Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The ancient greeks,the incas and the altomesayoq

Anthropologist Alberto Villoldo reports the comments of his informant (and mentor), Prof. Antonio Morales, regarding the great civilizations who had developed North of the equator, as been characterized by a “descending God”, where “the divine comes from the heavens and descends to the Earth” (Villoldo 1995:172).
The Greeks were amid those ancient civilizations who had this marked “descending” character attributed to their divinity. The Incas – unique great culture developing South of the Equator – conversely, had an “ascending” god-force, raising, like the golden maize stalks in the garden of the Koricancha Temple, from mother earth to heaven. Still, we believe there are oversimplifications in this pattern of reconstruction, which do not take into account the many, complex overly-articulated aspects of ancient Greek perception of the divinity, the different phases and stages where these religious ideas were manifested and expressed in -sometimes – conflictual forms, which make any “descending” statement tout-court a bit of an issue in terms of reflecting the actual way these different visions of the world were perceived and channelled in cultic and ritual practices by our Greek ancestors.

This is not the place for a treaty on ancient Greek religion, therefore we shall dwell only on those aspects of this ancient Greek sense of divinity – those archaic cults linked to the earth-goddess, and then prophecy and divination as they were practiced in the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, and to a specific cult of Zeus, worshipped as “Kataibates” – which lend themselves to be seen with a more sympathetic eye to the explorer of Inca shamanism.

By all means, a few millennia before the Incas, Ghe’ – Gaia, the primordial Earth Mother – was worshipped by the ancient Greeks. One of the attributes of the later, Olympian deity of Apollo was Pythios, and – as the myth goes – Python was the dragon-snake, son of Gaia, who guarded the ancient oracle at Delphi. Here, the Pythia, priestess of the Oracle, divined in trance, uttering inexplicable, enigmatic prophetic announcements, intoxicated by the vapours coming from a rocky chasm in a special area of the sanctuary. Her words were later interpreted by a special class of priests, devoted to the de-codification of the prophetic response. Python was the guardian of this chasm, from where the inebriating vapours ascended from the depths of the earth. The power of prophecy was – in primordial times – originating directly from Ghe’, the Earth Mother. It came, ascending from the earth. In later times, Apollo, a later, solar Olympian deity, stole the role of this primordial divinity, killed Python and took over in the cult at Delphi, becoming himself the god of prophecy.

The Incas worshipped Viracocha, their creator god, Inti, the Sun, Quilla, the Moon goddess, and had in the cosmological temple of Koricancha – in Cusco – a whole section dedicated to Venus, the Pleiades and all the stars. Here, Garcilaso de la Vega informs us, there was a room “dedicated to lightning, and to thunder, which they were both expressed by the single name, illapa. [...] This room was entirely covered with gold, but neither thunder not lightning were represented there [...]. The fourth room was devoted to the rainbow, which they said descended from the Sun [...]. It was entirely covered with gold and the rainbow was painted, in beautiful colours, across the entire surface of one of the walls. They called the rainbow cuichu and revered it very specially. [...] The fifth room and last room was reserved for the high priest and his assistants, who were of royal blood. [...] The name of the high priest was uilac-umu [...] This means “he who speaks of divine matters” [..]“.
Cusco was for the Incas what Delphi was for the Greeks: an esoteric centre of the world.

So far, we have seen an ascending Greek goddess, Ghe’, and had a glimpse of the special status that Cuichu, the rainbow descending from the sun, had for the Incas. Far from mirroring the complexity of the dimension of religious cults and vision of the world in either culture, the statements of Prof. Morales – as reported by Villoldo – do not seem to pay full justice to the reality of facts. There is no clear-cut view of Inca shamanism, religion and cultic practices versus ancient Greek civilization and, escaping poetic and simplified views, more than antithetical and opposite visions of the world we are strongly bound to believe that there is much more ground to dwell on similarities instead.

We do not know in what form the uillac-umu, the high priest of the Incas who spoke of divine matter may have – if at all – survived in contemporary Andean religion and cults. But we know that the Q’eros, who repute themselves direct descendants of the Incas, distinguish (alongside other indigenous communities of the high Andes) between two different types of different shamans: the Altomesayoq (or Alto mesayoq), a higher shaman – invested by the the power of prophecy and seeing – elected by the Apu (“Lord”, Sacred Mountain Spirit) and stroke by lightening (up to) three times, and the Pampamesayoq (or Pampa mesayoq) – a “normal” shaman, of lower status than the Altomesayoq. Both are called Paqos (or pakos).

The lightning cults of ancient Greece, where individuals and areas struck by lightning benefited in certain cases of an exceptional sacred status, and the election process of the Andean Altomesayoq bear a close intrinsic resemblance: both benefit from a special sacred condition and elective affinities.

In ancient Greece, one of the epithets with which the figure of Zeus was worshipped (as we know from Aischylos, as early as 467-458 BC) was that of Kataibates – the god “who descends” as a thunderbolt, or (as later sources translate the epithet) he “who makes to descend” the thunderbolts, denoting in either case the fall of the striking lightening from heaven to earth.
Zeus Kataibates was worshipped for many centuries in different regions of Greece, and the ground adjoining the altars of the god was at times regarded as an ábaton, or inviolable sacred place, innermost sanctuary or shrine. We know that there were lightning ábata, called enelýsia, holy grounds of the god, which were essentially spots struck by lightning and reputed to be the living place of Zeus Kataibates.

The closest Andean equivalent to the Greek enelýsia may be seen in the spot hit by Illapa (deity of thunder, lighting and rainstorms), where the future Altomesayoq – the “shaman of the high table” – will find the sacred stones that will become part of his or her own mesa (sacred space with medicine objects) and will be the aid in the direct communication with the Apu.

The most striking parallel between the specially elected and higher condition of the Altomesayoq and the ancient Greek world (at least from the 5th century B.C.) is probably offered by the status of the Dioblés, the “Zeus-struck man”. The god descended as a lightning flash and the one on whom he fell was considered Diόbletos – “struck by Zeus” – and held in an especially sacred status. In ancient Greece, the divinity of the god was conveyed on the individual struck by the lightning – i.e. by Zeus Kataibates – who was made immortal, or imperishable.

In the Andes there is a special relation between lightning and the make of a high shaman. The Altomesayoq, who can communicate directly with the Apus and Illapa – receives his or her shamanic powers after been struck by lightening. The initiatory process develops essentially along three phases, which are all deeply remnant of traditional shamanic initiations: at the outset Illapa strikes (one to three times) and kills the chosen person, then his or her scattered body parts are put back together, and finally the person is brought back to life. When the candidate future Altomesayoq re-awakes from the shock and regains consciousness, he or she must look for special stones that the Illapa left on the ground when it stroke. Nobody must see – or interfere with – the future Altomesayoq (who may otherwise die).

These stones – called Khuyas stones – are invested of special powers and sacredness, and will become part of the mesa of the Altomesayoq. These will be the intermediary in the direct communication that the high shaman establishes with the Apu and Illapa.

Cook, A. B. Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion, Cambridge University Press, 1925Garcilaso de la Vega, The Royal Commentaries of the Yncas, translated by Maria Jolas, Lima 2002

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