sound, has no worth.

 saying in the Quechua Indian community of Pinchimuro.

Kay Pacha, by Rosalind Gow and Bernabe Condori; preface and index by Henrique Urbano (Center for Rural Andean Studies, Cuzco, Peru; 1976). Bilingual edition in Quechua and Spanish, 200 pages, paperback, illustrated.

Earthly Gods: Quechua Indian Spirituality According to Kay Pacha


Reviewed and translated from the Spanish by Mark Mardon

kay-pachaIN THE QUECHUA LANGUAGE OF THE CUZCO-COLLAO REGION OF PERU, Kay Pacha means “earthly world, inhabited by living beings.” The spirits and demons that inhabit this world are of the earth and close to the people, not remote and of the sky as with the Judeo-Christian god.

The book is a collection of legends, anecdotes, and spiritual beliefs of the inhabitants of the tiny Peruvian community of Pinchimuro, which lies within the shadow of towering Mt. Ausangate. Replete with a pantheon of gods, spirits, demons, and witches, the book is a serious anthropological study of a traditional Andean society.

Authors Gow and Condori, who assembled the stories and elaborate on their meanings, never introduce us to the story tellers, who remain nameless and faceless. Yet this seeming lapse is explained by the fact that the stories we read in Kay Pacha belong to the community, not to the person who transmits it to the researcher.

“The individual relating the story,” writes Urbano in his preface, “assumes the collective word to express the sentiments, desires, aspirations of the whole community.”

Ancestors, rocks, rivers, and mountains all command reverence from the peasants of Pinchimuro. The people exist at the mercy of nature, to which they attribute divine powers, sometimes benevolent, sometimes cruel and avaricious.

Most of the book’s legends and anecdotes, taken by themselves, are far too sketchy to be easily appreciated by the uninitiated, but Gow and Condori divide the book into several sections and provide an essential and enlightening introduction to each. These cover such topics and concepts as mother earth, regional history, Apus, divinities, and festivals.

These help the reader learn the names and characteristics of the various spirits that exert influence over the land and people of the community.

Omens and portents, offerings, cures, and witchcraft are all the domain of paqos, human shamans within the community. If their ability is keen, they command respect and wield authority. They look for omens among the stars, in the temper of the mountains, in the direction of the wind, in the rain and the hail, and above all in the leaves of coca, divining the necessities and desires of Pachamama, mother earth. It is Pachamama that is revered above all: “Pachamama lives. As she begets the worms of the earth, so too are we begotten.”

Apus are spirits of the hills and mountains, whose powers increase with the height of the landform they inhabit. Thus Apu Ausangate, god of the snow-capped, 20,906-foot peak, is the most powerful Apu, and the one most pervasive throughout the community’s folklore.

A similarity with other native religions is evident, and Christianity has had an influence, especially in that aspect of the Apus‘ nature that serves as a moral guide. Yet the Christian god plays but a minor role in Pinchimuro cosmology. The forces most removed from the earth — God, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the majority of saints — have very limited powers. The campesinos say: “They live in the heavens, they are not like us, how can they affect our lives?”

The campesinos divide their history into five periods: creation; the first men; the period of the Incas and the Spanish Conquest; independence; and the future. The story of the first men is especially interesting: called the “Gentiles,” the first men were few but physically and spiritually very powerful. Giants reaching great ages, they knew no infirmity. Having no gods they were their own authorities, acting themselves as gods. They cultivated potatoes and cared for animals; nonetheless, they lived in constant darkness and their only fear was light. Their epoch ended when the first sun appeared over the horizon and the rooster crowed; they realized there was no time to escape, so they buried their gold, silver, weavings, tools, and adornments. Accompanied by pumas, llamas, and alpacas, the Gentiles dashed for the darkness of the jungle, cursing the sun. Some reached their goal, but most were immobilized when the sun struck them and burned them or turned them to stones.

