The Indians of Peru were so idolatrous that they worshiped as Gods almost every kind of thing created. Since they did not have supernatural insights, they fell into the same errors and folly as the other nations of pagans, and for the same reasons both the Peruvians and the other pagans were unable to find the true God. This is because they were immersed in such an abysmal array of vices and sins that they had become unfit and unworthy of receiving the pure light that accompanies a knowledge of their Creator. Moved by his arrogance and envy of our welfare, the common enemy of mankind, using malice and astuteness, succeeded in usurping from these blind people the adoration that they really owed to their true Creator, and he kept them prisoners in harsh bondage, depriving them of the happiness which he himself did not deserve. Upon finding fertile ground in the simple-mindedness and ignorance of these barbarians, he reigned over them for many centuries until the power of the Cross started stripping him of his authority and ousting him from this land here as well as from the other regions of this New World.
Spanish Jesuit Bernabé Cobo (1580-1657) spent most of his long life travelling, teaching and missionising in Spain's American colonies. He arrived there in 1599, a little under 70 years after Pizarro's conquistadores had defeated and captured the last of the Inca rulers, Atahualpa, to take control of what became Peru (and, more significantly for Spain's fortunes, of its considerable silver reserves). To judge from the extracts collected as Inca Religion and Customs (translated by Roland Hamilton, 1994 ed.), his vast Historia del Nuevo Mundo was illuminated by the spirit of enquiry but directed by the unshakeable assumption that the peoples of Peru had lived in doomed - if well-meant - ignorance until they were liberated by the conquistadores and their true religion.
Contrary to what might be expected, this was not the only view of the situation among the early-modern Spanish intellectual elite - Bartolomé de las Casas (d. 1566), for example, a post on whose work is forthcoming, was outspoken in his criticism of the violence and rapacity that had accompanied the conquest - but it was certainly the prevailing one. Typically for his time, Cobo is never shy to attribute the locals' pre-conquest religious practices, which he describes so carefully, to the nefarious workings of the Christian devil, as the opening extract demonstrates.
Cobo's exhaustive catalogue of pre-Christian shrines (huacas - often springs, stones, caves, etc., but also man-made monuments) are what the work is usually read for. Organising them by their location - that is, by their places along certain sacred lines (ceques) radiating outwards from the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco - Cobo records each huaca's name, its function, any stories attached to it, and sometimes the families that provided the attendants who looked after the huaca. In compiling this list, Cobo drew heavily upon the writings of previous Spanish chroniclers of the New World - not least because there was little, by his time, that could be observed directly - and in some respects what makes the work valuable is simply that he collects all this information in one place. (He was clearly of an encyclopaedic bent; another of his works was a ten-volume epic on South American flora and fauna.)
This is a typical entry:
It was among the most important shrines of the whole kingdom, the oldest which the Incas had after the window [cave] of Pacaritampu, and where the most sacriﬁces were made. This is a hill which is about two and a half leagues distant from Cuzco by this Road of Collasuyu we are following. On it they say that one of the brothers of the ﬁrst Inca turned to stone, for reasons which they give. They had the said stone hidden. It was of moderate size, without representational shape, and somewhat tapering. It was on top of the said hill until the coming of the Spanish and the Incas held many festivals for it. After the Spanish arrived, they [the Spanish] removed a great quantity of gold and silver from this shrine but paid no attention to the idol, because it was, as I have said, a rough stone. This situation gave the Indians an opportunity to hide it until Paullu Inca, on his return from Chile, built a house for it next to his own. From that time on, the festival of Raymi was held there until the Christians found out about the stone and took it away from him.
There is no real sense of what this huaca meant in terms of Inca daily life and culture, and here, as in many cases, Cobo says little about the rituals and offerings associated with it, or what said offerings meant to achieve. When he does discuss a shrine's perceived power, his comments tend towards the general: protection of travellers, boosting the health of the current emperor. But he does make an effort to distinguish the relative importance of the shrines he discusses, and in some cases - like the coming-of-age rites linked with Huanacauri - he goes into some detail about aspects of dress and action.
Furthermore, while Cobo apparently believed that Inca religious practices were essentially static before the conquest (and attributed more or less every shrine to the Inca period, when some predate it), Cobo allows for change with the arrival of the Spanish: as this passage demonstrates, he records the disruptive effects (to him positively so, of course) of the Spanish occupation on local modes of worship. He also notes elements of syncretism or Pagan survivals in the Christianised locals, such as the fact that some people continue the custom of shouting during lunar eclipses, traditionally believed necessary to drive off the creature (a lion or a serpent) that was attacking the moon.
