Long ago I became infatuated with what little I knew about the ancient Inca culture. Back in the 70s when I was drawing plants for botanists who studied them for scientific and shamanic purposes (brugmansia, brunfelsia, erythroxylum coca), I discovered how these ancient Indigenous people of the Andes, just as indigenous folk throughout history, everywhere, revered all of Nature. They worshiped the Sun, the Moon, even Thunder and Lightning and raging Rivers and earth-touching majestic Mountains. When I first heard the Inca terms “Pachamama” and “Sacha Runa” I never knew what these Quechua language words meant. Until, that is, I traveled with my consort CarterO recently to el Valle Sagrado (the Sacred Valley) to see for myself. So many people have said how visiting the site of Machu Picchu is life-altering, this hundreds-years old citadel of Inca spirituality, and I have to agree.
I am back from the trip almost a month, yet a part of me still feels “I am there.” And I think I will always feel that way, that I am connected to the message, the deep awakening I received by visiting this sacred site.
In preparation for our two-week long trip I began to research these two terms, especially. I’d like to share with you about the core of what I discovered. It may seem sophomoric to you, but to me this message I received from my visit to Machu Picchu is as extraordinary a spiritual awakening as I’ve ever had, the so-called “Great A-Ha!” What I learned from these two terms, Pachamama and Sacha Runa, summarizes the essence of what all indigenous people regard as “the meaning of life.”
The Inca Empire, which came to a sudden and abrupt ending when the Spanish conquistadors invaded Peru and killed many, including the “head of the Inca empire,” also known as “the Inka” himself … this Inca empire was the culmination of thousands of years of previous indigenous empires and smaller, more diverse and spread-out peoples. The Incas, therefore, were the last of the South American great empires before the Europeans ended Nature worship and installed Christianity as the required faith. Don’t forget, the conquering of the New World happened during the Spanish Inquisition when even Spaniards back home were killed for not complying with strict Catholic dogma, not to mention faraway pagans who’d never even heard of Jesus Christ.
High in the Andes, where the environment is dry and conducive to preservation, artifacts of clay, gold, silver and mummified bodies have been found that have helped scientists name the various “empires” that came long before the Inca Empire. These previous pre-Columbian regimes came from all directions of the newly discovered continents, which came to be called the Americas. The Inca Empire, like the Maya and the Aztec Empires of Central America, were essentially ended when the Spanish, who had valiantly fought the Moors for centuries before and were thusly, unstoppable warrriors who overtook Central and South America in the fifteenth century. Today, most indigenous people of the Andes, those who have not left their small villages, that is, still speak their native tongue and practice their pagan (pre-Christianity) beliefs alongside those rituals of Catholicism, which most of the indigenous people adopted under Spanish rule. Many indigenous people of the Andes never learned to speak Spanish.
So how do present-day Incas — direct and pure descendents of their ancestors, today gaily dressed in each village’s idiosyncratic style, and in many ways still living very similarly to how their predecessors lived centuries before, even though enjoying a lone, bare light bulb hanging in a room of their house, riding in the back of transport trucks, and knowing television is available down the road — how do these indigenous people revere Nature without being told they are “going to hell” by the local Padre, the Catholic priest?
They chew coca! They honor the goddess of Nature! Every single indigenous person in the area around Machu Picchu in Peru and other parts of the altiplano, in Bolivia, chews coca. And not just because their grandparents did, and the eons of ancestors before them. A pouch of coca is around the neck of every newly found mummified remains of another ancestral Inca when discovered. These burials are found in dug-out holes one can see spotting the sides of every tall mountain, some in clusters of a dozen or more, looking like birds’ rookeries, some alone and seemingly inaccessible. But clearly, when another oval shaped, man-made hole in the rock is found, another mummy’s site is recognized by all who know what they contain.
Coca leaves are considered by the indigenous to be part of Mama Coca’s gifts to the earth. Mama Coca is the deity of the bush which in scientific terms is called Erythroxylum Coca. The magical power that the leaves contain are personified to the Inca as a female, nurturing, universal caregiver, whose other name is Pachamama. She is Mother Earth. She is all Powerful, all Grace-bestowing, and the supreme balancer between good and evil in life.
The people who watch over Pachamama and keep her safe, are known as Sacha Runa: the people who follow Nature’s way. It is they, the Sacha Runa, who inclusively are all indigenous people and anyone else, like me, or any non-indigenous, who feels more aligned with protecting Nature and honoring Her significance, than any other form of superstitious belief system.
The first time I heard the expression “Sacha Runa” was when my pal Timothy Plowman, an enlightened Harvard botanist, returned from the Andes where he’d gone to study indigenous people and how they used coca. He nicknamed his dog, after that trip, Sacha Runa. By calling his dog, formerly known as Pogo, the special symbolic and spiritually charged-name of Sacha Runa, Tim kept alive in his mind how important it is to remember to protect and honor Nature. Throughout his short life, Tim did just that.
Today, every person of Inca descent does a ritual honoring Pachamama. It is performed each day, sometimes many times a day, before a person starts each new “chew” for their enjoyment. A chew is a clump of leaves that stays hidden in the cheek for quite some time, the beneficial alkaloids of the coca leaves being released slowly, or more quickly when the chewer introduces an alkaline substance such as ash or burnt seashells, or in my case, bi-carbonate of soda. This is just one of the many way the people of Inca descent still honor the goddess, Mother Nature.
The pre-chew ritual goes like this: Select three perfectly dried leaves (all coca is dried at harvest time, before ingesting). Hold the three “special” leaves in an open fan-shape between the first two fingers and the thumb. Hold them up before you, sky-ward (honoring the Sun and Moon and Stars and all else that derives from the heavenly body, the Sky above, all holy to Incas). Then blow on the three leaves with your own breath joining Nature’s, as you offer a prayer or homage to the goddess. You can make a dedication then if you wish. Or you can ask for protection, or any other request to the Goddess of Nature, Pachamama. Then reverently take each leaf, separately, and remove the pokey stem, then lovingly place the individual leaf of Mama Coca’s benevolence in your mouth, to moisten, adding one by one, each new leaf, reverently, intentionally, reminding yourself with each new leaf that this power that comes from Pachamama is now — in you — the recipient of Mama Coca’s great blessing.
And so it is.
How many rituals do you do, to remind yourself that life is special? You may not chew leaves, but surely you can do something to feel more connected to Nature. The coca ritual reminds me of Holy Communion, which I partake of as often as I can, thinking how great, to bring into my own body the symbolic bread and wine, body and blood, of Christ, a great Light to and of humanity.
It doesn’t have to be this elaborate a ritual, either. You don’t have to chew coca leaves, go to church, or blow to the wind. But you can do something. Perhaps bless your food silently? Honor your neighbor, even your enemy as you wish to be honored? Perhaps honor the weather as it shifts and acts unpredictably, sometimes mild sometimes roaring, exhausting us humans, prepared for calm or nightmarish frenzy each new day.
Indigenous people everywhere, from all times, have a lot to teach us modern Westerners. To have more rituals in our lives would help us understand the power of our own individual thoughts. Ritual reminds us how we can harness our thoughts to our intentions. Then we get to see real results manifest, eventually.
Enjoy the moment! Enjoy the day! Enjoy life!
Your pal who loves you,
LordFlea aka teZa Lord