The Incas were a very spiritual people, finding meaning and life in many elements of nature including rocks, mountains, and trees. ‘Apu’ is a word which one comes into contact with at least a few times as a tourist on a Peru holiday.
Apu has a range of meanings as it pertains to Inca mythology. In Quechua the word means ‘lord’ but in general it means mountain spirits that were revered and worshipped by the Incas.
The concept of Apu also means ‘protector’ or someone who can offer wisdom and guidance. This is why the name is also used in other contexts where such a relationship may exist such as in the case of a great teacher or leader.
For the most part, however, Apu is the word used to speak about the wise and omnipotent spirits of the mountains.
Apus For The Incas
The Incas incorporated the power of the mountains in their worship and rituals which is why you will find that many of the sacred sites Peru has are actually placed at considerable heights such as Machu Picchu.
Historians believe that the Inca civilization desired proximity to the gods and to the spirits which according to them could even exist inside animals.
Mountains, in particular, were deemed extremely wise and were called upon for protection against famine and disease. The spirits of the mountains were also believed to influence the growth of crops and the life and well-being of livestock.
Ritualistic practices were often carried out to ensure that both livestock and crops would flourish and that a good harvest could be guaranteed for that year.
Offerings of coca leaves and chicha (corn beer) were made in ceremonies to honor the mountain spirits so they would bestow their blessings upon the population.
Their Importance For Inca Mythology
Apus or the Apukuna (in plural form) were generally considered to be male in nature although some mountains were considered feminine with a female’s caring energy.
While the mountains were considered powerful in their own capacity, they were also worshipped because they provided a link to the gods.
The premise of Inca mythology was built upon the understanding of three distinct worlds or dimensions. There was Hanan Pacha (also known as the heavens), Kay Pacha (an earthly realm for the humans) and Uku Pacha (the underworld).
The mountains due to their sheer height and size were perceived by the Incas to be near to Hanan Pacha. In Inca mythology, the mountains served a purpose of being connected to Kay Pacha acting as the protectors of humans. They could also in the same capacity touch the heavens and converse with the gods.
Whenever the Inca people feared the worst or felt that something bad was going to happen, they organized rituals and prayers to the mountains to intervene and avert the disaster.
Apu Worship In Modern Times
The spiritual significance of the Apus of the Sacred Valley is very much a currently practiced phenomenon. The locals that live in or practice the traditional Andean way of life, are just as connected to the energy and spirits of the Apus as the Incas were.
The worship of the Apukuna has also diversified after the colonization of the region, with some Catholic aspects getting embedded into the prevalent belief system.
Many Peruvians that belong to local tribes still give offerings to the mountain spirits praying for health and welfare. The offerings remain the same as they were during the Inca period but they are mostly practiced by diviners and shamans of the local tribes.
Apus Present In The Sacred Valley And Cuzco
In Inca culture the higher the mountain is, the more revered it ultimately becomes. The highest peaks were the closest to the heavens and hence deserving of more worship. While there are several in the region, a few were more notable in Inca worship.
Ausangate is a mountain near Cuzco that has a height of 6,384 meters. It was particularly important in Inca ceremonies and even now is home to herding communities that raise llamas and alpacas.
Salcantay is one of the twelve highest mountains in Peru and one of the highest in the entire Andes range as well.
Salcantay lies very close to the sacred, hidden city of Machu Picchu. A trail called the Salcantay trail is used by trekkers today to reach the city.
According to legend Machu Picchu was built for religious ceremonies and rituals, often only for the elite and the royalty. Its proximity to this mountain and several others (also considered Apus) marks its purpose as a religious center as it incorporates other elements of Inca worship as well such as stargazing and moon worship.
Salcantay, when translated into the local language, inspires descriptions like brutal, wild and free which is why the mountain inspired a kind of fear amongst the Incas. Due to its strategic location in the same line as the Southern Cross (an important constellation in the Inca worship system), it was deemed immensely powerful.
According to the Incas, the mountain could control the pattern of rains and storms and in that way, it was also a regulator for the weather.
While this is the name of the Inca city which is a favorite amongst tourists today, it is also the name of the peak on which the structures sit. When the ruins were first discovered they were identified by the locals as the remnants of a citadel on Machu Picchu or the ‘old mountain.’
The mountain of Machu Picchu is 3,082 meters and trekkers that reach the top can view the entire valley and the ruins in a bird’s eye view.
Since Machu Picchu was built as a kind of religious retreat according to some historical accounts, it makes sense that the mountain on which it was built is also an Apu. In the mind of the Inca diviners, it would have made it easier to channel energy for the rituals.
To this day thousands of people visit the ruins and many report being able to feel sacred energy emanating from the rocks and structures.
Huayna Picchu is known as the sister of Machu Picchu although it rises to a greater height. Although the site was never utilized as an entire city or settlement it was very important for Inca religious worship as they constructed a trail leading to the top to build important temples at the peak.
Apart from being a venerated Apu, it was also a retreat for the most pious and pure such as the high priests and the special virgins who assisted in sacred rituals.
Since Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu are so close together, the priests would go back and forth at the beginning of each day as a small ceremony to greet the morning.
The ‘Temple of the Moon’ which comprises of naturally occurring caves on the side of the mountain is a site well concealed. Tourists can end up missing it unless they know what to look for.
Apu- An Old Belief
Apus played a vital role not just for the Inca belief system but it is believed they were worshipped even by pre-Incan civilizations. It is by that understanding not surprising that they came to be integrated into all the cultures to exist in the region since.