Four Peruvian Versions of the White God Legend


It is well-known that almost all Indian tribes in the Western Hemisphere preserve oral traditions about the ancient appearance of a white god who came down from heaven to instruct and organize his people. Some of the most interesting versions of this widespread tradition come from Peru, where this legendary deity is known variously as Kon Ticci Viracocha, Tunupa, Pachacamac, Tarapaca, or Arnauan, depending on the region of the country being considered. Four of the more highly acclaimed Peruvian historians, Pedro Cieza de Leon, Sarmiento de Gamboa, Betanzos, and Santacruz Pachacuti, have written especially interesting accounts of this white and bearded god, and when considered together, they give us a reasonably detailed description of the traditional hero’s physical appearance, personality, and activities among the ancestors of the Andean Indians.

Pedro Cieza de Leon arrived in Peru in 1548 as a simple soldier in a military group sent to quell an uprising that had turned into a civil war between the Spanish rulers of the country. He remained until 1550, during which time he visited almost every part of the newly conquered land, observing and recording descriptions of the terrain, the plants, the customs of the natives, and the major facets of their history. He had been keeping a journal of his observations ever since beginning his travels in Colombia in 1541, but now Cieza became fascinated with the idea of writing a history of Peru and its peoples. After completing his military duties, he would interview the amautas and orejones, the surviving wise men and noblemen of the Incas, as well as qualified Spaniards to learn all he could about the history and traditions of the conquered Inca empire.

“These things that I write here are true, and things of importance and benefit,” he wrote in the foreword of his first book, “because many times while the other soldiers slept, I wrote into the night until I wearied.” Cieza’s first work, La Cronica del Peru, was originally published in Seville in 1553, while the later El Senorio de los Incas remained unpublished until 1880. In chapter five of his Senorio, Cieza recorded the following legend about the appearance of a white god to the forebears of the Incas:

“Before the Incas ruled, or were even heard of in these kingdoms, these Indians speak of another thing much greater than all others which they tell, because they affirm that they went for a long time without seeing the sun, and, that, suffering tremendously with this deficiency, they raised great prayers and supplications to those they revered as gods, asking them to restore the light they lacked; and in this manner, there arose from the island of Titicaca, which is in the great lake of Collao, the sun shining brilliantly, which made them all very happy. And afterwards, they say that from the land of the noon sun, there came and appeared to them a white man of large build whose aspect and person showed great authority and veneration, and this man had such supreme power that he levelled the mountains and raised up the plains into large hills, making water flow from boulders; and since they recognized his supreme power, they called him the creator of all things, their originator, father of the sun, because even this notwithstanding, they say that he did many greater things, because he gave life to men and animals, and from his hand, they received notable benefit. According to the Indians who told it to me, who heard it from their fathers, who also heard it in the songs they preserve from antiquity; this man went towards the north, working many miracles in his journey through the mountains, and they never saw him again. In many places they say that he gave commandments to the men about how to live, and that he spoke with love and much humility, admonishing them to be good and not cause harm or injury to one another, but instead, to love each other and have charity. Generally they call him Ticiviracocha, even though in the province of Collao, they call him Tuapaca, and in other places he is known as Arnauan. Many temples were built to him in different places, where they erected stone statues in his likeness before which they offered sacrifices. The large stone figures in the city of Tiahuanacu are said to date from that era, and even though by tradition inherited from the past, they recount this that I tell of Ticiviracocha, they say nothing else about him, nor that he ever returned to any part of this kingdom.”

Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa was a celebrated navigator and captain in the Spanish army. While stationed in Cuzco, Peru, he was ordered by the Viceroy, Francisco de Toledo, to compile a history of the Incas. Summoning some of the oldest wise men still living in the ancient Inca capital, Sarmiento interviewed them individually, then compared their testimonies to draw his conclusions and make his compilation. The manuscript he prepared was called Historia de Los Incas, La Segunda Parte de La Historia Llamada Indica, the second of what was originally projected to be three separate books. The manuscript remained unpublished in the custody of the Spanish crown for many years, finally finding its way by sale to the library at the University of Göttingen, [Germany], where it was discovered and published in 1906. Sarmiento’s version of the white god legend is as follows:

“All the Indians agree that they were created by this Viracocha, who they believe was a man of medium height, white and clothed in a white robe gathered around his body, and that he carried a staff and a book in his hands. After this, they tell a strange story; that is, that after this Viracocha created all the people, he came walking to a place where a large group had congregated … Viracocha continued his journey, doing the works of piety and instructing the people he had created … and wishing to leave the land of Peru, he gave a speech to those he had created, advising them of things which were to happen in the future. He warned them that people would come saying that they were the Viracocha, their creator, and that the people should not believe the impostors, but that in the coming ages he would send his messengers to teach and support them. And having said this, he and his two companions went into the ocean and walked away over the waters, without sinking, as if they had been walking on land.”

Juan de Betanzos was among the first conquistadores who invaded Peru with Francisco Pizarro. Immediately upon entering the country, he began studying Quechua, the language of the Incas, until he became proficient enough to be named official interpreter for the royal court. He was skilled enough in the native language that his first publications were Spanish-Quechua dictionaries. Betanzos married one of the former Inca princesses and lived in Cuzco, compiling data and observations first hand until 1551, when his major treatise on the traditions and history of the Andean Indians, Suma y Narracion de Los Incas, appeared. He took special care to preserve the “order of speaking of the natives” in his writings. This is Betanzo’s description of the god Viracocha:

“Asking the Indians what idea or figure they had of this Viracocha when the ancients saw him according to their traditions they had received, they told me that he was a man of tall stature, and that he had white clothing that came to his feet, and that this robe he had drawn at the waist, and that he had short hair, and that he had a crown on his head like a priest would wear, and that he walked with his head bare, and that he had a certain thing in his hands that looked to them like the small religious books the priests carry around with them today. … I asked them the name of this person in whose honor the stone monument was erected and they told me that he was called Con Tici Viracocha Pachayachachic, which in their tongue, means, ‘god, creator of the earth.’”

Very little is now known about the author of the next legend, except that he was an Indian from the southern sector of the Inca empire who prided himself on having been “Christianized.” He wrote under the unwieldy name of Don Joan de Santacruz Pachacuti Yamqui, and his manuscript, a curious mixture of Spanish and Quechua words, remained unpublished until 1880. Santacruz Pachacuti’s version of the white god tradition, though, is most interesting:

“Some years after the devils had been cast out of this land, there came to these provinces and kingdoms of Tabantinsuyo a bearded man of medium build with long hair, wearing a rather long tunic, and they say that he was more than a youth. He had white hairs, was slender, walked with a staff, and he taught the people with great love, calling them all his sons and daughters. But, he was not always listened to nor obeyed by all the people, and when he journeyed through the provinces he performed many miracles visibly: he healed the sick by touching them with his hands, and he didn’t bring belongings, nor did he have herds of animals. This man, they say, spoke all of the languages of the provinces better than the natives, and they called him Tonapa or Tarapaca Viracochanpa Chayachicachan or Pacchacan and Bicchhaycamayoc Cunacaycamayoc … He chastised the people with great love by the apotampo, [inn or lodging house], and they listened to him with rapt attention, receiving the stick from his hand, such that in a stick they received what he preached to them, indicating and emphasizing each chapter of the discourse. This man called Thonapa, they say, journeyed through all the provinces of the Collasuyos, preaching tirelessly. This Thonapa they say cursed a certain city to be drowned, and today it is called Yamqui Capacocha, the lake, which all the Indians say was anciently a principal city, and now it is a lake. Another thing they say is that on top of a high hill called Cachapucara there was an idol in the form of a woman, and they say that Tunapa hated this idol, and afterwards he caused fire to come down and burn the hill and the idol, destroying and melting the hill as if it had been wax, and even today there are remnants of that awesome miracle, never before heard of in the world. They say that Tunapa continued his course by the river Chacamarca until he came to the sea, and from there he crossed the strait to the other sea. This has been verified by extremely ancient Incas.”

Synthesizing elements from all four Peruvian versions of the white god tradition into one composite description, an interesting portrait of the god Viracocha emerges. He was a creator god who came to visit the men he had created, to instruct and organize them. With white skin and a medium to large build, he wore a white tunic girded at the waist that hung down to his feet. Past his youth, he was slender and had white hair. When he walked, he carried a staff and a book in his hands, and sometimes he was seen with a crown on his head. He demonstrated supreme authority, yet spoke with love and humility, calling everyone his sons and daughters.

Appearing long before the time of the Inca empire, the coming of this Viracocha constituted the single most important tradition of the Andean Indians. For many days prior to his coming, the sun was darkened and the people suffered tremendous privations from lack of sunlight. Only after intense praying and supplication was the light restored, after which Viracocha appeared. Everywhere he went in the mountains of Peru, he performed miracles. He lowered the hills and raised up the level places to become mountains. He drew water from rocks, gave life to animals and men, and walked on water. He healed the sick with only a touch of his hand, and spoke all the diverse languages of the region with equal fluency. Viracocha cursed one city so it was covered by a lake and all the inhabitants drowned. A hill he cursed, and it was consumed by fire from heaven. He gave commandments to men that they love their neighbor and have charity, and he chastised the people for their wrongdoings. He gave them a copy of his discourse, written on a stick, then reviewed it with them for emphasis. Speaking to a large congregation, he told them of events to come, warning them that some would come in his name, falsely claiming to be the Viracocha. Then he promised to send them true messengers and servants in future ages to teach and support them. Having no earthly possessions, Viracocha went off into the ocean after concluding his visit, and the people never heard from him again.

It is not difficult to understand why some people claim a strong correlation between the numerous versions of the white god legend found among the indigenous peoples of America and the account of the visit of the resurrected Christ to America as recorded in the Book of Mormon. Many of the details of these Peruvian versions of the legend seem to substantiate that claim. In fact, it seems to me that the Peruvian Indians who recounted it to the first Spanish historians seemed to remember the story rather well.

[illustrations] Paintings by Gary Smith