Conquistadors and Amarus
Thanks to M. for hosting me. She hasn’t been to Bolivia as far as I know, so I thought I’d share a small travelogue of my own experience and how one of my stories came about.
During my time in Bolivia and Peru, I grew to know a great deal about the history of the region. My husband’s father and uncles would regale me with tales of Incas and Spaniards, all of whom they referred to by name just as my family in the States would talk about Franklin, Lincoln and Lewis and Clark. My nights were filled with stories about Manco Capac and how the Incas created their empire, Pizarro’s conquest, de Orellana’s journey down the Amazonas, the riches of Potosi, and Tupac Amaru’s indigenous rebellion. According to the men, the lost gold of the Incas was possibly hidden somewhere on the mountain that was the family hacienda, buried in some Inca ruins there. The hacienda had come to the family through a conquistador ancestor.
Over several months, I compiled quite a lot of tales—some amusing, some terrifying, and many so fantastical they compelled my imagination. The women and Aymara maids (every family of means had one or more indigenous servants) told me some of the more amazing stories. In particular was my mother-in-law, a woman whose intelligence and humor I appreciate more with every passing year. She was part-Aymara and once she knew I was interested in the tales of her people, she opened up like a book. One day while we went to market in La Paz she directed me to look across the plaza at the Church of San Francisco.
“That church,” she said, “is built on an Inca temple. See the street? Those are the stones of the temple. There was a river here. It’s underground now. The river had gold because it was home to an amaru. The Spanish destroyed the temple and in a few years the river had no more gold.”
And so I was introduced to the concept of the amaru, which came to play a role in one of my stories. So did something else she told me about the church. The church’s Inca foundation and origin as a holy place to the indigenous people meant they continued to revere it as their church for many more centuries. My mother-in-law pointed out the carvings on the church exterior and how pagan they were. She told me how snakes infested the bell tower and people believed someday the snakes would escape to herald the return of the Inca. The amaru, I learned, was an entity of life, strength, wisdom, and power. It was associated with rivers and considered a bringer of change, both destructive and beneficent. The Andean creator god Viracocha holds two staffs: thunderbolts in one hand and a serpent in the other. Power and an amaru—the capacity to bring about change.
My mother-in-law was a good Catholic and didn’t worship other gods. She did, however, believe that this church, San Francisco, was just a bit more holy than other churches—and that the most holy of all was the Basilica of the the Virgin of Copacabana. That church is located on an island in Lake Titicaca where, not coincidentally, Viracocha created the Sun and the Moon. The Incas claimed descent from the Sun.
The conquistadors conquered the Inca Empire. They never fully eradicated the pagan religion of the natives. The old ways live on in Virgins who overshadow Christ and are dressed in bejeweled gowns that would look at home on Inca princesses. Old beliefs live on in traditions like pouring a few drops of drink on the ground to honor Pachamama, or asking Pachamama’s blessing before building a house. The three main laws of the Incas are still spoken aloud and held to be the Golden Rule: Ama Sua. Ama Llulla. Ama Quella. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t be lazy.
When I wrote “The Seventh Sacrifice” for the Devil’s Night anthology, I wanted to bring readers into this world I love. “The Seventh Sacrifice” depicts a collision of cultures, sex, and fate: In modern day La Paz, a young Spaniard hell-bent on revenge is attracted to a native sorcerer determined to break a centuries old curse. Seems there’s a church in the way….
Excerpt: “The Seventh Sacrifice”
Two stone steps flanked by tables of packaged, prefabricated charms led to the narrow hole-in-the-wall that constituted a store. Every spare millimeter of space was packed with arcane objects. Fully furred llama fetuses with huge, black eyes and grimacing teeth hung from a pole over the doorway, while more of the same—mummified and without fur—lay piled in baskets. The dried husks of armadillos, toads, and starfish held sway among racks of cheap beads, brass bells, and trays of colored powders. Beltran hoped the powders were herbs, but at least one looked like dried blood, and he knew the others could be anything from antlers to hooves, teeth, or bones.
But what caught his eye next, and took away his already scanty breath, was the man sitting on a stool just inside the doorway. Black hair, straight and shining, framed a brown face with strong features and high cheekbones. The heavy mane cascaded behind broad shoulders and a red poncho of alpaca wool. As the man rose to his feet, Beltran saw that he was taller than most native men, with a wiry, powerful frame. The shopkeeper’s eyes commanded him most of all: deep and black, they locked onto his with a hunger so fierce, the compulsion in them made him quiver.
Holy Mother of God, Beltran thought, forcing himself to breathe normally. Marisol never told me her shaman would be gorgeous!
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