Despite Cobo's assumption that Inca religion was idolatrous and false, there is a certain paternalistic sympathy in his work for the benighted 'Indians'. While in the passage quoted above he castigates their "vices and sins", elsewhere he is careful to note that the "fabrications, hoaxes and absurdities" of their beliefs - which, he damns with faint praise, were "the best organized and most reasonable compared with the nonsense and errors of the other nations of these Indies" - are not an indication that the Inca were "dumb animals". After all, even "the most noble and wise nations of Europe and the other parts of the Old World such as the Egyptians, the Chaldeans, the Greeks, and the Romans, whose knowledge has been so highly valued throughout the ages" held pagan beliefs. Rather, their problem was not lack of rationality or mendacious intent; it was that they weren't lucky enough to know God, and thus inevitably fell short of the correct way because rational deduction alone is not enough:
Similarly, it does not follow logically to argue that the Indians were incompetent just because they worshiped idols and transitory things; on the contrary, it shows that though they lacked the true light of faith, they did have the ingenuity to look for something which they could respect and have confidence in. And it is no trifle that the Indians themselves took the trouble to look for the cause of each thing, like the pagans, and though the Indians were mistaken in their inquiry, not even the ancients, who were so given to scientific study and investigation into the nature of things, ever succeeded in finding the true Architect of all creation. Moreover, the ancients also worshiped sticks, stones, images of animals, and other man-made things such as these.
Encounters with the peoples of the New World, who were strangely ignorant of the omnipotent Creator of all, presented a significant theological challenge for early modern Christians. It is fascinating to see Cobo wrestle with the issue, even as his rhetoric frames it as a thunderously straightforward one. For all his ringing certainty, he vacillates between at least two different explanations for the state of these peoples' souls during this work. In some places he argues - as in the first passage quoted - that the 'Indians' were prevented from learning about the one true faith by the deceits of the devil. In others, as here, he seems to tend more towards suggesting a simple lack of opportunity: they had not yet had contact with God. That is - although Cobo would probably have resisted the formulation, being insufficiently universalist for his tastes - they'd hadn't met any Christians yet and therefore couldn't have heard of the Christians' God.
He delves into it again when considering the vexed (and much debated, in his sources) question of whether or not Inca religion had involved human sacrifice. Cobo argues that it did, and - in something (sort of) approaching a non-judgemental way - attempts to understand why:
Their religion was so firmly established, universally received, and amazingly strict that they offered and sacrificed even their own children by killing them and their own property by burning it, as was their custom. Therefore, it cannot be presumed that their acts were empty gestures, because human nature would not allow them to kill their own children and jeopardize their property so happily if they did not expect some reward for what they were doing or if they did not believe that they were sending their children to a better place than the one they had here. And it is evident that for people to produce exterior signs of happiness in making these sacrifices, in their own minds they believed without any doubt that the sacrifices were not made in vain. Thus there is no question that these acts were conditioned by some hope. People who would kill their own children and destroy their own property would be acting more like animals than human beings, unless they felt that such acts were somehow useful.
Here as elsewhere, there is no evidence that he actually asked any of the native peoples he met in Peru for their views on such sacrifice (assuming, after 70 years of Christian rule in the region, there was anyone who still remembered, or would have admitted remembering); instead, he imagines the motivation, and again is more willing to assume good (if misguided) motives than received images about early European attitudes to the New World might suggest. He's hardly an ethnographer, and certainly isn't interested in being neutral, but he is less quick to condemn than I expected.
While passages such as this are as much about engaging in intellectual and theological debate with his Spanish contemporaries and forebears as they are about any observed reality in pre-conquest America, the text is sprinkled with Cobo's own observations. In several places he discusses the famous practice whereby elite families would embalm their most prominent members after their death, and then maintain their routines and status, acting as the corpses' continuing voice in the world. The bodies were carefully "adorned", they retained much of the wealth that they had in life, and they were brought forth to make public appearances for important events and festivals; their birthdays were celebrated, they were guests of honour at feasts (as shown in the image to the left, drawn c. 1615 by the chronicler Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala), and they were consulted for their opinion on public affairs:
There was an important Indian man and woman assigned to each one of these bodies, and whatever these men and women wanted was said to be the will of the deceased. Whenever the men and women felt the desire to eat or drink, they said that the deceased was making a request. And they would say the same thing if they felt like going out to enjoy themselves at the homes of some of the other deceased, since it was customary for the dead to visit each other, and these visits included extensive dancing and drinking. A great many people, both men and women, devoted themselves to the service of these dead bodies.
(Cobo makes no mention of it, but I recall reading somewhere during my undergraduate days that the bodies were sometimes even married to the living, the prestige of their lineages apparently not ending with their deaths.)
What makes all this more vivid, if no less boggling, is that Cobo has seen one of these embalmed bodies, and is able to describe - with evident amazement - what it looked like and some of how the effect was achieved:
[O]nly a few years ago I saw one of these bodies that had been taken away from certain idolators. This body was so well preserved and adorned that it looked as if it was alive. The face was full, with such a natural skin complexion that it did not seem to be dead, though it had been for many years. The face was preserved that way because there was calabash rind placed under the skin of each cheek. As the flesh dried out, the skin had remained tight.
Besides its religious component, the book also contains a great deal of fascinating information on the daily life of the descendants of the Inca and of their subjects: their language (Quechua, with its profusion of terms for relatives, indicating quite a bit about the cultural priorities of the people), their food, agricultural techniques, clothing, medicine, marriage and childrearing, and even the dice and board games they played. It's certainly not an objective account, nor for the most part even a first-hand one, but it gives an interesting window onto what 17th-century Spaniards understood (or didn't) about the peoples they ruled half a world away from home.