Serpents are common motifs throughout the Andes, both now and in prehistoric times, and are often conceptually linked to mountains. (..) Multiple lines of evidence suggest that serpents were symbolic of rivers and streams to prehistoric Andean groups. They further represented fertility and spiritual essence. (...) Rivers and streams are the most tangible form of the animating essence of the world. (...) Rivers are viewed as bringing life not just to crops but to the cosmos in general. 


Serpents are common motifs throughout the Andes, both now and in prehistoric times, and are often conceptually linked to mountains. (..) Multiple lines of evidence suggest that serpents were symbolic of rivers and streams to prehistoric Andean groups. They further represented fertility and spiritual essence. (..) These serpent-rivers are gendered male as well, and the water is conceptualized to flow down the mountain to fertilize the gendered female earth. (p.10-11)

Catherine Allen (2002:36) relates that rivers and streams are the most tangible form of sami for Quechua speaking people of Sonqo in the southern Peruvian Highlands. Sami is the animating essence of the world and is manifested physically in water and light. Informants in Sonqo related that the souls of their ancestors travel around in water. Rivers are viewed as bringing life not just to crops but to the cosmos in general. They are conceptualized, “in terms of a vast circulatory system that distributes water throughout the cosmos...[r]ivers that flow out of highland lakes into the jungle are believed to return underground to their places of origin” (ibid.:36). 

Water is believed to circulate from the great celestial river called Mayu (the Milky Way). Rain pours down on the mountains and then flows to the coast and is transferred back to Mayu by Yacana, a celestial llama who descends to earth to drink from the swollen rivers and then returns to the heavens (Allen 2002:36; Burger 1992b:275; Salomon and Urioste 1991 [1598–1608]:Ch. 29; Urton 1981:122–123). Allen elaborates on how water and thus sami is spread throughout the land: “K’uychi (Rainbow) facilitates the distribution of water on a local level. K’uychi is an amaru (great subterranean serpent) who lives in springs. Filled with water after a rain, he flies out of the spring and arches across the sky. Burying his head in a second spring, he siphons water through his body from one spring to another” (Allen 2002:36).

The early 17th century Huarochirí Manuscript (Salomon and Urioste 1991 [1598– 1608]:Ch. 16, 205) also references the amaru. In describing the huaca Paria Caca’s battle with the fiery volcano, Huallallo Caruincho, the writer of the manuscript explains, “then Huallallo Caruincho turned loose a huge snake called the Amaru, a two-headed snake, thinking, ‘This’ll bring misfortune on Paria Caca!’” The translators of the manuscript remark that amarus are almost ubiquitous in Andean mythology. Inca mythology further described amarus as double-headed serpents from which several Incas, including Amaro-Topa Inca, took their surnames. The Inca created a temple called the Amaru-cancha in Cuzco, which was dedicated to this mythical being (Gisbert 1997:225).

Amarus are thought to emerge from springs, caves, and tinkuy (a Quechua term denoting a meeting of two things, in this case a point where two streams converge) and are associated strongly with rainbows (Allen 2002:36; Urton 1981). They are said to be, “double-headed, one head buried in each spring” (Urton 1981:115). An amaru then emerges from one spring to arc across the sky and bury its head in another spring. Inca and Colonial period keros often depict rainbows emerging from the mouths of felines and yielding rains upon Inca rulers (Figures 5f and 5g). Felines are also conceptually associated with serpents, rivers, and fertility and will be discussed below. Further, Dransart notes that, for the modern Aymara speaking community of Isluga in northern Chile, “colorful meteorological phenomena like the rainbow are perceived to be awesome, but also propitious because of their association with beneficial rains” (2002:90). Urton discusses the parallels between the amaru rainbow serpent and terrestrial serpents:

“The amaru, which rises out of a spring after rain, exhibits a climatological behavior pattern similar to terrestrial serpents which, at the end of the cold/dry season and at the beginning of the warm/rainy season, emerge from subterranean hibernation.... [S]ince meteorological serpents (rainbows/amarus) only appear during the rainy part of the year, they exhibit a seasonal activity cycle similar to that of terrestrial reptiles” (Urton 1981:118). (p.12)

Mountain caves and springs are conceptualized as otherworldly portals and are extremely ritually charged places as a result. For the Aymara, afflictions such as syncope, fainting, and epilepsy are said to be caused by a condition known as kalxa, which means, “to be looked on by a spirit” (La Barre 1948:212). These spirits are said to emerge from wells, caves, springs, rivers, and mountains, all of which are portals between worlds (ibid.:212).

Salomon describes the importance of mountaintop caves as portals between the current world and the world of the ancestors for 18th century residents of Arequipa, Peru: “A late [C]olonial account from Arequipa affords a close view, albeit one affected by clandestinity. The worshipers ascended to their ancestral caves by moonlight, in a group representing the whole kindred descended from the mummies. Arriving at the cave mouth, the worshipers whistled to ask entry..."

He further notes that one specific point of origin for a group in the region is conceptualized as a farm, implying that points of emergence are tied to the cyclical nature of both agricultural fertility and human spirituality. The soul emerges from this point in birth and then returns to be replanted in death (ibid.:341). The material reproduction of these communities is conceptually tied to the well-being of the ancestors.

Various chroniclers from the early Colonial period affirm that Contact period Andean groups conceptualized mountain caves and springs as points of emergence and portals between worlds. Cristóbal de Molina (1989 [1576]) relates that the huacas typically communicated through stones and fountains. Sarmiento de Gamboa, talking about the origin of Andean groups wrote, “... people came forth, some from lakes, others from fountains, valleys, caves, trees, caverns, stones and hills, spreading over the land and multiplying to form the nations which are today in Peru” (1942 [1572]:53, translation by author).

The concept of a paqarina as an ancestral place of blooming or emergence was not solely Incaic. Abercrombie relates that, “every province had shrines known as wak’as, [huacas] some of which were called (in Quechua) paqarinas, ‘places of blooming,’ marking where the first ancestors emerged” (1998:174). The ubiquity of this concept in the Andes at the time of Spanish contact was recorded by the chronicler Cristóbal de Albornoz (1989 [1581–1585]:171, 196), who related that as people were moved from place to place for mit’a service to the Inca they took a piece of clothing given to them from the head priest of their “wak’a paqarisqa” of their homeland. They were told by this religious leader:

“...not to forget the name of their origin and that, in the same way that they had in their homeland, they should reverence [sic] and worship their paqarisqa creator....If there are springs in their lands, they bring with them a cup of water, throw it with great ceremony into the springs in the places to which they are transplanted and give it the name of their paqarisqa with great solemnity...” (cited in Abercrombie 1998:187).

This account demonstrates that pre-Inca groups in the Andes conceptualized their place of origin as a paqarina or place of blossoming. These paqarinas were mountain springs and caves and represented human, camelid, and agricultural fertility. Indeed, “newborn animals and first fruits are themselves referred to as ‘flowers’ in libations” (Abercrombie 1998:501).

From Generative Landscapes: The Step Mountain Motif in Tiwanaku Iconography by Scott C. Smith from Franklin & Marshall College