5 Unique Gods & Goddesses Worshipped in the Inca Empire

Goddess of potatoes? Meet five unique gods and goddesses worshipped in the Inca empire, responsible for everything from llamas to textiles.

Feb 15, 2024By Kristen Jancuk, Editor; Latin & South American History
gods goddesses inca empire

 

The Inca worshipped many of the same gods found in other polytheistic societies—a creator, the sun and moon, a god of the underworld—but, due to the expanse of the empire and some of its more unique features, they also worshipped deities not found elsewhere in the world. From a multicolored llama to a woman reborn as a plant, these five gods and goddesses stand out in the pantheon of Incan mythology.

 

*A note on spelling: as the Inca had no written language, spellings of these names, which have traversed centuries, as well as the Quechua, Spanish, and sometimes English languages, are variable. Multiple spellings are sometimes used to try to replicate the distinct sounds of the indigenous language.

 

Crash Course: Rise & Fall of the Inca Empire

portrait pachacuti inca
17th-century portrait of Pachacuti, the most famous Sapa Inca, Artist unknown, in the Convento de la Virgen de Copacabana, Lima, Perú, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The first thing to know about the Inca is that they didn’t actually call themselves that. Inca is the Quechua word for king or perhaps any noble of royal blood. And as what is known today as the Inca Empire encompassed thousands of square miles and millions of people, it was not, in fact, a singular culture but an amalgamation of various cultures and communities, conquered and absorbed over centuries, ruled by a central government.

 

The empire itself was called Tawantinsuyu at the time, Quechua for “realm of the four parts.” At its largest, it stretched from the southern part of what is today Colombia through Ecuador, Peru, much of Chile, and parts of Bolivia and northwest Argentina. It was once home to as many as 12 million people and was the largest pre-Colombian civilization, conquering or absorbing prior civilizations, including the Chimú and Chancay.

 

inka tawantinsuyu map
Map of the Inca Empire, shown in yellow, via Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC

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The Inca Empire was centered in Cusco, which some scholars describe as akin to a federal district like Washington DC, with a decentralized government divided into four administrative regions. It was ruled by a Sapa Inca or emperor, who was considered divine. The Incas had no currency or written language, though they used quipus, a unique system of knotted strings, for recordkeeping. The empire’s official language was Quechua, but numerous other languages were also spoken. The Inca were masters of stone architecture and also built an impressive, expansive system of roads and bridges. They revolutionized agriculture at the time by constructing terraces and aqueducts, many of which still exist and function today.

 

The Inca first began to rise in the early 13th century. A dramatic expansion was undertaken by the Sapa Inca Pachacuti in the early 15th century, but in another 100 years, they were gone. When Francisco Pizarro arrived with the intent to conquer the Inca in 1532, Huayna Capac, the Sapa Inca who saw Tawantinsuyu reach its greatest extent, had just died of an unknown, likely European disease, a war of succession was raging between his sons, and smallpox was beginning to take its toll on the empire’s population.

 

capture atahualpa inca pizarro
The Capture of Atahualpa in Cajamarca by Juan Lepiani, 1532, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Atahualpa ultimately defeated his brother and became the next Sapa Inca for all the good it did him, as he was almost immediately captured by the Spanish and executed within a year. A series of nominal and puppet emperors followed as the colonizers continued to take over territory, and the last Inca stronghold fell in 1572.

 

Inca Religion 

inca cosmology mythology
Cosmology of the Incas, Juan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui Salcamayhua, 1613, in Relación de las antigüedades deste Reyno del Piru, via Internet Archive

 

Since ancient times, polytheistic religions have worshipped some “universal” gods—that is, basic deities that are present in nearly everything. Whether in Ancient Greece or Mesoamerica, the polytheistic pantheon usually includes a creator god, deities representing the sun and moon, a mother earth goddess, a god of the underworld, and numerous lesser gods and goddesses responsible for various natural phenomena: storms, earthquakes, droughts, illness, and so on.

 

The practice of religion in the Inca Empire, which incorporated and often overlapped gods, goddesses, apus or spirits, and huacas, or sacred rituals and objects, from civilizations and groups conquered or absorbed by the Incas over centuries, was no exception.

 

pachacuti inti koricancha
Emperor Pachacuti worships Inti at Koricancha, 17th century, Crónicas de Martín de Murúa, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Primary gods during the Incas’ reign included Viracocha, the creator god; Inti, the sun god; and Pachamama, or Mother Earth. A variety of rituals and ceremonies were practiced to honor the deities and offerings were made to them, including animals and children, the latter practice called qhapaq hucha, or royal obligation. Some of these celebrations continue today, sans ritual human sacrifice, in parts of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador—Inti Raymi, for example, which celebrates the sun god at the winter solstice.

