Glyptodons, such as the one featured above, were monstrous mammals (technically known as megafauna) that lived in both North and South America during the last Ice Age. Distant relatives of modern armadillos, the species inthe picture was the size of a family saloon car. They may have enjoyed eating wild avocados; just like other American Ice Age megafauna did. If so, then itwas only the glyptodons that lived in North and Central America that enjoyed them. This obscure fact could change our thinking about Ice Age people altogether. (Image courtesy of Pavel Riha,CC-BY-SA-3.0).
A trip to the northern coast of Peru
The bus drops us off about twenty miles north of the city of Trujillo on the Pan American Highway, a strip of tarmac that runs like a black ribbon close to South America’s Pacific coast. I’m with Ivan, an amateur historian from Trujillo, who has made a study of the cultures that lived here before the arrival of the Spanish. We’ve come here to try to learn more about an archaeological site called Huaca Prieta, which may yet change our understanding of South America at the end of the last Ice Age.
Clovis first? Well, not really
In the last century, it all seemed so simple. During the Ice Age, so the story went, sea levels were much lower. This allowed people to cross the land bridge that then joined Siberia to Alaska, around 13,000 years ago. When the planet gradually heated up, the sea levels rose and people could no longer cross between the two continents. The immigrants slowly moved southwards down the coasts of the Americas, hunting and gathering as they went. The warming of the world at the end of the Ice Age was a rather a sedate affair – or so it was thought.
Dubbed the Clovis People by academics, these early Americans were hunter-gatherers and they made very effective stone tools. Indeed, they were such good hunters – it is still believed – these small bands of itinerants were personally responsible for wiping out all of the huge mammals, such as ground sloths, mammoths, mastodons, glyptodons and toxodons that once roamed the Americas during the Ice Age.
So what about the peopling of South America?
The truth is that those who study the migration of humans into South America are already having to change their thinking about how this happened. This is because there is an increasing mass of evidence – genetic and archaeological – that is forcing them to.
Huaca Prieta is one of the burgeoning number of archaeological sites in all of the Americas that have given the lie to the Clovis first theory, if only because of its dating. In a recent archaeological dig at the site, the geologists present wanted to find out more about its underlying rock strata. When they dug down, they were surprised to find the remains of hearths, stone tools and plants. The archaeologists in the team radiocarbon dated the organic matter present to between 14 and 15,000 years old. Back then, quite obviously, there was no Pan American Highway hugging South America’s Pacific coast. The idea that the people who left those remains – or their ancestors – had wandered down the coast from Alaska, hunting and gathering as they went, was out of the question. The dates just did not stack up.
These were some of the questions swirling through my mind as we looked for a colectivo to take us towards the coast and, we hoped, towards Huaca Prieta. Eventually, we found a battered black Datsun, squeezed ourselves into the rear seats and waited until the driver had gathered enough passengers to make the trip worth his while. We did not have to wait long and soon we were racing along a road that divided a vast expanse of sugar cane that undulated in the scorching winds that race down the coast from the equatorial North. (This is the coast where the phenomenon we know as El Niño grows up, sprinting with all the vigour of a young boy from its birthplace across the Pacific.)
An archaeology of human conciousness
Already, amongst the colectivo’s passengers on our journey towards the coast, the conversation had turned to the peculiar energies present in the land around Huaca Prieta and of present-day shamanistic ceremonies conducted there. Huaca Prieta does not stand alone on this particular stretch of Peru’s Pacific coastline.
Wherever I looked, it seemed, there were mounds rising from the sandy landscape: El Brujo (literally, ‘the wizard’, but perhaps more accurately ‘the shaman’), and Huaca Cortada are but two of the mounds present in this archaeological complex that goes by the name of El Brujo. All, however, are regarded as huacas by the locals.The term is difficult to translate, because English lacks a word that grasps its full significance. (Perhaps ‘sacred place or object’ is as close as we can approach its meaning?) There are mounds that conceal pyramids too. Long after Huaca Prieta was abandoned, the Moche people built a seven-stepped pyramid here (also a huaca: Huaca Cao Vieja), at which they conducted numerous human sacrifices. Evidently, there is something about the intensity of an unseen presence in this particular part of the world that animates the human psyche – either for good or ill.
I hesitate to use the word ‘energy’, because of its New Age connotations, but it is difficult to find a substitute. Telluric currents, on the other hand, have been measured by physicists. They are mostly caused by solar winds, which bombard the Earth’s magnetic field with sub-atomic particles. Changes and fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field can affect our consciousness in ways that we hardly understand today. My research at several sites in South America has suggested strongly that the people who built them were capable of engineering those currents in complex and sophisticated ways. Perhaps these were what my companions in the colectivo were actually referring to, when they spoke of the potent ‘energies’ at Huaca Prieta and its companion huacas?
Huaca Prieta: El Brujo Complex’s most ancient sacred place
The construction of sacred places here did not stop with the coming of the Spanish to South America. The Complex contains the remains of one of Peru’s first Catholic churches, which was built over the site of a huaca in 1538. It is worth pondering for a moment as to why this complex of huacas should have been a place that has attracted people for 14,000 years. Is it all really just a matter of superstition. as those who embrace scientific orthodoxy would like us to believe? The sheer antiquity of the Complex makes it hard to explain why so many very different cultures have felt driven to embrace a sense of something other than the mundane here.
Equally, the archaeologists’ belief that El Brujo is a single complex comes from their excavations and from mapping its topography. All of the huacas sit within a defined geogrphical area. Curiously, its shape is a miniature version of the South American continent and is instantly recognisable as such when you look at a plan of El Brujo.
Archaeologists have put this down to mere coincidence, but after many years of studying South American ancient sites, I dare to differ. Geoglyphs – giant drawings that are scored across the landscape – were drawn by many ancient cultures on this continent. The most famous of these are the Nazca Lines, but there are many others. We may object to the idea that the site is a huge map, because there is no way that these ‘primitive’ peoples could have known the shape of their own continent. To say so may be to misunderstand the true nature of human consciousness. The physicist, Dr Hal Puthoff of the Stanford Research Institute would probably think so too. In the 1970s, he conducted a series of experiments into something known as remote viewing, in which he provided empirical evidence that such an undertaking is a reality. My own research into the shamanistic nature of many South American sacred sites indicates that one of their manifold functions was to enable very similar experiences to those of Dr Puthoff’s remote viewing subjects. Namely, of being able to perceive physical objects from distant perspectives – perhaps even outer space!
Evidence that challenges previous assumptions
The very early finds beneath the mound of Huaca Prieta have been a surprise to archaeologists, because they imply a high degree of cultural sophistication, especially as they are now known to be so old. On the other hand, some accounts of the excavations have been keen to stress the ‘primitive’ nature of the stone tools found in the lower levels of the site. After all, they suggest, this would seem to confirm the site’s antiquity, simply by those tools’ being ‘primitive’.
What if we consider these stone tools as simply ‘crude’, rather than ‘primitive’? Would this allow us to envisage a different scenario; perhaps one that is not necessarily shackled to the idea of perpetual progress? Imagine for a moment a series of catastrophes that took place over perhaps a few thousand years. This could have wiped out almost all human culture and most of humanity itself – just like the large mammals I referred to earlier. Might not this account for the crude nature of those tools? Interestingly, the very period from which these early Huaca Prieta finds have been dated – the end of the Ice Age – may well have been one in which successive catastrophes did take place.
From piles of megafauna dung to the fashionable restaurants of Islington
One piece of evidence found at Huaca Prieta is particularly difficult for mainstream archaeology to accommodate, because it calls into question the whole concept that humans progressed from being hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists.
Around 13,000 to 14,000 years ago, Huaca Prieta’s earliest inhabitants were eating avocados. Yet the avocado has never grown in the wild near there – or in South America at all. Wild avocado trees grow only in Central America and Mexico. In any case, wild avocados are nearly all stone and very little flesh. More than this, the stone is poisonous to humans. They were, however, a very tasty snack for ground sloths – at least those species that lived in Central America. If avocados are a little too gentrified for your taste, then how about the humble potato? A recent genetic study has shown that potatoes were deliberately hybridised to produce edible tubers around 10,000 years ago.
All of this suggests to me that these Ice Age people were rather more like us than many in our contemporary Western culture would like to admit. It also hints at a world that was recovering from disaster, rather than groping towards civilisation. It may even imply that goods, such as potatoes and avocados, were traded by sea between Central and South America, as agricultural crops.
What really drove the changes assumed to be ‘progress’?
In one important respect, however, perhaps the early inhabitants of Huaca Prieta were very different from us. Until very recently, archaeologists had assumed that changes in material circumstances had driven greater cultural sophistication. Thus, in the Middle East, the great cities of Sumeria had arisen around 3,000 BC, because people stopped being hunter-gatherers and had started to take up farming. The story goes that, by farming, they produced more food and could therefore settle in urban centres, without having to go out hunting, or gathering food every day.
There is one massive archaeological complex in Mesopotamia (today’s Eastern Turkey) that is beginning to change the prevailing view of things. It is called Gobekle Tepe and, just like Huaca Prieta, it dates from long before the first known Sumerian cities; from that little understood transitional period at the end of the last Ice Age. It consists of a vast complex of stone circles, many with exquisite relief carvings, and it seems to have been an observational temple and centre for shamanistic ceremonies. Some of those who have studied Gobekle Tepe now think that it was not built because people started to settle in villages – astounding enough as that would be at such an early date. Quite the reverse, people started settling near to Gobekle Tepe because they required more sustained access to a place they regarded as sacred. In other words, we may have been putting the material cart before the spiritual horse in our interpretations of the changes that happened in ancient human societies.
My mind drifts back to that brief conversation in the colectivo on our way to Huaca Prieta. What was it that really brought those early people to this particular stretch of coast all those millennia ago? Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t the presence of any wild avocados.
Above, the Spanish legend of El Dorado (The Golden One) originated in stories the Spanish heard concerning the initiation rite of the Zipa. This was the name given to the hereditary ruler of the southern confederation of Muisca tribes, which occupied territories corresponding to part of present-day Colombia. The Zipa’s body was covered in gold dust prior to submerging himself in Lake Guatavita, while his attendants threw gold and jewels in to the Lake as votiveofferings to the gods. (Photograph by Andrew Bertram, CC BY-SA 1.0).
Alchemy, Gold and the Temple of Solomon
A hunger for gold provided the impetus for the Spanish adventurers to seek out the temples and lofty holy places of the native peoples. Stories of cities and kings lavished with gold enticed them to press beyond the Eastern Cordilleras, deep into the bosky lands surrounding the many headwaters of the Amazon. Their actions are often characterised as simple greed, but many of them were in severe debt at home. While this does not excuse their rapaciousness, it does perhaps explain their motives a little more completely. The Americas provided the possibility of an escape from poverty for at least some of these secular adventurers.
The Catholic clergy also possessed an acute hunger, but theirs was for the conversion of those, whom they saw as indigenous savage souls, to the Church of Rome. Hence, not long after the fall of the Tawantinsuyo – and the removal of its gold – the clergy quickly got to work on the conversion of the peoples of the former Inca lands. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the Jesuits who were in the vanguard of this process on behalf of the Pope, to whom they had pledged their utmost allegiance. Founded by the Basque soldier, Ignatius Loyola in 1534, the Jesuits combined intellectual rigour with military discipline in carrying out their appointed duties.
The Jesuits set about the task of eradicating every visible feature of the Andean religion in something known as the Extirpation, which was carried out with characteristic meticulousness. The Jesuit priest Pablo José de Arriaga published a training manual called The Extirpation of Idolatry, which set out the methodology to be adopted. It included, as a priority when entering a village or settlement for the first time, the destruction of its lineage huaca. The reader will recall that huacas were arranged across the land in lines, called cesques. As a result, it became common practice amongst the indigenous people to destroy any visible signs of the cesques. Where possible, the native peoples removed the huacas from their alignments in an attempt to conceal their spiritual and cultural heritage from the encroaching Jesuit clergy.
So it was that the beliefs, lore and practices of the many tribes that inhabited the Tawantinsuyo became submerged beneath the baptismal waters of Roman Catholicism. The old beliefs did remain as undercurrents, however; and undercurrents are potent. They often move in barely perceptible ways that alter the nature of the more visible waters nearer to the surface.
There are countless examples across the Andean regions of where ostensibly Christian festivals thinly veil local ancient myths, customs and beliefs. Around the shores of Lake Titikaka, and centred on the small Bolivian town of Copacabana, the local people celebrate the Festival of Our Lady of the Candelaria in early February. This is one of the most important saints’ days in the towns and villages that surround Lake Titikaka, regardless of whether they may be in Peru of Bolivia. In early February 2010, I was staying in the Peruvian city of Puno. Throughout the whole day, its streets were thronged with thousands of people dressed in all manner of costumes, ranging from traditional tribal ponchos and chullos to the lassos and leather trousers of gauchos.
Those in the procession were members of the numerous folk societies that had come from the small towns and villages dotted around Puno’s altiplano hinterland. The members of each folk society moved in formations along the streets in their costumes; each group dancing in to the rhythms of its own band. The parade went on all day and well into the night, amidst much drinking and the setting off of fireworks as the day’s festivities drew to a close.
The Virgin of the Candelaria is also the Patron Saint of Bolivia and the story goes that her adoption in the region arose out of a dispute between those who venerated the Virgin Mary and those who venerated San Sebastian in Copacabana. The people on each side in the dispute were descended from the either Aymara speaking inhabitants, or the Quechua speaking ‘newcomers.’ It is most likely that the different ‘Saints’ worshipped by the two grooups represented Christianised versions of their respective traditional local tribal deities.
The need for the dispute to be resolved became more pressing, we are told, because of a series of bad harvests. The much needed favours of heaven could not be bestowed upon the people of Copacabana if they were undecided as to whom they should pray. Eventually, through a series of miraculous events and involving paintings and statues of the Blessed Virgin, the copacabeños adopted the Blessed Virgin and Copacabana became the home of one of the oldest shrines to Mary in the Americas.
Significantly, according to the social scientist Mario Montaño Aragón, the name Copacabana probably derives from Kotakawana, an Andean fertility god, who was androgynous. What is interesting is that the Christian story of the adoption of the Blessed Virgin contains all of the essential elements of the more ancient myth of Kotakawana. The need to resolve the dispute as to which saint to venerate, the Blessed Virgin or San Sebastian, being made more pressing because of a failed harvest is a clear relic of Kotakawana’s role as a fertility deity.
Just as in many of Europe’s mediaeval churches and cathedrals, stonemasons carved representations of people, spirits and legends that were not strictly Christian, so in South America indigenous craftsmen included carvings of their traditions into the decoration of the new churches. Around Lake Titikaka for example, it is common to see carvings of creatures that resemble mermaids in many churches. These are, in fact, Umantuus aquatic members of the court of the fertility god Kotakawana. Such indigenous representations, along with others, were commonplace in the style of architecture that came to be known as Andean-Baroque.
The Christian Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana was built on the exact spot where Kotakawana’s temple had once stood. Clearly, the Catholic Church was seeking to stamp its mark on the spirituality of the local people, just as it had done at the Coricancha in Cusco. I am left to ponder, however, if such superimposition of Catholic buildings, legends and iconography has converted the root and branch of the Andean psyche even today, almost half a millennium after the Pizarro brothers first arrived in Peru from Spain.
The accepted view of Spain in the sixteenth-century is that it was a fanatically Catholic country. It was, after all, one of the two European powers (the other being Portugal) that sought to convert on behalf of the See of Rome, the heathen masses of South America to the Catholic faith. Yet, residing beneath its staunch evangelism there were undercurrents of other traditions, beliefs and forms of spiritual expression. Moreover, these were not simply confined to the peasant classes as remnants of earlier pagan times. Rich and powerful aristocratic families, even royalty, entertained different and heretical notions, which they kept hidden from the eager scrutiny of the Inquisition.
There was perhaps something in the vehemence of Spain’s Catholicism at this time that betrayed a certain insecurity of belief and identity. It was only in 1492 that the Emirate of Granada had been defeated and the Iberian Peninsula was once more entirely under Christian rule. This put to an end to nearly 800 years of Muslim political occupation that stretched back into Europe’s dark ages. Especially during the earlier times, the Islamic scholars of Al-Andalus – as southern Spain was then called – were the custodians of learning from across the known world. This included classical Greek and Latin, as well as Arabic and Persian texts on astronomy, mathematics and alchemy amongst other subjects.
Islamic scholars, such as Ibn Rusjd, were not only examples of a great florescence of learning in Islamic Spain, they also came to exert a strong influence on contemporary Jewish and Christian thinking. Islam perhaps reached its apogee in Spain in the 9th century, with the rise to prominence of Córdoba as a cultural and political centre. The Al-Andalus city had what was probably Europe’s greatest library and arguably its first university.
Within certain limits, this was largely a tolerant society. Christians, Jews and Muslims each lived in their own quarters in Spanish towns, but there was much in the way of exchange of ideas as well as commerce between them.
Until 1492, Spain was also the home to a large and influential Jewish population, amongst some of whose members the practice of Kabbalah featured prominently. In all of Western Europe up until the 16th century, the Iberian Peninsula was the most exposed to the rich and diverse cultural traditions that emanated from outside of Christendom. Significant components of those traditions were esoteric in nature and ranged from the Kabbalism of Sephardic Jews to the Hermetic, Neo-Platonic and alchemical texts studied by Islamic scholars.
Alchemical and other secrets
By the time that Ferdinand and Isabella had united the kingdoms of Castile and Leon in the 1470s to form what was eventually to become the modern nation-state of Spain, the new realm had become a repository for esoteric learning. Figures such as the Majorcan, Ramon Lull (1232-1315/6) were a major influence on esoteric thinking across Europe. It was even said that the reputed alchemist Nicholas Flamel had learned the secrets of transmutation from a book that had originated in Spain, written by a Jewish conversio (convert) to Christianity.
