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History of the Conquest of Peru

Edited by: Robert Guisepi



View Of The Civilization Of The Incas.

Author:      Prescott, William H.


Part III

     The sacerdotal order, though numerous, was not distinguished by any

peculiar badge or costume from the rest of the nation.  Neither was it the

sole depository of the scanty science of the country, nor was it charged with

the business of instruction, nor with those parochial duties, if they may so

be called, which bring the priest in contact with the great body of the

people, - as was the case in Mexico.  The cause of this peculiarity may

probably be traced to the existence of a superior order, like that of the Inca

nobles, whose sanctity of birth so far transcended all human appointments,

that they in a manner engrossed whatever there was of religious veneration in

the people.  They were, in fact, the holy order of the state. Doubtless, any

of them might, as very many of them did, take on themselves the sacerdotal

functions; and their own insignia and peculiar privileges were too well

understood to require any further badge to separate them from the people.


     The duties of the priest were confined to ministration in the temple.

Even here his attendance was not constant, as he was relieved after a stated

interval by other brethren of his order, who succeeded one another in regular

rotation.  His science was limited to an acquaintance with the fasts and

festivals of his religion, and the appropriate ceremonies which distinguished

them.  This, however frivolous might be its character, was no easy

acquisition; for the ritual of the Incas involved a routine of observances,

as complex and elaborate as ever distinguished that of any nation, whether

pagan or Christian.  Each month had its appropriate festival, or rather

festivals.  The four principal had reference to the Sun, and commemorated the

great periods of his annual progress, the solstices and equinoxes.  Perhaps

the most magnificent of all the national solemnities was the feast of Raymi,

held at the period of the summer solstice, when the Sun, having touched the

southern extremity of his course, retraced his path, as if to gladden the

hearts of his chosen people by his presence.  On this occasion, the Indian

nobles from the different quarters of the country thronged to the capital to

take part in the great religious celebration.


     For three days previous, there was a general fast, and no fire was

allowed to be lighted in the dwellings.  When the appointed day arrived, the

Inca and his court, followed by the whole population of the city, assembled

at early dawn in the great square to greet the rising of the Sun.  They were

dressed in their gayest apparel, and the Indian lords vied with each other

in the display of costly ornaments and jewels on their persons, while

canopies of gaudy feather-work and richly tinted stuffs, borne by the

attendants over their heads, gave to the great square, and the streets that

emptied into it, the appearance of being spread over with one vast and

magnificent awning.  Eagerly they watched the coming of their deity, and, no

sooner did his first yellow rays strike the turrets and loftiest buildings

of the capital, than a shout of gratulation broke forth from the assembled

multitude, accompanied by songs of triumph, and the wild melody of barbaric

instruments, that swelled louder and louder as his bright orb, rising above

the mountain range towards the east, shone in full splendor on his votaries.

After the usual ceremonies of adoration, a libation was offered to the great

deity by the Inca, from a huge golden vase, filled with the fermented liquor

of maize or of maguey, which, after the monarch had tasted it himself, he

dispensed among his royal kindred.  These ceremonies completed, the vast

assembly was arranged in order of procession, and took its way towards the

Coricancha. ^27


[Footnote 27: Dec. de la Aud. Real., Ms. - Sarmiento, Relacion, Ms., cap. 27.


     The reader will find a brilliant, and not very extravagant, account of

the Peruvian festivals in Marmontel's romance of Les Incas.  The French

author saw in their gorgeous ceremonial a fitting introduction to his own

literary pageant Tom. I. chap. 1 - 4.]