The book gives a glimpse into the kind of ritual offerings still practiced within traditional Andean societies. On the 31st of July of each year, for example, the campesinos of Pinchimuro supplicate their individual stars with offerings of 12 k’intus (bunches of three leaves of the coca plant), the fetus of a pig or of a guinea pig, the fat of an alpaca, sweets, tiny lead stars, and carnations. They are rewarded with a sacred rock, inkaychu, in the shape of a vicuna, an alpaca, a sheep, or a cow that contains the essence of the vital force of the Apu. In celebrating the rites of the festival of The Lord of Quyllur Rit’i, many campesinos believe the Lord desires human sacrifice. It is felt the celebration has been a failure if during it no one dies.

Kay Pacha’s greatest achievement is the insight it gives into the campesino’s view of the world. In one instance that view encompasses what the campesinos view as the follow of mountaineering gringos who attempt to scale Ausangate, one of the world’s great climbing challenges. In a tale called “The Lion of Ausangate,” oral tradition in Pinchimuro recounts the predicaments of foreigners attempting to scale the peak. Alas, they encounter the mountain’s guardian, The Lion:

Nevado Ausangate, Peru

Well, then came the gringos from other nations. These gringos upset him [the lion]. Climbing halfway up Ausangate they watched, but the lion didn’t let himself be seen. He does not want them to see him easily. It angers him. Even Ausangate himself would not let himself be seen by the gringos. Dense clouds concealed him. Then came the snow. 

All this happened to the poor gringos. Weeks and weeks they were there suffering. They say they wanted to climb Ausangate and see the lion. They were not allowed to see. Then, erecting their tent above the lake, the poor gringos became unhappy. They took photographs of the viscachas [a type of rodent].

There they were passing their lives. The never were able to climb Ausangate. They climbed halfway. There they became ill. At times they returned on a stretcher. At times they came back tied to a horse. The gringos suffered greatly in this remote corner. They hiked Ausangate saying: “I will go up.” They were not able. Flags were raised.”

When they wanted to climb to the top, Ausangate caused two golden bulls to block their way. Because of this they could neither climb upwards nor remove the golden bulls. Nor could they see the lion. For pleasure, they suffered there. They did everything possible, but neither could they climb nor see. 

At the time they became ill, they saw that their provisions were finished. Now they had nothing to eat. They lived for weeks sucking candies, nothing more. A few times, shortly after they arrived, the inhabitants of that remote place robbed them of their sleeping bags and supplies — they robbed them of everything. The poor gringos suffered a lot in that remote place.

So they returned to their land because they had nothing more to eat. Carrying photographs of alpacas, rocks, and snow, they returned.

This is the account of the riches of Ausangate they desired.


The Cosmology of Pinchimuro

Kay Pacha means “earthly world, inhabited by living beings.” 

Pachamama is Quechua for “Mother Earth.”

“Pachamama lives. As she begets the worms in the earth, so too are we begotten. She has bones and blood. And hair too. The pastures are her hair. She has milk as well. She lives in August from the first to the sixth. After Christmas she lives no more. She receives offerings. Wine and drink for her ceremony of pouring liquor, this is what Pachamama wants. Pacha Tierra [another term for “mother earth”], like us, knows how to masticate coca; she knows how to drink. The offering must contain feed, incense, sugar, fetus of vicuna, fetus of vizcacha, and the wool of the vicuna.”

Urbano makes clear Pachamama’s importance to the people of Pinchimuro: “Isolated, exploited, dominated, the man of Pinchimuro lives with hunger, illness and death at his side. Pachamama briefly comforts the hunger, the hills protect against the dangers of an ungrateful nature, the rivers and the rains provide the water necessary for the farms, the sweet coca makes one forget the pain and the harshness of the work.”

The forces most removed from the earth — God, the sun, the moon, the stars (except “las Cabanillas”) and the majority of saints — have very limited powers. According to Gow and Condori: “The campesinos say: ‘They live in the heavens — they are not like us — How can they affect our lives?'”

Apus: gods of the hills and mountains.

Apus have three levels of existence:

1. In the first level, they are human beings, appearing to the campesinos as men, children, or women. They are treated as members of the family with the same needs and behaviors. In the past, they appeared frequently in the pueblo. Apu Ausangate, most powerful in the region, appeared frequently as a mestizo child, with blond hair and clear skin, wearing white clothes and adorned with ferns or a white headband, and mounted on a white horse. The human aspect of Apu Ausangate is important: he suffers and is happy with the pueblo, loves and is loved by all.

