The Spiritual Source of Health: of God and Wak'a

The impact of the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century has left a profound and enduring legacy upon the indigenous peoples of the Andes at every level of life, impacting deeply into their sense of identity and their understanding of the nature of the world they live in. One of the key objectives of the MEDICINE project is to understand those changes and to identify surviving relicts of pre-Colombian belief systems and the ways these might have interacted complexly with the invaders’ systems of beliefs. The blog post ‘A Curandera's Tale. The story of Juana Icha’ highlighted this process quite dramatically at the point of impact of the invading religious paradigms onto the pre-Christian/Colombian psyche. That process, seen at its inception, is now complete as of centuries, and for this the Catholic Evangelisers of Spain would have been well pleased with their efforts. All respondents in the study identify themselves as practicing Catholics, with but one Christian Evangelical convert. But this does not mean that people have necessarily abandoned their folk practices and belief in the world of spirits, of sacred places in the landscape and of good and bad forces. As common in traditional cultures worldwide, folk beliefs and country lore can exist in parallel with more developed religious ideologies, or operate as a substratum beneath it.

The questionnaire employed in the survey phase of this study seeks to identify the continuity of ancestral systems of belief and the following questions address the conceptual basis for these belief systems directly, whilst initially establishing the actual religion that the participant espouses. All the questions directly derive from the first phase of the study which reviewed extensively archaeological and ethnohistorical sources to establish pre-Colombian beliefs and practices.

Beliefs about the World and Nature

  • What religion do you follow?
  • How do you see the physical landscape and nature, ie the earth, the sun, moon, stars, the sea, the landscape, plants, animals etc?
    Do you see them as all being part of a ‘whole’ or do you see them as being separate things?
  • Does any element, such as the wind, the water, the sun, have the power to harm / to heal?
  • Do you believe in earth spirits, spirits of the mountains, good/evil spirits, etc.?
  • Do you believe in ‘sacred locations’ in the landscape, and the importance of venerating them with offerings?
  • Do you believe that a supernatural being is in charge of the health of your community and able to cure people of any illness (as the wak’as had once been believed to)?
  • Do you see life and life experiences as being good or bad, positive and negative? (duality)

We know from many ethnohistorical sources, that in pre-Colombian times, non-human spiritual beings known as wak’as were in charge of the health and well-being of communities, of the cycles of agricultural fertility, had an oracular/ divinatory function and could foretell the future. Whilst at its most basic simply meaning ‘a sacred thing’, it is nevertheless a very difficult concept to describe to people from a European ontological background. Wak'as can be both of human manufacture or natural, portable, as well as natural loci in the landscape, or natural phenomena, but with the power to transform into human-looking beings or animals, and back again. They are better known from ethnohistorical accounts in the Peruvian Andes, although it is clear that the name is still understood in many places in the Ecuadorian sierra now too. They were pivotal in every aspect of Andean life. Wak’as were served by community religious specialists (yachaks) who acted as intermediaries between the wak’a and the community, and through serving this entity and interpreting its oracular pronouncements, the health of the community and individuals could be maintained. In turn, the wak’a would demand feeding with ritual items such as coca, chicha (maize beer), guinea pigs, llama fat, or other offerings.
Ugsha, Imbabura

Question 2.6 sought to establish the persistence of this belief, apart from any more general or specific belief in Christian sacred personages. The question was not well understood by many respondents, although a few people replied in the affirmative to it, others either did not understand or responded in the negative. However, many people simply said that Taita Dios (Father God) or Diosito (familiar endearment version of Dios – God) was the one in charge of the health of themselves and their community, and praying to him regularly and sometimes making offerings (which might be via the intermediary of a priest at church) was what delivered the required protection. Several respondents had no real understanding at all of illness, never having experienced illness themselves and affirmed that simply praying to Taita Dios or Diosito was all that had been needed to keep them healthy. In this, then, it seems that the actual function of belief in a higher spiritual entity in charge of the health of the community and individual within that, is functionally one and the same. The only difference is the actual name given to it, and the fact that the Christian god is seen as being universally applicable rather than there being one individual wak’a per community.
Quilotoa, Ecuador

The influence of belief in health and illness is one which has for some time attracted interest in the modern clinical world, as so much of the basis of illness can be found to have its roots extending deeply into the psychosomatic substratum of human experience and many traditional Andean illnesses which people are asked about are essentially of this nature. In modern medicine these concepts are now interpreted as ‘placebo’ and ‘nocebo’ – the belief that if something can do you good it will influence you for the positive, and vice versa. The most dramatic non-rational expressions of these are Faith Healing and Hexing. In a later blog I will discuss the phenomenon of the Andean ‘Witch Saints’ – Catholic saints who have been accredited with the power to harm people, much in the way that brujeria – witchcraft - is believed to.

Sources
T. Bray (editor). 2015. The Archaeology of Wak'as. Explorations of the Sacred in the Pre-Columbian Andes. University of Colorado Press, Boulder
C. Brosseder. 2014. The Power of Huacas. Change and resistance in the Andean world of colonial Peru. University of Texas Press, Austin

About this blog entry

This blog entry was posted on Monday 12th February 2018.
elizabeth.currie@york.ac.uk's picture
Dr Elizabeth Currie

Dr Elizabeth Currie is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Experienced Researcher and Global Fellow at the Department of Archaeology, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Health Sciences, University of York.

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