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Viracocha’s voyage

Macchu Picchu, Nazca, Tiahuanaco… Though the major monuments of Peru are mapped and known – though the jungle continues to surrender some of its secrets even today – so far these spell-binding monuments have largely been looked upon in isolation, without trying to interlock the various monuments with each other – let alone possible interoperability.

Philip Coppens


For many years, the monuments of Egypt were often interpreted within a narrow context. To some extent, the possibility of links between Egypt and Sumer/Babylonia, though geographically close, is still frowned upon as “unwise” to venture into. The same previously applied to the megalithic monuments of Western Europe. However, in recent decades, major inroads have been made to understand those stone monuments within their landscape, and that global picture within the framework of the myths – often creation myths – of the people or their ancestors who built those monuments. However, Peru was largely left outside of the framework and thus was only quoted by the likes of Erich von Däniken or Graham Hancock, who included the monuments of Peru as examples of ancient high engineering precision. However, such isolated attention also meant that the monuments were not explained, and thus understanding did not occur.

In recent years, several archaeologists and other researchers have focused their attention on Peru, in an effort to interpret its monuments within its proper context. The official history of the Incas is extremely sad: most were wiped out by a relatively small Spanish army who were uninterested in mapping their civilisation. Though the gold of the Egyptian past has often been removed from Egypt, at least it has been largely preserved; the fate of the Inca gold was that it was melted, before being shipped to Spain, where it was intercepted by English pirates… Though the Inca civilisation is merely several hundreds years old, we are thus faced with an equal problem to that of the ancient Egyptian civilisation: that it is impossible to interrogate directly or have a large database at our disposal to learn about this culture.

The Spanish called the Inca culture “diabolical” and until recently, it was deemed to be “primitive”. The Western mind was incapable of understanding why a civilisation would practice human sacrifice. The Inca civilisation was often not included in school curriculi in Western Europe. Over the past forty years, that veil of ignorance is slowly being lifted, specifically because of the enormous interest created by Erich von Däniken et al. Though his suggestions as to what the Inca monuments might be, it is a fact that his “outlandish” suggestions generated an interest in the monuments and offered scientists the possibility (if not funding) to analyse the monuments in greater detail. Performing the function of a catalyst is no mean feat…

Von Däniken posed the central question as it stood in the 1960s: if the Inca were primitive or stupid, how had they been able to create their often complex buildings, such as Sacsayhuaman or Ollantaytambo. If indeed stupid, who aided them? If no-one can be identified, do we need to look towards extraterrestrial beings?
Since then, the questions are still posed, but the circumstances are vastly different then they were. It is now clear that the Inca were not stupid. It is furthermore clear that the Inca built upon centuries of knowledge available to their predecessors, present across the continent they united. They were the last indigenous group of rulers who had toiled the land for hundreds of generations, if not thousands of years.
Nevertheless, the question of “what” their civilisation represented is still largely unanswered. The main part of answering this question has been carried by Peruvian archaeologists, as well as a certain amount of visiting scientists. This has resulted in a radically new approach and interpretation towards what the backbone of the Inca culture was about.

Two key people in this quest are Fernando and Edgar Elorrieta Salazar. The main interest of the Inca civilisation is the “Sacred Valley”, which stretches from Cuczo, the “navel” of the Inca world to Macchu Picchu, the best known Inca structure that was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. Practically, the valley continues south of Cuczo, towards Lake Titicaca. Situated at an altitude of 4 kilometres, the lake is the highest navigable lake in the world. It was on an island in this lake, the Island of the Sun, that the Inca legends state that the creator god, Viracocha, appeared on Earth. It is from here that Viracocha’s voyage began. Amidst spectacular scenery, the valley descends to 3400 metres in Cuczo and 2800 metres in Macchu Picchu. Though the rivers will contribute to the Amazon river, it is said that Viracocha continued on his path, walking SE/NW, until he reached the Pacific Ocean.

The legend of Viracocha and how he “walked” the sacred valley brings us face to face with the enigmas of the Incan civilisation: Tiahuanaco, Cuczo and Sacsayhuaman, Ollantaytambo and Macchu Picchu. Several books about each topic have appeared, but few books have tried to interpret the various sites as a whole. This latter approach is important, as rather than a segmented view of the Inca civilisation, it would present a global view of the exploits of Viracocha – a view that would be based on Inca mythology, and not just scientific analysis of the individual site.
The building work of the centres in the Sacred Valley is thus a transformation in stone of the “Holy Road” travelled by the Creator Deity. The recent importance of Macchu Picchu has inverted the importance of this “path”. The Salazar brothers clearly identify that Ollantaytambo was much more important. Though at first apparently much less impressive than Macchu Picchu, its siting within the landscape is nevertheless complex – and contains more symbolic detail than eg Macchu Picchu.

