Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Sacred Stones of the Inca

I've come across some interesting material about Inca (Inka?) views of sacred landscape, rocks in particular. The first part is from a piece entitled Dialogue with Sacred Landscape: Inka Framing Expressions by Ruth Anne Phillips. It's a little long, but facinating.

"Stones played particularly important roles in Inka mythology as they could suddenly be called to action to help their human counterparts, even turning into humans themselves. One story recounts rocks on a battlefield rising up as warriors at a particularly perilous moment in the fight to help the Inka soldiers defeat their enemy. According to Susan Niles, 'Origin myths tell of founding ancestors emerging from the earth, being converted to stone, and remaining for all time as tangible proof of the story.' Rebecca Stone-Miller writes:

'The Inkas felt a special interchangeability with stones, believing them to be alive and able to transform into people and vice versa. . . . Inka stonework seems alive as it dynamically responds to natural formations, creates active surfaces, and dances in the strong light of the high-altitude sun. At the same time, this dynamic Inka feeling of identity with stone led them to manipulate stones, mountains, and streams toward imperial expressive ends. Being one with the earth, they proclaimed themselves able to construct cultural statements with its materials and preexisting forms. To geometricize, enhance, frame, and move people through the environment they subtly changed natural outlines.'

Natural-looking boulders are the most frequent objects set within borders while all extant Inka frames are made of rock. However, it is important to remember that stone does not disintegrate easily or quickly and therefore may reflect what has survived, rather than providing an accurate picture of framing trends. Perhaps there were originally many more frames made of perishable materials that have since decayed. Or in this extreme environment of natural disasters, perhaps many of these frames were destroyed or carried off by people at a later time. One may also wonder if these monuments with their bordering elements were correctly reconstructed in modern times. Still, it is valuable to analyze the framing examples that remain as important clues may emerge that can be corroborated with other material findings or with historical descriptions that further our understanding of Inka world views.

One of the most common types of Inka frames are the low-lying walls that surround boulders, such as with the 'Sacred Rock' at Machu Picchu, Peru located in the southern highlands (Map 1). This site is striking for its location on top of a narrow mountain crag. The Sacred Rock was placed in the Northern corner of Machu Picchu, visually near the taller peak of Huaynu Picchu to the north and the Yanantin mountain “behind” it to the northeast. The “back” of the Sacred Rock faces almost due north, while the front faces south. At first glance it appears to be a large (approx. 12’ x 20’ x 3’) natural boulder surrounded by a low-lying (approx. 3’ x 25’ x 1 1/2’) rectangular wall made of smaller, rough stones. However, the boulder was subtly manipulated as is clear in a line-of-sight comparison with the surrounding mountains. While the Yanantin mountain is almost always cloud-covered, when the clouds lift, one can see that the stone and mountain behind it look strikingly similar."

The second part is from a review of the book "The Sacred Landscape of the Inca: The Cusco Ceque System" by
Brian S. Bauer.

"Ceque is the Quechua (Inca language) word for line or border, and the ceque system in the region of the Inca capital of Cusco can best be visualized as a series of lines radiating out from Cusco, lines which defined districts, which acted as roads, which tied the region to the center. Like the older Nazca lines, these lines are real; in some cases they can still be traced across the landscape of western South America, and along the lines like knots in a string were situated a series of shrines or huacas.

In the Quechua language, huaca means anything out of the ordinary in the natural world; whether outstandingly beautiful or outstandingly ugly. Mountain tops, funny rock formations, springs; the huacas were named after their characteristics. The translated names of the Cusco huacas are evocative as heck and include Many Colored Hill, Red Town, Small-Frog Spring, Cold Waterfall, Mountain Lion, Watercress Spring, Gold Band, Nettle Spring, Royal Headdress Meadow, Clean Clay. The huacas were used as stopping places along the road, shrines where prayers and offerings of everything from coca leaves to sea shells to gold and silver objects to (in rare cases) children were left. There were probably thousands of these shrines throughout the Inca empire, which at its height stretched nearly the length of South America's Andes mountains, from modern day Columbia to Chile. Each system radiated out from a regional center like a sun and its planets. Many many hundreds of the huacas were destroyed by the Spanish invaders and missionaries who saw the huacas as threats to the emplacement of Catholicism; and indeed, the huacas and what they represented certainly were a real threat."

How relevant are these quotations to the topic of the enigmatic stonework of the northeast and mid-Atlantic U.S.? Hard to say. But we can't say we understand what these sites meant and mean to the people who built them if we don't learn to see with different eyes. And maybe these cultures have more in common than we know.