The Myth of the Amaru

Among all the fantastical creatures of the Andean folklore, the Amaru is perhaps the one that shares more similarities with the dragón. In Quechua, one of the most widely spoken languages of the indigenous peoples of the Andes, “amaru” means “snake”, but it is also the name of some of the supernatural snakes in the local legends. Due to the fact that the Pre-Columbian civilizations lacked a written form of language, most of the stories of this creature come from an assembly of local traditions, some of which were recorded by chroniclers, priests and other literate people of the period. The description of the Amaru in these accounts, however, do not completely agree on its appearance, though they always include some snake-like traits. It is also important to point out that the Amaru of the legends is not always a unique, individual entity; indeed, in a few tales it appears as if there is just one Amaru, but most of them seem to suggest that there are actually several more of them. Therefore, this article aims to explore some of these stories so as to have a clearer idea on the nature of the Amaru and the role it had in the worldview of the Andean people.

Figure A — A traditional sculpture resembling each one of the three planes (pacha) of the Andean worldview: the condor represents the Hanan Pacha, the puma represents the Kay Pacha, and the snake (amaru) represents the Ukhu Pacha. This kind of figures are commonly found at souvenir stores in Cuzco and other cities of the Peruvian highlands.

The Amaru is usually associated with the underworld, the earth and seismic movements. According to the beliefs of the ancient Andean people, the world is divided in three regions: the Hanan Pacha, which is the world of above, a place inhabited by the gods and by birds; the Kay Pacha, which is the present world, also known as the realm where humankind lives; and the Ukhu Pacha, the world below, the underground realm of the dead (1.2). It is precisely in this region where the Amaru lives. This creature is said to cause tremors and earthquakes when it moves through the depths of the earth due to its huge size (3), and its link with the earth and the large rock formations of the Andean region is featured in several accounts. In the XVI century, a priest from Huarochirí (Peru) called Francisco de Ávila wrote about a local tradition that told of the fight of two ancient deities. One of them was Pariacaca, which is also the name of a mountain between Lima and Junín, and the other was an evil volcanic deity called Huallallo Carhuincho; they were battling each other over the control of the lands of the central Andean region, and during the fight they caused different natural disasters. Towards the end of the fight, Pariacaca cast down heavy rains and landslides on Huallallo Carhuincho when he turned his body into fiery flames that reached the skies, thus extinguishing the fire that had covered him, and then Pariacaca attacked his almost defeated enemy with the power of lightning; however, in his last desperate attempt, Huallallo Carhuincho managed to summon an Amaru to stop Pariacaca:

“Then, Pariacaca, throwing lightning and, also his five brothers, razed a cliff, and they made Huallallo tremble. He, then, summoned a huge two-headed snake, called Amaru… Pariacaca, seeing the great snake, made a golden staff and he hit the beast in the middle of its spine. The Amaru froze and then it turned into stone. This frozen Amaru can still be clearly seen, up to this day, on the road that leads to Caquiyoca, in the highlands. And the people of Cuzco or of any other place that know, that have knowledge of this thing, scratch the body of this Amaru with a rock to get some dust so that they can use it as a remedy.” (4)

Figure B —Petrified Amaru near Lake Culebrayoc in the Incan road that leads to Mount Pariacaca. The crests of this huge rock formation possibly represent the great serpent that appeared in the tale of Pariacaca and Huallallo Carhuincho. [Gentile, Margarita E. (2017), photo by César Astuhuamán Gonzáles.]

The tale of de Ávila ends with Huallallo Carhuincho fleeing to the east, and as he was a volcanic deity, he took with himself the former warm climate of the region, thus allowing Pariacaca to reestablish its original cold climate, a detail that seems to suggest the occurrence of a series of natural disasters in a past period that had seriously damaged the harvests of the people, which actually ended with an earthquake of great magnitude (5); this last event could be linked with the emergence of the Amaru, though in the absence of evidence this cannot be more than mere speculation. It is, however, interesting to notice that the Amaru of this tale has two heads, a feature that coincides with some of the fantastical depictions of the two-headed snakes that appear in Pre-Incan art, such as in the pottery of the Moche and Recuay cultures.

Figure C —Clay bottle with geometric designs of a stylized two-headed snake belonging to the Moche culture (200 BC — 800 AD) found in Laredo, La Libertad, in Peru, Museo Larco.

Figure D — Ancient jug featuring the motif of the two-headed snake belonging to the Recuay culture (200 BC — 600 AD), Museo Arqueológico Zonal de Cabana, Áncash, Perú.

Figure E — Detail of a textile found in the south coast of Lima with the two-headed snake motif (Drawn by Edward Moseley, The Maritime foundations of Andean Civilization, California, Benjamín Cumming Publishing Company, 1975, p. 74).