Certainly, the Spanish royalty, whilst fiercely proclaiming the Catholic Faith in the New World and in Europe, was not averse to incorporating alchemical and Hermetic symbolism into the architecture it commissioned and built. There is perhaps no greater example of this than Félipe II of Spain (1527-1598), who despite his staunch Catholicism, was also deeply interested in alchemy. Félipe was responsible for the construction of the part-monastery part-palace of the Escorial. When the original architect for the project died, Félipe appointed the Hermetic architect, Juan de Herrera to complete the building. In the event, Herrera, with the King’s approval, changed the building’s design to accord with their mutual esoteric interests.
Having accepted Herrera’s changes to the building’s design, Félipe supervised the construction and embellishment of the Escorial in every detail. The edifice was devised and built in rigorous conformity to principles of geometric harmony and proportion. Its various stages of construction were computed and inaugurated in accordance with astrologically propitious dates.
It is evident, from Félipe’s personal oversight of the construction of the Escorial, that he took the inclusion of Hermetic symbolism and esoteric lore into the building’s construction very seriously indeed. The Escorial was no mere fad, folly, or fashion statement for him.
From the Knights Templar to the Knights of Christ
Other undercurrents had been bubbling beneath the surface European culture in the late middle ages that originated from slightly different sources. The Royal Order of the Knights of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Real Ordem dos Cavaleiros de Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo), popularly known as the Knights of Christ, was a Portuguese and largely maritime chivalric order . It was to play a pivotal role in the exploration of the New World. The Knights of Christ originally were Knights Templar who had fled to Portugal after the Order had been suppressed in 1307 by Pope Clement V in collusion with the French King Philippe IV.
When the south-bound flotilla of the Templar fleet left La Rochelle in France in 1307 and arrived at Nazaré in Portugal, it was given refuge by King Denis I. Denis had reluctantly obeyed the Papal decree to confiscate all Templar properties in his realm. However, he negotiated with Clement’s successor to found a new chivalric order, the members of which were all former Templars. These Knights of Christ became the recipients of all of the Templars’ former properties in Portugal. It was hardly surprising that Denis should support this group of refugee Templars. He needed their expertise in rebuilding his country after the Muslim occupation and he may have wished to have a counterbalance to the increasing power and influence wielded by the Knights Hospitaller in his realm.
There were other deeper reasons as well. The Portuguese monarchy at this time was a cadet branch of the House of Burgundy. The same Royal House, in the person of André de Montbard, had been one of the founders of the Knights Templar, nearly two hundred years previously. Whatever the dynastic allegiances between the Templars and the House of Burgundy, it is certainly true that the Burgundian Kings of Portugal were enthusiastic in their support of the Knights of Christ.
It was during the reign of Denis’ son, King Alfonso IV (the Brave), that the Portuguese Age of Discovery really began. This was an age that included the exploration of the Atlantic even from the onset. Indeed, Alfonso was said to have been a Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of Christ. Alfonso set in train expeditions to the Canary Islands during the first quarter of the 14th century. Later on, the famous seafarer Vasco de Gama was a Knight of Christ and the renowned Prince Henry the Navigator was a Grand Master of the Order.
Christopher Columbus: a secret Knight of Christ?
Another significant fact is that Christopher Columbus, although sponsored by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, was married to the daughter of a Knight of Christ. It is said that Columbus gained access to his father-in-law’s sea charts. Some writers even claim that Columbus was himself a Knight of Christ and that he had studied cartography and navigation at the school founded by Henry the Navigator. Whatever the truth of this claim, on Columbus’ first expedition, the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria all crossed the Atlantic under sails emblazoned with the cross pattée of the Knights of Christ. That same emblem once had symbolised the power and enterprise of the Knights Templar throughout Europe for two hundred years.
Templar knowledge and doctrines
It is not within the scope of this short account to give a full history of the Knights Templar. However, it is perhaps worth reminding the reader of their origins during the crusades and especially of their association with the Temple of Solomon. The Templar Order rose to prominence in Europe during the middle ages. Their founders and principal members came from the elite European families. The Templars became great landowners and wealthy bankers. They were also excellent soldiers and, as we have seen, they seem to have developed into highly skilled and knowledgeable seafarers. Significantly, they also appear to have been instrumental in the introduction of Gothic architecture into Europe shortly after the Second Crusade.
It is little wonder then that some thought the Templars to be too powerful and too influential. Many writers have argued that the Pope and Philippe of France sought to persecute and suppress the Templars in order to gain access to their fortunes, especially their gold. Hence, it is argued, the charges of heresy and of other occult practices against them were fabricated.
On the other hand, the Templars do appear to have entertained unorthodox doctrines and ritual practices that may have arisen through their contacts with some Islamic groups (including the Assassins) and other religious traditions in the Middle-East during the crusades. They were claimed to have discovered certain writings during their excavations in Jerusalem, under the Temple Mount. They may even have discovered secrets encoded in the geometry of the Temple Mount itself. Whatever their exact source, several authors have contended that the Templars were in possession of information that called into question the accepted story of Christ’s life, and therefore of Christian doctrine, as promulgated by the Roman Church.
Others have pointed out the possible connection between Templar beliefs and a sect called the Mandaeans, who may have inherited their traditions from the Essenes. The Mandaeans, who exist even today, venerate John the Baptist, rather than Jesus as their principal prophet. According to Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, their Gnosticism and Hermeticism seem to have influenced the Templars through direct contacts of some sort. Interestingly, the Mandaeans entertain a belief in a land across the ocean called Merica, which some have gone so far as to connect with the name America.
There has been much written about the relationship between the Knights Templar in Europe and the later Freemasons. Again, it is not within the scope of this short account to examine this in detail. As far as South America was concerned, former Templars as Knights of Christ, played a large part in opening up South America to European influence and colonization. However, did they also help in the transfer of esoteric knowledge? In order to determine if there is any truth to this, we need to understand a little more about the Templars knew, or may have known.
The Templars, Gothic Architecture and the Notre Dame Cathedrals
What is certain is that the Templars were associated with the construction of many of the great European Gothic cathedrals, as much as they have been credited with the introduction of Gothic style of architecture itself. Moreover, these same early Gothic cathedrals, called Notre Dame Cathedrals, also happened to exhibit a great deal of alchemical symbolism in their decoration. The earliest of the Notre Dame cathedrals is at Chartres, just to the West of Paris. Apart from its breath-taking Gothic architecture, part of the Cathedral’s tiled floor displays a labyrinth.
The French researcher and writer Louis Charpentier described the transformational spiritual workings of the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral thus:
It is likely that the ritual progress had to be made above all at times when the telluric current was in strong pulsation, which should coincide with the times of pilgrimage. In the spring certainly, as the “Easter rounds”, led by the bishop, suggest.
The man who reaches the centre of the labyrinth, having made the ritual progress through it and having “danced”, is changed and for all I know in the sense that there has been an opening of the intuition to natural laws and harmonies; to laws and harmonies that he will perhaps not understand but which he will experience for himself, with which he will feel in tune…….
Cathedrals such as Chartres were built on pagan sites that appear to be at the confluence of strong telluric currents, called wouivres. (The word wouivre is derived from the ancient Gaulish word for snake, or serpent). Its famous labyrinth may have served as a means of focusing the telluric currents in the earth to affect the consciousness of the initiate who ‘danced’ barefoot within the labyrinth situated on the Cathedral’s floor.
The Labyrinth at Amiens Cathedral
Another Cathedral said to have Templar associations is at Amiens in Picardy. Sadly, the original labyrinth at Amiens Cathedral was destroyed in the 19th century, although it has now been reconstructed. It differed from the one at Chartres in that it was octagonal, which is suggestive of an axis mundi. It is also worth noting that Cologne Cathedral, the design of which was based on Amiens, also has an octagonal labyrinth. We shall return in a later article in this series to these two cathedrals, and their connection to the Cathedral of La Plata, Argentina.
The exoteric explanation for placing labyrinths in churches was that it was some kind of symbolic representation of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on which the devout person would wander before reaching the axis at the centre. Hence, they were given the generic title of Road to Jerusalem; but does this name hint at a more esoteric connection to Solomon’s Temple? Perhaps revealingly, labyrinths were also believed to have alchemical and Kabbalistic meanings, representing the Road to Solomon and the Great Work (of alchemy) and the triumph of spirit over matter.
Chartres and Amiens cathedrals are said to be located on particular points on the ground, along with other the Notre Dame cathedrals of Reims, Evreux and Bayeux, in a formation that reflects the arrangement of the stars in the constellation of Virgo. If this is so, it is curiously similar to the writings of Cornelius Agrippa, some three hundred years or so later, on geomancy. It may also be an example of the Hermetic dictum, As above, so below.
