There is something fascinating about the pre-Columbian empires of the Americas and their mythologies. While there is a great diversity in the cultures of the old world, these cultures, directly or indirectly, were all in conversation with each other, even from ancient times. Discoveries were spread through trade even in ancient times. They also all benefited from the use of large, domesticated labor animals, such as horses and oxen.
But in the New World, there were no large draft animals to aid in construction and farming. It is also an area about half the size of Afro-Eurasia, meaning there were fewer chances for that sort of technological and cultural exchange that defined the development of the Old World.
The Inca developed one of the most advanced states in the ancient world, in some of the harshest least navigable terrain no less. All without the wheel, draft animals, or even a uniform system of writing. This is unimaginable for an Afro-Eurasian empire.
The Inca referred to their own empire as Tawantinsuyu, roughly translated to ‘Union for Four Provinces.’ The term Inka meant lord and only referred to the small ruling class. So the Incas themselves were only about 20,000 people ruling a population of around 10 million. The Spanish referred to everyone in the empire as Inca, which is why we use the term today.
The Inca empire touched modern-day Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Columbia, and of course Chile. One fascinating aspect of it is that it was a large, complex, state that survived with almost no form of currency. The exchange of goods and services was governed by the idea of reciprocity, and taxes were paid in the form of labor.
The Aztec empire which occupied the Valley of Mexico was far less centralized. Like the Huns, it was a tributary empire. This meant that instead of exerting direct political control over different regions, they merely demanded tribute from them. Beyond that, it was closer to a grouping of city-states rather than an ‘empire.’ At its core, the realm was built around an alliance of three city-states, known as the ‘Triple Alliance.’ Over time, the city-state of Tenochtitlan grew more powerful than the other two, which is why we think of it now as the capital.
Given their relatively unique place among the great empires of world history, it is interesting to look at the religious and mythological belief systems that developed in these places.
Incan mythology incorporated specific places in the world around them into the belief system. Lake Titicaca, for example, became the body of water from which all life began. Many of the mountains in the Andes were similarly given their own place in Incan myth. But much of their mythology focused on the movements of the heavens. The stories give narrative reason to the specific movement of constellations and planets and connect these stories to their own agricultural calendar. In this way, the distant world of the stars, and the distant world of the gods are given specific importance to the earthly world of agriculture and growing food to sustain the Incan people.
Aztec mythology focuses on cycles of death and the rebirth of the world. The story of the five suns dictates the five ages of the world and how each came about and ended in disaster. Through the death and collapse of the old world, the birth of the new is needed. In each era, a different god became the sun and thus gave responsibility to the people. In the time of the second sun, the people of the earth stopped honoring the gods over time. One God, Tezcatlipoca, grew angry at this and turned all the people of the earth into monkeys. Quetzalcoatl, the sun in this age, had loved the flawed people of the earth so they created a great hurricane to blow all the monkeys off the earth, then stepped down as the sun to give rebirth to humanity. According to the Aztecs, we’re now in the era of the 6th sun, unless you would count the collapse of their empire as the end of that era.
These songs are curated to conjure the beauty and depth of the legends and mythology of both the Aztec and Inca people. It is made up of traditional music from the regions where these mighty empires once loomed large, the vast expanse of the valley of the damned and lofty peaks of Peru. Let the soothing sounds of the Quena flute, Ronroco guitar, and zampoña transport you to a place of legends, to cultures and empires unique in world history.