An Excerpt from the Marriage of Heaven and Earth: Kim Malville, ‘Passages between Worlds’ in the Andean Cosmos

We are pleased to announce that the latest volume of Culture and Cosmos is now available. This special double issue contains selected papers from the 2014 Sophia Centre conference on the ‘Marriage of Heaven and Earth’, crossing from the Old World to the New, with such gems as Juan Belmonte on ‘Cosmic Landscapes in Ancient Egypt’, Kim Malville on ‘Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld in the Andean Cosmos’, Stanisław Iwaniszewski on ‘Communicating with the Ancestors in the Spiritual Landscape at Yaxchilán, Chiapas, Mexico’, Edina Eszenyi on ‘Shaping the Image of Lucifer in the Cinquecento Veneto’ and Alexander Cummins on ‘Nature and Seventeenth-Century English Astrological Images’.

Here we present an excerpt from Kim Malville’s article which discusses specific architectural references to the three worlds in the ancient Andean cosmos. From the abstract, we learn that ‘the underworld is represented by the ocean itself, sunken circular plazas, caves sometimes with niches for mummies, and labyrinths. The heavens are represented by summits of pyramids, mounds, and high of peaks. Metaphorical passages between worlds are evidenced by monumental stairways and carved non-functional stairs associated with huacas. In the Inca empire, real passages involved climbing of some of the highest peaks of the Andes, the construction of ceremonial structures on their summits’.

Please enjoy this excerpt from Volume 20 of Culture and Cosmos:

Passages between Worlds: Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld in the Andean Cosmos
by Kim Malville
Professor Emeritus in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado


And up the ladder of the earth I climbed
through the dreadful thickets of lost forests
to you, Machu Picchu.
High city of stepped stones
Home, finally for everything the earth
couldn’t hide beneath its sleeping clothes.
In you, like two parallel lines,
the cradle of lightning and of man
rocked in a wind of spines.
Mother of stone, froth of condors.
Highest reef of mankind’s dawn.

The Heights of Machu Picchu, Pablo Neruda1



The experience of many of the first people to reach the coast of Peru would have been that of ascent from the ocean to the mountains. This paper proposes that the experience of climbing upward to the cordillera, combined with a shamanic symbolism of three worlds led to ritual ascents of truncated pyramids, the nearly ubiquitous non-functional carved stairways of the Incas, and, ultimately, the climbing of high Andean peaks. Water was an essential element of this theme of ascent. In Inca mythology, as part of the great hydrological cycle of the Andes, water was carried upward from the ocean to the snow covered mountains by the Mother Llama, Yacana. She appeared in the sky as a dark cloud constellation with the eyes of α and β Centauri, who drank water from the western ocean and carried it to the high mountains.2 Origin stories of the Inca involve water either in Lake Titicaca or the ocean at Pacacamac or Ecuador,3 which may be understood as a deep memory of ancestors arriving by sea and ascending inward. This paper suggests that the idea of ascent through three worlds was not only a geographic imperative, but it was also part of the shamanic tradition carried by early people who arrived in South America from Asia.



Liminality relates to passages, often transformative ones, from one realm to another, coming from the Latin word līmen, meaning a threshold. These passages may involve the ambiguity and disorientation that can occur when one crosses into a new and unfamiliar space or time. The idea of liminality was extensively developed by [Victor] Turner in his discussion pilgrimage and the unsettling experience of traveling into unfamiliar landscapes.4 While in the liminal state, human beings have a heightened awareness of their surroundings and are open to transformative suggestions from the environment or their companions. Liminality can involve places as well as experiences. Liminal places can range from springs, caves, shores, rivers, crossroads, bridges, and sacred spaces such as temples. In India, passages involving a ‘crossing-over’ are known as tirthas, the most famous of all is on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. Tirtha has multiple meanings; it is a place for passing from one side of a river to the other, a place for meeting gods who has passed from their realm into ours, and a place to pass out of this life.

Stairways, Spatial Similarity, and Fractal Interconnectednes

Fig. 3. Inca Steps with multiple scales: a. The Royal Mausoleum of Machu Picchu (Malville); b. River Intiwatana (Malville); c. Sayhuite The Rumihausi Stone with five scales of steps visible in the figure. (Steven Gullberg with permission).

