Inti Raymi – the ‘pagan’ sun festival is alive and beating its drum
Taking an online quiz to find out which religion you practice might not seem the best path to spiritual refinement but finding out that, firstly I am an secular humanist and, more importantly, secondly a neo-pagan, lead me to a truly enlightening experience.
Every solstice, between June 20 and 24, the sacred Inca sun festival of Inti Raymi springs forth across the Andean valleys of Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, in honor of the sun god Inti. In 1572, an edict by Spanish Viceroy Toledo, banned the celebrations for being pagan and contrary to the Catholic faith. This served only to force the ceremonies underground and today it is the second biggest festival in South America.
Inti Raymi comes from Quechua meaning “resurrection of the sun”, thus marking the beginning of a new year. The Inca emperor, Sapa Inca, was worshiped as a direct descendant of the sun god, Apu Inti, the son of Vira Cocha, creator of civilization. The Emperor would offer Aqha – chicha (an alcoholic drink of fermented corn) to the sun and the high priests would offer llamas as a sacrifice in thanks for an abundant crop and to ask for successful crop next year. Some friends and I went along to a ceremony near Ibarra, north eastern Ecuador and witnessed a festival as alive today as it ever was.
We ‘supported’ the celebrations from a stone viewing house on the edge of a ceremonial circle marked out by colored flags: red in the east denoting the rising of the sun; black in the west, where the sun sets and the moon rises; white in the north, for temperance; and yellow in the south for warmth and life. On the opposite side of the circle were the chorus and a very large drum, on which beat incessantly the hands of many men. The dances, through which Inti is honored, were highly ritualized; each participants knowing their function and all dressed in swathes of red and gold and white. We had turned out in our best makeshift sun worshiping-apparel and were glad we had made that last-minute effort. We were definitely lacking feathers, such as the chiefs wore as elaborate headdresses of feathers. Both men and women wore skirts to symbolizing their inner circle and so as to not break the connection with Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Despite the first starting around 7.30am, the sun was already beating down on the dancers, who, in-keeping with the tradition, had not eaten or drunk anything for four days. At the end of the first dance we were invited to join in by receiving the sacred chanupas, or pipes of the dancers. These pipes, representing a connection to the sacred tree and to mother earth, ‘contain’ the soul of the dancers and by taking the pipes we carried their life in our hands. As the dancers rested our role was to smoke, ‘in good conscience and with clean heart’, all the tobacco, in doing so proving our reverence for the natural world. Out of respect for the dancers we had not drunk anything while watching the ceremony and smoking a whole bowl with a dry mouth and under the blaring sun was not an easy task, made even more difficult by the worried thoughts in my mind of what would happen to the soul of the dancer if I couldn’t finish it!
Because it is believed that taking photos can ‘steal’ a person’s spirit, we respected this and, to be honest, who needs camera film when the very vivid memories of this once in a life time experience are permanently etched on all our minds. This was most definitely a neo-pagan solstice celebration not to be missed.
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