Research has identified that the Inca civilisation had specific preferences of alignments to mountain tops, evidence of which can be found in Macchu Picchu. At Ollantaytambo, similar evidence can be identified, but the detail is more specific. Both sites are orientated towards a mountain, but at Ollantaytambo, the profile of a human being, identified with Viracocha, can clearly be distinguished. The Salazar brothers have furthermore identified that the temple at Ollantaytambo is aligned to certain notches in that hill, the alignment of which is with important sunrise events in the calendar.
The stone face of Viracocha towering over Ollantaytambo is part of the Inca legend; his presence shows that the creator god was still present, “looking”, “watching over” his people. There are more such alignments: the Salazar brothers identified that in the valley below Ollantaytambo, the first beam of the sunrise falls on the so-called Pacaritanpu, the House of Dawn, where the gods became “God”. This structure is hardly identifiable, unless it is looked upon with the “right eyes”. At first, there appears to be nothing but a cultivated field. Though dating from the Inca time period, it is hardly recognisable as important. But a second glance will reveal that the entire field portrays a gigantic pyramid; the position where the sunbeam hits the ground has been clearly and uniquely marked by a structure.
Such subliminal images in the Inca structures are not unique. Elsewhere, the Inca’s have incorporated the same technique, often in city planning. The Salazar brothers have identified various animal forms in the hills and designs of Macchu Picchu, depending on the point of view from where the monument is observed. The design of the capital Cuczo is equally ingeniously created to form the image of a puma, the “royal animal”. Many of these constructions were a mixture of natural shapes, augmented – “stressed” – by human intervention, often by creating fields.

The notion that sacred geography underlines Inca city planning is not a new observation. The Jesuit Father Bernabe Cobo, in his book The History of the New World (1653), wrote about ceques in Cuczo. These were lines on which wak’as – shrines – were placed and which were venerated by local people. Ceques had been described as sacred pathways.
Cobo described how ceques radiated outwards from the Temple of the Sun at the centre of the old Inca capital. These were invisible lines, being only apparent in the alignments of the wak’as. The ceques radiated out between two lines at right angles, which divided the city into four and extended out into the Inca Empire. Each ceque was in the care of a family. Wak’as mostly took the form of stones, springs, hills, or stones on hills. Offerings were made, often in the form of human sacrifice, usually of small children. These ceremonies began in Cuczo and culminated in a sacrifice at specially designated sites often located near the summits of holy mountains.

The Pyramid of Dawn (left) which is difficult to discern, unless one makes a careful analysis of the organisation of the fields, which form the shape of a pyramid. One of the rectangular fields on the right hand side of the pyramid is the location where the first beam of sunlight on June 21 falls (see above), proving that the entire structure is a complex engineering feature that expresses the Inca creation legends.

Beyond the “Sacred Path” is an even deeper message. Modern research suggests that the Sacred Valley of the Vilcamayu and Urubamba rivers symbolised the Milky Way. Identifying rivers with constellations, specifically the Milky Way, is nothing new. Other examples are the Nile, as well as the Po in Italy and the Rhône in France.
John Major Jenkins is one of several researchers – and a growing number at that – who have analysed the astronomical components of the Central and Southern American cultures. Jenkins argue that archaeologists need to do more than merely make high level statements such as the notion that the Inca civilisation practiced solar worship. Why did they have a sun cult? What religious message was introduced within this notion?
Jenkins believes that the answer can be found in the belief that the Galactic Centre, the centre of the Milky Way, is the origin, or goal, of the soul’s travel, a type of star gate into another dimension – God. This knowledge was incorporated into the calendar of the Maya. The same knowledge was depicted on the landscape of Peru.

Cuzco, the capital, the “navel of the world”, is situated between two rivers. This corresponds with the dark “gate” north of Sagittarius, the “gate” to this other dimension. But more intriguing is that within this interpretation, Lake Titicaca is the location of the Galactic Centre. There is therefore a consistency between what Jenkins has identified as the core belief of the Maya and the geographical mapping of the Inca civilisation.

These radical interpretations that are being put forward will no doubt require time before they will be accepted by each and all. Still, they sit within a worldwide phenomenon, of creator beings walking the land, sculpting it as they go, turning into rocks, etc. The phenomenon is well-known with the Aboriginals and their Songlines in Australia.
It will take even longer before their influence and novel approach is adapted and adopted by archaeologists and researchers trying to identify other ancient or enigmatic civilisations. Meanwhile, several tourists continue to walk the Sacred Path of Viracocha: many travel from Tiahuanaco, to Cuczo, onward to Ollantaytambo and finally Macchu Picchu. The path is a natural way of moving about the country and has been walked for hundreds of generations, from the earliest farmers to the Inca kings… It is an opportunity for every man to walk in the footsteps of Viracocha – God.

This article originally appeared in Frontier Magazine 10.5 (October/November 2004).