Sacred Number and the Axis Mundi
Above, a colour-composite image of the Pleiades from the Digitised Sky Survey. (Image in the public domain courtesy of NASA).
The number 7
There are some other elements of the story of Amaru Muru that could equally derive from ancient Andean traditions. The Monastery of the Seven Rays is clearly indicative of the colours of the rainbow. Today, you will see rainbow flags in all of the Andean regions populated by the Aymara and Quechua speaking peoples, regardless of whether you happen to be in Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, or Chile. The number seven certainly held significance in ancient times, equally as much as today, and more widely across South America.
The eminent German mathematician Maria Reiche, who spent most of her life studying the Nazca Lines in Southern Peru, found that some of the lines and triangles marked onto the surface of the desert aligned with the rising and setting points of particular constellations, including the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters.
The Pleiades were observed also by the Incas as a way of determining the abundance or otherwise of forthcoming harvests. This was done by judging the clarity of the seven stars in the sky, at the point at which they first became visible above the horizon without being outshone by the brilliance of the Sun (in technical language this is known as their heliacal rising). The technique employed was, in fact, a very disciplined form of observation, since atmospheric conditions governed how clearly the Pleiades shone, they provided an indication of the optimum planting time for crops such as potatoes. It is hardly surprising then that the number 7 features so prominently and persistently in Andean lore, if for no other reasons than the security of the next harvest.
The mind of the paq’o is more all-encompassing than this though, and somehow I think that an Andean might agree with Philo of Alexandria when the latter wrote, “Nature delights in the number 7”. Andean lore is no stranger to sacred number, geometry and geomancy. The number 7 is indeed abundant in the Andean cosmovision, not least also because it is the sum of 3 and 4, which are the numbers of of the three pachas and the traditional quarterly division of Andean villages and cities. Settlements were crossed by four pathways that ran to the four rising and setting points of the solstice suns on the horizon. We shall explore this characteristic of dividing space into four in due course.
The Axis Mundi and the three vertical pachas of Andean cosmology
The word pacha is often loosely translated into English as ‘world’ of which there are three of the spatial variety, the Hanaq Pacha (the world above/land of the gods/condor), Kay Pacha (the earth/puma) and Ukhu Pacha (the world below/of the dead/serpent).
Here again we meet the limitation of the Western rational mind in grasping the concept of the pacha and one which likewise confused the Spanish, who frequently equated the three pachas with the heaven, earth and hell of Catholic theology. It is not my purpose to give a full account of the concept of pacha here, or to list the many variations in nomenclature and nuance that exist. Suffice it to say that a pacha incorporates what we conceive of as both time and space. Hence, a pacha can also be thought of as a particular era, or of time. Pachas could replace one another over time and each might have its own characteristics. The arrival of a new pacha was heralded by a pachakuti (turning of the world upside down) and would be marked by changes in heavenly configurations, perhaps earthquakes and the possible overturning of an existing social order. Again, it is perhaps better to think in terms of a holographic conception. Those who are familiar with fractals and holograms will come closer to an understanding of the pacha and other ‘parts’ of the Andean cosmovision than those who are accustomed to thinking in a linear fashion.
The serpent and the Ukhu Pacha
Let us now return briefly to Amaru Muru, which means the Gateway of Amaru in both the Quechua and Aymara languages. We know something of the Gateway, or doorway, but who, or what, then is Amaru? The Amaru is the mythical water serpent of the Andes, which is associated with great changes and upheavals at the end of one era, or cycle, to clear the way for the start of the next one.
The serpent is associated with the underworld (Ukhu Pacha) and, not surprisingly therefore, also correlates to the occurrence of earthquakes, of which there are many in this corner of the globe. Celestially, the serpent corresponds to the shape of a particular ‘dark cloud’, within the band of the Milky Way, above the southern tropic (ie in the ‘lower’, or underworld). In nature, serpents live under the ground also. The cycles that end in a period of destruction may be social, political, architectural, celestial, climatic, or natural. Usually, they are some combination of some, or all of the same.