     As they entered the street of the sacred edifice, all divested themselves

of their sandals, except the Inca and his family, who did the same on passing

through the portals of the temple, where none but these august personages were

admitted. ^28 After a decent time spent in devotion, the sovereign, attended

by his courtly train, again appeared, and preparations were made to commence

the sacrifice.  This, with the Peruvians, consisted of animals, grain,

flowers, and sweet-scented gums; sometimes of human beings, on which occasions

a child or beautiful maiden was usually selected as the victim.  But such

sacrifices were rare, being reserved to celebrate some great public event, as

a coronation, the birth of a royal heir, or a great victory.  They were never

followed by those cannibal repasts familiar to the Mexicans, and to many of

the fierce tribes conquered by the Incas.  Indeed, the conquests of these

princes might well be deemed a blessing to the Indian nations, if it were only

from their suppression of cannibalism, and the diminution, under their rule,

of human sacrifices. ^29


[Footnote 28: "Ningun Indio comun osaba pasar por la calle del Sol calzado; ni

ninguno, aunque fuese mui grand Senor, entrava en las casas del Sol con

zapatos." Conq. i Pob. del Piru, Ms.]


[Footnote 29: Garcilasso de la Vega flatly denies that the Incas were guilty

of human sacrifices; and maintains, on the other hand, that they uniformly

abolished them in every country they subdued, where they had previously

existed.  (Com. Real., Parte 1, lib. 2, cap. 9, et alibi.) But in this

material fact he is unequivocally contradicted by Sarmiento, Relacion, Ms.,

cap. 22, - Dec. de la Aud. Real., Ms., - Montesinos, Mem. Antiguas, Ms., lib.

2, cap. 8, - Balboa, Hist. du Perou, chap. 5, 8, - Cieza de Leon, Cronica,

cap. 72, - Ondegardo, Rel. Seg., Ms., - Acosta, lib. 5, cap. 19, - and I might

add, I suspect, were I to pursue the inquiry, by nearly every ancient writer

of authority; some of whom, having come into the country soon after the

Conquest, while its primitive institutions were in vigor, are entitled to more

deference in a matter of this kind than Garcilasso himself.  It was natural

that the descendant of the Incas should desire to relieve his race from so

odious an imputation; and we must have charity for him, if he does show

himself, on some occasions, where the honor of his country is at stake, "high

gravel blind." It should be added, in justice to the Peruvian government, that

the best authorities concur in the admission, that the sacrifices were few,

both in number and in magnitude, being reserved for such extraordinary

occasions as those mentioned in the text.]


     At the feast of Raymi, the sacrifice usually offered was that of the

llama; and the priest, after opening the body of his victim, sought in the

appearances which it exhibited to read the lesson of the mysterious future. If

the auguries were unpropitious, a second victim was slaughtered, in the hope

of receiving some more comfortable assurance.  The Peruvian augur might have

learned a good lesson of the Roman, - to consider every omen as favorable,

which served the interests of his country. ^30


[Footnote 30: "Augurque cum esset, dicere ausus est, optimis auspiciis ea

geri, quae pro reipublicae salute gererentur." Cicero, De Senectute.


     This inspection of the entrails of animals for the purposes of divination

is worthy of note, as a most rare, if not a solitary, instance of the kind

among the nations of the New World, though so familiar in the ceremonial of

sacrifice among the pagan nations of the Old.]


     A fire was then kindled by means of a concave mirror of polished metal,

which, collecting the rays of the sun into a focus upon a quantity of dried

cotton, speedily set it on fire.  It was the expedient used on the like

occasions in ancient Rome, at least under the reign of the pious Numa.  When

the sky was overcast, and the face of the good deity was hidden from his

worshippers, which was esteemed a bad omen, fire was obtained by means of

friction.  The sacred flame was intrusted to the care of the Virgins of the

Sun, and if, by any neglect, it was suffered to go out in the course of the

year, the event was regarded as a calamity that boded some strange disaster to

the monarchy. ^31 A burnt offering of the victims was then made on the altars

of the deity.  This sacrifice was but the prelude to the slaughter of a great

number of llamas, part of the flocks of the Sun, which furnished a banquet not

only for the Inca and his Court, but for the people, who made amends at these

festivals for the frugal fare to which they were usually condemned.  A fine

bread or cake, kneaded of maize flour by the fair hands of the Virgins of the

Sun, was also placed on the royal board, where the Inca, presiding over the

feast, pledged his great nobles in generous goblets of the fermented liquor of

the country, and the long revelry of the day was closed at night by music and

dancing.  Dancing and drinking were the favorite pastimes of the Peruvians.