2. In the second level, the apus, especially Ausangate, are symbols of ideal life. Moral guides. They punish those who commit incest with an eternity of living in agony and desperation, dragging their chained, naked bodies to the frozen slopes of Ausangate, where they are obliged to devour friends and neighbors, like it or not.

The campesino must select the star that represents the affinity between his destiny and that of his closest apu. Without altomisas — intermediaries — he must select on his own. He must certify his selection is correct. So, on July 31st, he makes offerings to his star, including 12 k’intus (bunches of three leaves of the coca plant), the fetus of a pig, or of a guinea pig, the fat of an alpaca, sweets, tiny lead stars, and carnations. If his selection is correct, he is compensated with a sacred rock (inkaychu ) in the form of a vicuna, alpaca, sheep, or cow that contains the essence of the vital force protected and created by the apu.

3. In the third level, the apus are all-powerful gods, above and beyond human understanding. They accomplish miracles or heroic actions or may be bad and cruel. This explains Ausangate’s two names: Apu Ausangatesymbol of virtue, benevolence, and peace; and Inca Qahasymbol of the passing, the destruction, and the insecurity of the future.

Ausangate is the name given to a group of mountains that include Kayankati, Hawaykati, Qulqi Cruz (5,960 meters), and Ausangate itself (6,372 meters). These apus exercise little influence over the fertility of cultivated lands. The second level of lesser mountains do this.

Rugales: divinities of the rocks, lakes, and hills.

Hail, snow, and lightening: demons living in dangerous and isolated high altitude lakes where they form a family. The snow is the grandmother, the hail is the daughter, and the lightening are the grandchildren. They are cruel, avaricious, and their homes are full of the animals, harvests, and people whose vital forces — souls — have been robbed.

Elemento — The rivers whose sources are in Ausangate are called Elemento. In a region where the water inundates the land half the year and the other half the animals lose weight and go hungry for lack of water, Elemento is perceived as an all-powerful but irrational god: a semi-god and semi-demon. 

Rocks, in campesino cosmology, are the domicile of ancestors and have the power to control the fertility of the earth and the destiny of the campesino.

The Virgin of Pinchimuro, Mamacha Concebida: came down from the heavens and, according the thinking of many, lives in the temple, acquired certain power linked with the earth. As a woman, she is associated with Pachamama and helps to assure the fertility of the fields.

El Señor [Lord] de Quyllur Rit’i: each year attracts some 10,000 faithful campesinos to his sanctuary. Identified by many of them with the rock in which he disappeared, and on which he had previously painted his cross.

Spirits and demons:

1. The anchanchu live in the rivers.

2. The quwa live in the wind.

3. The sirinu live in the lakes.

4. The Incas are waiting in the earth, but must make their presence felt by means of tapados , sacred stones and manifestations in the form of animals.

5. The deadly soq’a — tumor — is a spirit of ancestors, living in the earth, appearing frequently at nightfall in search of living souls.

In the belief system of Pinchimuro, according to Kay Pacha, “One must care for the dead members of a family as if they were living, and even more, because they are dangerous, they must not be irritated. These dead live, and during the year they must be remembered with respect, by making offerings of their favorite foods and beverages, and in this manner all can live together in peace.”

The First of August: This date lives, and all the men make Vespers on the night of the thirty-first. At dawn they leave in search of idols (inkaychu ); every rock lives, every crag and cliff lives, and every spring lives. From these places they look and inspect the pampas. On this day the pampas live. Everything lives. The Pachamama lives too. For this the Pachamama makes presents of idols to the lucky people. What is more, on this day the cow has its stone, the sheep has its stone, the fish and every one of the animals too.

Las Cabanillas: A constellation, probably the Southern Cross. Depending on which of three stars — Collari, Incari, and Mistiri — shows first after the new year, the people say the year will be bad, good, or regular, respectively.


The Community of Pinchimuro

“A small community of 65 families, Pinchimuro belongs to the district of Ocongate, province of Quispicanchis. . . . Undulating and naked earth at 3,900 meters above sea level, it is adorned by valleys to the north and south, while to the east it is dominated by the majestic Ausangate, Cayancate, and Qolque, snow-capped mountains a few hours away by foot.

