The Food of the Gods

This is a traditional-style painting from the town of Sahua, Ayacucho. The scene represents the banquet of the mountains that surround the town. The central figure is the mountain called Mariano Borao that protects the community, and the other figures are neighboring mountains or apus. Painting by La Asociación de los Pintores de Sarhua, courtesy of Luis Millones. 

Feeding the Earth 

By Luis Millones

At the beginning of the 1990s, I traveled frequently to Osaka. Researchers from the National Ethnographic Museum of Japan were studying the Peruvian highlands, particularly Ayacucho, a state with a long and fraught history. Membership in this investigative team and my status as visiting professor opened the doors for me to a society that exhibited its charms on a daily basis. In the course of my stay, I discovered that one of my colleagues had an important relationship with the priesthood of the Church of Tenrikyo. I was interested in his religion and what I learned about it made me want to participate in the annual pilgrimage of its believers to the sacred city of Tenri, in the prefecture of Nara, in the Kansai region. For a short period, Tenri had been the capital of the Japanese empire (488-498), and still is today a beautiful city and religious headquarters of Tenrikyo.

The pilgrimage was tough and fascinating; of the many things I learned in those days, it is interesting to recall the answer to the question I asked about what food was eaten in paradise or its equivalent in the Christian dogma. I was totally surprised to learn that this equivalent, “Youkigurashi,” was a space similar to that of punishment: a great banquet, with the same food in both places. Both the condemned and the blessed had to eat with oversized chopsticks, and those who were punished for their bad behavior in life looked emaciated and hungry, while those awarded for good behavior in life appeared extremely pleased and well nourished. The explanation was simple in the context of a faith that practiced and emphasized solidarity: while each of the condemned tried to eat with the huge chopsticks and was unable to do so, those favored by divinity used the length of the instruments to feed each other. 

Upon my return to Ayacucho, I took the same question on my field research, remembering that in Huamanga—the original name for Ayacucho—I would be as far from European occidental thinking as I had been in Tenri, when the priests danced in the underground spaces of the temple to renew the creation of the universe. 

I knew the writings of the Spanish or the Christianized indigenous chroniclers in the late 16th and 17th centuries. These sources agreed that the Andean gods ate mullu, that is to say spiny oysters (Spondylus), and indeed our only source in Quechua reminds us that the sound made while chewing this shellfish was “cap! cap!” grinding their teeth while they ate (Ávila, Francisco de. 2007. Dioses y hombres de Huarochirí. Lima: Universidad Antonio Ruiz de Montoya).

Today, seashells still have religious prestige, even the plainer ones; they are used in ceremonies as a recipient to absorb through the nose the juice of hallucinogenic plants in other regions of Peru. But in Ayacucho, Cuzco and throughout most of the Peruvian highlands, feeding the gods is a complicated business. 

In the first place, it should be noted that Christian evangelization destroyed all visible images of the Pre-Columbian religions. The sacred geography remained unharmed: the cult of the earth and its visible expressions, the mountains. To these we add the areas of contact with human beings: caves sand springs. While it would have been impossible to wipe out this last form of religiosity, the persecution also stopped because indigenous forced labor was a source of wealth for the Spanish Empire and all harassment of their work affected their productivity. In the 18th century, Andean society had already consolidated a religious structure that reinterpreted the Christian doctrine and blended it with pre-Columbian memories. That is the seed of the indigenous religion as we know it today. In that belief, the gods, that is, Mother Earth and the mountains (apus or wamanis), should receive food from their many worshipers. The food is sent through a ceremony with primordial roots that has at least two names in Quechua-influenced Spanish: pagapu and despacha: paga (pays, in Spanish) means to make payment to Mother Earth, and despacha (sends off, in Spanish) means to dispatch what she needs. If the one who offers is Quechua-speaking, he will use prayerful variations such as apachiku, mallichi and kutichi related to the makeup of the offerings and the place they are offered. These relate to the particular concerns of the person or persons who are feeding Mama Pacha, as Mother Earth is affectionately known. Thus, there are pagapus specific to cattlemen, to those who need rain or heavy river volume, to hunters. to people who need to recover their health, and many other motivations.