These amusements continued for several days, though the sacrifices terminated

on the first. - Such was the great festival of Raymi; and the recurrence of

this and similar festivities gave relief to the monotonous routine of toil

prescribed to the lower orders of the community. ^32


[Footnote 31: "Vigilemque sacraverat ignem, Excubias divum aeternas."


     Plutarch, in his life of Numa, describes the reflectors used by the

Romans for kindling the sacred fire, as concave instruments of brass, though

not spherical like the Peruvian, but of a triangular form.]


[Footnote 32: Acosta, lib. 5, cap. 28, 29.  - Garcilasso, Com. Real., Parte 1,

lib. 6, cap. 23.]


     In the distribution of bread and wine at this high festival, the orthodox

Spaniards, who first came into the country, saw a striking resemblance to the

Christian communion; ^33 as in the practice of confession and penance, which,

in a most irregular form, indeed, seems to have been used by the Peruvians,

they discerned a coincidence with another of the sacraments of the Church. ^34

The good fathers were fond of tracing such coincidences, which they considered

as the contrivance of Satan, who thus endeavoured to delude his victims by

counterfeiting the blessed rites of Christianity. ^35 Others, in a different

vein, imagined that they saw in such analogies the evidence, that some of the

primitive teachers of the Gospel, perhaps an apostle himself, had paid a visit

to these distant regions, and scattered over them the seeds of religious

truth. ^36 But it seems hardly necessary to invoke the Prince of Darkness, or

the intervention of the blessed saints, to account for coincidences which have

existed in countries far removed from the light of Christianity and in ages,

indeed, when its light had not yet risen on the world.  It is much more

reasonable to refer such casual points of resemblance to the general

constitution of man, and the necessities of his moral nature. ^37


[Footnote 33: "That which is most admirable in the hatred and presumption of

Sathan is, that he not onely counterfeited in idolatry and sacrifices, but

also in certain ceremonies, our sacraments, which Jesus Christ our Lord

instituted, and the holy Church uses, having especially pretended to imitate,

in some sort, the sacrament of the communion, which is the most high and

divine of all others." Acosta, lib. 5, cap. 23.]


[Footnote 34: Herrera, Hist. General, dec. 5, lib. 4, cap. 4. - Ondegardo,

Rel. Prim., Ms.


     "The father of lies would likewise counterfeit the sacrament of

Confession, and in his idolatries sought to be honored with ceremonies very

like to the manner of Christians." Acosta, lib. 5, cap. 25.]


[Footnote 35: Cieza de Leon, not content with many marvellous accounts of the

influence and real apparition of Satan in the Indian ceremonies, has garnished

his volume with numerous wood-cuts representing the Prince of Evil in bodily

presence with the usual accompaniments of tail, claws, &c., as if to reenforce

the homilies in his text!  The Peruvian saw in his idol a god. His Christian

conqueror saw in it the Devil.  One may be puzzled to decide which of the two

might lay claim to the grossest superstition.]


[Footnote 36: Piedrahita, the historian of the Muyscas, is satisfied that

this apostle must have been St. Bartholomew, whose travels were known to have

been extensive.  (Conq. de Granada, Parte 1, lib. 1, cap. 3.) The Mexican

antiquaries consider St. Thomas as having had charge of the mission to the

people of Anahuac.  These two apostles, then, would seem to have divided the

New World, at least the civilized portions of it, between them.  How they

came, whether by Behring's Straits, or directly across the Atlantic, we are

not informed.  Velasco - a writer of the eighteenth century! - has little

doubt that they did really come.  Hist. de Quito, tom. I. pp. 89, 90.]