After the suppression of the Templars in 1307, the extensive lands that they owned were confiscated by the Church. Curiously, many of these places became centres of alchemy. Given their proclivity for adorning cathedrals with alchemical symbolism, it is not stretching the powers of conjecture too much to suppose that the Templars may have fostered the practice of alchemy on their lands before their banishment in 1307.
Noble Families and Esoteric Lore
Of course, the Templars did not exist in a vacuum socially, or politically. Many of their most prominent figures were members of some of the best-connected and most powerful European aristocratic families.
Those same families provided the wealth for the building of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. More often than not, these cathedrals venerated the Divine Feminine through their stone masonry and devotional art. This was especially the case with the Notre Dame Cathedrals. It is a tradition which ultimately stems, according to John Major Jenkins, from the worship of the Egyptian Virgin Mother, Isis. The same author notes that the early Christian cathedrals of Colonial South America continued this tradition and that their construction was sponsored by the aristocratic families of Spain and Portugal.
Divine proportions, what we would refer to today as earth energies, celestial correspondences and alchemical symbolism were all part and parcel of the construction of great religious buildings in the Mediaeval and early modern periods in Spain, France and across Europe.
The royal and and aristocratic sponsors of these enterprises had the political will and financial power to ensure that esoteric principles and symbolism were woven into the very fabric of monumental architecture; albeit covertly. The Knights Templar were a repository for Gnostic, Hermetic and alchemical lore in mediaeval Europe and their expertise had guided the construction of the great Gothic cathedrals, especially the French Notre Dame cathedrals.
The transformation of members of the Templars into the maritime Knights of Christ in Portugal had stimulated to the exploration of the Atlantic. What was more, the stimulus to learning of the crafts of navigation and seafaring also seems to have exerted a considerable influence on Spain at the end of the Middle Ages. In the following parts of this history I will show how esoteric lore informed the construction of sacred and municipal architecture and the landscape of South America in the years that followed.
The Incas did not originate in Cusco, but established it as the centre of what would become their extensive empire, or more correctly the Tawatinsuyo (Quechua for ‘four parts together’). At its height, the Tawantinsuyo stretched from present day Colombia through Ecuador in the north, through Peru, western Bolivia, North-West Argentina and as far south as Santiago de Chile.
There are several different traditional accounts of where the Incas originated, although most historians say that they inhabited the high grasslands of the Andes. One tradition tells of their origin at Lake Titikaka, whether or not this is historically true.
The Royal Measuring Rod
The mythos of Inca origins at Titikaka certainly serves to establish a degree of continuity between the cultures of Tiwanaku and their Inca successors. This may have been rather more than a matter of simple political expediency, as some commentators have suggested. The Incas saw themselves as re-establishing order and civil society after an era of bloodshed and warfare that had existed since the demise of Tiwanaku, which is said to have taken place at around 1000 AD. At Tiwanaku, according to the early seventeenth century chronicler Pachakuti Yamqui, Wiracocha (in his version of the story called Tunupa), gave the father of the first Inca a staff that was called Tupayauri (The word is said to derive, fittingly from a combination of the Quechua tupa, ‘royal’ and the Aymara yauri ‘copper’). Historically, the Inca Priest-King carried the Tupayauri as a symbol of his authority, power and invincibility, but it had many other connotations as well.
Interestingly, the Quechua word tupa (royal), shares its origin in the language with the verb tupay, which means ‘to measure with a staff’. Here we have the words for measure, measuring-rod and royal all closely associated with each other. This is, of course, not unique to South American languages. The English words: ‘rule’, ‘regal’, ‘royal’, ‘ruler’ and ‘regulate’ all derive from the Latin regula and rego, meaning to keep straight and to rule. (Equally, the English word real, comes from the closely related Latin regalis, meaning royal). Could it be that, from very ancient times, it was the responsibility of shaman priest-kings to establish and maintain the measure of the known universe? As we shall see, the first Inca Manco Cápac drove his Tupayauri into the ground, in what was to become Cusco, in order to establish the new axis mundi there.
There is yet more that we can say about the associations between measurement and royalty. The title of the first Inca, Manco Cápac, means ‘Royal Manco’ in Quechua. (I shall just focus on the meaning of Cápac here, for the sake simplicity). According to William Sullivan, the name Cápac originates in the Quechua verb capay, meaning to measure with the palms of the hand. Aymara also has the word capa, meaning palm and capatha, meaning to measure by palms. Measurement by means of the palms of the hands is said to have been an extremely ancient technique and examples of it are found in many cultures. It is possibly the basis for various units of measurement in ancient cultures around the world, including the Pacific Islands, where it may have contributed towards the Polynesians’ system of navigation across the vast tracts of the Pacific.
Cusco: the new stone in the centre
In several versions of the Inca foundation myth, Manco Cápac and his brothers and sisters left Tiwanaku and Titikaka to travel to the north to find a place to settle. In the version of the founding of Cusco told by the Spanish chronicler Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa the story goes thus:
Let it be by one way or the other, for all agree that they went trying the land with a pole or staff until they arrived at this Huanay-pata, when they were satisfied. They were sure of its fertility, because after sowing perpetually, it always yielded abundantly, giving more the more it was sown. They determined to usurp that land by force, in spite of the natural owners, and todo with it as they chose. So they returned to Matahua.
From that place Manco Ccapac saw a heap of stones near the site of the present monastery of Santo Domingo at Cuzco. Pointing it out to his brother Ayar Auca, he said, “Brother! you remember how it was arranged between us, that you should go to take possession of the land where we are to settle. Well! look at that stone.” Pointing out the stone he continued, “Go thither flying,” forthey say that Ayar Auca had developed some wings, “and seating yourself there, take possession of land seen from that heap of stones”.
This would indeed seem to be a propitious place, given that the heap of stones must have reminded Manco Cápac of Tiwanaku, or taypicala, as ‘the stone in the centre’. There were also practical considerations in that Manco Cápac and his siblings used the staff (Tupayauri) to test the land in order to see if it was fertile. Doubtless such practical considerations also included the supply of fresh water and this location just happened to lie within two rivers, the Huatanay and Tullumayu, that join further south to form the river of the Sacred Valley, the Vilcamayu-Urubamba.
John Major-Jenkins has observed that this division of rivers at Cusco resembles the dark rift of the Milky Way, close to the constellation of Sagittarius:
The unusual geological bifurcation of rivers that surrounds Cuzco most closely conforms to the part of the Milky Way that is bifurcated by the dark rift north of Sagittarius. In that sense, if we map the sky onto Peru, Cuzco is in the dark rift.
To Manco Cápac and his party, this must have been a propitious place indeed. It is little wonder therefore that the name Cusco was chosen as the name for their new axis mundi. The name comes from the Quechua q’osqo, which means in English ‘navel’. The imagery should be familiar to anyone who has studied geomancy, as Cusco was indeed the navel of the world, or the physical centre in the new pacha (epoch) established by Manco Cápac and his family.
The geomantic plan of Cusco
Cusco eventually would become the political, economic and cultural axis of the Tawantinsuyo as the Incas expanded their territory to take in those of other South American tribes, either by conquest or negotiation. The tribes brought within the compass of the Tawantinsuyo sent certain numbers of their people to live at Cusco, where they were allocated particular quarters within the city’s boundaries, according to their ethnic and geographical origins. Cusco thus became a sort of ethnic microcosm of the whole Tawantinsuyo, with its geometric topography manifesting the unity in diversity of the entire realm.
The reader will recall that the Chakana became closely associated with Cusco in Inca times. One reason for this was the four-fold division of the City, which reflected that of the division of the whole Tawantinsuyo into four provinces. The Chakana, it should also be remembered, encompassed celestial correspondences, especially in relation to the Southern Cross.
Prior to its division into four, however, celestial space had been reflected in the two-fold division of Cusco’s terrain. The line that cut the City in half had been established by observing the sun’s rising over a mountain called Pachatusan during equinoxes. The mountain’s name in English is ‘support pillar of space-time’, or ‘support pillar of the world’. This line marked the division between upper and lower Cusco. Upper Cusco (Hanan Cusco) was the abode of those members of the City who were warriors or administrators, whereas the inhabitants of Lower Cusco (Hurin Cusco) worked in religion and agriculture.
The Temple of the Sun
The sheer sophistication of geomancy used at Cusco is best appreciated when we come to consider the use of huacas and cesques there. Again, the reader will remember that cesques consisted of straight alignments of huacas across the landscape. All of the cesques in the entire Tawantinsuyo originated in the Temple of the Sun in Cusco, which was built next to the very pile of stones where Manco Cápac had thrust his Tupayauri (staff).
From the Temple of the Sun, 40 (some say 42) cesques radiated in straight lines over the mountain tops to different points on the horizon. Positioned along each cesque were 8 or so huacas, making some 328 huacas in total. This complex arrangement worked on multiple levels. Each huaca was associated with its own day and certain rites were performed at particular huacas on particular days. As the Inca calendar consisted of 328 days, there was one huaca for each day of the year. The remaining 37 days were excluded from the calendar, because they were the days when the Pleiades were not visible above the horizon.
Stars and ancestors
The number 40 was highly important in the Inca world view for other reasons. The 40 cesques also signified the idealised number of tribes that had been brought together to form the Tawantinsuyo. Each cesque therefore formed a straight line that led towards the geographical origin of each tribe. Priests were amongst the members of the 40 tribes who had been brought to Cusco, and the responsibilities of each included the maintenance of the huacas along the tribal cesque and for conducting rituals on the appropriate days. Each cesque also pointed towards the rising of a significant star, or constellation. Each star or constellation that aligned in this way with a cesque was important because it was thought to be the ancestor of that tribe.
Here, in Inca Cusco, we had the embodiment of order on the human, spiritual, geographic and cosmic scales. This was the counterpoint par excellence to the periodic cataclysms, or pachakutis, that had arrived during the many cycles of time that the Incas understood to be history. At the centre of the Tawantinsuyo was Cusco, and at the centre of Cusco was the Temple of the Sun. In writing of the ancient science, of which he believed Pythagoras and Plato to have been the inheritors, John Michell observed something that was equally true of the Inca conception of Cusco:
Thus human nature and the order of the universe were seen as products of the one archetype, the pattern that the Creator had in mind when he set about his work. On that perception rested the entire fabric of ancient philosophy and science. The Temple was placed between the two scales, human and cosmic, and the energies it transmitted were two-way; for it was believed not only that the heavens influenced affairs on earth, but that the order of humansociety affected the entire world of nature. Ceremonies throughout the year at the Temple were meant to initiate, and so procure, the fruitful union of all mutually corresponding elements, those above with those below.
The arrival of the conquistadores
Although it was geographically extensive, the Tawantinsuyo flourished for around only a hundred years before the Spanish, under the command of Francisco Pizarro, subjugated it in 1533. The fact that Pizarro, with only a small force of fewer than 200 Spaniards at his disposal, overcame this vast realm is one of the great riddles of history. Most historians attribute this to the effects of smallpox, which the Spanish inadvertently introduced into South America, and its devastating effect on the indigenous population. It was smallpox that claimed as its victim the Sapa Inca (King) immediately prior to Pizarro’s campaign in Peru. Huayana Capac died of the disease, leaving two of his sons, the half-brothers Huascar and Atahualpa, to conduct a bitter civil war for the Tawantinsuyo, which left it divided into a northern and southern portion. It was no longer ‘the four parts together’, a sign indeed of ill omen.
There were further signs that the pacha of the Incas was about to come to an end. Andean priest-astronomers knew about precession, and from this understanding, they realised that the current world pacha was about to be turned upside down in a pachakuti, after which a new pacha would come into existence. Furthermore, according to the chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega – who was Huayana Capac’s great nephew – the Sapa Inca had told of an ancient prophecy just before he had died of smallpox. This spoke of a future time when the Incas would lose their religion and the Tawantinsuyo would be no more.
The dying Sapa Inca was also said to have associated the coming of the Spaniards with the return of Wiracocha, heralding the advent of a new pacha. This information was said to have been kept as a secret amongst the Inca royalty for many years, according to Garcilaso.
Whilst many historians have explained the prophecy away as an excuse that the Inca royalty had made for not resisting the Spanish incursion more vigorously, it may have been that the Incas genuinely believed that their time had come to an end. To them, the signs were everywhere.
Whatever the causes, the Spanish soon established the new dispensation. The Temple of the Sun was stripped of its gold and a Dominican convent was built on the site. This was an act of no small significance to the conquered peoples of the Tawantinsuyo, as much as it was for the conquerors. There followed a period called the extirpation, in which the Catholic Church attempted to remove all signs of indigenous religious symbology from the landscape, and which especially included the deliberate destruction of huacas. Many of the menfolk were forced to work in silver and gold mines to feed the insatiable appetite of the Spanish Crown for precious metals. Others were simply slaughtered. Perhaps ironically, Inca resistance grew after the demise of Cusco and the death of Atahualpa.
Yet for all this, the history of geomancy in South America did not come to an end. Amongst the native population, some fragments of the ancient beliefs were kept alive clandestinely.
You will see them in the carvings made by indigenous craftsmen in the churches erected by the Conquistadores; you will find them if you look beneath surface of the many religious festivals celebrated in this part of the world. The Spanish too employed their own traditions of geomancy that came from esoteric European sources. It is said, for example, that families withTemplar and Hermetic connections provided many of the resources to build early colonial churches. Later, during the era of liberation from Spanish colonialism, Freemasonry was a major influence on the ideas of liberators, such as Simon Bolivar, Juan San Martin and Bernado O’Higgins to name but a few. That influence can also be seen in the architecture and layout of modern cities such as Buenos Aires, or Montevideo. In South America, it would seem that constructing an image of the cosmos across the landscape is something that is inextricably bound to establishing and maintaining political and social order.
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 thewhole 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.
The Dark Rift of the Milky Way is one of the most prominent dark cloud constellations. These have been venerated by numerous South American cultures stretching back into the remotest antiquity. The Dark Rift stands between our solar system and the Galactic Centre. The picture above was taken in 2012, when our solar system aligned most closely with the Galactic Core. (Public domain courtesy of NASA).
The Andean world-view
I need to begin my brief account with something of an explanation. I came to the insights I am about to share during several extensive trips to the South American Continent, where I have been investigating evidence for the existence of an advanced civilisation of extreme antiquity, specifically during the Pleistocene era.
This is a subject that I find absorbing and fascinating, but it is not the subject of this article. So on reading further, please forgive me if any of my enthusiasm for this possibility may colour the observations I make. The following narrative is essentially about the Inca civilisation and its predecessor, the Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) culture, and it takes place between about 300 AD and approximately 1533 AD. It is about how each culture established an axis for its territory and the cosmology, mythology, numerology, geometry and symbolism each employed to do so.
I say ‘axis for its territory’, but that is misleading. The axis, in the world-view of these cultures, was much more than a central point of a given parcel of land. It was the axis of everything they understood themselves to be. There was no civilisation without the axis; there was no creation without the axis.
The Incas saw themselves as the inheritors of the wisdom of Tiwanaku. and there is much to suggest that such wisdom was highly sophisticated and included a knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes and even of the Galactic Centre. A culture does not attain an appreciation of precession overnight. It takes thousands of years of meticulous observation of the heavens. It also takes a culture that is able to pass information down over thousands of years.
This was done through myth, in a quite specific and technical way. Contrary to what we have been taught, myths are not the naïve mental ramblings of so-called ‘primitive’ peoples, who were too stupid to make sense of the world around them. Neither are they untruths, as in the colloquial meaning of the word today.
It is the modern mind that has set up mythos and logos almost as opposites. In the original Greek, their meanings were much closer together and both words referred in some way to an account, or something that was said. Trace the meaning of mythos further back – to its Proto-Indo-European roots in the verb mewd (to care about something) – and we are getting closer to how we should really think about myth: an account of something of importance.
Precession was important to the Inca and Tiwanaku cultures because they perceived that there were synchronicities between the celestial world and the mundane world of nature below. Time moved in cycles. Events and changes in the world could be mapped against movements in the heavens, both for longer and shorter cycles of time. Star lore was thus based upon precise observations.
The Andean sages did not use a zodiac of twelve constellations, circling the earth in what is called the plane of the ecliptic, with which we are familiar. Instead, they studied the Milky Way as it traversed the heavens. Although certain constellations were important to them, their zodiac consisted of various ‘dark clouds’ within the band of the Milky Way, to which they ascribed the names of animals: the llama, the fox, the toad, serpent, partridge, etc.
These animals also feature in Andean myths and we begin to appreciate the technical meaning of those myths when we start to realise that their myths of animals are telling us something about the heavens and about the times in which they lived.
I shall give an example of how complex inter-relationships were thought of and used to illustrate something of how the Andean mind works. November and December mark the season when the rain comes to the altiplano and the sun moves into constellation we call Scorpio. To the Inca, this constellation was associated with a plough and storehouse – both images of the season’s abundance. This is not surprising, given the importance of rain to securing the forthcoming harvest. Scorpio also happens to point towards the Galactic Centre and to those ‘dark cloud’ constellations in the Milky Way closest to the Centre, the mother and baby llamas. They are the zodiacal animals emblematic of the nurturing of new life.
We therefore have a whole complex of associations and relationships, involving the seasonal cycle, birth, renewal, fecundity, abundance etc. This complex embraces the celestial, natural, human and political spheres of Andean knowledge and culture.
It is one that also embraces the axis, manifested here as the Galactic Centre, as the source of all existence. It was no coincidence that rituals to ensure the abundance of the forthcoming harvest were enacted, at this time of year, both in Cusco and Tiwanaku, as the temporal and political centres of their respective cultures. Neither is it arbitrary that both cities happened to lie beneath the band of the Milky Way as it crosses the ecliptic.