Especially during the Inca Empire, steps carved into rock appear to have symbolized passages between worlds.5 The rock outcrops or cliffs on which these steps were carved were perhaps themselves recognized as liminal, connecting the underworld from which they emerged and the present world that we occupy. In some cases, such as the steps cut into the northern side of Huayna Picchu at Machu Picchu, they lead upward from a cave probably containing mummies, the Temple of the Moon. The steps are frequently associated with caves, water, and springs, and may be places where our world opens up to the underworld. Passage through a double-jamb doorway at the base of the stairway may have signified entry into a liminal realm.

A fascinating feature of these stairs is their multiplicity of scales, such as the double scale in the Royal Mausoleum (Figure 3a), the River Intiwatana (Figure 3b) or the extraordinary five scales carved into the Third Stone of Sayhuite (Figure 3c). These may be examples of spatial similarity, i.e., ascent is conveyed in patterns, independent of size. This phenomena of multiplicity of pattern scale is also found in self-organized systems, is identified as scale invariance,6 and is a characteristic of fractals and power law distributions.7 In the Andes, the climbing of a pyramid, the experience of moving from the ocean to the cordillera of the Andes, or the ascent of a sacred mountain parallel the movement from one world to the next, all perhaps, contained in the meaning of carved non-functional stairs in huacas.






Analogism and Animism

There is a more complex and deep meaning to these carved steps than representing or symbolizing shamanic-like ascent or descent. These passageways between the worlds may have been living beings (Harvey: ‘the world is full of persons, only a few of which are humans’.8)

Through the process of camay, water was an essential ingredient in animating the inanimate features of the high natural world, often bringing life to huacas.9 While some of these beings may be like us, others may have been understood to be dangerous and unpredictable. For example, Pachamama produces earthquakes; apus may produce avalanches, malevolent winds, and fail to provide sufficient water for agriculture.10 For ancient Andean people, the natural world may have been alive, but much of it may have been vast and complex beyond imagining.

The anthropologist Philippe Descola suggests that animism is but one of four ontologies involving living beings based upon their exterior and interior natures.11

Interior similar to humans Exterior different from humans
Exterior similar to humans Totemism Naturalism
Exterior different from humans Animism Analogism


Animists see many non-human objects as persons with self-awareness, thought, intentionality, and the ability to communicate. In their interior natures they are basically similar to humans, perhaps even humans in disguise. The living beings created by animists were most frequently found in gardens, jungles, and forests. Analogists, on the other hand, encounter beings that are fundamentally different from humans in both their interior and exterior natures, some would have been frightening huge and distant, such as the high peaks, the sun, and Milky Way. Descola suggests that such a cosmos may sometimes have seemed too incomprehensible to tolerate and that analogists create order by constructing analogies, bundling disparate things together. Such an invented bundle, he suggests, is the putative parallelism of macrocosm and microcosm. Andean people, living in a dangerous world of high peaks, earthquakes, floods, and avalanches, may have encountered a cosmos seemingly without primordial meaning. One approach to survive was to achieve reciprocal relations with these inscrutable and dangerous powers, perhaps through a compact involving offerings and requests.12

The disorienting chaos of the labyrinths of Chavín seem to reflect some of that terror of those inscrutable powers. Some sense of order and control over the world could also have been established by offerings at shrines as well as those ubiquitous carved stairways suggesting a strategy of survival through communication and contact with those powers. Paternosto describes the carved stairs as ‘obsessive metaphoric representation of a communication…. between the world of the here and now…and the world beyond…’13

As suggested by Descola,14 analogists encounter a cosmos consisting of a ‘dizzying’ atomism, of ‘differences infinitely multiplied’ with inscrutable purposes and meaning. Descola suggests that such a cosmos may have seemed too meaningless to tolerate. In response, disparate things were bundled together, such as a parallelism of macrocosm and microcosm. Perhaps this applies to Andean people, living in a dangerous world of high peaks, earthquakes, and avalanches. The disorienting chaos of the labyrinths of Chavín reflect some of that terror. Some order and control over the world could have been established by their non-functional ubiquitous carved stairways, suggestions of spatial similarity between the large and small, and hints of fractal interconnectedness. Their living huacas were not only extraordinarily powerful, but some were huge in scale such as the wall of Incamisana, the terraced pits of Moray, or the summit of Huayna Picchu. The mountains of the Andes were (and are) associated with living spirits, apus, who may have either resided in or actually have been the mountains themselves.15 Some of these high mountains were ritually ascended and sacrifices were placed near their summits. These apus of the highest world had great influence over humans; they may have been perceived as alien giants who could be either dangerous or benign, depending on how they were treated.