[Footnote 37: The subject is illustrated by some examples in the "History of

the Conquest of Mexico," vol. III., Appendix, No. 1.; since the same usages

in that country led to precisely the same rash conclusions among the



     Another singular analogy with Roman Catholic institutions is presented

by the Virgins of the Sun, the "elect," as they were called, ^38 to whom I

have already had occasion to refer.  These were young maidens, dedicated to

the service of the deity, who, at a tender age, were taken from their homes,

and introduced into convents, where they were placed under the care of

certain elderly matrons, mamaconas, who had grown grey within their walls. ^39

Under these venerable guides, the holy virgins were instructed in the nature

of their religious duties.  They were employed in spinning and embroidery,

and, with the fine hair of the vicuna, wove the hangings for the temples, and

the apparel for the Inca and his household. ^40 It was their duty, above all,

to watch over the sacred fire obtained at the festival of Raymi.  From the

moment they entered the establishment, they were cut off from all connection

with the world, even with their own family and friends.  No one but the Inca,

and the Coya or queen, might enter the consecrated precincts.  The greatest

attention was paid to their morals, and visitors were sent every year to

inspect the institutions, and to report on the state of their discipline. ^41

Woe to the unhappy maiden who was detected in an intrigue!  By the stern law

of the Incas, she was to be buried alive, her lover was to be strangled, and

the town or village to which he belonged was to be razed to the ground, and

"sowed with stones," as if to efface every memorial of his existence. ^42 One

is astonished to find so close a resemblance between the institutions to find

so close a resemblance between the institutions of the American Indian, the

ancient Roman, and the modern Catholic!  Chastity and purity of life are

virtues in woman, that would seem to be of equal estimation with the

barbarian and with the civilized. - Yet the ultimate destination of the

inmates of these religious houses was materially different.


[Footnote 38: Llamavase Casa de Escogidas; porque las escogian. o por Linage,

o por Hermosura." Garcilasso, Com. Real., Parte 1, lib. 4, cap. 1.]


[Footnote 39: Ondegardo, Rel. Prim., Ms.


     The word mamacona signified "matron"; mama, the first half of this

compound word, as already noticed, meaning "mother." See Garcilasso, Com.

Real., Parte 1, lib. 4, cap. 1.]


[Footnote 40: Pedro Pizarro, Descub. y Conq., Ms.]


[Footnote 41: Dec. de la Aud. Real., Ms.]


[Footnote 42: Balboa, Hist. du Perou, chap. 9. - Fernandez, Hist. del Peru,

Parte 2, lib. 3, cap. 11. - Garcilasso, Com. Real., Parte 1, lib. 4, cap. 3.


     According to the historian of the Incas, the terrible penalty was never

incurred by a single lapse on the part of the fair sisterhood; though, if it

had been, the sovereign, he assures us, would have "exacted it to the letter,

with as little compunction as he would have drowned a puppy." (Com. Real.,

Parte 1, lib. 4, cap. 3.) Other writers contend, on the contrary, that these

Virgins had very little claim to the reputation of Vestals.  (See Pedro

Pizarro, Descub. y Conq., Ms. - Gomara, Hist. de las Ind., cap. 121.) Such

imputations are common enough on the inhabitants of religious houses, whether

pagan or Christian.  They are contradicted in the present instance by the

concurrent testimony of most of those who had the best opportunity of arriving

at truth, and are made particularly improbable by the superstitious reverence

entertained for the Incas.]


     The great establishment at Cuzco consisted wholly of maidens of the royal

blood, who amounted, it is said, to no less than fifteen hundred.  The

provincial convents were supplied from the daughters of the curacas and

inferior nobles, and, occasionally, where a girl was recommended by great

personal attractions, from the lower classes of the people. ^43 The "Houses of

the Virgins of the Sun" consisted of low ranges of stone buildings, covering a

large extent of ground, surrounded by high walls, which excluded those within

entirely from observation.  They were provided with every accommodation for

the fair inmates, and were embellished in the same sumptuous and costly manner

as the palaces of the Incas, and the temples; for they received the particular

care of government, as an important part of the religious establishment. ^44


[Footnote 43: Pedro Pizarro, Descub. y Conq., Ms. - Garcilasso, Com. Real.,

Parte 1, lib. 4, cap. 1.]


[Footnote 44: Ibid., Parte 1, lib. 4, cap. 5. - Cieza de Leon, Cronica, cap.



