Also Called: Wiracocha, Wiro Qocha, Wiraqoca, Apu Qun Tiqsi Wiraqutra, Huiracocha, Ticciviracocha, and Con-Tici
Etymology: “Sea Foam”
Epitaphs: Ilya (Light), Ticci (Beginning), Tunuupa, Wiraqoca Pacayacaciq (Instructor)
In Incan and Pre-Incan mythology, Viracocha is the Creator Deity of the cosmos. As a Creator deity, Viracocha is one of the most important gods within the Incan pantheon. Everything stems ultimately from his creation. The universe, Sun, Moon and Stars, right down to civilization itself. Similar to other primordial deities, Viracocha is also associated with the oceans and seas as the source of all life and creation. If it exists, Viracocha created it. Something of a remote god who left the daily grind and workings of the world to other deities, Viracocha was mainly worshiped by the Incan nobility, especially during times of crisis and trouble.
Patron of: Creation
Planet: Sun, Saturn
Sphere of Influence: Creation, Ocean, Storms, Lightning, Rain, Oracles, Language, Ethics, Fertility
In Incan art, Viracocha has been shown wearing the Sun as a crown and holding thunder bolts in both hands while tears come from his eyes representing rain. There is a sculpture of Viracocha identified at the ruins of Tiwanaku near Lake Titicaca that shows him weeping.
Under Spanish influence, for example, a Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa describes Viracocha as a man of average height, white with a white robe and carrying a staff and book in each hand. The Spanish described Viracocha as being the most important of the Incan gods who, being invisible was nowhere, yet everywhere.
In the village of Ollantaytambo in southern Peru, there is a rock facing in the Incan ruins depicts a version of Viracocha known as Wiracochan or Tunupa. This rock carving has been described as having mouth, eyes and nose in an angry expression wearing a crown and by some artists saying the image also has a beard and carrying a sack on its shoulders.
Another figure called Tunupa found in Ollantaytambo was described by Fernando and Edgar Elorrieta Salazar.
What’s In A Name?
Viracocha’s name has been given as meaning “Sea Foam” and alludes to how often many of the stories involving him, have him walking away across the sea to disappear. When we look into the Quechuan language, alternative names for Viracocha are Tiqsi Huiracocha which can have several meanings. The first part of the name, “tiqsi” can have the meanings of foundation or base. The second part of the name, “wira” mean fat and the third part of the name, “qucha” means lake, sea or reservoir. An interpretation for the name Wiraqucha could mean “Fat or Foam of the Sea.”
Continued historical and archaeological linguistics show that Viracocha’s name could be borrowed from the Aymara language for the name Wila Quta meaning: “wila” for blood and “quta” for lake due to the sacrifices of llamas at Lake Titiqaqa by the pre-Incan Andean cultures in the area.
Viracocha also has several epitaphs that he’s known by that mean Great, All Knowing and Powerful to name a few. Another epitaph is “Tunuupa” that in both the Aymara and Quechua languages breaks down into “Tunu” for a mill or central support pillar and “upa” meaning the bearer or the one who carries. This is a reference to time and the keeping track of time in Incan culture. The other interpretation for the name is “the works that make civilization.”
Further, with the epitaph “Tunuupa,” it likely is a name borrowed from the Bolivian god Thunupa, who is also a creator deity and god of the thunder and weather. Another god is Illapa, also a god of the weather and thunder that Viracocha has been connected too.
Incan Culture & Religion
The Incan culture found in western South America was a very culturally rich and complex society when they were encountered by the Spanish Conquistadors and explorers during their Age of Conquest, roughly 1500 to 1550 C.E.
The Inca held a vast empire that reached from the present-day Colombia to Chile. Their emperor ruled from the city of Cuzco. They worshiped a small pantheon of deities that included Viracocha, the Creator, Inti, the Sun and Chuqui Illa, the Thunder. The constellations that the Incans identified were all associated with celestial animals. The Incans also worshiped places and things that were given extraordinary qualities. These places and things were known as huacas and could include a cave, waterfalls, rivers and even rocks with a notable shape. Essentially these are sacred places.
In the city of Cuzco, there was a temple dedicated to Viracocha. There was a gold statue representing Viracocha inside the Temple of the Sun. Nearby was a local huaca in the form of a stone sacred to Viracocha where sacrifices of brown llamas were notably made. During the festival of Camay that occurred in time of year corresponding to the month of January, offerings were also made to Viracocha that would be tossed into a river and carried away to him. Hymns and prayers dedicated to Viracocha also exist that often began with “O’ Creator.”
Like many cosmic deities, Viracocha was probably identified with the Milky Way as it resembles a great river. His throne was said to be in the sky. All the Sun, Moon and Star deities deferred and obeyed Viracocha’s decrees.
Deific Late Comer
Old and ancient as Viracocha and his worship appears to be, Viracocha likely entered the Incan pantheon as a late comer. Mostly likely in 1438 C.E. during the reign of Emperor Viracocha who took on the god’s name for his own.
For a quasi-historical list of Incan rulers, the eighth ruler took his name from the god Viracocha. According to story, Viracocha appeared in a dream to the king’s son and prince, whom, with the god’s help, raised an army to defend the city of Cuzco when it was attacked by the Chanca. This prince would become the ninth Incan ruler, Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui. He is thought to have lived about 1438 to 1470 C.E. Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui is the ruler is renowned for the Temple of Viracocha and the Temple of the Sun along with the expansion of the Incan empire.
The Incas didn’t keep any written records. Like many other ancient cultures, there were those responsible for remembering the oral histories and to pass it on. Aiding them in this endeavor, the Incans used sets of knotted strings known as quipus number notations. By this means, the Incan creation myths and other stories would be kept and passed on.
In a comparison to the Roman empire, the Incan were also very tolerant of other religions, so those people whom they either conquered or absorbed into their empire would find their beliefs and deities easily accepted and adapted into Incan religion. One such deity is Pacha Kamaq, a chthonic creator deity revered by the Ichma in southern Peru whose myth was adopted to the Incan creation myths. At the same time, the Incan religion would be thrust on those they conquered and absorbed.
On one hand, yes, we can appreciate the Spanish Conquistadors and the chroniclers they brought with them for getting these myths and history written down. They did suffer from the fallacy of being biased with believing they were hearing dangerous heresies and would treat all the creation myths and other stories accordingly. Which is why many of the myths can and do end up with a Christian influence and the idea of a “white god” is introduced.
Parentage and Family
Unknown, Incan culture and myths make mention of Viracocha as a survivor of an older generation of gods that no one knows much about.
Mama Qucha – She is mentioned as Viracocha’s wife in some myth retellings.
Daughters – Mama Killa, Pachamama
Sons – Inti, Imahmana, Tocapo
Sun & Storm God
Viracocha was worshipped by the Incans as both a Sun and Storm god, which makes sense in his role as a Creation deity. The sun is the source of light by which things can grow and without rain, nothing has what it takes to even grow in the first place.
Cosmic Myths In The Rain
Many of the stories that we have of Incan mythology were recorded by Juan de Betanzos. Naturally, being Spanish, these stories would gain a Christian influence to them.
Rise Of A Deity – In this story, Viracocha first rose up from the waters of Lake Titicaca or the Cave of Paqariq Tampu. This was during a time of darkness that would bring forth light. It is at this time that Viracocha makes the sun, the moon and stars. He then goes to make humans by breathing life into stones. The first of these creations were mindless giants that displeased Viracocha so he destroyed them in a flood. After the destruction of the giants, Viracocha breathed life into smaller stones to get humans that dispersed over the earth.
Taking A Leave Of Absence – Eventually, Viracocha would take his leave of people by heading out over the Pacific Ocean where he walked on the water. He wouldn’t stay away forever as Viracocha is said to have returned as a beggar, teaching humans the basics for civilization and performing a number of miracles. People weren’t inclined to listen to Viracocha’s teaching and eventually fell into infighting and wars. Despite this, Viracocha would still appear to his people in times of trouble.
Incan Flood – As the All-Creator, Viracocha had already created the Earth, Sky and the first people. Giants. There wasn’t any Sun yet at this point. These first people defied Viracocha, angering him such that he decided to kill them all in a flood. This flood lasted for 60 days and nights. This great flood came and drowned everyone, all save two who had hidden themselves in a box. The flood water carried the box holding the two down to the shores of Tihuanaco.
Seeing that there were survivors, Viracocha decided to forgive the two, Manco Cápac, the son of Inti (or Viracocha) and Mama Uqllu who would establish the Incan civilization. Viracocha created more people this time, much smaller to be human beings from clay. These people, Viracocha taught language, songs and civilization too before sending them out into the world through underground passages. It is now, that Viracocha would create the Sun, Moon and stars to illuminate the night sky.