Preparing chuño on the Andean altiplano.

“Life is hard in these remote regions. The community possesses only 250 hectares of poor land that permits only the cultivation of potatoes and the lowest proportions of cereals in the most sheltered places. Rotation is made every six years. Each family cultivates more or less a half hectare and in that rears a few animals. The majority of these only manage to survive thanks to the sale of meat and wool (for one or two ponchos a year), and to money acquired in possible migrations to the jungle, their only sources of income. The potatoes are generally small and worm-ridden. For the most part there is a resistance among the commune dwellers to employing fertilizers, cause by the loss of 17,000 soles suffered by the neighboring community that tested them on a field of garlic. Before the harvest of the potatoes, from January to April, chuño [freeze-dried potato] is the only food.”

In Pinchimuro there were formerly two levels of shamanism: the Altomisa, with superior powers, who eventually turned prideful and so lost the faith of the people and had his powers limited, and the pampamisabetter known as paqothe most important person in the community.

Paqo: a person who looks for omens among the stars, in the temper of the mountains and the lakes, in the direction of the wind, of the rain and of the hail and above all in the leaves of coca, divining the necessities and desires of the Pachamama, of the hill-gods, and of the demons of the hail and wind. The election of a good paqo is supremely important. The paqo is many times a political leader, or justice of the peace.

Paqos come in three classes:

1. Those who cure human illnesses.

2. Those who make offerings to gods and demons for the prosperity of crops and animals.

3. Fearsome witches who bring death or illness, who fashion images of their enemies, attaching them to a cross and interring them in a cemetery.

El Ararihua: the person responsible for the protection of the farms.

Qollana and Kaywa: conductors of the daily communal tasks.

Los carquyoq: functionaries. They provide food, beverages, and coca as necessary, but haven’t the wisdom or power to diving the meaning of agricultural evens or strange climatic changes.


The Folk History of Pinchimuro

The people of Pinchimuro divide history into five periods:

1. Primordial time and creation. A time of chaos that terminated with the creation of all the elements. The Creation is attributed to God. For many campesinos this is His only important role. After creating the world, God entrusted the Pachamama and the apus to govern as they saw fit.

2. The time of the Ñawpaq Machula, also called Gentiles and Machu Inca. The Ñawpaq Machula were the first men to inhabit the earth. They were few, but physically and spiritually very powerful. Giants reaching great ages, they knew no infirmity. Having no gods, they were their own authorities, acting themselves as gods. They cultivated potatoes and cared for animals; nonetheless, they lived in constant darkness and their only fear was light. Their epoch ended when the first sun appeared on the horizon and the rooster crowed — they realized there was no time to escape, so they buried their gold, silver, weavings, tools, and adornments. Accompanied by large rocks, and by pumas, llamas and alpacas, the Ñawpaq dashed toward the jungle cursing the sun. Some reached their goal, but the majority remained immobilized when the sun struck them atop their heads and they were burned or transformed into stones and rocks where they still dwell.

3. The Age of Gold; the time of the Incas and the Spanish Conquest. The Incas lived in order, love, and harmony among themselves as well as among the gods.

4. Modern period: from the hacienda to independence. There is no community record or relatings of the period from Conquest to 1870. Reports about life on the haciendas is a mixture of rage against the abuses of neighboring hacendados who robbed great extensions of Pinchimuro’s land, and of respect and fear towards the hacendados, and yearning for the order and control of this period. With the disappearance of the haciendas, older generations lament the breakdown of the strict social-political hierarchies, of obedience, respect, and equality. They try to live as of old, fulfilling their obligations and being respectful, and they feel resentment of the shift of the youth towards independence.

5. The future. The future is still unclear.

Each period, epoch, or chapter has been described similarly in Catholic terminology, with epochs 1 and 2 corresponding to Dios Yaya (the Father), epochs 3 and 4 to Dios Churi (the Son), and epoch 5 to Dios Espíritu Santo (the Holy Spirit). But this merely chronological division does not reflect the manner in which the campesinos consider their history.

According to the campesinos, each chapter has something in common with the anterior and the posterior. The past always lives and a part of the present and the future exists now and has always existed. The vision of history, then, is at once cyclical, in which a catastrophe closes one cycle and inaugurates another, and accumulative, in which the anterior cycle has not been destroyed but integrated and continues exercising powerful influence.