Amaru, the serpent of the underworld, has a mythological pedigree that stretches back a very long way indeed. However, you do not need agree with me about the extreme antiquity of some of the most intriguing Andean archaeology to appreciate the powerful connections that exist between the Andean underworld and the Amaru. The use of serpent imagery in association with earth energies has parallels in many other ancient cultures across the globe and should be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of these subjects. Now it is time to leave the Bosque de las Piedras and return south, across Lake Titicaca, to the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), where we will discover another serpent connection.
Much has been written about the Isla del Sol, and much more will doubtless be written, but here I want simply to draw your attention to something that Paul Coon claims to have discovered, when he described the Rainbow Serpent and the Plumed Serpent as lines of male and female energy that weave their way around the Michael and Mary Lines as they encircle the globe. The imagery is, of course, very similar to what we have just been discussing and is part of his work on the Planetary Chakras, of which Lake Titikaka is one of the 52 Planetary Gateways to Immortal life. The masculine – feminine dynamic is a persistent theme in the mythology of Lake Titikaka and especially of the Isla del Sol and its close companion, the Isla de la Luna (Island of the Moon).
Tiwanaku: the Stone in the Centre
In his book Galactic Alignment, John Major Jenkins makes an interesting observation about the correspondence between the path of the Milky Way above and the topography of the Andes, as well as that of other mountain chains, on the Earth below.
Jenkins concludes that the Galactic Centre and solstice-galaxy alignments have played a significant part in Incan and pre-Incan traditions. Moreover, he singles out two locations that are the strongest candidates for the terrestrial counterpart to the Galactic Centre in South America: Tiwanaku, which at 16° south of the Equator passes directly underneath the Galactic Centre at its zenith, and Cusco, of which we shall learn more in due course.
Without a topographical globe in hand, it’s hard to picture this, but no one can deny that a circular chain of mountains runs crosswise around the globe, at roughly a 60°angle to the equator. If we imagine this mega-chain to be the terrestrial counterpart to the Milky Way, then two locations present themselves for being the Galactic Center on Earth: Tibet and Peru. This is the biggest mapping of sky onto Earth that we could imagine. This is “as above, so below” in a big way.
The complexes at Tiwanaku and Puma Punku lie in close proximity to each other at about 12 miles south of the current shoreline of Lake Titikaka. The dating of the sites is hotly disputed between academics and ‘alternative’ archaeologists, with the latter generally arguing for an earlier one and perhaps going back as far as 15,000 BC. Puma Punku has been said by many to pre-date Tiwanaku; but it is not just its dating that presents an enigma.
At Puma Punku collossal blocks of red sandstone and grey andesite are strewn across this corner of the altiplano as if they had been dashed to the ground in some titanic fit of pique. There have, thankfully, been no sustained attempts to reconstruct Puma Punku from this almost random array of blocks, but that is hardly surprising. The stones of Puma Punku defy any attempts to do so. The sheer size of some of the largest ones would make them difficult to manoeuvre. Above all, many of them have been worked with such precision and intricacy that it is more than conjecture to imagine that we are looking at the scattered fragments of some kind of colossal ancient machine. If so, what was its function? What was the technology?
We can imagine a little more easily what the neighbouring Tiwanaku site once looked like, although the ‘walls’ of the Kalasasaya complex are a modern reconstruction that give a false impression of how it must have been originally. Until comparatively recently here, you would have seen a series of megaliths arranged in a large rectangle.
The Akapana Pyramid
As you walk away from Puma Punku, you will see today, on your right, a large rather nondescript mound with a flattened top. This is the Akapana Pyramid and fortunately we do know something rather more reliable about how it may have looked originally. What appears to today’s modern visitor as a rather large – almost amorphous – earth work, was once a stepped and truncated pyramid. For reasons that are far from clear, at some point in the Akapana’s history, it became covered in soil and mud. Beneath the accumulated dirt, excavations have revealed the remains of precisely worked masonry. The ravages of time and treasure hunters have made it impossible to obtain the Pyramid’s exact dimensions, but it has been estimated to have been about 780 feet (257 metres) at its widest point and over 50 feet (16.5 metres) tall.
