Viracocha is the great creator deity in the pre-Inca and Inca mythology in the Andes region of South America.

Viracocha was one of the most important deities in the Inca pantheon and seen as the creator of all things, or the substance from which all things are created, and intimately associated with the sea.

Viracocha was worshipped as the god of the sun and of storms. He was represented as wearing the sun for a crown, with thunderbolts in his hands, and tears descending from his eyes as rain.

Cosmogony according to Spanish accounts

According to a myth recorded by Juan de Betanzos, Viracocha rose from Lake Titicaca (or sometimes the cave of Paqariq Tampu) during the time of darkness to bring forth light.

He made the sun, moon, and the stars. He made mankind by breathing into stones, but his first creation were brainless giants that displeased him. So he destroyed it with a flood and made a new, better one from smaller stones.

Viracocha eventually disappeared across the Pacific Ocean (by walking on the water), and never returned. He wandered the earth disguised as a beggar, teaching his new creations the basics of civilization, as well as working numerous miracles.

He wept when he saw the plight of the creatures he had created. It was thought that Viracocha would re-appear in times of trouble. Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa wrote that Viracocha was described as:

“a man of medium height, white and dressed in a white robe like an alb secured round the waist and that he carried a staff and a book in his hands.”

In one legend he had one son, Inti, and two daughters, Mama Killa and Pachamama. In this legend, he destroyed the people around Lake Titicaca with a Great Flood called Unu Pachakuti lasting 60 days and 60 nights, saving two to bring civilization to the rest of the world, these two beings are Manco Cápac, the son of Inti, which name means “splendid foundation“, and Mama Uqllu, which means “mother fertility“.  These two founded the Inca civilization carrying a golden staff, called ‘tapac-yauri‘.

In another legend, he fathered the first eight civilized human beings. In some stories, he has a wife called Mama Qucha.

In another legend, Viracocha had two sons, Imahmana Viracocha and Tocapo Viracocha. After the Great Flood and the Creation, Viracocha sent his sons to visit the tribes to the northeast and northwest to determine if they still obeyed his commandments.

Viracocha himself traveled North. During their journey, Imaymana and Tocapo gave names to all the trees, flowers, fruits, and herbs. They also taught the tribes which of these were edible, which had medicinal properties, and which were poisonous.

Eventually, Viracocha, Tocapo, and Imahmana arrived at Cusco (in modern-day Peru) and the Pacific seacoast where they walked across the water until they disappeared. The word “Viracocha” literally means “Sea Foam.

Controversy over “White God”

Spanish chroniclers from the 16th century claimed that when the conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro first encountered the Incas they were greeted as gods, “Viracochas“, because their lighter skin resembled their god Viracocha.

This story was first reported by Pedro Cieza de León (1553) and later by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa. Similar accounts by Spanish chroniclers (e.g. Juan de Betanzos) describe Viracocha as a “white god“, often with a beard.

The whiteness of Viracocha is however not mentioned in the native authentic legends of the Incas and most modern scholars, therefore, had considered the “white god” story to be a post-conquest Spanish invention.

Similarly to the Incan god Viracocha, the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and several other deities from Central and South American pantheons, like the Muisca god Bochica are described in legends as being bearded.

The beard once believed to be a mark of a prehistoric European influence and quickly fueled and embellished by spirits of the colonial era, had its single significance in the continentally insular culture of Mesoamerica.

The Anales de Cuauhtitlan is a very important early source which is particularly valuable for having been originally written in Nahuatl. The Anales de Cuauhtitlan describes the attire of Quetzalcoatl at Tula:

Immediately he made him his green mask; he took red color with which he made the lips russet; he took yellow to make the facade, and he made the fangs; continuing, he made his beard of feathers…

In this quote the beard is represented as a dressing of feathers, fitting comfortably with academic impressions of Mesoamerican art. The story, however, does not mention whether Viracocha had facial hair or not with the point of outfitting him with a mask and symbolic feathered beard being to cover his unsightly appearance because as Viracocha said:

“If ever my subjects were to see me, they would run away!”

While descriptions of Viracocha’s physical appearance are open to interpretation, men with beards were frequently depicted by the Peruvian Moche culture in its famous pottery, long before the arrival of the Spanish.

Modern advocates of theories such as a pre-Columbian European migration to Peru cite these bearded ceramics and Viracocha’s beard as being evidence for an early presence of non-Amerindians in Peru.

Although most Indians do not have heavy beards, there are groups reported to have included bearded individuals, such as the Aché people of Paraguay, who also have light skin but who are not known to have any admixture with Europeans and Africans.

When the Southern Paiute were first contacted by Europeans in 1776, the report by fathers Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Domínguez noted that “Some of the men had thick beards and were thought to look more in appearance like Spanish men than native Americans”.

Representation of Wiracochan or Tunupa at Ollantaytambo

A representation of the messenger of Viracocha named Wiracochan or Tunupa is shown in the small village of Ollantaytambo, southern Peru.

Ollantaytambo located in the Cusco Region makes up a chain of small villages along the Urubamba Valley. Known as the Sacred Valley, it was an important stronghold of the Inca Empire.

Facing the ancient Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo in the rock face of Cerro Pinkuylluna is the 140-meter-high figure of Wiracochan.

The angry-looking formation of his face is made up of indentations that form the eyes and mouth, whilst a protruding carved rock denotes the nose. Inca ruins built on top of the face are also considered to represent a crown on his head. Artists’ impressions of the rock face also include a heavy beard and a large sack upon his shoulders.

The face of Viracocha at Ollantaytambo can be captured as noted by Fernando and Edgar Elorrieta Salazar. Wiracochan, the pilgrim preacher of knowledge, the master knower of time, is described as a person with superhuman power, a tall man, with short hair, dressed like a priest or an astronomer with a tunic and a bonnet with four pointed corners.

Conversion to Christianity

Spanish scholars and chroniclers provide many insights regarding the identity of Viracocha.

  1. Bartolomé de las Casas states that Viracocha means “creator of all things
  2. Juan de Betanzos confirms the above in saying that “We may say that Viracocha is God
  3. Polo, Sarmiento de Gamboa, Blas Valera, and Acosta all reference Viracocha as a creator
  4. Guamán Poma, an indigenous chronicler, considers the term “Viracocha” to be equivalent to “creator

Other authors such as Garcilaso de la Vega, Betanzos, and Pedro de Quiroga hold that Viracocha wasn’t the original name of “God” for the Incas.

According to Garcilaso, the name of God in the language of the Incas was “Pachamama“, not Viracocha. Nevertheless, Spanish interpreters generally attributed the identity of the supreme creator to Viracocha during the initial years of colonization.

According to Antoinette Molinié Fioravanti, Spanish clergymen began to equate the “God of creation” with Viracocha in an attempt to combat the polytheistic worship of the Incas, which in their view was idolatrous.

The existence of a “supreme God” in the Incan view was used by the clergy to demonstrate that the revelation of a single, universal God was “natural” for the human condition.

Christian scholars such as Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas held that philosophers of all nations had learned of the existence of a supreme God.

Nevertheless, medieval European philosophy believed that without the aid of revelation, no one could fully understand such great truths such as the nature of “The Trinity”.

The decision to use the term “God” in place of “Viracocha” is seen as the first step in the evangelization of the Incas. The reasoning behind this strategy includes the fact that it was likely difficult to explain the Christian idea of “God” to the Incas, who failed to understand the concept.

In addition, replacing the reference to Viracocha with “God” facilitated the substitution of the local concept of divinity with Christian theology.


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