Moon Walk, Moon Talk—Michael Light’s ‘Full Moon’

“The NASA archive is a world treasure and obviously what I’ve done is reframed that world treasure into the photo-novel I wanted to build. With 32,000 pictures, you can tell any story you want. Pictures are context dependent. So I told a tale, and I told it my way.” — Michael Light


Photographer Michael Light with one of his “Full Moon” images. Photo by Jane Philomen Cleland.

When NASA officials and employees held a celebration in Washington, D.C. on July 20, 1999 to mark the 30th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on the moon, it was an openly gay man who commanded everyone’s attention.

As astronauts Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin looked on, along with NASA Chairman Dan Goldin, Chief Historian Roger Launius, NASA staff and reporters from around the globe, 36-year-old San Francisco-based fine-art photographer Michael Light addressed them for the bulk of an hour, running through a series of slide images from his new, phenomenally well-received “photo novel,” Full Moon, a lavish photo-art book published simultaneously in North America and Europe this fall by Knopf and Jonathan Cape. In the process, Light managed to do what no one since the golden age of the Apollo missions had achieved: to show the lunar surface in a fresh light, stirring people’s imaginations, reinvigorating even the astronauts’ sense of wonder at the alien landscape they had trod so long ago.

Just two days following his NASA engagement, Light was in London for the opening of his Full Moon exhibition at the prestigious Hayward Gallery of modern art on the South Bank of the River Thames. Many notables from the UK art world attended, as did David R. Scott, commander of the highly successful 1971 Apollo 15 moon mission. Those in attendance were agog the lunar images arrayed on the gallery walls. The Sunday London Times gave the exhibition a glowing review.

“The NASA archive is a world treasure,” declares Light, “and obviously what I’ve done is reframed that world treasure into the photo-novel I wanted to build.”

When Light gave a one-time-only walk-through of the show, Scott turned up in the crowd; Light, taking note of the esteemed explorer’s presence, invited Scott to participate in a conversation about the images. Thus began a crowd-mesmerizing give-and-take about the moon’s topography and exploration – an engaging off-the-cuff exchange about camera positioning, light-and-dark contrasts, soil color, temperature differences, textures, distances, heights, landforms and otherworldly aesthetics.


Full Moon emerged from the sensibilities of a gay man enamored with but critical of frontier mythology, of wilderness landscapes sought out by explorers, primarily young men bent on testing their mettle, proving themselves in contests against raw nature, and in so doing altering irrevocably the territories they penetrate. “It’s an arena of male bonding,” says Light.

Most remarkable in all this was the degree to which the two men, Light and Scott, saw eye to eye, despite being from different generations and vastly different backgrounds. They engaged in banter like old friends and fellow explorers. Scott clearly appreciated what Light, as an artist and outsider, not of the NASA fold, had done in revealing to the world the first-rate landscape and exploration photography produced during the NASA missions. Light had arrayed moon shots as never before, determined to tell the story of the moon’s exploration as he saw it, using the astronauts’ photographs to do so – photos that NASA and the public had long since disregarded and relegated to obscurity, unaware of their artistic value.

Displayed on the Hayward’s walls, in a series of interconnected rooms, were huge, black-metal framed, richly detailed and eerily beautiful images of the lunar landscape – all digitally reproduced from master dupes Light had spent more than four years sorting through in NASA’s vaults. There, untouched for decades, lay some 32,000 photographic images from the Apollo missions, none of them taken by landscape photographers, yet revealing landscapes in ways Ansel Adams or, more appropriately, contemporary disturbed-landscape photographer Richard Mishrach could appreciate. The Full Moon images depict what happens to a virgin terrain when men come along with their tools, prodding and poking, sifting and sorting, scarring with their tire tracks, littering with their abandoned machines.

The public at large had seen but a handful of such images, the select ones endlessly recycled in Time, Life, Newsweek and countless other mainstream publications, and many of those images were of poor quality, being third, fourth, or fifth generation duplicates, if not worse. Until Light came along and negotiated with NASA to take the master dupes off-site, no one had seen them, much less replicated them with high-resolution digital scanners. And certainly no one had thought to cull from the archival photographs a book as bold and captivating as Full Moon.

