The Religious Beliefs of the Incas

by Eleanor McKenzie

The Inca empire is considered one of the most advanced and complex pre-Columbian civilizations of South America. Based in the Peruvian Andes and created by the Quechua-speaking people in the 15th century, it had a population of between 5 and 11 million people when the Spanish conquered it in the 16th century. The Catholic conquistadors banned the Inca religion and brought about its demise.


The Inca were ruled by an emperor who they believed had divine authority given to him by Inti, the sun god. Although Inti held an important place in the Inca pantheon of gods, the supreme god of the Inca was Viracocha. The Inca and other early Peruvian peoples believed Viracocha created the sun and moon on Lake Titicaca, which lies on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Legend has it that once Viracocha finished creating the heavens and earth, he traveled the world teaching humans ways of creating civilization. Nature gods, such as Illapa the weather god and Mama Cocha the goddess of the sea, played an important role in Inca religious life because they protected agriculture and fishing.


The Inca believed in sacred geography and used the principles of sacred space in planning the layout of their cities. For example, specific features of the landscape were thought to have supernatural power. These might be a mountain peak, a plant or a particular configuration of stones. They called these places huacas. Innumerable examples of these existed throughout the Inca empire, but some of the most important ones -- mountaintop shrines -- surrounded the city of Cuzco, which was the central city of the Inca empire.


Ancestor worship played an important role in the Inca religion. The Incas believed that the spirits of dead ancestors protected them. As a result, the bodies of the dead and their burial grounds were considered sacred objects like the naturally formed huacas. The bodies of dead leaders of the Inca empire were the most revered huacas because they were considered sons of the sun god Inti, and therefore had direct contact with the entire pantheon of Inca gods. The mummified bodies of former leaders were protected by their descendants, who treated them as if they were still alive: they consulted them about political affairs, made sacrifices to them, drank with them and even took the royal mummies to visit each other.

Human Sacrifice

The Inca used human sacrifice, called capacocha, as a way of maintaining political power, according to anthropologist Amy B. Scott. In this way, they integrated religion with politics. They believed that sacrificing a human body at the most important huacas in the empire achieved this. The most significant huacas were mountaintop shrines. A sacrifice in this place charged the space with importance because in Inca cosmology the body symbolized the entire cosmos. The power the human body contained allowed a connection between the natural and supernatural worlds during the sacrifice, and the Inca believed they could call on Inti and the weather god Illapa during a human sacrifice ceremony. Typically, the individuals chosen for sacrifice were young boys or girls, who were either given by parents as an offering to the gods, or chosen by Inca leaders.

About the Author

Based in London, Eleanor McKenzie has been writing lifestyle-related books and articles since 1998. Her articles have appeared in the "Palm Beach Times" and she is the author of numerous books published by Hamlyn U.K., including "Healing Reiki" and "Pilates System." She holds a Master of Arts in informational studies from London University.

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