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Divine or Human: The Role of Women in Inca Civilization

Finding its home within the vast ranges and high plateaus of the central Andes region was the Inca Empire (“Inca”) . Known to be the largest empire in pre-Columbian America, the Inca (Inka) Civilization has come to be viewed as one of the most fascinating of ancient civilizations. Despite the challenging farming and terrain conditions in the Andes, the Inca people showed extraordinary farming skills and engineering ingenuity in establishing systems for terracing, drainage, irrigation as well as the use of fertilizers in their fields (“Inca” )

The Inca empire was also well known for their conquest and peaceful absorption of neighboring states in their expansion as well as the vast number of structural advancements they were able to make. Examples of such structures are seen in the elaborate road networks that they constructed as well as the public buildings and structures such as those seen in Machu Pichu and Sacsahuaman. (“Inca” ) Perhaps what may be considered to be a major contributor to the Inca Empire’s success is the relatively unique partnership of its male and female citizens towards the development and sustenance of the state.

In Inca society, both men and women enjoyed a level of equality. Unlike their European counterparts who existed in a more patriarchal society and lived to serve the needs of their husbands, Inca women were treated as necessary components and partners in the progress and growth of state and society. (Niles 319) Men and women appear together in most of the scenes showing agricultural work, doing different tasks and often using different tools.

Maize cultivation begins with the opening of the earth by a man using a footplow; he is accompanied by a woman who carries the seed and places it in the soil, and another woman carrying a curved tool that she will use to smooth the soil over the seed . Later a woman releases water from a reservoir onto the community’s fields. (319) The reason for this partnership is the Incan cosmology of a world divided into two equal halves: the masculine and the feminine. The masculine side represents all that is virile that include the concepts of strength, conquest and power.

The feminine side dealt with sustenance and reproduction. (Glass-Coffin 38,39) According to Inca religion, the hermaphroditic god Viracocha is the supreme “god” and creator. It was from Viracocha that the gods “Tayta Inti” (Masculine Sun) and “Mamaquilla” (Feminine Moon) sprung forth. According to Inca belief, the sun and moon are both siblings and spouses. Their union resulted in the birth of other deities, as well as that of human men and women. (Mason 203) Because of the dual nature of the supreme god Viracocha, parallel lines of authority and religious worship were developed.

Inca men led by the Sapa Inca were in charge of service and cults devoted to the male gods. From the sun came Venus Morning, Lord Earth and Man. Inca women on the other hand held authority over worship and service to the female gods: Venus Evening was represented by Ccoya, or queen of the Inca and “daughter of the Moon. ” Mamacocha was the “Mother” of the ocean and sea, while Pachamama was “Mother Earth. ” (Niles 333) Women priestesses are believed to be related to the Ccoya similar to the way male priests were extensions and of the Sapa Inca.

As priestesses, women became powerful. This is due to the nature of the goddesses they serve as having dominion over fertility and procreation…two things held important by the agricultural Inca society. Statues and temples devoted to the female deities were on a par with temples dedicated to the male gods. Mummies of the Incan Ccoyas or queens were entombed in the Moon Temple while the mummies of Incan kings were interred in the Sun Temple. “Inca women had an important part in religion and ritual life.

Living women were actors in devotion; mummified women were venerated; female deities governed the lives of people” (Niles 332) In the Inca capital of Cuzco is found an exclusive school called ‘acllahuasi’ where the Incas trained select young girls in feminine skills such as weaving and Incan tradition as well as skills in government and religious service. Every year, young girls between the ages of 10-14 from villages were chosen to either go to the acllahuasi or serve as human sacrifice. (325)

The Incas were a people who believed that sacrifice of a human life was essential for the continuance of power for their fathers who were usually headmen. The loss of a daughter to the acclahuasi or as human sacrifice symbolizes the father’s loyalty to the King (Sapa Inca) as well as earns him the right to have his son succeed to his title. Incas believed that human sacrifice particularly that of virgins was the most precious and welcome sacrifice they can make to the gods. It was often done in the event of the ascension of a new emperor, commencement of war, and as a plea to end famine, military defeat or plague.

(Mason 212) Girls who were chosen to be “accla” were taken from their families and commenced training at secular tasks in the acllahuasi. Once at the acllahuasi, girls are trained to weave, spin and make chicha or beer made from pre-chewed and fermented maize (Markham 127) These girls’ lives will be spent studying Inca doctrine and pledging virginity and service to the Incan gods and royalty. (Niles 325) There were two main classes of women in the acclahuasi: the ‘Chosen Women’, acllacuna, and the so-called ‘Virgins of the Sun’, mamacuna.