This is a fundamentally different way of conceiving of the world than most of us, in our western post-enlightenment culture, have been taught. We naturally divide things up into separate and discrete parts; into neat categories.
We are not encouraged to see the patterns and inter-relationships between the phenomena around us, be they celestial, political, natural or physical. For the Andean shaman, (called a paqo), the world is much more like a hologram of inter-connectedness. Perhaps it is more akin to how Michael Talbot wrote about the physicist David Bohm’s theory of implicate order:
The idea that consciousness and life (and indeed all things) are ensembles enfolded throughout the universe had an equally dazzling flip side. Just as every portion of a hologram contains an image of the whole, every portion of the universe enfolds the whole. This means if we knew how to access it we could find the Andromeda galaxy in thethumbnail of our left hand. We could also find Cleopatra meeting Caesar for the first time , for in principle the whole past and implications for the whole future are enfolded in each small region of space and time.
Could it be that the Andean shaman knows something more than we do? Where Talbot makes theoretical associations and speculations, the shaman has an established canon of correspondences that he can draw upon. The shaman knows that the axis defines his universe and that the axis is the centre of the city, world and galaxy. The world around is one that is replete with meaningful patterns, as is the world within. It is my contention that this knowledge is very ancient indeed and that it can be traced back in time to equally ancient origins. It can be seen in geometry, number and proportion, as we are about to find out.
Geographically speaking, we shall take a journey northwards, along the line of the Andes mountain range, from Lake Titikaka on the borders of Peru and Bolivia to Cusco. This was the journey that many of the Inca foundation myths say was made by the dynasty that became the greatest political and social state in Pre-Columbian South America. It is also a journey through a mythical, celestial and geomantic landscape.
Lake Titikaka as the terrestrial source of creation
Let us begin our journey with what I consider to be one the most ancient locations on the Continent; Lake Titikaka and its surrounds, which as we have seen, was once much larger than today. For those unfamiliar with Lake Titikaka, I should explain that it lies on the altiplano (high plateau) at around 12,000 feet above sea level, between the twin spines of the Andes. It straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia today, but in more ancient times Lake Titikaka and its environs have been part of various political domains, including Incan, Spanish and Tiwanakan to name but a few.
The altitude and the lack of trees lend the sparse altiplano an air of starkness, whilst newcomers to such heights can often struggle breathing and with the many rapid changes in weather and temperature. One does not have to be interested in subtle earth energies, or sacred geometry to encounter mysteries in this landscape: it is a mystery of itself. All along the altiplano, in Bolivia and as far south as northern Argentina and Chile, you will find salt lakes and salt flats.
Titikaka, the largest lake on the altiplano and one of the world’s highest, can barely be considered a freshwater lake at all, on account of the high salt content of its waters. Its native fauna’s closest relatives are all oceanic species. It boast its unique species of sea horse and is home to world’s only inland species of gull. It is almost as if part of the Pacific Ocean had suddenly been thrust upward of 12,000 feet into the air, bedrock and all, by some Titan. This is a fitting place indeed for legends of creation and emergence.
However the salt water may have arrived on the altiplano – and there are various theories – we can be fairly certain that the Lake was once much larger than it currently is. The Andean legend of the god Tunupa, who is often seen as the same as the creator god Wiracocha, seems to go back to a time when its water level was much higher than today. The ruins at Tiwanaku, and Amaru Muru, would have both at one time have been on the borders of the Lake. More mysteriously still, Tiwanaku style archaeological finds have been recovered from under the existing Lake, suggesting that perhaps there had been settlements on the altiplano before the seawater arrived – however it may have arrived.. This intriguing possibility has been given a boost in recent years by aerial photographs from Google Earth of what appear to be structures underneath the surface of several Andean lakes. As ever, speculations and theories abound.
Wiracocha, the Andean creator god, has long been associated with Lake Titikaka in Andean myth. In primeval times, he was said to have brought into being the very first peoples, by fashioning them from clay, only to turn the first of them to into stones. Other myths speak of Wiracocha’s turning the earliest human ancestors into foxes, condors and other animals and birds. This was said to be the origin of the huaca, (plural huacas). It is difficult to define a huaca in any functional or logical way. In some senses it translates as ‘shrine’ in English, but that would be way off the mark. It is really a concept that ties a human lineage to certain sacred places, to a particular animal, to a particular constellation, or even to a particular ‘dark cloud’ shaped like the same animal within the band of the Milky Way overhead. There are many huacas, but each has its own specific set of correspondences and associations.
Lines across the landscape
Geographically speaking, huacas were arranged in straight lines called cesques across the countryside. Often they were piles of stones, but they could be other objects, or natural features in the landscape. In later Inca times, they were an important feature of the geomancy of Cusco, as well as the whole of the Inca realm. I came across what can only have been a convergence of cesques and huacas close to the shores of Lake Titikaka. It is somewhere that is charged with a particular, almost palpable, presence, which contains a huaca called Amaru Muru.
Amaru Muru: portal to a different reality?
At a place called Bosque de las Piedras, (Forest of Stones) that lies between the Peruvian city of Puno and the Bolivian border, you will see the shapes of lizards, grotesque fairytale giants and whales all sculpted from the red sandstone. It is as if whatever formed these cyclopean stones had wanted to play a trick on you, to disorientate you and to challenge all of your preconceptions about how the world is and how it came about. The boundary between what is natural and what has been created by humankind seems to have become blurred here. The very shapes of the stones speak of times when living creatures were rocks and rocks were living creatures. Above all else, you feel the sheer antiquity of the place.
From your first glance, Amaru Muru defies categorisation by the rational mind and amplifies your sense of disorientation. Nestled underneath huge folds of sandstone stands a sheer wall on the side of which is etched a square groove, some 23 feet high and wide. Inside the square is a niche, which being about 6 or more feet high, seems to be some kind of doorway. A doorway that leads nowhere other than into the rock itself. So speaks the rational mind, which also wonders why and how the niche was carved, or even if it was carved at all, because it appears to have been melted, or dissolved, away from the stone façade somehow. There are even stone outcrops nearby that display similar signs of melting, or dissolving. That particular mystery is not unique to Amaru Muru and you will find similar signs of stones, including the hard and granite-like andesite, having seemingly been worked in this way on numerous sites in the Andes. Some sites even show signs of stones’ having been vitrified somehow.
In Peru, legends and superstitions inhabit the aether. When I visited Amaru Muru, I was told of how a couple of newly-weds had disappeared through the doorway, never to return to this world. That is a common motif in many of the stories associated with the site, Most accounts of Amaru Muru include the notion of passing through this portal, or ‘doorway’, into another realm of reality. In recent years, the site has become popular with North American and European tourists, who are seeking to experience something of the spiritual reality that lies behind appearances. I encountered just such a group during my visit there. They participated in a ceremony, under the guidance of two Andean paq’os, which included each person’s kneeling in front of the ‘doorway’ for a while. Several of them reported having passed through the ‘doorway’ into somewhere else.
The shamanistic ceremony certainly seemed to have engendered some kind of effect on the subtle energies around the ‘doorway’ as I discovered when I took a few photographs with my digital camera using an Oldfield Filter®. Some pictures showed that light seemed to be bent in a curve around the ‘doorway’ and the surrounding façade. Although the pictures taken before the ceremony had shown vivid colours, there was no curvature of light beforehand.
In some strands of contemporary Andean culture, Amaru Muru is associated with Lemuria and with a golden Solar Disc that was taken to the site from Lemuria (or sometimes Mu) at a time of great earth changes, in order to preserve the spiritual wisdom of civilisation. Here, according to one version of the legend, was founded the Monastery of the Seven Rays, which was instrumental in guiding and forming the nascent Tiwanaku culture, after the great cataclysm that had destroyed the continent of Lemuria. There then follows an account how the early Tiwanaku culture turned away from the spiritual principles taught to them by the Lemurians and of its being destroyed, interestingly enough, in a great flood.
This is not the place to recount all of the many and colourful contemporary versions of stories associated with Amaru Muru, some of which contain probable influences from the Bible and from popular accounts of Atlantis. Even the story of the Golden Disc may originate in the removal of a great solardisc of made of gold from the walls of the Coricancha – the great Inca Temple of the Sun in Cusco – so that it could not be looted by the invading Spaniards. On the other hand, the flooding of the Twanaku villages could be a genuine memory of sunken cities beneath the lakes of the Altiplano, as mentioned previously.
Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa wrote a History of the Incas in the sixteenth century, not long after the Spanish conquest of Peru. Today, his work is mostly dismissed as outright propaganda employed to justify the conquest of South America. A deeper understanding of the man, his motives and the times in which he lived, reveals rather more nuances to his History than just political spin.
Even for those tumultuous Renaissance times, the life of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa was eventful. Little is known of his childhood, except that he was born to María de Gamboa and Bartolomé Sarmiento sometime between 1530 and 1532. His mother was most probably from a Basque family, and his father’s was Gallician. Perhaps it was the combination of genes from these two great seafaring peoples of northern Spain – the Basques and the Celts – that gave the young Pedro his first yearnings to explore the oceans’ expanses.
