Earthly agriculture dances intimately with the cosmos, its tenants careful to heed the sun’s path across the sky and to note the rising of this-and-that constellation, for the sky above gives meaning and rhythm to the fields below.
In this manner, the Inca are like agrarian people the world over, both ancient and contemporary, and like their cohorts, their worldview mingles astronomy, astrology and religion into a rich tapestry of celebrations and extrapolations. One room we pass through features observational pools, their shallow depths a priest’s mirror of the night-sky, these reflective eyes–Los Ojos de Pachamama–perfectly positioned to stare into the Milky Way river, stardust flowing across the sky. Like the Egyptians with the Nile, the Incas see their terrestrial river as this celestial river’s twin, the cosmic world juxtaposed onto the earthly.
These are the factoids I live and breathe and die for, and I wish I weren’t so enthralled with every little detail, trying so desperately to commit it to memory that I tune in to the next factoid two-thirds of the way through the explanation. Total nerd moment!
Archaeo-astrology fascinates because it lays the pattern and pathway for the more institutionalized religions of our era, and when comparing what ancient people look to for divine inspiration and global understanding, they all uncannily turn their heads up to the stars and feet down into the earth’s cycles, marrying the two with complex narrative and mythology. Even more interesting is the pulse of these ancient beliefs, their high and holy days paired with solar equinoxes and solstices, lunar eclipses and blue moons, echoed and translated in today’s religious feasts like Christmas (winter solstice), Easter (vernal equinox), May Day (cross-quarter day between spring equinox and summer solstice), All Saint’s Day, or, as it’s known south of the border, Día de Muertos (cross-quarter day between autumnal equinox and winter solstice) … the list is long.
Here, at Machu Picchu, the Incas recognize the sun as their divine planet, dedicating a temple to the orb itself and two other temples to its pinnacle moment across the sky, the summer solstice–which, in the Southern Hemisphere, occurs December 20th or so.
The Southern Cross plays a part, too, in Incan astronomy, its kite-shape a stone slab representative of the constellation and of the four cardinal and spiritual directions–heaven, hell, earth and something else–and reincarnated as a chakra building block, kite transformed to cross, its negative image built into window frames across the site.
Then, because each culture likes to connect-the-dots and paint the night sky with figures relevant to them, they dedicate a temple to Machu Picchu’s reigning constellation–theoretically, if you squint hard enough, Machu Picchu’s outline actually mimics this animal form–the condor. A massive stone juts outward, a high-arched wing, the other half man-made, and between the dramatic, over-sized stone-bird rests its body, a flat cauldron features rivets that circle to a point.
The Temple of the Condor, rumor goes, is where the Incas sacrifice themselves to their celestial gods to call for good harvests and strong soil. Our guide is careful to omit such riotous information for the sake of public image control, but just being between the condor’s open wings, you feel the drama of such space, especially at nightfall, bright red sacrificial blood pouring through the condor head, almost luminescent as it courses to the crest, glowing with fading life.
Behind the wing hides a secret passage way, and we squeeze through, slightly jumpy and all-too-cognizant that through this hide-away, priest and victim emerge to face an eager, bloodlust public, me happy to be cocooned in a more categorical view of the natural world.