Chakana; The Incan Cross

Posted in Fundamental Andean Symbols with tags , , , , , , , on September 8, 2008 by Jasmine
“Imperios” by Fredy Roa, Museo de Arte Contemporario, Cuzco

If the three animal symbols represent the three worlds, the Chakana or Incan Cross symbolizes the dynamic between the universe and the life it contains.  A complex symbol, people have different perspectives on the stories the cross tells, and I will do my best to recount the ones I learned.

The Chakana is a sort of multifaceted map. Astrologically, The three-tiered cross represents the star constellation known as the Southern Cross ( The twelve corners point to the twelve months of the calendar year. The four prongs represent the directions on earth (the Inca did not refer to the cardinal directions we are accustomed to them).

Tesoros Del Inca, by Wilber Roa C., Museo de Arte Contemporary, Cusco.

More importantly however, the Chakana represents the animal worlds of the Condor (Hanan Pacha), Jaguar or Puma (Kay Pacha), and Serpent. When you draw a horizon in the center, the upper half is the spirit world of the Condor (also of the sun and planets), the centerline is feline; the surface of earth and the present world, and the lower half of the cross is the serpent world of the dead.

Chakana at Seminario Pottery Guild, Urubamba.

The circle, however, is an important part of the tale.  It speaks to the Andean concept of Ayu, or life community.  The circular Ayu illustrates that all living things are connected in an ensemble with no end point. Furthermore, it expresses the reincarnation souls are believed to experience in this tradition. Just as earth’s organisms continually die and birth, a soul is believed to circularly live, die and be reborn. To represent this concept, the circle passes through the three worlds. As you trace the circle you trace the soul’s path – moving from the present world of the living, to the upper world of the spirits, and then into the land of the dead where it will regenerate for the next life.  The upper and lower worlds have nothing to do with the Western concept of heaven or hell; all worlds are viewed positively.The hole also denotes Cusco, which is considered the center of the Incan Empire.

Fountain at Seminario Pottery Guild, UrubambaFountain at Seminario Pottery Guild, Urubamba

Chakana is the paramount symbol of the Andean culture, to be seen on almost anyone or anything. The architecture of buildings, temples, and religious santuaries scattered throughout the Andes incorporates this symbol. One example is Sacsayhuamán, the Incan Temple of the Sun located in Cusco.  As you arrive, an entrance shaped as the upper half of the Chakana greets you. Many Peruvians and others wear jewelry of the Incan Cross as a charm for protection, for they consider it a means to ward off evil energy (right).  In this way the symbol has transcended to a design tool, critical to shaping the energetic result of the physical objects that portray it.


The Three Worlds

Posted in Design Andina with tags , , , , , , on August 18, 2008 by Jasmine

In order to begin a conversation on Andean spiritual design, we must begin with a discussion on the three most central symbols in every medium, those which express the cosmology. Andean cosmology views the universe as a three part ensemble, representing each realm with the Serpent, Jaguar, and Condor. Images of these symbolic animals are embedded in everything from ancient stone walls of the city to club interiors.

(Pub Ukukus), home to local artwork, live salsa music, and Pisco Sours. Cuzco, Peru.)
Close-up on the bottom of the mural.

The condor is known for having wingspans of up to 10 feet wide and is native to the mountains of South America. Every civilization that has inhabited the territory has referred to the condor in their design. In the Peruvian tradition, the bird is considered the messenger between our physical world and the realm of the gods or spirits, and represents all heavenly life forces.

The condor represents the ability to “see” as a bird would from the air. In other words foresight and spiritual wisdom are all associated with this image. Many people relate the image of god’s eye with that of the condor. Furthermore, the ability to fly also alludes to transcending. The condor is associated with the top of our head, the place of sight and perception, and, according to Q’ero shamanism, the place where the soul can enter and exit or commune with gods.

Condor carved into rock in Ollaytaytambo, Peru.

The world of the present moment, or reality as we humans are accustomed to it, is embodied in the image of the jaguar or feline. The cat, with its incredible sensitivity to sounds and motion, poise and power, embodies the physical world we know. The jaguar roams the earth with incredible agility, and can move almost instantaneously. Jaguar is confined to the middle world, just as in reality the feline primarily only on the ground plane, and for that reason represents not only the earth we know but a place in time neither in the future or past. The jaguar is associated with our hearts, our instincts, and our intuition. In other words, the way our body can feel, perceive, and react independently of rational.

Jaguar Sculpture, H. Stern Jewelry, Plaza de Armas. Cusco, Peru.

The serpent is the keeper of the underworld or world of the dead. Much different than the western world’s conception of hell, the underworld is the place where souls go after death to prepare their next rebirth. Under the ground’s surface is both the place where dead leaves decompose and new seeds rise to life. The world of the dead is in this way also the world of birth. This continuous death and rebirth process thus not surprisingly links the serpent to the Pacha Mama or Mother Earth. The human belly or center is associated with the realm of the serpent.

Serpent Pin in Gold, Pre-Columbian Art Museum, Cusco, Peru.

Though these animal symbols come in every shape and form and from every century to have inhabited Peru, and many may have different interpretations of their symbolic values, the symbols have remained essentially the same over thousands of years. Spiritual cosmology and belief in higher energies have always been central to Peruvian designs, and the condor, jaguar, and serpent best express, in ancient and contemporary works alike, the spiritual integrity lining much of what this culture creates.

Cosmologia Andina en Deseno

Posted in Design Andina with tags , , , on August 13, 2008 by Jasmine

The religion of the mountains, the Shamans and the Q’eros, could not have been a better starting point for understanding the symbols of Peruvian cosmology in their designs. The following posts begin to explore the materials, important images, symbolic concepts, and sacred objects created for Peruvian ceremonies. People have a range of different beliefs and personalized traditions, and some meanings and explanations are ambiguous. Please feel free to contribute any knowledge you may have of what I present.