The Akapana once would have appeared as a series of seven large steps, or tiers, that taper towards the platform on the top. I have previously discussed the significance of the number seven in ancient Andean cosmology, so I shall not labour the point here.
Suffice it to say that seven tiers were built here for a particular reason. We know from elsewhere that the numbers of tiers of the Mayan Pyramids all had numerological, celestial and calendrical significance. Perhaps this is just a coincidence? On the other hand, there is good evidence that there were trade and cultural contacts between Central and South America in ancient times. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility therefore to consider that both Central and South American cultures shared the habit of including numbers that were significant to them in their architecture. Above all at Tiwanaku, you are left with the distinct impression that every angle and every number are there to convey a meaning.
There was once a sunken court on the top of the Akapana that was originally, before being covered in earth and vandalised, in the the shape of a Chakana that faced upwards towards the heavens. The symbolism and geometry of the Chakana are highly significant, especially at this location. Even today, you will see Chakanas throughout South America, not just in the Andean region. I have even seen Chakanas adorning the belt buckles of mate drinking gauchos in the Rio Sul in Brazil. In the Andes you will see the Chakana everywhere: from rainbow coloured flags fluttering in the Plazas de Armas, to painted signs advertising restaurants and hotels.
In most literature it is referred to as an Inca Cross, but its provenance as a symbol is much more ancient. As with other symbols of great antiquity, the multiple meanings associated with Chakana are the result of accretions over time. Its etymology seems to stem from the Quechua and Aymara word(s) chaka, meaning bridge and it may have been associated, in some astronomical contexts, with the three stars of Orion’s belt. (The three were thought to have been “linked” in some way, rather like a ladder, or rope bridge). However, the overriding sense of the concept of chaka (bridge), and therefore of the Chakana, is rather more generic, as William Sullivan points out:
In Andean culture……the concept of a “bridge’ (or stairway) had uses as a cosmological metaphor: in myth it stood for a point of contact between this world and the supernatural worlds, while in purely astronomical uses it referred to abstract “junctions’ on the celestial sphere, that is, to locations whose significance lay in marking areas of the sky critical for grasping the essential geometry of the fixed sphere of stars.
Now, we all already know that the significance of Tiwanaku’s location is that it lies beneath the path of the Galactic Centre when it is at its zenith as it seems to move along the band of the Milky Way. This then, would be an entirely fitting and congruent location for a terrestrial axis point, since it is indeed a place “critical for grasping the geometry of the fixed sphere of stars.”
Did the ancient builders of the Akapana have a sense of ‘As above, so below’ that they expressed in the physical world about them? Several writers have noted that the name Tiwanaku may derive from the Aymara term taypicala ‘the stone in the centre’. Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa’s account of the founding of myth of Tiwanaku by the Andean creator god Wiracocha seems to confirm this tradition:
He [Wiracocha] went to a place now called Tiahuanacu in the province of Collasuyu, and in this place he sculptured and designed on a great piece of stone, all the nations that he intended to create. This done, he ordered his two servants to charge their memories with the names of all tribes that he had depicted, and of the valleys and provinces where they were to come forth, which were those of the whole land.
Earlier in this version of the Wiracocha creation myth, the sun, moon and stars all originate at place called Titikaka (literally ‘Lion Cliff’), a name that anciently referred to a black cliff that cascaded water, rather than to the whole of the Lake now called Titikaka. Significantly, the sunken courtyard on top of the Akapana included a particular drainage feature. Thanks to the ample seasonal Altiplano rainfall, and to the ingenious design of the drainage feature, the pyramid did indeed cascade water in what must have have been a spectacular fashion.
Was the Akapana Pyramid then some kind or reproduction, or perhaps more accurately some kind of fractal, of the creation point of the cosmos? Was it the point at which that which is above translates into that which is below? It is certainly true that Tiwanaku, at least in terms of the accepted academic chronology, was the centre of an extensive empire covering what is today western Bolivia, southern Peru and northern Chile. Moreover, its cultural and economic influence spread further still. In this very corporeal sense, the Tiwanaku culture became the centre of trade, ritual, power and influence in South America between about 600 AD and 1000 AD.
