Quechua cosmology: the background to Dark Sun, Bright Moon
by Oliver Sparrow
Dark Sun, Bright Moon is a complex book set a thousand years ago in what are now the Peruvian Andes. This was a closed world, divided into the desert coast, the high, dry Andes and the sweltering jungle. It had enjoyed no outside contact for eight to ten thousand years and had developed its world view in isolation. Some readers find the world view so alien that they get lost, and so I have written this short introduction to an unusual and sophisticated way of seeing he world.
In their millennia of isolation, the Quechua people developed two quite separate ways of looking at the universe. Organised religion offered a conventional pantheon of gods that, in various unlikely ways, brought about existence. The Sun mated with Lake Titicaca to generate the creator god, for example, which rather begs the question of what make the lake and the Sun. You would not, however, want to ask these questions in public, as subversives tended to end up at dawn on a pyramid, with their lives trickling away through a cut jugular into a clay pot for later consumption by the priests.
Far apart from official and organised religion, however, sat the tradition of the yachaq’, people whom we would probably call shamans. They had a role which stretched from doctor and veterinarian through psychologist to funeral director. They offered – to their initiates, at least – an altogether more coherent world view. Despite thorough attempts at eradication by the Inca and of assimilation by the Catholic church, the tradition still persists in the minds of Andean peoples. To them it is a present reality and it guides their behaviour in a profound manner.
Three layers of existence
The cosmology is relatively simple to envisage. Three layers of existence lie sandwiched between an infinite space of timeless order and an immeasurable domain of utter disorder. Flows from order to disorder animate the cosmos. Our domain – of stars, seas, houses and potatoes – is the least of the three layers, and it moves the slowest of them. This slowness it prevents the domains of order and disorder from annihilating each other. Our two neighbouring domains are, however, of much greater importance in the cosmic scheme of things. One, a zone of infinite creativity and possibility, constantly re-makes our existence. It does so at the instruction of the layer that lies on our other flank, a place of vast substrates and deposits of something close to information.
That information comes from our history, and it records everything that has happened in our little world. If the information is harmonious, is internally consistent, then our world is properly re-formed in equivalent coherence; but if the information lacks harmony, if it is torn and muddled, then the world will be only partially constructed. Communities, farms and ecologies, the entire climatic system will suffer instability and decay as a result of this.
This truth leads to the central feature of Andean life, which is the need at all costs to maintain social harmony. The worst crime that can be committed is one which fosters disharmony, which breaks from tradition, which pollutes what is pure and which promotes bewilderment and uncertainty. Communities which hold such views are, of course, deeply traditional, suspicious of outsiders and unwilling to experiment. They are inclined to believe that if they are in their fields wet, cold and miserable, then that state of mind is why it has rained.
The “creative” domain
What shifts this from a quaint belief to something much more potent is that the two neighbouring domains are not theoretical or abstract spaces, but universes which are inhabited by consequential, intelligent beings. These can be contacted and interacted with, a process far closer to persuasion and friendship than any Western notion of commanding the lofty heavens and demanding service of the shadowy deeps.
The “creative” zone is by far the most densely populated, but the inhabitants are enigmatic, elusively ambiguous, often an overlay of many simultaneous states of existence and opinion. They range from the merely superhuman up to titanic awarenesses to which human intervention is as negligible as the vibration of an individual atom in your arm. The live in a plankton ocean of their peers, a volume far greater than our entire universe, not at all confined to the odd fly-spot equivalent of suns and planets. Attracting the attention of the greater of these beings is invariably fatal, insofar as their regard redefines the individual and generally erases them from existence. Yachaq’ – shamans – work on even the lesser of these regions and beings through indirect tools they have built, synthetic entities somewhere close to loving, willing slaves. They supplement this through their ability to be amusing, diplomatic and generally fun to have around. Gandalf they are not.
The domain of information: apus and saqras.
The other domain is more promising. It is sparsely inhabited, reflecting its inferior energy levels, and the principle beings that live in it are the apus and the saqras. Of these, by far the most important are the apus, which survive today as Catholic saints, heavenly yet mysteriously anchored to this community or to that mountain, lake or other prominence.
Our universe rains information into the domain in which the apus reside. They feed on these flows, relishing them to the degree that they reflect harmony and tranquillity. As the workings of most of our universe has long been set into stereotyped relationships, into laws of nature, a given lump of rock contributes scant information from one second to the next. By contrast, however, systems and structures that are far from equilibrium emit huge amounts of information. They have the propensity to fly off into new relationships as a result of minute adjustments – we rediscovered this as nonlinearity and called it the “butterfly wing” effect – such that a slight intonation of voice can start a war, an order in which a queue may form will, perhaps, shape a life-long relationship. Such structures were, at the time of Dark Sun, Bright Moon, entirely human in their origins, and apus consequently tended to form solely around these, feeding from their information flows as mills are fed by water races.