 

Chancay vessel viracocha inca
Earthenware jar depicting Viracocha, Chancay, c. 1000-1470 CE, via Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

 

One of the most well-known bits of trivia related to Incan religion among the general public is the myth that their most powerful god, Viracocha, was a white, bearded man, which is what made the Inca so vulnerable to the white, bearded conquistadors, whom they thought might be the reincarnation of their creator god. Many scholars today hold that this story is just a fiction created by the colonizers themselves, with no evidence found to support it in actual native sources, but there’s no shortage of equally intriguing gods and goddesses to be found in Incan mythology.

 

1. Mama Ocllo: Spinning a Yarn

mama ocllo inca goddess spinning
Portrait of Mama Ocllo, artist unknown, c. 1835-1845, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Mama Ocllo, or Mama Uqllu, was a fertility goddess with a unique origin story and special talent that she shared with the Inca people.

 

Mama Ocllo is alternately described as the daughter of Viracocha and his wife Mama Qucha, goddess of the sea, or of Inti and Mama Quilla, goddess of the moon (which would make her Viracocha’s granddaughter). One thing the myths agree on is that she married her brother Manco Capac, the first Sapa Inca, who may have been an actual historical human, and founded the city of Cusco with him. All Sapa Inca were said to be descended from the pair, a royal/divine lineage ensured by the deities marrying their siblings. Mama Ocllo and her husband were purportedly sent by Inti (or Viracocha) to civilize humans, and she is credited with gifting the Incan people one of their most valuable and world-renowned skills: spinning and weaving.

Textiles were not simply clothes in the Inca Empire; they were works of art, a substitute for currency, and a form of tribute. They denoted class and status and were used in religious ceremonies and rituals as well. Fine textiles were more valuable to the Inca than gold or silver—so much so that the first gifts the Inca presented to the conquistadors were reportedly not jewels or precious metals but textiles—skilled weaving was highly valued.

 

spinning weaving andes ollantaytambo
Women weaving and spinning in Ollantaytambo, April 2023. Photo via author

 

The first laborious step in that process was using a drop spindle to produce a quality thread of fibers, including cotton, llama, alpaca, guanaco, and, the finest of all, vicuña. Fiber was first spun into a single fine thread, two or more of which may then be twisted or plied together to create a warm, durable yarn. The yarn would then be dyed and woven into intricate patterns on backstrap looms, a practice that remains in the Andean highlands today, all thanks to Mama Ocllo.

 

2. Mama Coca

mama coca inca goddess
“Mama Coca presenting the divine plant to the old world,” Robida, in History of Coca, the Divine Plant of the Incas, W. Golden Mortimer, 1901, via Internet Archive

 

That Mama Coca is considered the goddess of health and happiness makes a strong statement—and sharp contrast with the West—about the view of coca among the Inca. Despite centuries of demonization by colonizers, the coca leaf remains an integral part of life in the Andes, serving both medicinal and ritual purposes, its use dating back at least 3,000 years. Coca leaves have been found buried with Incan mummies, were used as offerings at temples, and given as gifts to conquered rulers. They were even used in divination, similar to reading tea leaves. More practically, the coca leaf is a mild stimulant, giving its chewers energy, helping ease altitude sickness, settling upset stomachs, and acting as a local anesthetic due to its numbing properties. It makes a pretty tasty tea, too.

 

The leaf was so sacred to the Inca that it had its own goddess, Mama Coca or Mama Kuka, though she is said to have suffered a terrible fate to bring coca to the world. Once a beautiful woman with almond-shaped green eyes and dark green hair, she drove the men of the Inca empire mad with desire, and for committing the mortal sin of refusing to settle down and commit, she was condemned by the Sapa Inca and killed. Pieces of her body were buried and grew into the coca plant, whose leaves the ruler chewed to ease his grief.

 

figure chewing coca inca
Coquero (Figure Chewing Coca), 850-1500 CE, in the Brooklyn Museum, via Wikipedia

 

Though most of the people living in what was Tawantinsuyu today are Roman Catholic, many continue to pay tribute to the ancient deities with coca leaves. Called a k’intu, a selection of leaves (often three to represent the three realms: hanan pacha, the world above, kai pacha—earth, or the human realm—and uku pacha, the underworld) is offered up with a prayer before being chewed.

 

And yes, Coca-Cola is, in fact, made with coca. While tourists might have a box of coca tea confiscated upon return to the US, the Coca-Cola processing plant in Maywood, New Jersey remains the only US company authorized to import coca leaves, which it “de-cocainizes” to be used in the soft drink—so give Mama Coca her due for that too.