[…Discussions of Chupacigarro/Caral, Casma Valley, Chavín de Huatar, Chankillo, Ollantaytambo, Moray and Machu Picchu follow with many images, until we reach the…]

The Ultimate Passage: Ascending Sacred Mountains

Huayna Picchu is a smaller version of the great sacred mountains of Peru, many of which pilgrims climbed. Another example of a smaller sacred mountain is the conical hill of Sondor, which appears as an inversion of the sculptured pits of Moray. It contains a stairway with two double-jamb doorways, one at the bottom and one at the top, which leads upward to sunrise on the morning of the zenith sun. On the mornings of the day the sun reached the zenith, it may have been climbed by parties of pilgrims. A huaca is at the summit.16

There are reports of the Spanish Chroniclers that the Incas made annual pilgrimages and offerings to major mountain deities at special times of the years.17 If the peak was too difficult to ascend, offerings would be made from a place in view of the mountain, such as an ushnu, into which water, chichi, or, perhaps, llama blood would be poured. Sometimes offerings were thrown toward the summit. There are more than 100 peaks above 17,000 feet that were ascended by the Inca, containing shrines or other evidence of ritual activity.

The Incas are, indeed, renowned for their marvelous architecture, skillful masonry, political organization and for their extensive system of roads. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of their culture is the ascent and placing of structures on many of their highest peaks, the highest being Llullaillaco with an altitude of 22,110 feet. It is the seventh highest peak of the Americas, containing on its summit the world’s highest archaeological site, which has been carefully excavated by Johan Reinhard, Maria Ceruti, and colleagues.18 Reinhard has been the leader in locating and excavating many of these high archaeological sites, and it is to him that we turn for the definitive description of these remarkable summits, especially that of Llulliallaco.

The most important mountains were the sites of capacocha ceremonies, which involved human sacrifice, mostly boys and girls chosen for their beauty and perfection. These ceremonies on mountain summits may have been offerings to the sun, Inti, the weather god, Illapa and mountain deities. Offerings on the summits may have been attempts to get closer to the sun. Some of the sacrifices were intended as a marriage between the girl victim and the mountain god, with whom the girl was to live for eternity.

Capacocha pilgrimage to mountain summits could last weeks or months of travel, covering distances of 1000 km or more. These pilgrimages included priests, assistants, local inhabitants, the child to be sacrificed, and sometimes his or her parents. The procession would stop at sacred places along the way to make offerings. When passing through the mountains the pilgrims would reportedly keep as silent as possible to avoid angering the mountain gods.19 The priests leading the procession looked only straight ahead with their heads lowered. Sometimes blood of sacrificial llamas was carried to place as offerings at huacas along the route.

Fig. 18. Inca rooms and the platform on the summit of Llullaillaco, March 15, 2016. (Graham Zimmerman with permission)

Llullaillaco is the seventh highest peak in the Americas, just 100 lower than Huascaran, the highest peak in Peru, lying on the border between Chile and Argentina, in the barren Atacama Desert. To reach it would have been an arduous journey for pilgrims, perhaps taking weeks or a month. Access to its summit is possible only five months of the year, between November to March, which includes December solstice, Capac Raymi, one of the major Inca festivals.

The pilgrimage trail to Llullaillaco contains several structures, which appear to be resting places for pilgrims, priests, and sacrificial victims. The largest of these way stations is a tambo at 17,000 feet, which could have housed 100 people, perhaps the majority of the pilgrimage party, who did not venture to the summit of the mountain. There are three, smaller, intermediate sites at 18,325’, 20,669’, and 21,325’. The capachocha priests, victim, and assistants would probably have reached the summit on the afternoon of the day before ceremonies and spent the night in the small summit building, which consisted of two rooms which may have been roofed with grass mats. The burial platform, measuring 10m x 6m and 50 cm in some places, contained the bodies of three sacrificial victims, 15-year-old woman, 6-year-old girl, and a 7-year-old boy. The well-established trail, clearly visible in Figures 18 and 19, leading to the platform suggests there may have been more visitors to the summit than those associated with three capacocha ceremonies.

