Inti: The Sun God of the Inca

| | January 23, 2024

Inti was a solar god and one of the most important deities of the complex Inca culture of Western South America.

As a solar god, Inti was closely associated with agriculture as he provided the warmth and light the crops needed to grow. That’s why Inti became quite a prominent deity among the Incan farmers. There were many temples dedicated to Inti, and the worship of this sun deity affected many aspects of life for the Inca people, including their architecture, the semi-divine status of the royal family, and festivals.

Who Was Inti?

inti-god

All pagan pantheons have their sun gods, and for the Inca, that was Inti. In addition to being the god of the sun, he was also the patron god of agriculture, empires, fertility, and military conquest. Inti was believed to be the Inca’s most powerful god.

They believed that he was benevolent but all-powerful and solar eclipses were a sign of his displeasure. The way to get back on his good side? You guessed it – good old-fashioned human sacrifice. Food and white llamas were also acceptable.

Gold was an important association with Inti. Gold was said to be the sweat of the sun, so Inti often had a golden mask or was depicted as a golden disk with rays coming from it, like the sun. Inti was also shown as a golden statue.

Inti and His Origins

Inti, like many gods, had a complicated family tree. According to some myths, Inti was the son of Viracocha, who created the universe. In other myths, Viracocha was a father-like figure to Into instead. Regardless of the actual relationship, Inti’s job was to oversee the Incan Empire, while Viracocha took a backseat and watched.

Here’s the complicated part of Inti’s family tree: he married the goddess of the moon, Quilla, who also happened to be his sister. Quilla, also known as Mama Quilla or Mama Killa, was represented by a silver disk to match Inti’s golden one; a true match for the sibling spouses.

Another complicated part of his family tree were Inti and Quilla’s multiple children. In the true spirit of the gods, one of Inti’s sons killed his brothers but left his sisters alive. According to some myths, after Inti’s marriage to Quilla, his sister, he married another goddess, who might have also been his daughter.

The Sun God and the Royals

Together, Inti and Quilla had Manco Capac, the son who killed his brothers. He then led his sisters through the wilderness until they found fertile land near Cuzco. It was Manco Capac’s descendants who claimed the throne through their “divine lineage” that linked them to Inti, and who better to wear the crown than the descendants of their most powerful god?

Manco-Capac
Manco Capac, detail of Genealogy of the Incas

Worshiping Inti

For the Inca, keeping Inti happy was very important. Since he was responsible for the success of their crops, they tried their best to keep Inti satisfied. By keeping Inti happy, the Inca would have a bountiful harvest.

If he was unhappy, their crops would fail, and they would be unable to eat. By making the appropriate sacrifices and maintaining Inti’s shrines, the Inca believed they would keep the all-powerful sun god in a generous mood.

Inti and Agriculture

Inti controlled the agriculture of the Incan empire. If he was pleased, it was sunny, and so plants would grow. If he was displeased, crops wouldn’t grow, and sacrifices were required. Inti was heavily associated with maize and potatoes, which combined with quinoa were the most common crops the Inca grew. [1] According to legend, Inti also gave the Incan empire coca leaves, which they would use for medicinal purposes and also offer to the gods.

The Capital of Cuzco

Machu Picchu: a place that almost everyone has heard of is located in Cuzco. It also happens to be the home of one of Inti’s most well-known shrines. In this ancient fortress, priests and priestesses would perform ceremonies during solstices, linking the sun to the earth. In other words, they were linking Inti, the sun, to them.

Inti had many temples and shrines in Cuzco. Since emperors required the grandest of tombs, they were generally laid to rest in the Coricancha, or the Qorikancha, which also had many depictions of Inti.

Machu-Picchu
Machu Picchu

READ MORE: Ancient Civilizations Timeline: 16 Oldest Known Cultures From Around The World

Inti’s Priests and Priestesses

Becoming a priest was a great honor. Both men and women could become priests, although only a man could become a high priest. The high priest, Willaq Uma, was usually the second most important person in the Inca empire. Not even the Inca were exempt from nepotism, as the Willaq Uma was usually a close blood relation of the emperor. Female priests were called “chosen women,” or mamakuna.