A university town in Renaissance Spain
In fact, we know even less about the circumstances of Pedro’s parents than we do about their son. They may have spent some time in the Castilian city of Alcalá de Henares in the centre of the Iberian Peninsula – and there is a suggestion that Pedro may have been born there. Alcalá was a seat of learning that was the birthplace to the great Spanish pioneer of the novel, Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616).
University towns throughout Europe were hotbeds for the germination of new thinking in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and Alcalá was no exception. It is possible that Pedro’s father, if not the the young Pedro himself, may have participated in the intellectual life that blossomed at this time in the city. Whatever the truth of this, Pedro’s family – even if well-educated – was most probably not rich. Instead of inheriting any wealth, the young Pedro had to set about seeking his fortune in a piquaresque manner.
Pedro meets the Holy Inquisition
At the age of 18, Pedro became a soldier in the army of Charles I, King of Castile, who also happened to be the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. It was not long, however, before Pedro turned to the sea in search of adventure and new horizons. In his early twenties, he crossed the Atlantic for the first of many times, bound for what is now Mexico. We know little of Pedro’s life during his two year sojourn there, except that it was brought to a sudden end by his first encounter with the Holy Inquisition.
It is far from certain, but Pedro may have been appointed as tutor to two nephews of the Bishop of Tlaxcala whilst in Mexico. At some point, he decided to stage a play for their amusement, which lampooned the Inquisition’s censoriousness and pomposity. Needless to say, the representatives of the Holy Inquisition in Tlaxcala, who were not generally known for their sense of humour, did not see the funny side of the parody that Pedro had staged. The rash and irreverent young satirist was put on trial, received a public flogging and then promptly left Mexico for Peru; probably as a result of exile. He was fortunate not to have been burned alive.
The Iberian Peninsula’s shifting political landscape
It is worth remembering that, in Pedro Sarmineto de Gamboa’s lifetime, the political map of the Iberian Peninsula was still very much in a state of flux. It was only some forty years before Pedro’s birth that the Peninsula’s last Muslim territories had been reconquered by Christendom’s forces. This was one of many events that led to the formation of the Kingdom of Castile, which eventually would become known as Spain. By the time that Pedro was born. Castile had established itself as the dominant power on the Iberian Peninsula, but it was by no means its only political power.
In particular, Portugal had been recognised as a kingdom as far back as the twelfth century, when it had freed itself from Muslim control. Some hoped that Portugal and Castile would unite to form a single Christian kingdom. This did happen in 1580, in the latter part of Pedro’s lifetime, but the union was short-lived.
Political uncertainties did not help to dampen the intense rivalries that had started to grow between Castile and Portugal in the fifteenth century. Both kingdoms had started to invest in building ships that enabled them to explore and to exploit the lands beyond Europe. The rivalry reached a peak after 1492, with the opening-up of the Americas to conquest and colonisation. This was a consequence of Columbus’ voyage to the New World, which had been sponsored by Castile.
Cosmography: a new science for the New World
The exploration of the New World would not have been possible without a disciplined knowledge of oceans, stars, sea currents and coastlines. As well as building ocean-going ships, both Castile and Portugal were keen to develop expertise in all of these subjects, which came to be known collectively as the science of cosmography. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the importance of cosmography grew to become essential; not just to economic success, but to the extension of the political and commercial powers of the two Iberian states.
Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) of Portugal had championed learning in cosmography, which led to an take up in those studying the new science in his realm. Not to be outdone, Castile founded the Real Casa de Contratación de Indias (Royal House of Trade of the Indias) in Seville in 1503. Its curriculum was largely devoted the applied study of mathematics and astronomy for navigation, as well as to cartogragraphy.
The use of the old Spanish name for the Americas (Las Indias) in the title of that new institution gives an idea of cosmography’s emerging importance at the time. In essence, it was considered the key to the successful colonisation of the New World.
Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa: cosmographer
By the time that Pedro arrived in Peru, the city of Lima was a bustling metropolis that had become the Capital of the new Castilian-Spanish colony. (Known as the Viceroyalty of Peru). Significantly for Pedro, Lima was rapidly establishing itself as one of the main centres for the study of cosmography in all of the Spanish Americas.
It was only thirty or so years since the defeat of the Incas. Castile’s burgeoning imperial aspirations were coming to rely increasingly on the possession of detailed knowledge of the Pacific Ocean and its South American coastline. As a consequence, the skills of cosmographers were highly sought after by those looking to exploit the continent and the great ocean that lay to its west. It is far from certain, but this must have played a major part in Pedro’s decision to take up cosmography, as he realised he needed to make his way in that New World.
What is certain is that Peru, where Pedro spent more than twenty of the following years, proved to be a watershed in his life. By redefining himself as a cosmographer, he sought to transform his social standing and economic security; but even such an astute move on his part was not without its share of controversy.
In a world that was charged with so much intense political and commercial rivalry, it was hardly surprising that cosmographers guarded the secrets of their science carefully. They understood the intricacies of the heavens’ movements and the rhythmic sway that the moon held over the tides. They knew that the Earth was a sphere – not flat, as the Roman Catholic Church then taught.
In addition, cosmographers drew on sources of knowledge that hinted at heresy. Many of the maps they made that had used Muslim – even heathen – sources. In this environment, it did not take much for the suspicions of the Holy Inquisition to be aroused. Those few ideas that cosmographers professed publicly must have raised many an inquisitorial eyebrow prior to warranting further scrutiny.
We do know that when cosmographers drew maps and charts they made use of much older ones called Portolans. These had been employed by ancient seafarers and were extremely accurate; certainly more so than those drawn by many of the academic geographers at that time.
More encounters with the Holy Inquisition
These were dangerous times for anyone, whether cosmographer, or simply of an enquiring disposition. Just about anyone who lived in Portugal, Castile – or their respective colonies – might be subject to the scrutiny of Auto de Fé – as the Holy Inquisition was known in the Castilian tongue – at any time.
Pedro suffered two further brushes with the Auto de Fé. On both occasions he was brought before its tribunal in Lima, variously accused of astrology, necromancy, of possessing two magic rings, of using magic ink and of following the teachings of Moses. It is impossible to know if there was substance to any of these allegations.
It may have been just that his clandestine study of maps and stars was enough to arouse the suspicions of the Auto de Fé. The Catholic Church still distrusted many aspects of the new learning engendered by the Renaissance and would seize on any rumours and misinformation that were bound to arise when any such knowledge was kept secret.
Equally, this was a time before there were clear-cut distinctions between science and the occult that we take for granted today. Anyone familiar with the play Dr Faustus, by Pedro’s younger English contemporary Christopher Marlowe, will appreciate this. Heretical occult studies and early science were thought of as two of a kind. It really was an Age of Discovery in every sense of the phrase.
Once again, Pedro was considered for exile, but the Archbishop of Lima decided to commute his sentence to that of making an exploratory voyage across the Pacific Ocean.
Pedro’s trial coincided with much talk in Lima of islands across the great ocean to the West that were replete with gold. The rising tide of speculation had been prompted by stories that had emanated ultimately from Inca sources. Rumour, however, has a habit of propagating itself once it reaches a certain intensity; especially when it concerns gold.
There is no way of knowing for certain, but I do wonder if the Incas may have cultivated these stories deliberately. Perhaps they sought to divert the Spaniards’ attention away from seeking out the remainder of their own royal gold. After all, a similar strategy had been highly effective just a few decades earlier, when Pizarro’s band of conquistadores had overthrown the Incas.
For Pedro, the good news was that instead of receiving a flogging – or worse – at the hands of the Inquisition, his knowledge of the Pacific would be essential to the search for any gold. The bad news was that the acting Viceroy of Peru, Lope Garcia de Castro, appointed his twenty-two year old nephew as the expedition’s leader. Pedro was given the subordinate jobs of captain of one of its two ships, as well as the cartographer for the venture.
Exploration of the Pacific
The Pacific expedition’s aim was both to find gold and to colonise any lands that may be discovered. In truth, the Viceroy’s young nephew, whose name was Álvaro de Mendaña, probably was interested only in the gold, whereas Pedro saw things differently. He seems to have gained the trust of some Inca mariners, who had told him about a great land that lay far to the South-West of Peru’s Pacific coast. His ambitions lay in the discovery of this new land for Castile and in the acclaim it would bring.
Inevitably, the differences between the two men came to the surface once the voyage had set off. Pedro had charted a course that would take them to the great land of which the Incas had spoken.
The immature and arrogant de Mendaña would have nothing of it. As the expedition’s leader, he overruled Pedro and instead ordered that they should head for the islands he believed were full of gold. Had the expedition followed Pedro’s course, then Australia most probably would have been a Spanish speaking country today.
Whilst it is certainly true that the expedition did manage to visit several Pacific archipelagos, and discovered Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands for Castile, the expedition was hardly a success. Above all, there had been little gold to speak of on the islands where they had landed.