Today, the Chakana is most frequently associated with the Southern Cross in the popular mind. This may be because the azimuth rise of the Southern Cross was used by the later Incas to mark out the four quarters of the Tawanstinsuyu, or the extent and bounds of the Inca dominion, from its location in Cusco. For this reason, the Chakana was said by the Incas to ‘reside’ in Cusco. In addition, a Cusco foundation myth tells us that the ‘rock in the centre’ was deliberately re-located in some way from Tiwanaku to Cusco. We shall find out why and how later.
The Chakana and sacred number
The Chakana contains multiple levels of symbolism and meaning. The three rectangular blocks in each quarter of the cross are said to represent the three vertical ‘worlds’ of the Hanaq Pacha, Kay Pacha and Ukhu Pacha (see above). At the same time, the Chakana has four arms, which represent the four cardinal directions and the four seasons. In this respect, it is used today to mark the cycle of festivals throughout the Andean year, with the upright of the cross denoting the solstice points and its horizontal arm marking the equinoxes. It also has 12 rectangular corners, which are said to represent each month of the year. At this point in the description, I shall ask you to take note of some simple numerology:
3 pachas + 4 directions = 7 steps on the Akapana
3 pachas x 4 directions = 12 corners on the Chakana, 12 months in the year
The circle in the centre of the Chakana is actually considered to be a hole and is commonly referred to as the axis point. The central axis of the Chakana is the means through which the shaman moves between the three different pachas, on earth, above and below.
Chakana as Axis Mundi
Here we find some of the most striking parallels between the imagery employed by shamans in Pre-Columbian South America and those in numerous other cultures and mythologies. You will find similar allusions to the central axis in the myths of the Scandinavian Yggdrasil, (or World Tree), and in the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist accounts of Mount Meru, to name but two. Perhaps some of the most notable parallels are found in the Finnish Kalevala, a collection of verses that tell of the theft of the Sampo. This was a magical mill that scholars have shown was connected with imagery for the North Pole.
Yet another significant feature the symbolism associated with the central axis is that it is often also the connecting point between the male and female principles. Frequently this manifests as the masculine sky touching the feminine earth, expressed in some or other way. The mythology of the Andes shares this characteristic, as we shall see further in due course. Comparative mythology is a vast and fascinating area for study, which involves understanding the technical language of myth, precession and ethnography amongst many other things. It is too vast and intricate a subject to do anything other than to touch on here.
Before we leave the Chakana, it is worth making a couple of more comparisons with other cultural traditions around the world. Little research has been done to date on the relationship between the geometry of the Chakana and that of sacred symbols in the Old World. While eloquently describing the the qualities of certain Canonical Numbers. in The Dimensions of Paradise, John Michell writes:
The Earth Spirit, 1080, corresponds to the Chinese ch’i or life-breath of nature, which accumulates in the folds and cavities of the earth……….It  is the number of magic, imagination and madness and, above all, of that Mystery that lies at the heart of things and is not to be comprehended by any system of morality or rationalism.
Squaring the circle of Andean sacred geometry
Interestingly, Michell goes on to note that the number 1080 was sacred to the Gnostics and was associated by them with the Serpent of Wisdom. In the ancient tradition of Sacred Geometry, the Earth Spirit (number 1080) was represented as a circle and the squaring of the circle in this tradition expressed the joining of masculine and feminine. (The square being the geometric representation of the masculine principle). Each of the corners of the Chakana is a 90° right-angle and there are 12 of them, so 12 x 90 = 1080: the number of the feminine Earth Spirit. Right-angles are, by their inherent quality “squares”, in that you need to use only right-angles and nothing else to make a square, and the geometry of the square is masculine. Are we seeing here the Andean version of the squared circle? The numerology and geometry of the Chakana would seem to be woven together in an intricate and sophisticated way to describe just that.
Of course, this would require the Pre-Columbians of South America to divide the circle into 360° for the arithmetic to work. Is that such a preposterous idea? Not if you can accept that there was, perhaps in very ancient times, some kind of contact between cultures, or a common heritage.