“The NASA archive is a world treasure,” declares Light, “and obviously what I’ve done is reframed that world treasure into the photo-novel I wanted to build. With 32,000 pictures, you can tell any story you want. Pictures are context dependent. So I told a tale, and I told it my way.”

Image from “Full Moon” by Michael Light.

Full Moon, which utilizes photographs from all of the Apollo missions to convey one archetypal journey to the moon’s surface and back, emerged from the sensibilities of a gay man enamored with but critical of frontier mythology, of wilderness landscapes sought out by explorers, primarily young men bent on testing their mettle, proving themselves in contests against raw nature, and in so doing altering irrevocably the territories they penetrate.

“It’s an arena of male bonding,” says Light, “permeated with homoeroticism, guys guaging themselves against each other.”

However, he hastens to add, “the politics of my work, and the largest issues at hand, are not particularly homo or hetero. What is part of my identity as a gay man is my whole esthetic sensibility. It’s very hard for me to describe why I’m attracted to certain textural images, like the skins of planets.”

Nonetheless, he gives it the old college try: “As an artist, I’m interested in the line between the built and the unbuilt world, the edges of civilization, the point where people begin to think about things much larger than themselves, where self-involvement and narcissism begin to fall away, where we really begin to see the sublime. Vast deserts, or outer space, or the unknown, or the ineffable, or religion, or whatever, versus the tiny human presence, continues to fascinate me.”

Light found a bit of that sublime mystery at Burning Man in Nevada last year, where far out on the desert playa, away from crowded Black Rock City (the temporary encampment of some 10,000 artists and freaks), he installed his Full Moon images for the first time publicly, arraying them end to end, face-up on the seemingly lunar landscape of dried, crusty mud, bordered in the night by tiny white lights, pointing off into infinity between two parallel mountain ridges, looking for all the world like an alien landing strip. People drawn to the lights from far away encountered a bizarre but powerful array of moon pictures, just discernable through a thin coating of playa dust. Overhead, someone had installed an eerily-lit alien spacecraft suspended from giant, nearly invisible helium balloons. When the full moon itself appeared from over a ridge, the total effect of Light’s installation was stunning, causing people to sit for long periods beside the row of photographs, meditating on their metaphysical meanings, or perhaps flying to the moon in their minds.

“My overarching desire in Full Moon was to go there as a landscape photographer,” says Light, who since graduating in the late-’80s from Amherst and then obtaining his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute has focused primarily on unusual landscape images (his earlier photo-novel Ranch, published by the renowned art-house TwelveTrees Press, depicted a working ranch in Santa Barbara belonging to the family of Edie Sedgwick, saint of the überhip Warhol coterie). “The best way I could do that, since Apollo’s not running any more and I’m not an astronaut, was via the photographs. So when I edited, I edited for a sense of immediacy. I wanted to be there, right down in the dirt. I’m trying to get as close as I can get, putting a viewer right there, straight near the crotch in that classic image of Dave Scott, tool-making, exploring man, with that looming rock-collection tong.”

When asked to hypothesize on whom, if he were able to go to the moon, he would choose to accompany him, Light pauses on only briefly before replying, in his most Hemingwayesque tone (Light grew up in Mauntauk, at the tip of Long Island, enjoying a sort of Great Gatsby meets The Old Man And The Sea lifestyle): “I would want somebody who was really, really rock solid. I would want an engineer, test pilot, unflappable all-American hero so that while I lose my mind and be all overwhelmed by the intensity of it all, somebody is there attending to whatever needs attending.”

And does he know anyone fitting this description?

“I wouldn’t mind going there with Dave Scott. That would be a dream come true, because Apollo 15 has the largest bunch of photographs in my book, and that mission was the first of the big independent scientific missions, and it remains the mission to my eyes that had the most spectacular and insanely beautiful landscapes.”

Moreover, he adds with a wink: “And Dave, you’ve got to hand it to the guy. He’s the nicest guy, for one thing, and he’s probably, what, 70 by now? He’s a really handsome 70-year-old.”


This article originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter.




For online information about Full Moon, surf