     Yet the career of all the inhabitants of these cloisters was not confined

within their narrow walls.  Though Virgins of the Sun, they were brides of the

Inca, and, at a marriageable age, the most beautiful among them were selected

for the honors of his bed, and transferred to the royal seraglio.  The full

complement of this amounted in time not only to hundreds, but thousands, who

all found accommodations in his different palaces throughout the country.

When the monarch was disposed to lessen the number of his establishment, the

concubine with whose society he was willing to dispense returned, not to her

former monastic residence, but to her own home; where, however humble might be

her original condition, she was maintained in great state, and, far from being

dishonored by the situation she had filled, was held in universal reverence as

the Inca's bride. ^45


[Footnote 45: Dec. de la Aud. Real., Ms. - Garcilasso, Com. Real., Parte 1,

lib. 4, cap.4. - Montesinos, Mem Antiguas, Ms., lib 2, cap. 19.]


     The great nobles of Peru were allowed, like their sovereign, a plurality

of wives.  The people, generally, whether by law, or by necessity stronger

than law, were more happily limited to one.  Marriage was conducted in a

manner that gave it quite as original a character as belonged to the other

institutions of the country.  On an appointed day of the year, all those of a

marriageable age - which, having reference to their ability to take charge of

a family, in the males was fixed at not less than twenty-four years, and in

the women at eighteen or twenty - were called together in the great squares of

their respective towns and villages, throughout the empire.  The Inca presided

in person over the assembly of his own kindred, and taking the hands of the

different couples who were to be united, he placed them within each other,

declaring the parties man and wife.  The same was done by the curacas towards

all persons of their own or inferior degree in their several districts.  This

was the simple form of marriage in Peru.  No one was allowed to select a wife

beyond the community to which he belonged, which generally comprehended all

his own kindred; ^46 nor was any but the sovereign authorized to dispense with

the law of nature - or at least, the usual law of nations - so far as to marry

his own sister. ^47 No marriage was esteemed valid without the consent of the

parents; and the preference of the parties, it is said, was also to be

consulted; though, considering the barriers imposed by the prescribed age of

the candidates, this must have been within rather narrow and whimsical limits.

A dwelling was got ready for the new-married pair at the charge of the

district, and the prescribed portion of land assigned for their maintenance.

The law of Peru provided for the future, as well as for the present.  It left

nothing to chance. - The simple ceremony of marriage was followed by general

festivities among the friends of the parties, which lasted several days; and

as every wedding took place on the same day, and as there were few families

who had not some one of their members or their kindred personally interested,

there was one universal bridal jubilee throughout the empire. ^48


[Footnote 46: By the strict letter of the law, according to Garcilasso, no one

was to marry out of his own lineage.  But this narrow rule had a most liberal

interpretation, since all of the same town, and even province, he assures us,

were reckoned of kin to one another.  Com. Real., Parte 1, lib. 4, cap. 8.]


[Footnote 47: Fernandez, Hist. del Peru, Parte 2, lib. 3, cap. 9.


     This practice, so revolting to our feelings that it might well be deemed

to violate the law of nature, must not, however, be regarded as altogether

peculiar to the Incas, since it was countenanced by some of the most polished

nations of antiquity.]


[Footnote 48: Ondegardo, Rel. Seg., Ms - Garcilasso, Com. Real., Parte lib. 6,

cap. 36. - Dec. de la Aud Real., Ms. - Montesinos, Mem Antiguas, Ms., lib. 2,

cap. 6.]


     The extraordinary regulations respecting marriage under the Incas are

eminently characteristic of the genius of the government; which, far from

limiting itself to matters of public concern, penetrated into the most private

recesses of domestic life, allowing no man, however humble, to act for

himself, even in those personal matters in which none but himself, or his

family at most, might be supposed to be interested.  No Peruvian was too low

for the fostering vigilance of government.  None was so high that he was not

made to feel his dependence upon it in every act of his life.  His very

existence as an individual was absorbed in that of the community.  His hopes

and his fears, his joys and his sorrows, the tenderest sympathies of his

nature, which would most naturally shrink from observation, were all to be

regulated by law.  He was not allowed even to be happy in his own way.  The

government of the Incas was the mildest, - but the most searching of


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