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Coca and the Mountain
Observations into the Worldview of the Quechua of Panao

by Terry P. Smith


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Feeding the Mountain

In order to invoke the Jirka's protection, people make offerings of coca leaves, sugar cane liquor, cigarettes, candy, cookies, and occasionally the tip of the heart of a butchered animal. They say, "We feed the Mountain so that we can live well."

Protection for crops and animals

Before plowing a field a man will say, "Father Mountain, please help me in all my work," as he places a palmful (approximately ten leaves) of green coca leaves (juk amuy) in a hollow beneath a big rock. Or, as sugar cane liquor is sprinkled on the ground he may say, "I will make Father Mountain taste this liquor." If the liquor is rapidly absorbed into the ground, then he knows the Mountain is pleased. Then he places the coca leaves, cigarettes, and maybe some candy in the cleft of a rock or in a hole in the ground. Sometimes the tip of the heart of a sheep or cow is cut off and also buried in the ground as a sacrifice to the Mountain. A potato harvest that yields twenty to twenty-five sacks per sack of seed planted is evidence of the Mountain's benevolent response to the farmer's offering. In contrast, if there are only a few sacks of yield produced from the sack of seed planted, that means that the Mountain was displeased, and people will suffer from hunger till the next potato crop is harvested.

As a woman takes her animals to pasture, she may invoke the spirit of the mountain to watch over her animals by saying, "Father Mountain, please watch over my animals."

Safety in travel

A traveler invokes the Mountain to look with favor on the trip and to remove any tiredness from the traveling party. To do this, a man picks up a rock as walks along the trail and carries it to the top of the pass and places it there as an offering to the Mountain.

When going into an area for the first time, while still far away, a person picks up a small stick and ties it into the form of a cross (kasha matanka) to be placed at the pass as an offering to the Mountain. The passes of Chawllinka Punta (4,000m/13,100ft) and Minasilla Punta (3,750m/12,300ft) are the traditional mountain sites for these offerings. In a similar way, when moving animals to graze in a new area, people offer coca leaves to the Mountain with the request that he accept their presence and watch over them and make their animals reproduce well.

Security for the home

The Mountain's presence is also invoked during house construction. Prior to building, a chrajchrakuj, one who knows how to chew coca and converse with the Mountain, chews all night till dawn invoking the Mountain's help for the men who will build the house and asking that the house itself be sound. Then the householder brings down a wanka from Ushnu Punta, the mountain peak where prehistoric people lived, and buries it near the site. The wanka is a flagstone-like rock and, as part of the Mountain itself, is considered to be powerful; it is a devourer (mikuj), and one that lives (kawakuj). Then he places a small clay pot above the wanka, into which he inserts coca leaves and other offering items. One of the offerings is sugar cane liquor inside a section of bamboo. Monthly the offering to the Mountain is renewed. In response to the offerings, the Mountain's responsibility is to protect the house from thieves and to speak through dreams to the homeowners. He will advise them of forthcoming events such as the arrival of a family member or friend, or give some advice concerning their livestock.

Benevolence for special events

The Quechua make offerings to the Mountain regularly in order to secure the Mountain's benevolence all year long. House building is only an occasional event in a lifetime, with offerings presented as in the previous section. Other occasional events are marriages and the family's process of acquiring larger fields in the differing farming zones. Two seasonal events of the year are the big planting (jatun murukuy) in the chrakra from mid-May through July and the January planting (iniru murukuy). Other seasonal events are the family's moving to the different farming zones and into new pasture lands.

A birthday is an occasion for making punchi, a thin porridge. Before any is served, the elder man of the household throws a bit into the kitchen hearth to give the Mountain a taste. A similar offering is made when men get together for social drinking, as each one tosses a few drops of his drink to the ground.

The kitchen hearth is the heart of the Quechua home. It is here that more frequent offerings are made, especially when the moon is full. The householder takes a few select green coca leaves and lime and places them on the coals. If the leaves turn to white ash, the Mountain is pleased; if they just turn black, the Mountain is displeased, and the following day will bring rain or misfortune. If the householder has made this offering in anticipation of travel, it is best that he delay the trip if the Mountain is unhappy.

Rescuing the spirit

The Quechua people know when to invoke the Mountain's benevolence for anticipated events. However, sometimes the unexpected happens, and the Mountain takes one's spirit. This potential generates considerable fear which I have noticed as I have hiked the mountain trails with Quechua friends. Each time I stumbled over a rock, I was told the Mountain would cause me to die. I have listened to parents most emphatically warn their children not to let their younger siblings trip or fall. One Quechua person explained it this way:

When you fall, Tayta Jirka grabs your spirit. If you do not get it back in a day or two, you will die. In order to get your spirit back, you must feed the Mountain. Some people, feeding the Mountain, spread out a shawl on the ground. Then the spirit comes back, and they gather up the shawl. That is how they get the spirit back. Another person may feed the Mountain and call to the spirit saying, "Come back, come back, my spirit," as he or she waves a flower back and forth. Then it comes back. (Alfonso Jorge Jara)

Quechua people feed the Mountain to obtain his benevolence or to rescue a lost spirit, but they fear his ability to bring death and disaster into their lives. When Tayta Jirka is displeased, one needs to make a better offering. Just as people like coca, cigarettes, cane liquor, candy, cookies and fruit, so the Mountain will be pleased to receive small portions of these goods.

Document created: June 6, 1997