Approaches to Homosexuality and Intersexism in the Andean World

By Helen Pugh

Attitudes towards non-hetero and non-binary folk in the Inca Empire is an area that has seldom been studied, but here are some facts that I came across during my research for Intrepid Dudettes of the Inca Empire. The first part is about homosexuality in Huaylas, and the second is about the intersex deity Wiracocha.

Homosexuality in Huaylas

The Huaylas area of Peru, to the north of Lima, is an area of outstanding natural beauty, a high-altitude valley between two branches of the Andes Mountains. The capital was Tocash, marked on the map below.

And it was precisely this area that allowed gay folk to be open about their sexuality: the law placed no restrictions on homosexual behaviour and people didn’t discriminate against them or call them names. The sad thing is, neighbouring ethnicities were not as tolerant and instead mocked Huaylas society for their progressive thinking. 

When the Inca emperor Pachakutik (who reigned c.1438 – 1471) invaded the Huaylas area, he persecuted those who were openly gay. Sadly, the Incas were not tolerant towards non-hetero behaviour. But time moved on, as it always does. Eventually, that emperor died, was succeeded by Tupac Inca, and then by the more tolerant Huayna Capac (c.1493 – 1528), who refrained from penalising non-hetero people. 

Huayna Capac, Twelfth Inca, 1 of 14 Portraits of Inca Kings
(Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 1995.29.12_PS6.jpg)

Interestingly, Huayna Capac took two secondary wives from Huaylas in order to strengthen his rule in the area. They were Contarhuacho and Añas Collque, who were both given positions as local rulers by Huayna Capac. I wonder whether these two wives managed to persuade the emperor to be more broad-minded in his approach.

Wiracocha

The Inca’s creator deity, Wiracocha or Viracocha, was intersex. Formless and mysterious, this extremely important deity was said to be responsible for creating the heavens, the earth, all the other gods and goddesses, and finally humankind. Since women traced their ancestors through the female line and men through the male line, it made sense that their creator deity had to be intersex. Wiracocha made “two lines of deities, male and female, who in turn created men and women” (Karen Vieira Powers). 

A representation of Wiracoha from the c. 300 CE Gateway of the Sun, Tiwanaku, Bolivia. (Photo: by André Mellagi, Flickr)

The deity wasn’t thought up by the Incas, though. Rather, the Tiwanaku (also spelt Tiahuanaco) culture based around Lake Titicaca, believed in this creator first. When the Incas conquered the Titicaca area, they appreciated the legend of the people there: that the world was created from the depths of the lake, and that Wiracocha plucked the sun and moon from the waters and hung them in the sky. The Incas incorporated Wiracocha and this legend into their own belief system.  

Countless shrines to Wiracocha were built throughout the Inca Empire, such as one on the Island of the Sun, Lake Titicaca, and one in Cusco’s Coricancha (the city’s great temple complex). Furthermore, the Incas regularly prayed and made sacrifices to this deity. One prayer was as follows: “Oh Wiracocha of the world’s beginning, Wiracocha of the world’s ending, oh wise creator, who upon saying: ‘Let there be man’ and ‘Let there be woman’, created all things.”

To the best of my knowledge, historical sources make no mention of any intersex people in the Inca Empire (even though it’s a biological fact that they would have existed) and therefore I cannot say how Incas treated them. However, in Wiracocha at least, we see a non-binary being who is worshipped and held in great regard.

Conclusion

As we seek to become a world that celebrates diversity, we would do well to return to history and learn how certain previous cultures were more tolerant than we might think as well as how persecution was meted out in past times. 

– taken from ‘Intrepid Dudettes of the Inca Empire’, out now!


About the Author:

Helen’s interest in South America and the Incas began in 2006, when she first went to Ecuador. Then, from 2011 she lived there for 7 continuous years, 6 in the Amazon Region and 1 in Quito. Her children are half Ecuadorian, which was another driving force for exploring South American heritage.

Helen studied Spanish and Italian at university and has a lifelong passion for history, especially that of historical women who made history, but have been sidelined.

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