The Spanish conquest dotted Peru with magnificent cathedrals, a plethora of churches, and a long-lasting and also certainly conflictive relationship with Catholicism. About 90 percent of the current population consider themselves Catholic. Although that number is far from the actual number of practicing parishioners, it does indicate the connection Peruvians feel toward the religion, more by tradition than by real practice. Festivals like Lima’s day of Santa Rosa mean a citywide holiday, and the day of San Blas invites horns and processions in Cusco.
Catholicism, though, is a relatively recent addition to Peru’s long list of religions. Peru’s first civilization began around 2000 B.C., and it, along with the country’s other major civilizations, was based on a set of unifying religious beliefs. These beliefs often incorporated nature worship. Deities like the sun, the ocean, the mountains, and mother earth appear in the imagery of several successive cultures. Representations of serpents, felines, and birds also make repeated appearances in pre-Hispanic religious iconography. Serpents symbolize the ground, felines the human life, and birds (often in the form of eagles) the air or gods.
The religion of the Chavín culture, which existed 4000 years ago, incorporated that series of deities. Northern Peru’s Moche culture did as well, but, unlike the Chavín, the Moche were clear to distinguish between the spiritual world and the everyday world. The Chimú worshipped the sun, moon, and ocean, and were clear to separate the secular and nonsecular worlds. In its pottery, the southern Nasca culture depicted felines, orcas, anthropomorphized birds, and serpentine creatures. And the Inca, gave offerings to the surrounding mountains, the bright sun, and fortifying Pachamama, the mother earth.
In these pre-Hispanic cultures, there was also a strong tie between religion and medicine or religion and hallucinogenic experiences, which were usually performed for their curative properties. In the north, cultures like the Moche and the Chimú used curanderos, natural healers, to treat the “sicknesses of the gods,” and in the southern Inca culture, as well as the jungle, shamans used a combination of natural herbs, chants, and calling to cure both physical and mental maladies. Often it was in these curative ceremonies that the curanderos or shamans used hallucinogens like the San Pedro cactus and ayahuasca. The drugs were meant to clear the vision of the ceremony participants.
As cultures rose and fell, and even when the Spanish conquered the Inca empire, Peru’s religions tended to adapt, fluctuate, and blend. The Inca were known for allowing their conquered cultures to continue their own religious practices as long as they also followed Inca religion. When the Spanish arrived and imposed Catholicism, the Inca quietly integrated their imagery. A grand Last Supper painting in Cusco’s cathedral shows Jesus eating a guinea pig.
Nearly 500 years after the Spanish conquest, this fusion of religious beliefs continues to define Peru’s spiritual and religious customs, and the subject is a draw for many tourists. In areas like Cusco and Lake Titicaca, the traditional mountain cultures continue to use shamans to bless their homes and purify their spirits. In turn, travelers contract with shamans to perform offering or cleansing ceremonies. The Sacred Valley is known for its energy centers, and people come from around the world to meditate there. In the jungle, ayahuasca is an essential part of sacred ceremonies and again, curious travelers can contract with experts to help them experience it.
On the flip side, completely new religions are making headway. Protestant groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Adventist groups have started small but vigilant communities throughout the country. If history holds true, these new groups should blend with the old to offer an increasingly diverse religious practice.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition