Visionary Journeys between Medicine and Magic

The Oracle of Pachacamac

The wooden Idol of the Pachacamac God: ”The One Who Generates the World” (detail)

Photo Credit: Francesco Sammarco

Located 31 km from the Peruvian capital, on the old Southern Pan American Highway, overlooking the fertile Lurin Valley and the Pacific Ocean, this vast ceremonial complex housed the important oracle of Pachacámac – “The One Who Generates the World” – great god of creation, of the spirit that permeates every living thing, a fearsome deity associated with war and whose anger resulted in tremors and earthquakes.

The terraced adobe mud-brick Pyramid in Pachacamac, with central access ramp. Ichimay Culture

The Inca “House of the Sun Virgins”, or Acllawasi

Built centuries before the coming of the Incas, possibly occupied from as early as 200 AD and already fully active by 500 AD, the ritual complex was inhabited by several pre-Columbian cultures which built along the centuries an impressive network of palaces, plazas, and pyramidal temples. All encompassed by richly frescoed precinct walls of adobe mud bricks which granted accesses to the plazas by means of the many doorways going though them.

The site is reputed to have been the most important pre-Hispanic religious centre of Peru, along with Cusco, and certainly the most important Sanctuary along the coast. At the time of the warrior-like powerful Huari empire (born around 600 AD) – that spread over and controlled half of modern Peru – Pachacámac was already a major point of pilgrimage.

Through the centuries, the pattern of intense pilgrimages extended far beyond the geographical boundaries of the Lurin Valley, attracting scores of devotees from the central Andes that came here to consult the shrine’s revered oracle. Miguel de Estete (1533) reports in his chronicles that Pachacámac was the destination of pilgrims coming from places as far away as Tacamez, in the Ecuadorian coast, who carried gold, silver and clothes offerings.

The wooden Idol of Pachacamac, preserved in the on-site Museum

Photo Credit: Francesco Sammarco

The original pre-Inca ancient temple faced the northwest side of the coast, had terraced sides and richly decorated rooms, possibly destined to the reception of envoys and to the ritual making of sacrifices. Before reaching its shrine, pilgrims, priests and noblemen alike were compelled to fast for twenty days before to gain access to the first court on the lower plaza, and for an entire year before ascending to the holy of holies, the holier shrine on the upper plaza, of exceptional sacredness and immense religious significance.

Above the inner shrine stood a pyramid at the top of which was the wooden idol of Pachacámac. Only the priests could have access to the oracular chamber, consulting the oracle on special important issues – on behalf of others – but were themselves forbidden to look directly at the Janus-like idol, from the sight of which they were protected by a textile that hung before it, in function of screen. The wooden Idol reflects the cosmogonic vision of the Andean people of the 12th century. Two-faced, possibly hinting at an androgynous nature, the oracular powers of the god are evident in the possibility of seeing simultaneously – spatially and temporally – in opposite directions.

The sanctuary saw an intense frequentation by the Incas themselves, who occupied the place 170 years before the arrival of the Spaniards, paid high respect to this important oracular divinity, and encompassed the cult of the fearsome creator-God into their own religious universe, associating its worship along with that of the Sun. The Inca part of Pachacámac includes among other structures the Moon Temple (Mamaconas), the House of the Sun Virgins (Acllawasi) – where almost 200 “chosen ones” lived and dedicated their life to the cult of the Sun and of the Inca – and the magnificent Temple of the Sun, built on the highest point of the sanctuary.

Pachacámac reached its apex of popularity at the time of the Incas, becoming one of the most important sanctuaries of the whole of the Americas.

The sacred identity of the place as pole of attraction for pilgrimage, continued through our modern times. According to some scholars, the assimilating aspects of the native pre-Columbian indigenous traditions – centred around the huaca of Pachacámac – with the Christian cult may be found in the celebrations that take place each year with the rites in honour of El Señor de los Miracles (the Lord of the Miracles), and El Señor de los Temblores (the Lord of the Earthquakes).

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