Iraq Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Lake Titicaca and Floating Island in Peru

Lake Titicaca: The Cauldron of Incan Creationism


Lake Titicaca has long been the center of various socio-political cultures in South America. The lake has seen many cultures along its shores, such as the Pucará (400BC-100AD) and the Tiwanaku (200BC-1000AD), and still remains a place of value and livelihood for the Uru peoples of the famed Floating Islands. Yet it is the Incas who encapsulated the essence of the great lake around which they built their own civilization. Lake Titicaca was enveloped into their mythological and religious beliefs as the center of the cosmos.

The Incan Creation Story

According to Inca tradition, their creator god (called either Viracocha or Wiraqocha) created the world as it is now through trial and error, creation and destruction. As seen in other creation myths, such as those of the Norse and the Greeks, the first beings were created both by and from the creator himself, later meeting an unfortunate end at the hands of a great flood sent by the creator.

Representation of Inca god Viracocha

Representation of Inca god Viracocha (Public Domain)

In the Incan worldview, Viracocha's first attempt at creating life came in the form of stone giants. Due to the giants' size and physical makeup, it is not surprising that they were so difficult to control that Viracocha traded them in for the smaller, more "pliable" race of humans (forged from clay or stone) which he supposedly crafted in Tiahuanaco. For a time, Viracocha let humanity thrive until their greed and pride—two factors that have been humanity's downfall across cultures—led to Viracocha's decision to start again. Thus he sent the Incan version of the Great Flood. The deluge eventually subsided into Lake Titicaca, leaving three humans alive (or two, depending on which narrative one reads), just as Lif and Lifsandir were the only survivors of the Norse Ragnarök, and Deucalion and his wife were among the few to survive the second ancient Greek flood. These humans would go on to create the humans from which all current people are descended. It is also said that either from Lake Titicaca or before the creation of the lake, Viracocha forged the sun, the moon and the stars. Lake Titicaca, therefore, is quite literally the cauldron from which life as the Incas knew it sprung.

La balsa de totora, Viracocha I, y su arribo a la Isla de Pascua

La balsa de totora, Viracocha I, y su arribo a la Isla de Pascua (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Verbal Legend

Among the most valued sources discussing Incan religion and Viracocha's creation myth comes from a Spaniard named Juan Diez de Betanzos. De Betanzos ' source is unique in its respect as a "firsthand account" by scholars because de Betanzos' book, Narrative of the Incas, is based solely on statements of his Incan wife, Dona Angelina. Angelina was originally named Cuxirimay Ocllo Yupanqui, and was a young wife of Incan ruler Atahualpa (one of many wives of the leader). Atahualpa was in power when the Spanish came to the Empire, and was deposed and executed by conquistador Francisco Pizarro. Cuxirimay Ocllo Yupanqui was taken prisoner, renamed Dona Angelina and eventually married to Juan de Betanzos, with whom she shared the Incan worldview. Thus the account by de Betanzos has been considered the closest thing to an indigenous written record.

Amantaní (in the distance) viewed from Taquile (in the foreground) on Lake Titicaca, Peru.

Amantaní (in the distance) viewed from Taquile (in the foreground) on Lake Titicaca, Peru. (Public Domain)

However, as with most interpretations of ancient traditions through Christian eyes, de Betanzos' own religious upbringing cannot be overlooked as a possible influence in the writing of his narrative. The Inca creation myth survives in great detail because of Dona Angelina, yet the monotheistic worldview of the Spanish may have subtlety influenced the stories. For instance, the Spanish appear to have attempted to transform Viracocha—as the god of creation and the highest of the Incan pantheon—into an Incan name for the Christian god, with an emphasis of Viracocha's creation placed on rigid perceptions of light and dark (i.e., good and evil) rather than the Incan values of duality and reincarnation. (This theory is grounded in the codification of other polytheistic religions by Christians—such as the Norse sagas—and has not been proven by this author.) On the other hand, it can also be argued that naming Viracocha as the "primary god" was not an intention, but a mere misinterpretation by the Christian writers.

Viracocha at Puerta del Sol, Tiwanaku, Bolivia

Viracocha at Puerta del Sol, Tiwanaku, Bolivia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A New Ancient Source

When discussing Lake Titicaca, the traditions and faith of the Incas survive history best for a variety of reasons. Contrarily, its position as the focal point of life and religion stems back long before the Incas conquered the previous civilizations. How much these previous cultures influenced the Incan beliefs is uncertain, but researchers have not ceased attempting to uncover Incan records. Scholar Gary Urton believes that the Inca might have recorded their own stories in "knotted string records", a unique way of storytelling that drew on their textile art forms. Urton's work regarding the understanding of these knotted khipus is ongoing, however it will be interesting to see if they might be comparable to the various Spanish narratives. It is possible that if Urton's theory is proven accurate, the world might one day know the extent to which these cultures impacted the Incans and the extent to which the Spanish dictated their mythology accurately.

Top image: Lake Titicaca and Floating Island in Peru (Public Domain)

By Riley Winters


Abram, Christopher. 2011. Myths of the Pagan North: the gods of the Norsemen. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Hesiod. Theogony. (trans. Catherine M. Schlegel and Henry Weinfield, 2006). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

de Betanzos, Juan. Narrative of the Incas. (eds. Ronald Hamilton and Dana Buchanan, 1996) University of Texas Press. Accessed August 16, 2017.

de Gamboa, Pedro Sarmiento. "Viracocha and the Coming of the Incas." In History of the Incas. (trans. Clements Markham, 1907.) Cambridge: The Hakluyt Society. pp.28-58. Accessed August 17, 2017.

Prescott, William Hickling. History of the Conquest of Peru. (ed. Wilfred Harold Munro, 1904.) Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company. Accessed August 16, 2017.

Rostworowski, Mara. 1998. History of the Inca Realm. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Urton, Gary. 2003. Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records. University of Texas Press.

Urton, Gary. 2017. Inka History in Knots: Reading Khipus as Primary Sources. University of Texas Press.

Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

Next article