It is possible that the Amaru of the story of Francisco de Ávila was inspired by the depictions of the earlier two-headed snakes that appear in several Pre-Incan cultures. Undoubtedly, these two heads add to the monstrosity of the Amaru of this legend, but they may as well have an additional hidden meaning that we might have just overlooked. On the other hand, the story seems to be subtly splattered with a few details that make us think on certain Christian traditions, not only because de Ávila had actually been a catholic priest, but also because of the unavoidable assimilation of several elements of Christian origin in the beliefs of the Andean people during the Colony. For instance, the golden staff of Pariacaca reminds us of the staff that Moses used to face the magicians of the Pharaoh (Exodus 7:8-10) since both of them used a staff to defeat the snakes of the enemy. Also, when it is mentioned that the natives used the dust from the body of the petrified Amaru to heal their ailments (we must remember that the healing properties of the Amaru are just hinted, yet they are never explained in the priest’s account), we can’t but think on the bronze serpent that, again, Moses erected on a pole for the Israelites so that everyone who saw it would be protected from the bite of snakes (Numbers 21:4-9). This could be an example of the cultural blending that occurred after the Spanish colonization of the Americas, an unavoidable outcome of such events, but despite the distortion that this phenomenon seems to imply, the result is nonetheless worthy of interest.

But this petrified Amaru is not exclusive to the aforementioned legend.  The Spanish cleric Cristóbal de Albornoz wrote about a popular belief of the native people of the highlands of Lima during the XIV:

“There is another genre of huaca that is certain genre of snake of different attributes. They adore and serve them. The main Incas took from them their surnames. They are called machacuay and amaro… Though I may cause some nuance I will speak of a childishness and a tall story that the naturals from the borders of Lima have in the highlands, as they go to Guadocherí from here, in all the lakes before they reach Las Escaleras, and it is that in the crags, when one marches through the royal road from one point of the other, nature has formed a long white marble veining. And the local people who are near it believe and say that, when the Spaniards came to these lands, a snake called amaro came out from the lake to go to another lake and in the new one it froze and turned itself into stone. It has the shape of a snake because I have seen it. All the provinces around it bow before it when they go near this place, with a lot of reverence… I have seen many offerings on it every time I have been to that place.” (6)

It is evident that Albornoz, who was renowned for his efforts to vanquish the idolatry in the newly conquered lands, did not have much love for the legends of the local people; nevertheless, the beliefs that he gathered on his own written accounts reveal the importance that certain supernatural figures of the Andean world had for the natives. The Amaru that he described was indeed revered by the inhabitants of the region, and the marble veining that he mentioned can still be seen between Lake Mullococha and Lake Culebrayoq, right in the Incan road that leads to Mount Pariacaca (7). Albornoz also said that there had been Incan rulers who took the name of “Amaru” for themselves, something that is also confirmed by the indigenous chronicler Juan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui Salcamaygua when he wrote about the birth of Amaru Inca Yupanqui, one of the sons of Pachacutec, the ninth Sapa Inca:

“And in Poma Cocha, before reaching Uilcasguaman, which is a very hot place that points to Cuzco, there was born a legitimate older son called Amaro Yupanqui where we stayed for a few days. In that time they say that the news came to Cuzco as if there was a miracle, and a yauirca or amaro came out from mount Pachatusan, a very dire beast, which was half a league long and two bracas and a half wide, and it had ears and fangs (and a beard) (because of this amaro he named his son Amaro Yupanqui). And it came to Yuncay Pampa, and then it went into the lake of Quibipay, …” (8).

Both the appearance of the Amaru and the birth of Amaru Inca Yupanqui coincide with an earthquake of high magnitude that stroke the east of Cuzco, which was attributed to the emergence of the creature from mount Pachatusan, and supposedly it left a mark on its peak that can still be seen (9). The notion that the snake (amaru) is the inhabitant of the Ukhu Pacha who is responsible of the seismic activity on the earth can be traced back to several forms of Pre-Incan art. On a clay vessel that belongs to the Moche culture, an Amaru was drawn at the level of the ground (Figure F), and at the inferior side of a yupana (a kind of stone board that was used to make calculations) found at the archaeological site of Pashash (Ancash, Peru) we can see a two-headed snake carved on the stone right under some stairs that correspond to the upper level of the board, something that may suggest a connection between the snake and the earth (10).

Figure F — Phase VI. Classical Period. Figure 4-48. (Donnan, C. B., y Mc Clelland. Moche fineline painting. Its evolution and its artists. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum Publications; 1999, p. 100)

Figure G — A yupana from the Pashash site, Recuay culture (540 AD), found during the summer of 1971. (Smith, Jr., J. Recuay gaming boards: a preliminary study. Revista Indiana, 4; 1977, p.27)

Interestingly, this association of the Amaru with the land was eventually transferred to the bull, an animal that, despite not belonging to the South American native fauna, has been included in the Andean cosmovision to the point of considering it an inhabitant of Ukhu Pacha whose existence even precedes the appearance of the same indigenous people in the world (11). Hence, the supernatural manifestations of bulls and serpents in the lakes and mountains of the mountain are a component of some local legends. In the stories of Albornoz and Santa Cruz Pachacuti, after emerging, the amaru goes to a lagoon, becoming stone in the first and creating some rocky crests on the top of a mountain in the second, and in the regions of Urubamba and Chumbivilcas there are legends that tell that the soul of some hills, which are still attributed certain divinity to these days, is manifested in the form of a bull in some lakes that supposedly keep a kind of treasure (12).