Fig. 19. Summit Platform on Llullaillaco (Graham Zimmerman with permission)

Because the burials in the ceremonial platform were in undisturbed condition when excavated, we have evidence of astronomical meaning in the capacocha ceremony. The young boy was approximately oriented along the short side of the rectangular platform, facing east-southeast. The long wall was measured by several observers to have an orientation of approximately 30o magnetic, with an uncertainty of several degrees due to the irregularities of the wall (see Figure 19) and the difficulties of measurement under the severe conditions on the summit.20 That orientation corresponds to an azimuth for the short side of the platform of 118.7 degrees true. The first gleam of the sun on December solstice 1500 CE on a flat horizon would have an azimuth of 116.6 degrees based upon a refraction of .6 degrees. Considering the additional uncertainties of unknown refraction at such an altitude, the exact orientation of the mummy, and the extreme difficulties of the Inca in constructing a platform on the summit, it is possible the boy was intended to be buried facing sunrise on a date close to December solstice, the date of Capac Raymi, when the mountain was climbable. This extraordinary ceremony involving an arduous and lengthy pilgrimage to the base of the mountain and the difficult ascent to the highest mountain yet climbed by humankind is paradigmatic exemplar of a liminal passage way between worlds, the best example we have in the Inca cosmos.


Continue reading the full article in the volume, available at Amazon UK and

J. Kim Malville

J. Kim Malville

Kim Malville is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado. He was involved in the discovery of the world’s oldest known megalithic astronomy at Nabta Playa and in the rediscovery of Llactapata near Machu Picchu.
J. Kim Malville
  1. Pablo Neruda, Alturas de Machu Picchu, 1950; English translation by Lito Tejada-Flores, 1998.
  2. Frank Solomon and George L. Urioste (translators), The Huarochirí Manuscript (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1991).
  3. Gary Urton, Inca Myths (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999).
  4. Victor Turner, ‘Liminality and Communitas’, in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction Press, 2008); Victor Turner, Process, Performance, and Pilgrimage: A Study in Comparative symbology (New Delhi: Concept, 1979).
  5. Carolyn A. Dean, A Culture of Stone (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
  6. J. M. Malville, ‘Complexity and Self-organization in Pilgrimage Systems’, in Pilgrimage: Sacred Landscapes and Self-Organized Complexity, edited by J. M. Malville and B. N. Saraswati, (New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 2009).
  7. Per Bak, How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality (New York: Springer Verlag, 1996).
  8. Graham Harvey, Animism: Respecting the Living World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), p. 9.
  9. J. M. Malville, ‘Animating the Inanimate: Camay and Astronomical Huacas of Peru’, in Cosmology Across Cultures, edited by J. Alberto Rubiño-Martín, Juan Antonio Belmonte, Francisco Prada and Antxon Alberdi, (San Francisco: Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 2009), pp. 261–66.
  10. Inge Bolin, Rituals of Respect: The Secret of Survival in the High Peruvian Andes (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).
  11. Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
  12. Laurence A. Kuzner, ‘An Introduction to Andean Religious Ethnoarchaeology: Preliminary Results and Future Directions’, in Ethnoarchaeology of Andean South America, edited by L. A. Kukznar, (Ann Arbor: International Monographs in Prehistory, 2001), pp. 38–66.
  13. César Paternosto, The Stone and the Thread: Andean Roots of Abstract Art (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), p. 71.
  14. Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, p. 202.
  15. Carolyn Dean, ‘Men Who Would Be Rocks: The Inca Wank’a’, in The Archaeology of Wak’as: Explorations of the Sacred in the Pre-Columbian Andes, edited by T. L. Bray, (Boulder: University Press of Boulder, 2015), pp. 213–38.
  16. M. Zawaski and J. McKim Malville, ‘An Archaeoastronomical Survey of Major Inca Sites in Peru’, Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture 21 (2010): pp. 20–38.
  17. Johan Reinhard, The Ice Maiden: Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the Andes (Washington DC: National Geographic Society, 2005); Johan Reinhard and Maria Constanza Ceruti, Inca Rituals and Sacred Mountains: A Study of the World’s Highest Archaeological Sites (Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, 2010).
  18. Reinhard and Ceruti, Inca Rituals and Sacred Mountains.
  19. Reinhard and Ceruti, Inca Rituals and Sacred Mountains, pp. 88–89.
  20. Johan Reinhard, personal communication.