The relationship between Pedro and de Mendaña took a turn for the worse when it became apparent that the latter was not really interested in establishing any colonies. The dearth of gold on the islands prompted him to return to Lima at the earliest opportunity. It seems that the animosity between the two men grew so intense that de Mendaña threw Pedro’s charts overboard during one particularly fractious argument between them.
The enmity between the two men must have been intense because, we are told, Pedro was left to find his own way back to Peru when the expedition’s two ships called in at Mexico on the return voyage to Lima. Eventually, and after little more than a year, the ships sailed into Lima’s port, Callao, minus Pedro. When the two vessels docked they were still loaded with nearly all of the provisions intended for colonisation largely untouched.
A respect for the Incas’ knowledge of the Pacific
Pedro’s willingness to learn the secrets of the Pacific from the Incas marks a respect for their culture that is evident in the work that he was to write later, TheHistory of the Incas. In commenting on this voyage in his book Early Man and the Ocean, Thor Heyerdhal observed that:
……the Inca historians recounted [to the Spanish] that islands inhabited by different people were to be found two months voyage westwards from their own empire,,,,,,,,,,,,[T]hey gave correctsailing directions to some of them, includingEaster Island, which the Mendaña mission missed by sheer misfortune due to quarrels on board that led to a last minute change of course.
Ironically, the expert mariner Heyerdahl did not seem to know any of the back story that took place between Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa and Álvaro de Mendaña. Had he understood this, I feel sure that his sympathies would have been with Pedro rather than with the dilettante de Mendaña.
When Pedro finally made his own way back to Lima, the dispute between the two men resumed in a very bitter and public manner. Recriminations were hurled one way and another in the city’s colonial houses and public places.
A new Viceroy arrives in Peru
By now there was a new Viceroy in town, Francisco Álvarez de Toledo, who seems to have been rather more astute, and rather less prone to nepotism, than his predecessor. De Toledo called the two men before a public audience in the city, so that they could settle their differences about the failed expedition once and for all.
De Mendaña was no match in debate for the erudite and skilful Pedro, who put in a masterful performance; displaying considerable powers of logic and rhetoric in the process. In the end, not only was Pedro absolved of all responsibility for the expedition’s failure, but the new Viceroy was so impressed by his display of intellect and knowledge that he soon afterwards made him the Cosmographer General for the Dominions of Peru.
Castile consolidates its presence in South America
Francisco de Toledo had been appointed by the successor to Charles I, King Félipe II. Known to the Spanish speaking world as Philip the Prudent (Félipe el prudente), the new king set about prioritising the realisation of his kingdom’s considerable imperial potential. Félipe’s appointment of Francisco de Toledo as his Viceroy in Peru played a major part in doing just that.
The early 1570s proved to be a turning point for Castile and its dominions in South America. It had been almost forty years since Pizarro and a small band of fewer than two hundred conquistadores had largely tricked their way into overthrowing the Inca rulers of the vast lands under their dominion.
Even after forty years in Peru, Castile’s forces were relatively few for such vast possessions. What was more, the Incas had never been defeated entirely. After the fall of Cusco in 1533, some of the Inca Royal Clan had fled into the cloud forests that surround the Amazon’s headwaters and had established what became known as the Neo-Inca State there. In the decades that followed, Inca forces had harried Castilian troops persistently, mostly through guerilla tactics. The situation continued until 1572, when de Toledo contrived an opportunity to try to put an end to the problem. He used the pretext of a technical infringement of European rules of diplomacy to launch a campaign against the Neo-Inca State. Eventually – and partly through a stroke of luck – his troops captured the Neo-Incan King, Túpac Amaru I . De Toledo wasted no time in giving him a very public execution in Cusco’s main square. Some say that King Félipe had disapproved of the execution, but if nothing else it was a demonstration of de Toledo’s skill in political expediency, as well as his sheer ruthlessness.
Apart from lacking any pity, de Toledo was a supreme strategist. He knew that even the public execution of the Incas’ Sacred King would not be enough to eradicate the considerable cultural and political influence that Inca civilisation continued to exert on the native population. The conquistadores were destroying the old order, but de Toledo recognised the importance of establishing new one in its stead.
De Toledo needed the King’s continued support to achieve his aim. That had been called into question after what was most probably Túpac Amaru’s illegal execution. More than ever, he needed something that would demonstrate to King Félipe that in reality the Incas had been the oppressors of the indigenous peoples of the Andes. Above all, he wanted to prove to the King of Castile that he, Francisco de Toledo, had been morally right to execute the last representative of the Inca hegemony.
De Gamboa’s History of the Incas
The fact of the matter was that de Toledo had decided to commission the writing of a History of the Incas some two years before Túpac Amaru’s very public decapitation. Indeed earlier, he had even assisted Pedro at times in gathering information from people throughout the length and breadth of Peru. De Toledo had always seen the History as an important part of his strategy to replace the authority of the Incas with those of the Crown of Castile and the Holy Catholic Church.
If anything, Túpac Amaru’s execution, and King Félipe’s subsequent disapproval, had brought matters to a head. Now, more than ever, he needed to convince the King that his means would justify the end that both of them ultimately served. Hence, it was all the more important that Pedro should employ his rhetorical skills and his deep knowledge of the native Andean peoples to complete his task. De Toledo ordered Pedro’s History to be sent to King Félipe as a gift.
You may be forgiven for concluding from the story so far that Pedro’s History was merely some exercise in propaganda, carefully crafted to justify Spain’s imperialist rapaciousness and to save Francisco de Toledo’s career. Indeed, it is far from lacking in such elements.
Pedro, however, had set about his task over the two years diligently. He had travelled the length of Peru gathering information from numerous sources. He had interviewed high-ranking members of the colonial administration in Lima. He had sought eyewitness accounts from the last of Pizarro’s original expedition, who were still living in South America.
Most importantly of all, Pedro had questioned the indigenous wise-men, or amautas, and the surviving members of the Inca Royal Clan. After he had produced the first draft, he even convened a sort of editorial board of forty-two indigenous amautas, in order to comment on and to correct his work.
The resultant History of the Incas is a curious mixture of what could be thought of today as political spin and genuine historical information that otherwise would have been lost to posterity. Although its overall purpose was one of propaganda, within its many stories can be found glimpses of genuine and extremely ancient Andean traditions.
Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between what may have been propaganda and what may contain a germ of truth. It is easy to assume, for instance, that one of the History’s fundamental theses – that the Inca were descended from foreigners who conquered and oppressed the native Andean peoples – would seem to be simple propaganda. After all, it was certainly central to the message that de Toledo wanted to send to King Félipe.
Mysterious origins of the Incas
Yet, in another early chronicler, Garcilaso de la Vega – who was partly of Inca Royal descent – we find that same information. What is more, Garcilaso tells us that he consulted the older members of his own family when he compiled his Royal Commentaries of the Incas.
Garcilaso, as we might expect, portrays his maternal ancestors as great civilisers, rather than oppressors; but could there be some truth to the notion that the Incas had originated somewhere other than the Andes? Curiously, my own investigations indicate that the Incas indeed may have been remotely and partially descended from forbears who had come from across the ocean.
An unexpected trip to England
Pedro’s later years were just as crammed with incidents and controversy as his early life. He was called upon to hunt the English corsair Francis Drake in the 1580s, when England was seeking to establish a presence on South America’s Pacific coast. At that time, the Straits of Magellan – where Pedro had founded a colony – were witness to several flash points between the two European sea powers. A few years later, Pedro was captured by an English fleet commanded by Walter Raleigh and was incarcerated in England.
Even in such dire circumstances, he managed to turn the situation to his advantage by breaking with the conventions of the time in his own inimitable manner. Pedro obtained an audience with Queen Elizabeth I and, conversing in Latin, sought her agreement that she write to King Félipe with a view to securing a lasting peace between their two realms. During the meeting Pedro, it seems, had defied Castilian naval policy by disclosing certain navigational information to the English Queen. Elizabeth agreed to his request and tasked Pedro with delivering her letter to Félipe, which of course meant that he was set free. On his journey from London to Madrid, he was taken prisoner by French Huguenot Protestants. In the event, Pedro did not arrive in Madrid until after Félipe had given the order for his ill-fated Armada to set sail towards the British Isles in 1588.
I am left to wonder about the subsequent chain of events had Pedro managed to deliver Elizabeth’s letter before the launch of the Armada. Both this, and his argument with Álvaro de Mendaña over setting course for Australia, constitute two of the great historical ‘what ifs’ of Pedro’s life.
Soldier, sailor, satirist, cosmographer, mathematician, astronomer, historian and now diplomat; if anything, the gamut of Pedro’s endeavours widened further still during his later years. As someone who always had to operate on the fringes of Castilian nobility, he needed to rely upon his considerable and resourceful intellect, rather than privilege, in order to survive and prosper. Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa’s final years were largely devoted to writing and editing poetry. Fittingly, he passed from this world on board the flagship of a fleet he was about to command that was bound for the Americas.