I had the unexpected opportunity to travel to Cusco, Peru in mid-January. I never thought I’d go there, though I recall having a fascination with Peru when I was younger. I wrote an elementary school book report on the Incas, no doubt influenced by my grandmother’s adventures in Lima and at Machu Picchu.
It took a day or two to acclimate to the altitude, which at 11,200 feet is considerable. For me, this mean two days of mild headache, racing heartbeat upon lying down, bloodshot eyes, and occasional dizziness while walking the hilly streets. I drank quite a bit of coca tea and found it to be a big help.
Our first full day in Cusco, we visited the Temple of the Sun and the Chocolate Museum. The Temple of the Sun is an Inca temple, the majority of it as it was centuries ago, only without its decoration of gold and silver. The Temple is aligned with the Winter Solstice so that the Solstice sunlight passes through the windows. The Incas constructed the temple of huge, expertly cut stones, and built their windows and doorways in a trapezoidal form, narrower at the top and wider at the bottom, to mimic the stable, wide stance of a human being. Our guide explained that this type of construction was created to be anti-earthquake.
Attached to the Temple is a cathedral. The original cathedral was built by the Spaniards who conquered the Incas. The last major earthquake in the area destroyed the cathedral entirely, but left the Inca construction intact. I would be hard-pressed, given my view of cultures that conquer and destroy others out of greed and self-righteousness, not to have taken this information as metaphor for the unstable foundations of greed and self-righteousness, even as I walked the cathedrals halls and viewed the gorgeous Catholic iconography, paintings, relics, and vestments on display.
The following day, our group met with a local Quechua shaman to go to the market for ceremonial supplies, and then after lunch we took a van ride up one of the mountains outside the city to the shaman’s small house near the top for ritual. The house was one room, handcrafted by the shaman of clay and bamboo, with a tin roof tied down with copper wire and weighted with clay rocks. Inside, the shaman prepared a beautiful, powerful physical prayer to the sacred Mountain and to Pachamama, the world mother, on our behalf. We prayed for blessings on ourselves, our families, our livelihoods, and our love relationships. I prayed also for my wider family—all beings who reside within the great fabric of All, the great fabric of Love. The shaman buried a small portion of the prayer in the Earth for Pachamama to take into Herself. The rest, he burned.
The burning was made more difficult for the folks inside by the lack of a fireplace or windows. And the burning was done inside because of the locals’ shame at their Quechua religion and its lack of modernity, and the shaman’s desire not to disturb them. While the prayer was built and burned, a torrential thunderstorm with hail passed overhead, the sound of the drops and stones on the roof drowning out voice and thought for a bit. The sun came out before the rain finished falling, and through the space between the tops of the clay walls and the roof, the water looked like liquid silver.
Once the fire died, we drove down the mountain road, now slick and slippery mud rather than dirt. We stopped at a washout and folks got out of our van to help some people who had become stuck there while trying to drive up the mountain.
More mountain driving the next day on the way to Ollantaytambo to catch the train to Machu Picchu. The train ride itself was spectacular, as it wound along the course of the Urubamba River in its swollen, rapid-riven glory, overshadowed by the cloud-circled peaks of the Andes. Machu Picchu reminded me so much of Newgrange. Such different flavors, true; but the beauty and precision of the temples and squares and aqueducts spoke to feats engineering without our modern tools. There is no mortar there between the stones. And yet so few of them have moved from their original placement. I felt my grandmother’s presence more than once while there, and on the ride back down the mountain to the town of Aguas Caliente, where we caught the train for our return trip.
Everywhere, the symbols of the condor, the puma, and the serpent dominated—the upper world, middle world, and lower world; and the parts of the human soul as the spirit, the present life, and the innate wisdom. The spiral asserted itself everywhere as well—the symbol of Pachamama.
So many ancient cultures revered that symbol, its meaning so similar in almost all of them.
The spiral has been on my mind a lot since I returned home, some because of the ancient cultures to which I have connection and the ways in which that symbol appears their artifacts, and some because of what the spiral means to me.
It’s not often that I contemplate definitions of my spirituality, or that I feel moved to dig deep enough into the making of definitions so that my spade strikes stone. During one lunch on this trip to Peru, however, I did. And what rose from the strike of steel on stone is that my religion is the spiraling life force. My faith acts in service of life. And in this I feel kinship wherever I see the spiral as a symbol of the life force that sustains us all and gathers us into Her arms when our hearts cease to beat in our flesh and blood bodies.
As I stood with my friend in the doorway the shaman’s house, wrapped in the gloaming, the chill air flavored with smoke and the scent of Florida water, above the place in the earth where the shaman had buried our gift and prayer to Pachamama, there was one verse we felt moved to speak.
In Whom we live, move and have our being
From You all things emerge
And unto You all things return.