Another legend says that Viracocha fathered the first eight humans from which civilization would arise. Some of these stories will mention Mama Qucha as Viracocha’s wife.
The Cañari People – Hot on the heels of the flood myth is a variation told by the Cañari people how two brothers managed to escape Viracocha’s flood by climbing up a mountain. After the water receded, the two made a hut. Some time later, the brothers would come home to find that food and drink had been left there for them. This would happen a few more times to peak the curiosity of the brothers who would hide.
Two women would arrive, bringing food. When the brothers came out, the women ran away. The two then prayed to Viracocha, asking that the women return. Viracocha heard and granted their prayer so the women returned. It is from these people, that the Cañari people would come to be.
The Creation of People – Dove tailing on the previous story, Viracocha has created a number of people, humans to send out and populate the Earth. These people, known as Vari Viracocharuna, were left inside the earth, Viracocha created another set of people known as viracohas and it is there people that the god spoke to learn the different aspects and characteristics of the previous group of people he created. The viracochas then headed off to the various caves, streams and rivers, telling the other people that it was time to come forth and populate the land.
Teaching Humankind – This story takes place after the stories of Creation and the Great Flood. Viracocha sends his two sons, Imahmana and Tocapo to visit the tribes to the Northeast or Andesuyo and Northwest or Condesuvo. Viracocha headed straight north towards the city of Cuzco. The intent was to see who would listen to Viracocha’s commands. As the two brothers traveled, they named all the various trees, flowers and plants, teaching the tribes which were edible, which had medicinal properties and which ones were poisonous. Eventually, the three would arrive at the city of Cusco, found in modern-day Peru and the Pacific coast. Here, they would head out, walking over the water to disappear into the horizon.
The Canas People – A side story to the previous one, after Viracocha sent his sons off to go teach the people their stories and teach civilization. As Viracocha traveled north, he would wake people who hadn’t been woken up yet, he passed through the area where the Canas people were. When they emerged from the Earth, they refused to recognize Viracocha. This angered the god as the Canas attacked him and Viracocha caused a nearby mountain to erupt, spewing down fire on the people. Realizing their error, the Canas threw themselves at Viracocha’s feet, begging for his forgiveness which he gave.
Founding The City Of Cuzco – Viracocha continues on to the mountain Urcos where he gave the people there a special statue and founded the city of Cuzco. He would then call forth the Orejones or “big-ears” as they placed large golden discs in their earlobes. These Orejones would become the nobility and ruling class of Cuzco.
His tasks done, Viracocha would head off into the ocean, walking out over it with the other Viracocha joining him. One final bit of advice would be given, to beware of those false men who would claim that they were Viracocha returned.
Right Of Conquest – In this story, Viracocha appeared before Manco Capac, the first Incan ruler, the god gave him a headdress and battle-axe, informing the Manco that the Inca would conquer everyone around them.
Yes, it’s easy to see how incoming Spaniards would equate Viracocha with Christ and likely influenced many of the myths with a Christian flair.
White God – This is a reference to Viracocha that clearly shows how the incoming Spanish Conquistadors and scholars coming in, learning about local myths instantly equated Viracocha with the Christian god. At first, in the 16th century, early Spanish chroniclers and historians make no mention of Viracocha. In 1553, Pedro Cieza de Leon is the first chronicler to describe Viracocha as a “white god” who has a beard.
It must be noted that in the native legends of the Incas, that there is no mention of Viracocha’s whiteness or beard, causing most modern scholars to agree that it is likely a Spanish addition to the myths. Other deities in Central and South America have also been affected by the Western or European influence of their deities such as Quetzalcoatl from Aztec beliefs and Bochica from Muisca beliefs all becoming described as having beards.
Though that isn’t true of all the Central and South American cultures. Some like the Peruvian Moche culture have pottery that depicted bearded men. The Aché people in Paraguay are also known to have beards. Though the debates and controversy are on with scholars arguing when the arrival of European colonialism began to influence the various native cultures.
Ultimately, equating deities such as Viracocha with a “White God” were readily used by the Spanish Catholics to convert the locals to Christianity. Much of which involved replaced the word God with Viracocha.
Pacha Kamaq – The “Earth Maker”, a chthonic creator god worshiped by the Ichma people whose myth would later be adopted by the Inca.
Saturn – It is through Viracocha’s epitaph of Tunuupa that he has been equated with the Roman god Saturn who is a generational god of creation in Roman mythology and beliefs.
Thunupa – The creator god and god of thunder and weather of the Aymara-speaking people in Bolivia.