Every city and province was expected to worship Inti, conquered ones included. Priests and priestesses worshiped Inti at the temples in every province, leading celebrations in his honor.

Inti Raymi

Inti Raymi, also known as the “Sun Festival,” was the most important religious festival the Inca had. They had it at Qorikancha, and the Willaq Uma lead it. It takes time during the winter solstice, and the Inca hoped that celebrating would bring good crops during the coming harvest. Inti Raymi was also a celebration of Inti and his hand in creating the Inca empire.

To celebrate Inti Raymi, celebrants would purify themselves by fasting for three days. During this time, they could only eat one of the crops associated with Inti: maize, or corn. On the fourth day, the emperor, or Sapa Inca, would drink a corn-based beverage in front of the celebrants in the name of Inti. Then the head priest would light a flame inside the Qorikancha.

People would dance, sing, and play music during this festival. They used face paint and different decorations and ornaments. But what’s a ceremony for a god without some sacrifice? It’s believed that during Inti Raymi, children would be sacrificed to ensure Inti’s generosity. Llamas were also sacrificed, and their organs were used to read the future.

People would then continue the celebration through the night, and the emperor and other nobility would gather together to watch the sunrise. The sunrise, thought to represent the coming of Inti, would symbolize an abundance of crops ahead.

Inti-Raymi
Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) at Sacsayhuaman, Cusco

Modern Worship and Inti’s Parallels with Christ 

Feel like celebrating Inti Raymi? Good news- you can! For the small price, you too can attend Raymi Inti. Watch the prayers, dances, songs, and offerings, sacrifice-free! In these modern celebrations, no sacrifices are made. Even the llama, whose organs Inca priests would use to divine the future, is safe from sacrifice.

Inti Raymi today is celebrated in how we think the Inca celebrated Inti Raymi. Unfortunately, the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors led to Inti Raymi being outlawed. It was considered a pagan holiday, which was a big no-no in the face of Catholicism. While many celebrated Inti Raymi under the radar since its outlaw in the mid-1500s, it wasn’t until 1944 that it became legal, and even encouraged, again.

Today, Inti Raymi is celebrated in several countries in Latin America, including northern Argentina, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile. Although celebrating in Cusco remains the most popular destination, tourists attend celebrations in all countries.

In modern times, Inti is sometimes conflated with the Christian God. Search “Inti and Christ” on a search engine, and you’ll get different Facebook and Redditreddit threads claiming that the Inca belief in Inti is proof of Christ. Due to the nature of his birth (son of the creator) and festivals such as Inti Raymi dedicated to his “resurrection,” it makes sense that modern Quechua people sometimes confuse him with Christ.

Inti in the Artwork

Given Inti’s association with gold, gold was one of the more precious metals to the Inca. It was reserved for the emperor, priests, priestesses, and nobility, and there were many ceremonial items inlaid with gold and silver.

Effects of the Spanish Invasion

At one point, there was an extremely important statue of Inti made out of gold. It stayed within the Qorikancha, which also had sheets of hammered gold on the interior walls. The statue had sun rays coming from the head, and the stomach was actually hollow so that the ashes of emperors could be stored there. It was a symbol of Inti and royalty.

However, despite the efforts of the Inca to hide the statue during the Spanish invasion, it was eventually found, and probably destroyed or melted down. To the Spanish, it was a sign of paganism, which was absolutely not to be tolerated.

Unfortunately, the statue was not the only piece of art to be destroyed. Many pieces of art and different metalwork were destroyed by the Conquistadores, although they did miss one! There is currently an Inca mask on display in the Qorikancha, made of thinly hammered gold.

References

[1] Handbook of Inca Mythology. Steele, P. R., and Allen, C. J.

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