Connecting rituals

I’m a person who gets really excited about the underlying connections among different people’s rituals. So let me continue by recommending the first chapter of the book Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, written by Reza Aslan. The book begins as a thriller taking place in the first century Jewish temple – and you can almost smell the offerings and feel the jostle. Whether you end up agreeing with the author’s take or not, you get a really great sense of where much of ancient Judeo-Christian life and spirituality intersected. You can also get a great sense of where it meets other traditions that practice sacrifice of various kinds.

Here I want to talk about connections I see in Andean and Judeo-Christian sacrifice: human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, offerings to the earth, to the ancestors, to the gods or one God. I also want to talk about the unfortunately close relationship between wonder/awe/respect and fear.

Macchu Picchu has several altars where sacrifices were practiced, as do many of the amazing Inca and pre-Inca ruins throughout Peru and the high and coastal Andes. When I was first confronted with this in 2008, I recoiled. How could anyone intentionally offer the life of another being or offer one’s own life to satisfy the appetites of the gods – how could that be a good thing? Those of us who participated in the Andean Worlds Seminar grappled with this as we viewed archaeological evidence of many people being killed to accompany a dead ruler in his tomb, or being offered in ritual fights to the death which we were told brought great honor to the participants.

Altar temple of sun MP

Altar and solar observatory, Macchu Picchu, Peru

I remember telling my own children that the Old Testament was full of mentions of animal sacrifices and ‘burnt offerings’, and that some people believed that the death of Jesus was supposed to put an end to that culture of sacrifice by being a kind of ultimate sacrifice – a human sacrifice and a divine sacrifice at the same time – God accompanying humankind in death in order to overcome death.

As my life has gone on and some of the people I respect and love the most have died, I have come to care less about what happens to the person after death and more about how we carry on in the face of the loss of those we care about.

And now I am simply wide open to the beliefs and meanings that people ascribe to death and sacrifice.

In the little Inca town of Ollantaytambo you can go into a house in which people have the skulls of some of their most revered ancestors sitting above the hearth. In almost every archaeological structure around Peru there are niches in the walls for people to keep their mummies or some kind of altar or representation of their ancestors. In Catholic homes these mummies take the form of saints or statues that may simultaneously signify some kind of force of nature. People venerate and revere these representations by offering them food and drink or flowers and incense. Modern ceremonies such as the Mexican Day of the dead remind us in a living way that the intention of these altars and offerings is to strengthen our relationship with those we choose to remember.

Ollantaytambo house

Niche with skulls of ancestors in Ollantaytambo home

I like the term used by anthropologist Frederique Appfel-Marglin to describe this relationship: ‘entanglement’. In Judeo-Christian traditions there seems to be a deep mistrust of entanglement with the animal and plant worlds and the forces of nature that indigenous people continue to venerate. This mistrust was expressed early as a prohibition against the worship of idols and an admonition to worship only one God.

So here is where I take a moment to distinguish between wonder and fear.

I have friends who have been traumatized by religious practitioners who preyed on fear. My sense is that there are fear mongers in every religion – think of pedophile priests, or think, like an indigenous friend of mine in rural Chuquisaca, of Protestants who are obsessed with hellfire and ‘always sound angry when they preach’.

On the other hand, I have atheist, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and indigenous friends who cultivate a sense of awe and wonder and awareness. These are the people I would like to be entangled with, and the ones whose rituals I would like to share in.

So I’ll end this post by drawing some connections among the altars I’ve seen during holy week and those I’ve seen in the Andean countryside.

The very first altar is the one people create by raising two sticks and a crosspiece or several crosspieces in the air. On this altar or pukara everyone in the community hangs an offering of food or handiwork such as a very fine weaving – and they sing and parade it around for all to see. You can see the raising and celebration of such a structure in the movie ‘Kusisqa Waqashayku – From Grief and Joy We Sing’ by Holly Wissler and the Q’eros people of Peru.

You can see it if you go to Pukllay in Tarabuco, celebrated a couple of weeks before Easter. I’ve also seen such a structure at a celebration of mother’s day in the countryside of Yamparaez. After the structure has been raised and covered with offerings, people dance around it and someone traditionally walks around cracking a whip and making sure they do it well. You can see this moveable community altar depicted in many weavings from the Tarabuco area – look for a rectangular structure with items suspended from it. Pukara1

To see recent footage of the Pukllay celebration in Tarabuco (featuring the Pukara altar in the first 10 seconds) click here.

My husband and I saw a similar moving altar on a much grander scale in the city of Cusco on the first Monday of holy week. We waited for several hours in what used to be the central plaza of the Inca empire, blocked by policemen and cameras who surrounded the cathedral as thousands awaited the emergence of the ‘Señor de los temblores’ (Lord of Earthquakes). Finally, a crucified black Jesus emerged on a rack that very much resembled a pukara, and was paraded in slow motion around the plaza, showered with offerings of smoke and flower petals and heralded first by people in traditional dress blowing on conch shells, later by a military band.


I was struck by the resemblance of the backdrop of altars in various Andean Catholic churches to these pukaras – big rectangular structures full of saints and the ornate handiwork of local artists and craftspeople.

Maybe it is all connected in some basic way – or should I say, entangled.

Santa Ana of Maca 3

Altar at Santa Ana of Maca, Peru, photo by Judy Kalt Skeels

Altar-banner San Jeronimo Peru

Altar to be carried in parade, San Jeronimo, Peru, photo by Jaime Araoz Chacon

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