An ExcerptEach pilgrim approached their death with confidence. A quick little discomfort would take them back to the very heart of the community from which they had been born. They had been separated from it by the act of birth, each sudden individual scattered about like little seed potatoes. Now, ripe and fruitful, they were about to return home, safely gathered back into the community store. It was to be a completion, a circle fully joined. Hundreds of conch horns brayed out across Pachacamac as the dawn sun glittered over the distant mountains. Seven elderly lives drained silently away as the mist below turned pink.
Apus are, therefore, locked into their communities. An uncharitable eye would see them as farmers, tending their human herd much as a grazier would his llamas or her alpacas. However, there is a darker side to this relationship. Apus can become greedy, and begin to squeeze their community for greater flows or more intense harmony, a process which seals the community into a rigid system of rote behaviour. This kills off all adaptability and initiative and which usually proves fatal to the entire effected population. Wise rulers note the early signs of this and disperse communities at the first signs of it happening. (This is usually strongly resisted. A human is pinched off from the underlying communal information base when they are born and return to it when they die. Relocation and the break-up of the community prevents this from happening.)
Apus are connected together by linear features which in Quechua call ‘ceqes’. A virulently parasitic apu can infect its peers through these ceqes and so prey on their erstwhile communities. This occurs every few hundred years, leading to a blight that depopulates huge areas. The apus then disperse and the cycle begins again. However, apus are an unavoidable feature of life in the Andes and their control of a village’s mind is very strong: even though the reality of the relationship is recognised, nothing can be done and people will be dissuaded from doing anything about the situation.
There are other inhabitants of the information storage region which do not much interact with humans, vile things which inhabit its lowest sewers. The remaining entities which do have some limited interaction with the human world are the saqras, which see it as a recreation space. Unlike the apus, saqras are mobile and can pop up wherever they liker in our world. They usually manifest themselves by taking the form of an animal, or sometimes as a human-animal hybrid. Usco, a major character in Dark Sun, Bright Moon generally manifests to the heroine as a black puma. However, saqras are created beings which were were probably developed as database tools, a system that “went wild” a very long time ago. They now exist at levels of sentience that run from the mildly superhuman to the mindless search tool. They can merge or divide themselves to huge, cosmic numbers for specific tasks, and they are accustomed to change their level of intelligence to meet current needs.
The Catholic church took against saqras and they are now regarded as demons, a fact perhaps due to their active help during the resistance to the Spanish invasion in the sixteenth century. The insult is much resented and today, saqras are rarely seen.
The yachaq’ and their sad remnant shaman descendants
The two adjacent domains of existence can be visited through the acquisition of the right disciplines or – in a chaotic way, and under guidance by a yachaq’ – through the use of various herbal preparations. Typical natural sources of these drugs are the San Pedro cactus, ayahuasca and the like. Yachaq’ do not use these after they have reached a certain stage in their education, and they regard them as a means to impress their clients. The experience of a yachaq’ of these domains cannot be compared to the fuddled glimpses afforded through the use of drugs.
When a yachaq’ dies, rather than return to the communal pool of being like the average person, he is reborn into his blood line, inheriting if not identity and memory, then tools, friends and servants in the other domains. Key to this inheritance is a set of mind that allows a quick re-acquaintance with the domain-spanning skills and access to the facts of existence. A full yachaq’, a “thunderhead”, a yachaq’ illapa (ya-chak ill-ee –ya-pa) may count on tens or hundreds of previous lives. As a consequence, some individuals become very strange and formidable beings.
Most of the yachaq’ illapa – and all of their centres of learning, such as Chavin, were extinguished by the Inca, who saw them as a rival power. The Inca did not tolerate even potential rivals. The few that survived the subsequent Spanish conquest were located in what is now Ecuador, and the current centre of the discipline lies around Huancabamba province in the North of Peru. A visitor will not meet a yachaq’ illapa, however, as they are long gone. Instead, hundreds of self-described shamans process huge numbers of pilgrims every year: Lima alone is supposed to have three million devotees, and people come on package tours from as far away as the Philippines, Korea and China. In neighbouring Amazonas, a corrupt version is practiced that is aimed to harm, and Dark Sun, Bright Moon describes both the practice of this and the anxious societies which it dominates.
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