 

3. Catequil

death inca huascar
Death of Huascar, killed by the conquistadors after their capture of Atahualpa, in Historia de la Conquista del Perú, by William Prescott (Spanish edition, 1851), p. 109, via Wikimedia Commons

 

God of Thunder? Not particularly unique. In fact, nearly every polytheistic religion has one. But Catequil was so much more, perhaps owing to numerous myths associated with similar gods being lumped together as one under Inca rule.

 

Catequil was not the primary god of thunder during Inca rule—that was Illapa—but a smaller thunder and lightning spirit who was also worshipped and apparently very busy. When he wasn’t occupied with the weather, Catequil also acted as an oracle and populated the earth with twins.

 

According to myth, during the Incas’ civil war, Atahualpa consulted the priests at a shrine to Catequil to get the god’s take on his chances for future success and wasn’t happy with the answer he received. Whether he was told that all his destruction was angering Viracocha, that he would lose the war to his brother Huascar, or that he would be conquered by the newly arrived Christians is up for debate, but various sources agree that in response, Atahualpa had the shrine destroyed and the priests killed.

 

Perhaps enraging Atahualpa wasn’t keeping him busy enough, though, because Catequil is also credited with the existence of twins. Legend has it that he would turn himself into a lightning bolt and engage in relations with a human woman—who was simultaneously engaging in relations with her human husband. The result of this biologically questionable ménage à trois was said to be twins, one mortal and one divine.

 

4. Urcuchillay

inca golden llama figurine
Miniature llama figurine, wrought in hammered gold, probably deposited as an offering, c. 1400-1532 CE, Peru, via the British Museum, London

 

The world’s religions are full of animal and animal/human hybrid gods: serpents, bulls, and birds are some of the usual suspects. But Urcuchillay takes the prize for unexpected god forms. Not only is he the only llama of the bunch—or llama/man hybrid, sources vary—but he’s multicolored. With that appearance, it’s no surprise that Urcuchillay was the god and protector of animals, specifically the herd animals essential in Inca society: llamas and alpacas.

 

Given the importance of llamas and alpacas in Inca society, it makes sense that they had their very own god. As described above, textiles had great value and depended on domesticated sources of animal fiber. Evidence suggests the Inca selectively bred alpacas to ensure the finest fleece, which was reserved for the upper classes. Llamas and alpacas were also used for meat, and llamas as pack animals. The fuzzy creatures were used for ritual sacrifices to honor the gods and were even mummified.

 

Urcuchillay was a hanan pacha or sky god, associated with what is commonly known today as the constellation Lyra. The people of the time, particularly herders, saw the figure as a llama, watching over herds and ensuring their growth and well-being in the night as their human guardians rested.

 

5. Axo Mama

inca harvesting potatoes
June, time of digging up the potatoes. Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala in Nueva crónica y buen gobierno, 1615, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Mashed, fried, baked, shredded, or tots: no matter the form, potatoes are objectively a universal good, and the world owes a debt to the Incas who first domesticated them—who in turn owe a debt to Axo Mama (or Acsumama), goddess of potatoes.

 

Axo Mama, literally Potato Mother, was a daughter of Pachamama, and it was her responsibility to help the Inca people cultivate potatoes. Given that they ultimately developed over 3,000 different varieties of potatoes, it seems she took her job very seriously.

 

Potatoes were first domesticated long before the Inca rose to power, but it was under their watch that cultivation expanded, and experimentation began to develop new breeds. They also perfected a process for freeze-drying potatoes, called chuño, allowing them to be stored for years in case of famine.

 

Potatoes became a staple crop for the empire, so it was essential to ensure their continued good harvest by honoring the goddess responsible. Unusually shaped potatoes were used as idols for worshipping Axo Mama, and there’s evidence potatoes were buried with the dead. Some scholars suggest that potatoes were used to measure time, with units of time corresponding with how long it took to cook a potato to various degrees.

 

Few images of Axo Mama have been discovered, but her legacy lives on in the wide variety of unique and delicious potato dishes to be enjoyed, particularly in Peru, today.

Author Image

By Kristen JancukEditor; Latin & South American HistoryKristen is an editor specializing in Latin & South American History and Hemispheric Studies. She received her MA in Latin American and Hemispheric Studies from George Washington University, and a BA in Spanish and International Relations from Bucknell University. After receiving her MA, Kristen began working on international drug policy for the Organization of American States. She is certified for Spanish-to-English translation by the American Translators Association, specializing in translating national and international policy as well as academic content focused on the Latin American region. One of her greatest and most impractical ambitions is to learn Quechua.