Basic Andean Structure and Shamanism



1.  In keeping with its cultural context as a relatively egalitarian kinship-ordered society, ayllu religion is “informal,” lacking the institutions and offices of an official state religion.  Instead individuals perceived to possess the ability to enter the supernatural world, to interact with the spiritual forces of ancestors and nature, and to mobilize these spiritual forces on behalf of the living community, fill the only religious “positions.” They conduct rituals connected with social renewal, and curing, and the various rites of passage connected with human and animal life and the agricultural cycle.  These individuals hold special places in the community because of their ability and are the Andean equivalent of the anthropological category generally known as shaman.


2.  Today Andean shamans conduct the rituals of fertility and renewal that accompany the various stages of the agricultural cycle as denoted in the sacred calendar discussed in the last lecture.  They also officiate at rituals concerned with the wellbeing of the herd animals, and act as curers (the prominent Andean curanderos).  In all of these capacities they act to ensure the health of the social group.  Even sickness is regarded as a specific individual symptom of wider community disfunction.  In all of these roles shamans essentially act to keep the destructive and beneficial forces of the supernatural in equilibrium and thus maintain the dualistic balance that is essential for human social health.  Note, in Andean cosmology there is no attempt to defeat evil by good as in the Christian religion, rather, the ideal state of the social universe is one of balance of the various forces that permanently exist.  This again reflects the Andean conception that every aspect of the human experience exists in a state of dualistic equilibrium with its converse.



1.  Shamanistic practitioners achieve their beneficial results while conducting rites.  Ritual is basically a special type of structured performance by which humans enter sacred time and space to commune with the spiritual world.


2.  While the context of shamanism may be non-formal in the sense of its non-institutional character, the rituals performed by the shaman are structured.  The same ritual elements are performed in the same order at every repetition of a specific associated event.  Thus the modern north coastal curandero uses a mesa on which ritual objects symbolizing good and evil are carefully ordered in their correct locations on two sides of the table (dualistic alignment of symbols of equally dualistic spiritual force).  The officiate uses these items in various stages of the set ritual during which he enters the spiritual world of liminal time, often traveling in spirit flight to the mountains to invoke or contest the forces of the supernatural. 


3.  Sometimes such rituals are conducted at places sacred to the specific group of which the shaman is a member.  In the southern highlands this often occurs at places that symbolize the mountain’s heart or organs (see previous lecture) such as life-giving springs, or caves sacred to the ancestors, where powerful spiritual allies can be mobilized. 



1.  Of special significance in Andean traditional religious practice is the ritual of sacrifice.


2.  Sacrifice is the giving of a special gift to another entity to ensure the continuation of a special relationship.  Thus in tinku battles between social groups the blood of the injured combatant is regarded as sacrificial – in other words, in its guise as the life essence its shedding represents a powerful gift that helps solidify the balanced and structured dual relationship that exists between the contesting groups.


3.  In another very important context sacrifice is the central component of a ritual that ensures the vital relationship between the earth (Pachamama) and humans.  As the most important and potent life force blood is regarded as the most special gift of all although other sacred substances such as coca and chicha (corn beer) can substitute.  In earlier times the blood gift was provided by human sacrifice although today llama or fowl are the donors.  By offering blood to Pachamama (the earth) during the ritual of sacrifice, often at the places sacred to the offering group who in the highland sense “feed the mountain,” the shaman gives a vital life essence to the wider natural universe from which humans expect reciprocal gift of food and water, the sources of human life.  Thus by reciprocal gift giving of vital life essences the human community and Pachamama renew their dual and balanced relationship, ensuring the equilibrium of the cosmos and continuation of social existence.  We will see that this concept is deeply embedded in Andean cultural history and sacrificial ritual appears prominently in the archaeology of the Inca and the earlier North Coast societies.


Ancestral Reverence

1.  As noted in the earlier lecture, ancestry lies at the core of Andean ayllu social organization.  All lineages, thus the individuals that form them, hold their social membership and position within the group on the basis of their relationship to the founding creator and the ancestors, mythical and biological, that s/he engendered.


2.  Thus the dead, as honored ancestors, are treated with great reverence as they continue to control supernatural force that can be mobilized on behalf of the living community, or against it if the reverential practices and rites are not properly carried out. 


3.  Even after death the body of the dead is treated with special care and in earlier times was mummified as a sacred huaca or shrine, to be sometimes brought into the community at important times of the year.  


4.  The ancestors are often associated with special places – caves, springs or other secluded natural places.  These are often associated with the ancestors of specific moieties or lineages as the sacred shrines (huacas) of the descent group where the rituals of reverence and community cohesion are conducted.  Such sacred features may also mark the boundaries of group lands, thus combining the religious and social functions characteristic of Andean existence in the context of Sacred Geography.



                                              Wider Unifying Religious Belief and Practice


Wider Nature Spirits

1.  Transcending local ayllu belief, shamanistic conception of the broader cosmos accepts the presence of wider spiritual forces of nature such as the thunder, storm, sky, and weather.


2.  These transcendental spirits have no formal identity like the local ancestors or huacas and overlap each other in an ill-defined complex of distant, yet all-powerful forces that can unleash the destructive forces of nature if specific ayllu rites are not correctly carried out by the shamans.




1.  There is long Andean tradition of broad recognition of a relatively few natural features, today usually mountains and sometimes caves as sacred to numerous local groups.  The reverence for such places cross cuts local ayllu belief and provide the context for the congregation and interaction of numerous groups who might otherwise have little communication.


2.  These sites are the focus of pilgrimage and the locations of major festivals.  They collectively constitute what Victor Turner called “ritual topography” and draw together otherwise scattered groups in widespread religious interaction that can provide the setting for the construction of economic and political alliances.


3.  These pilgrimage festivals are usually multi-day affairs and are sometimes the settings for inter-group tinku or ritual battles (see above) that serve to reinforce community (ethnic) identity and inter-group social dependency.


4.  In earlier times these pilgrimage places served as oracles, consulted for predictions on harvest, social welfare etc.  Now they combine Catholic feast days with non-Christian ritual to reinforce community boundaries and cohesion and to form wider social support structures that serve the practical exchange and collaborative needs of several groups in the context of reciprocal religious practice and dual balance.