Incan Symbols: Ancient Mystery or Modern Myth?
February 13, 2015
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Incan Symbols: Ancient Mystery or Modern Myth?

Ancient Incan symbols passed down by the mystical empire…or a modern-day myth? While travelling high in Peruvian Andes discovering what was once the centre of the Incan empire, I fell in love with the unique and colourful array of pendants being sold to tourists. The jewellery designs were said to incorporate ancient symbols of the Incan people who were natives to South America. They evolved into the largest kingdom of pre-Columbian America between the 14th and 16th centuries before it was all brought to an end by conquering Spanish colonists. On arriving home I set about researching more into the origins of my Incan-inspired souvenirs, and my investigation raised more questions than answers.

A history of mystery

Inca Quipu

Inca Quipu – coloured knots used by the Incans

Incan history was primarily passed down through the generations via oral stories and teachings, with the only real form of documentation identified by historians being an elaborate system of coloured knots. Today, most of what is written about the Incans is told through the eyes of the Spanish conquistadors who eventually overran the empire. In many ways, we are now relying on archaeology and a historic game of Chinese Whispers (or Telephone if you are from the US) by Incan descendants to provide information about one of the greatest human civilizations in history.

Cusco, "The Navel" of the Incan Empire
Cusco, "The Navel" of the Incan Empire

Soulful souvenir shopping

As I wandered through the historic town of Pisac in the Sacred Valley of the Inca’s, shopping for handicrafts at the marketplace, I came across an array of jewellery that seemed to have significant symbolic meaning to the local artisans and Incan descendants. As souvenirs of the trip, I selected what a stall owner described as an Incan cross and Incan calendar, designs which appeared to be quite prevalent in many markets we visited throughout Peru.

The Chakana

The cross, otherwise known as “chakana” or Andean cross, has equal-length arms with three steps forming each quadrant, and a hole through the centre. The pendant is a rainbow of colour in a chequered pattern, created using locally mined semi-precious stones.

I was told by locals that these colourful tiles replicate the Incan flag; and the hole through the centre represents the town of Cusco, meaning “the navel”, which was once the centre of the mighty Incan empire. The sets of three steps were described as the three “worlds” of Incan belief: underworld, living world and heavenly world. I wanted to know more about the origin and history of the chakana, so I did some digging online and in my local library. While I found lots of information, there is a lack of substantiation for the many and varied claims. I found that the chakana is as steeped in mystery as the Incans themselves.

Chakana aka Incan Cross or Andean Cross
Chakana or Incan Cross

Wiphala and Bolivia

Most agree that no one really knows the origin of the specific chakana design. What archaeologists and historians have found is that similar geometric stepped patterns can be found dating back 5000 years to the Caral civilization of Peru, which is the oldest known civilization in the Americas. Since then, it appeared under various guises through pre-Incan ages.

This stepped motif has obvious visual ties to Incan architecture and design. Steps can be seen extensively throughout Peru’s ancient archaeological sites even today, not to mention the terracing of the steep Andean hillsides created by the Incans. What I found, however, was that there is no recorded historical significance of how the chakana’s form is used now (such as in the jewellery I purchased) and that there are varying interpretations of its meaning. In addition to the explanation I received from locals in Peru, alternative theories about the design exist based on cosmology, mathematics, cartography, and the Incan commandments, amongst others.

Modern myth?

Now I’m not saying that what the local stall owner told me about the chakana pendant isn’t true. This could be symbolism passed down through oral history, and that remains sacred within the culture of Incan descendants of today. I found from my reading though, that the modern-day chakana is not considered to have had specific importance to the Incans, but maybe instead a symbol of much older civilisations recognised and revived in popularity by Incan descendants.

The Incan Calendar

Then we come to the alleged Incan calendar. Maybe I am misreading the symbols, but to me there seems to be eight distinct divisions, while both the solar and lunar Incan calendars had 12 months! The closest I could come to the symbols depicted in my pendant design were the geometric motifs found on Taquile belts that the Incans of Lake Titicaca weaved to represent social, agricultural and religious cycles, much like a calendar. Another similarity can be found in the tokapo symbols woven in Incan cloth, which is still being decoded by historians. The mystery remains!

Incan calendar pendant
Incan calendar pendant
Incan textile with Tokapu symbols
Incan textile with geometric tokapu symbols

It’s likely those born into the culture may have a clearer understanding of the Incan symbols that decorate my unique pendants. While my heart sank a little thinking I might have fallen for a modern-day myth, I decided that the cross is still a true representation of my trip through the Incan realm—and a beautiful piece of jewellery in its own right.

For me personally, the steps of the cross will forever be a reminder of the countless stone stairs that I trekked in Incan footsteps to reach the magnificent Machu Picchu. As for the calendar, well maybe it gives me a great excuse to return to Peru and spend some time investigating this mystery in more detail with the locals.

Peace, love & inspiring travels,

Madam ZoZo

Incan Symbols: Ancient Mystery or Modern Myth?

About author

Madam ZoZo

Hi! I'm Madam ZoZo, aka Zoë, an Australian designer, creative consultant, blogger and digital nomad. I'm passionate about travel, design, dance and new experiences that fuel my creativity. I strive to travel in a style that is gentle on the earth and that contributes to the communities I visits, even if it is merely to take away a greater understanding of a different culture. Duende by Madam ZoZo, is where I share the stories of my travels and the duende (soul/inspiration) I find along the way.

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