About This Festival
As the world around us becomes increasingly high-tech, and scientific fact becomes the central pillar of our society, it’s comforting to know that there are still places that take time to pay homage to our primordial past, particularly those that allow us to suspend our belief and give into magic and mythology. For one such experience, there is Inti Raymi, a nine-day winter solstice celebration worshiping the Incan god Inti in the city of Cusco. Involving colorful costumes, lavish banquets, festive music, an elaborate reenactment of ancient Inca rituals, and culminating in a royal procession to an ancient fortress—if its magic and mythology you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place.
Inti Raymi - Follow the Sun
It makes perfect sense to worship the sun. After all, what is the true source of life-giving energy on this planet but the sun? It helps plants grow, like the hundreds of different types of nourishing Andean potatoes. Sun-nourished green, leafy life forms give us air to breathe and feed grazing animals like llamas, which are perhaps the coolest creatures on the planet. That many cultures actively praise this life-giving behemoth of scorching gas is a testament to the undiluted awe our ancestors felt upon seeing the sun. The Incans were sun masters as they built their temples ever closer to the sun and their festivals are a lasting tribute to that fireball in the sky.
In the spirit of this primordial sense of respect for the celestial bodies that so govern our well being, the celebration of Inti Raymi, or “Festival of the Sun” occurs each June, in conjunction with the South American winter solstice. Hundreds of thousands of devotees descend on Cuzco, Peru for the re-enactment of this ceremony, to praise the Inca and to celebrate traditions. A week’s worth of festivities culminates in an epic daylong event on the 24th of June. Inti Raymi recalls a time when it was thought that only through fervent prayer, devotion, and sacrifice that the sun could be persuaded to return and bless us with crops and fine health.
The ancient Inca so feared the diminished effects of the sun during winter, they would fast, create lavish banquets to honor the sun, and sacrifice llamas to ensure a bountiful crop. The Incas believed in reincarnation, that death was ascension beyond life, as long as one followed the rules “do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy.” To move upwards after death was to move towards the warmth of the sun—while the rule breakers went to a cold, faraway place. The rise of Christianity in the 16th century labeled the Incas as pagans prohibiting their beliefs and practices. Even though the church became wise to the sun god roots of the Christ mythos, Inti Raymi remained resilient as an underground phenomenon until 1944 when the government and church sanctioned it. It is now the second largest festival on the South American continent.
A weeklong celebration begins prior to the new year festivities with concerts and street fairs. This part is less about tradition and more focused on fun. Lose yourself in song and dance at Cuzco’s Plaza de Armas while sampling local Peruvian cuisine and just generally absorbing the good times.
Incan Gods & Sexy Woman
On June 24, a throng of actors specially selected to reenact the rituals of Inti Raymi gather at the Koricancha Square in front of the Santo Dominigo Church. The rituals that take place are a daylong affair that draws the largest crowds of the week. These actors represent various figures from Incan royalty including the Sapa Inca (Sun King) and his wife, Mama Ocllo. To be selected for one of these two roles is the highest honor possible. The Sapa Inca delivers a traditional oration in praise of the sun after which he’s carried upon his massive throne in a royal procession to Sacsayhuaman (sometimes affectionately referred to as “Sexy Woman”), an ancient fortress made of impossibly stacked stones located in the hills overlooking Cuzco. The congregation following the Sun King includes actors occupying the roles of priests and nobles from the traditional Incan hierarchies, bedecked in lavish jewelry and colorful robes. The path they walk to the fortress is strewn with flowers and constantly swept by groups of women keeping it free of evil spirits.
Once the congregation reaches the grand square of the fortress, Sapa Inca delivers another oration followed by representatives of the Suyos, which include the Snake to represent the underworld, the Puma representing terrestrial, or earthly life, and the Condor representing the Heavens. Following this, the ritual of sacrificing a white llama takes place after which the high priest holds the llama’s beating heart up to honor Pachamama (the Mother Earth goddess), to ensure that the Earth will be fertile and that crops will be abundant. (For you animal activists, don’t worry there’s no animals harmed in this ritual anymore.)
The vibe at the Inti Raymi festival celebration is reverent yet jovial. This is certainly not a place to be disrespectful as there are many centuries of tradition to be acknowledged at this festival. Yes, this is pre-scientific, superstitious culture but it’s also a reminder of the power of the human mind and its tendency to believe what it says. We’ve come a long way as a species and it’s just as edifying to acknowledge where we came from as it is to consider where we’re going. At sunset, a great fire and dance ritual honors Tawantinsuyo, the name the Inca gave their territory (Tawa meaning Four, Inti meaning Sun and Suyo meaning Direction; all combined this amounts to “The Four Directions Under the Sun”). The final phase of the festival finds the procession making its long march back to Cuzco with the Sun King and Queen held high atop their thrones.