(Mason 209) Temples of the moon were served and tended to by the ‘mamacunas. ‘ The mamacunas were considered wedded to the Sun and other deities. Because of their perceived closeness to the Incan gods, the mamacunas held much power and would often have influence and authority over matters of economics, religion and governance. Besides temple service, the mamacunas were tasked with preparing clothes for the Sapa Inca and gods as well as preparing victuals and drinks at religious festivals.

Mamacunas living at the great convent near the Sun Temple in Cuzco had the special charge of weaving the imperial garments (Mason 210). They also served as mentors of the new-arrivals at the acclahuasi. They also performed special roles in the public religious rituals of the Incas: The chief mamacuna of Coati took the persona of the Moon and enjoyed ritual meals, drinking, and conversations with a male counterpart from Titicaca who acted as the Sun. In other ceremonies the chief mamacuna dedicated to the Sun would appear in public to receive offerings on behalf of her “husband.

” (Niles 333) Because of their stature, mamacunas enjoyed many special privileges and were accorded residences as well as service by daughters from Incan noble houses. Besides the mamacunas, acclas were also organized according to hierarchy based on the girls’ adherence to the Inca ideal of beauty as well as the standing of their families from which they came (Mason 181) Higher ranking and more physically attractive girls in the acclas were designated as “wives” or members of the Sapa Inca’s seraglio while the rest were relegated to serving lesser goddesses.

Inca men were honored and considered affiliated with the Sapa Inca should their daughters be chosen as members of the aclla or were rewarded with women. In this way, Inca women became powerful tools utilized by the state as a way of conveying honor and rewards. Occasionally, women from the acclahuasi are chosen as sacrifice. This is a tremendous honor for the chosen accla as this assures them of a happy and leisure filled after-life. (Mason 181)

The position held by the Ccoya or the Inca queen was very significant in Inca society. (Markham 163) Before being wed to the Sapa Inca, the potential Ccoya must first prove her intelligence and capability to lead. These were important, as once a queen is chosen, she will be responsible for the religious celebrations of the annual planting and harvest season in addition to the advent of the wet season. She is also expected to stand in for her husband in political functions in his absence. (Niles 330)

While in political matters, royal women may not have official political power, they did have exercise considerable behind-the-scenes power to give advice and to influence events. As is not unusual for women in a patrilineal system of descent, much of their power came from manipulating relations in the domestic sphere: arranging marriages and lobbying for the advancement of their sons. (Niles 331) Queens also held authority over marriages and the education of female subjects from the noble and ruling classes.

Incan queens were usually served by ladies in waiting whom the queen can marry off of give as a reward to a male subject in order to build loyalty and “ties” between the subject and the ruling family. The education of female nobility and leaders was a vital responsibility of the queen for these subjects were in turn entrusted with the duty of integrating Incan-educated ideas in their rule and leadership of the peasant class. (Niles 330) Inca women also enjoyed more autonomy and property ownership rights.

“Although high-ranked Inca women had little autonomy with respect to their marriages, they did have access to property that was theirs to do with as they wished. ” (Niles 329) Women from the royal family may be gifted with land and property by the king who more often than not is their father, husband or brother. “The estates developed by or for royal women would clearly have given them the wherewithal to support themselves and their retinue in their lifetimes, and to maintain the cult of their mummies after death. ” (Niles 329)

Marriages, whether among the nobility or the peasantry were important in Inca society. Marriage was looked at as new “partnership of equals” where duties were carried out for the benefit of the state. In Inca society, while there were duties that were considered more gender appropriate, such delineation was not enforced. While the primary duties of Inca women were weaving, clothing and looking after her family, it was not uncommon to see women taking on male duties such as herding, preparation of fields for planting, and harvesting. (Niles 318)

Such work done by the women were important in Inca society as the men were more often than not, off at war and conquest in service of the Inca king. The work done by the women were essential for the sustenance of the men as well as the continued growth of their community and ultimately, state. (Glass-Coffin 45) It is interesting to note that despite the significant contributions women outside the acllahuasis make, they are considered to be hauasipascuna or “left-out” as the women who were considered attractive or talented were usually designated for public service (Mason 181)

Inca society was a society founded on partnership and complementary efforts. Queens, vassals and peasant alike have contributed largely to the progress and strength of the Inca Empire. It is noteworthy that while there are very few texts available that details their contributions, carvings and artifacts from that period detail the working partnership between the Inca men and women…a practice that is uncommon in civilizations that were largely patriarchal at that time.

While the Incans accepted that there were differences in gender, the equal value and recognition they accorded the contributions of both remain remarkable.

Works Cited

“Inca. ” The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2004. Glass-Coffin, Bonnie. The Gift of Life: Female Spirituality and Healing in Northern Peru. 1st ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998. Markham, Clements. The Incas of Peru. New York: AMS Press, 1969.

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