Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by mountains—not just the beauty and danger posed by the most formidable ones, but by what they represent. To some it is a challenge, an obstacle to be conquered and overcome. To native Andean populations, it represents a connection to the Earth and their God. Mountains are very spiritual things, that are often brought offerings and have histories crisscrossed with ceremony, sacrifice and significance to the locals. They represent either the origin of people or where they go to when they die, and as many of them are active volcanoes to this day they still inspire spirituality in the local populations that live on and near them. Some of this spirituality may have had to do with the fact that at incredibly high altitudes, such as at the tops of the highest peaks in the Andes, the lack of oxygen even for people adapted to live at altitude causes an almost dream-like state. Reality and fiction are blurred together, possibly giving it some of the religious and spiritual power mountains hold in local culture.
One of the towns we visited this past weekend, Maras, has a mountain that features prominently in its story of the origin of its church. Another mountain, which happens to be the tallest in Peru, is the destination of a famous sacrifice of an Incan girl. Sacrifice was a significant part of the Inca way of life, not just in the form of offerings but in human life. One way the Inca displayed their power was by marching someone through the entire empire, in this case a young girl whose mummy was found on the mountain hundreds of years later, and sacrificing her body at a final destination. Along with the body, found in 1995 by an American anthropologist and his climbing partner, were food, textiles and statues, part of the religious ceremony of the sacrifice. This journey across the empire gives great insight into Inca power and the role mountains played in its display. This journey was punctuated by a series of rituals, the culmination of all sometimes taking over a year. This sort of display is crucial to the unification of the Empire. Different from European empires whose power stemmed from military might, a lot of Inca power emanated from culture, religion and ritual. The journey of the girl five centuries ago and her eventual death represented the reach of the Inca empire and its control over the sacred land. In this case, the mountain signified the end of life, and seeing them in person as we journeyed across Peru, I can understand the importance and spirituality gained from the majestic peaks.