The Incas believed ancestral spirits shared the world of the living. Mummified kings and queens were treated as though alive, and were consulted as seers who bore messages from the gods. The descendents of royalty gave the mummies food and drink and took them to visit other mummies, linking the worlds of past and present.
Sharing the cosmos with the living and dead were the gods and spirits of the landscape. Mountain peaks, rocky outcrops and springs represented ancestors and guardian spirits. Many festivals were held in their honor, with the hope the living would receive their blessings for a bountiful harvest. And for the buried ancestors, it was usual for the graves to have built-in conduits so libations could be offered easily.
Steeped in history and religion, modern-day Peru is constantly blending the old and the new. Cuzco is a classic example. Downtown is a labyrinth of cobblestoned streets and centuries old buildings containing Internet cafes and bars. Buses and cars zoom past immaculate post-Colombian architecture built on Incan foundations. Modern holidays are observed, but ancient traditions are also celebrated.
My favorite holidays are held the first two days of November. Nationally, All Saints Day is followed by All Souls Day, but in Cuzco, there is a slight variation. November 1 is Día de Todos los Santos Vivos (Day of the Living Saints) and is celebrated with delectable delights such as tantawawa (breads shaped in the figures of babies and horses), lechon (roast suckling pig), sugar cane, and chicha (fermented maize that can have the saliva of the makers in it – yes, it seriously can). This momentous day is quickly followed by Día de los Santos Difuntos (Day of the Deceased Saints) when families honor their ancestors with visits to their burial grounds.
I was lucky enough to experience Día de los Santos Difuntos at the invitation of a colleague of mine who grew up in Cuzco. We bought flowers at the stall next to the cemetery and made our way into the grounds. Hundreds of people milled around the walls that contained 2-foot-by-1.5- foot niches representing their relatives’ final resting places. In Peru, when a person dies they are only buried in the ground for ten years, then dug up and cremated with the ashes being placed in the wall at the cemetery. For the wealthy, though, the ashes are put in marble tombs that are big enough to contain the whole family.
The niches for the deceased had spaces large enough for each family to make a diorama within them. Inside the glass enclosures were figurines, paintings, and photos that signified the ancestor’s life. For example, if the deceased was a football fan, football paraphernalia might adorn the space. A musician may have a CD of their favorite music or a miniature of the instrument they played. The attention and creativity that goes into creating these dioramas are a testament to the adoration the families have for the deceased person.
Coming from a country where death is a reverent affair, it was hard to adjust to the celebrations around the cemetery. A band had formed at the cemetery gate and the musicians beat drums and blew trumpets, the tune becoming more discordant as the day wore on and as more alcohol was consumed. Dancing, singing, and storytelling were in abundance and the atmosphere had become electric. Every now and again, a cloud of sadness would float through the crowd, but the general feeling was one of fond remembrance for the loved one.
Although our group didn’t make it through the whole night, family members stayed with their ancestors to greet the new day. When I finally walked away with my friend, my view of death had changed completely. One’s life should be celebrated – whether the person is alive or dead.
What books, movies or experiences have touched upon a superstition or tradition and made you reassess your values or look at life differently?