This image illustrates a gathering of the Andean gods in a ceremony of thankful payment to Mother Earth. The gods of the mountains, rivers, rocks and lakes are enjoying their foods-llama fetus, potato, sweet potato, another type of Andean tuber known as oca, scallops, algae, coca leaves, as well as imbibing wine and fermented homemade alcoholic beverage known as chicha. This is the offering known as papagu that the gods receive from humans in thanks for their blessing in providing the good annual harvest. Art by Rocío Rodrigo, courtesy of Luis Millones. 

Many forms exist of preparing a pagapu, but one of the most important is the act of feeding Mama Pacha or Madre Tierra, to assure her generosity in permitting good harvests. Here I will let don Juan Quispe Andia, from Chungui, La Mar, Ayacucho, tell us about how to perform pagapu

“On the heights of Chungui, when we are going to harvest potatoes, the owner invites all the neighbors to help, we are all going to help because it is the [indigenous] law; we all always help. In exchange for this help, the owner gives the neighbors food, coca leaf, hard drink [a home-made alcoholic drink brewed with anise, traditional plants and sugar]. When another peasant [who is not a neighbor] has to harvest, he must be paid for the help he gives. Because of this, no one holds back from helping. The neighbors come with all their family; the men do the harvesting, the women with their pallapadoras (harvest helpers) and cooks; the kids help to move the potatoes and stack them. The neighbors harvest, all the time joking, sometimes with music and sometimes not, always happy, having a great time and rejoicing in the fruits of the earth. When the harvest is over, the potatoes are stored in the owner’s house, but first the potatoes that are going to serve as seed for the next harvest are chosen, and also the potatoes that have been damaged by the hoes. The men watch over the potatoes and the seeds, while the slightly damaged potatoes are cooked with chile and salt, sometimes with meat or some stew that the owner’s wife has prepared. Everything is served along with chicha [an indigenous corn-based drink] and abundant liquor. Then people sit around chewing coca leaf [Erithroxylum coca] and drinking. The coca leaf maintains its sacred character, but it also invigorates its users. Finally, everyone leaves except for the owner’s compadre—the godfather to one of his children. They return to the farm alone, bringing with them the best potatoes, the most beautiful ones, to make the 'payment' to the earth so it will keep protecting them. The compadre makes a hole in a corner of the field, some 50 to 60 centimeters deep, and when he has made the hole, he sprinkles it with liquor from a small cup in the form of a cross and later he makes the offering of the potatoes, along with the liquor, usually a handful of kinto coca leaf, a couple of cigarettes, and then he closes up the hole, saying: ‘Mother Earth, receive the offer of your children to thank you for the harvest that my compadre has collected and to ask that you keep on giving us good production, for this we pay you, for the abundance that you give us.’ Later they return home and the owner invites his compadre to drink and eat. But during the ritual of the “payment,” the owner keeps silent; the compadre is the one who speaks as intermediary so that the earth will accept the offerings” (Delgado Sumar, Hugo E. 1984. Ideología andina: El pagapu en Ayacucho. Ayacucho: Universidad Nacional de San Cristóbal de Huamanga, 146-147).

The hole cited in the text of Quispe Andia, the ceremonial hole in the corner of the farm, stands for Mother Earth’s mouth. Thus food becomes an essential part of the ritual of pleasing Mother Earth to give thanks for the harvest and ensure future prosperity.

To feed the earth is an act of indispensable reciprocity, because it is Mother Earth who provides us with food each and every day. In Ayacucho, as in the Japanese paradise of Tenri, eternal joy is based on this exchange of affection and solidarity. 

Luis Millones, the 2002-2003 Robert F. Kennedy Visiting Professor at Harvard, is the Director of the Fondo Editorial de la Asamblea Nacional de Rectores del Perú. He is Professor Emeritus at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. In 2006, he held the Andrés Bello Chair in Latin American Civilization at New York University.