Cusco Sun Pillars

The Inca elite claimed kinship to the sun, and this needed to be constantly reinforced. Public rituals were regulated by the annual motions of the sun along the horizon, the most important of these being the festival of Inti Raymi, which took place at the time of the June solstice. This is still enacted today in the form of a pageant held annually at the ruins of the fortress of Sacsahuaman (Saqsaywaman) in the hills immediately outside the city of Cusco (Cuzco), once the capital of the entire Inca empire.

Several chroniclers, including Bernabé Cobo, give accounts of pillars that were erected on the horizon around Cusco in order to mark sunrise or sunset on key dates in the year. These eye-witness accounts span the whole of the century immediately following the European conquest and differ in many details, not least the number of pillars and their locations. There are, however, independent and largely consistent accounts of four pillars ("small towers") placed on a hill to the west of the city to mark planting times. Gar-cilaso de la Vega, the son of a Spanish captain and an Inca princess, described four sets of four pillars, each set marking one of the four solstitial di-

The Inti Raymi solstice pageant at Sacsahuaman, outside Cusco in Peru, photographed in 1984. (Courtesy of Clive Ruggles)

rections. In each case, according to Garcilaso, the critical rising or setting position of the sun was flanked by two smaller towers, themselves flanked by two larger towers to guard them.

Given the importance of the sun in Inca religion, it is scarcely surprising that horizon observations of the sun might have been the dominant seasonal markers and calendrical determinants, but some chroniclers' accounts also speak of a lunar calendar and distinctive ceremonials and rituals (such as llama sacrifices) being carried out each month. How the lunar and solar aspects of the calendar were resolved is not clear, although Garcilaso maintains that the solstitial pillars were used for this purpose. There are also some grounds for suggesting that pillars were used to observe lunar as well as solar risings and settings.

Within a generation after the conquest the pillars fell into disuse, although some may have survived for more than a century. No material traces remain today, though archaeologists and archaeoastronomers have tried to identify where some of them stood. Archaeoastronomer Anthony Aveni has identified what he feels is the likely location of a set of four pillars to the west of Cusco, on a hill called Cerro Picchu, suggesting that they marked sunset not on either of the solstices but on the dates of solar antizenith passage. However, the evidence is equivocal and his conclusions are hotly disputed.

See also:

Antizenith Passage of the Sun; Cobo, Bernabé (1582-1657); Lunar and Luni-Solar Calendars; Solstitial Directions.

Ceque System; Island of the Sun.

Lunar Phase Cycle; Solstices.

References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F. Stairways to the Stars: Skywatching in Three Great Ancient Cultures, 161-165. New York: Wiley, 1997.

-. Between the Lines: The Mystery of the Giant Ground Drawings of

Ancient Nasca, Peru, 130-135. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000. (Published in the UK as Nasca: The Eighth Wonder of the World. London: British Museum Press, 2000.)

-. Skywatchers, 312-316. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Aveni, Anthony F., and Gary Urton, eds. Ethnoastronomy and Archaeoas-tronomy in the American Tropics, 203-229. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1982.

Bauer, Brian. The Sacred Landscape of the Inca: The Cusco Ceque System. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Bauer, Brian, and David Dearborn. Astronomy and Empire in the Ancient Andes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Selin, Helaine, ed. Astronomy across Cultures, 203-206. Dordrecht, Neth.: Kluwer, 2000.

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