But even though both animals are associated with the earth, each one represents an opposite sexual aspect: the bravery of the Andean bull made it a symbol of virility and masculinity, while the serpent is actually a symbol of the fertility of the land and of femininity, as exemplified in the “game of the ayllus and the amaru”. According to Cristóbal de Albornoz, this game was played with a woolen snake and three small ropes tied with lead at their extremes, and the Incan rulers sometimes used it to gain land and cattle from their allies, who at the same time were their potential rivals (13). In this game, the “ayllu”, represented by the three ropes, was regarded as a phallic symbol associated with masculinity, with the sky and with the conquerors, while the Amaru was a female symbol associated with the land and the conquered people (14). This game had an evident political meaning; some authors claim that the Amaru represents the conquered peoples belonging to the Chinchaysuyo region (15, 16), one of the four great divisions of the Incan Empire that extended from the west of Cuzco and then north, towards Ecuador. In addition, in the account of the “petrified Amaru” recorded by Albornoz, the cleric said that word “Amaru” was taken as a surname by some members of the Incan dynasty, a fact that is also confirmed in the writings of the Amerindian chronicler Guamán Poma de Ayala, who claimed that the blood of the Amaru lineage ran in the Incan bloodline (17). We must remember that the last of the Incas of Vilcabamba was called Tupac Amaru, a man who would revolt against the Spanish conquerors around 1570, and this title would later be adopted by the indigenous leader José Gabriel Condorcanqui (Tupac Amaru II) when he started the largest anti-colonial rebellion in the Viceroyalty of Peru during the eighteenth century. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that the coats of arms of certain Incas, when drawn according to Spanish heraldry, include the image of the snake (amaru).

Figure H — Coat of arms of the Inca according to Guamán Pola (1613). <<Second arm. The arms Curiquinquitica pluma. Otorongo achachi ynga. Mascaypacha tuson. Amaro ynga. Royal arms of the kingdom of the Indies of the Incan rulers there>>. [Gentile, M. (2017) El Amaru como emblema de los Incas del Cusco (Siglos XVI-XVII), p. 300.]

Figure I — Fight between the lion and the serpent in the canvas of Urquillos [Rojas Silva, David (1984) El león y la sierpe. Una alegoría andina del siglo XVIII. Historia y Cultura, 5, p. 60.]

As we have seen, the Amaru evokes the fundamental characteristics of the dragons depicted in the oldest civilizations: a monstrous serpent of great size that is linked with fertility. Eventually, though, the Amaru came to incorporate some of the features of the later medieval European dragons as the Spanish culture settled in the South American continent. In some graphic representations of the Spanish victory over the rebellion of José Gabriel Condorcanqui, the Amaru that represents the indigenous leader has a pair of wings and a long tail that ends in an arrowhead while facing the lion, the symbol of Spain (18). In turn, it is possible to identify the motif of the dragon slayer in the feats attributed to certain Incas. It was said that the Inca Mayta Cápac had to defeat an Amaru in the jungle (19), and the Inca Pachacútec supposedly did the same during his conquest of the Andes (20). We cannot tell whether these two accounts were part of the original oral traditions or just a byproduct of the cultural exchange that took place in the colonized lands, but the image of the European dragon definitely had an effect on the physical aspect of the Amaru in later legends. For instance, there is a legend in the folkore of Junín (Perú) that the indigenous writer José María Arguedas recorded in his book “Myths, Legends and Peruvian Stories” (1947) in which the Amaru resembles the winged European dragons:

“In ancient times, the valley of Jauja and Mantaro was covered by the waters of a large lake in whose center stood a rock called Wanka, the resting place of the Amaru, a horrible monster with a llama’s head, two small wings, the body of a batrachian and a long snake tail. Later, the tulunmaya (rainbow) created another Amaru so that it could be the companion of the first one, though it was of a darker color; however, the latter could never reached the size of the former, which had acquired a whitish color due to its maturity. The two monsters fought for the supremacy of the lake, whose rock, although of great dimensions, was not large enough for the two of them together. The two Amarus rose high into the sky on watersprouts due to the violence of their fight, and in one of them the large Amaru lost a large part of its tail when it furiously attacked the smaller one.

Irritated, the god Tikse unleashed a storm on them; his lightnings killed both of them, and an intense rain poured down on the already agitated lake, increasing its volume until it broke its edges and flooded the south.

When the valley was formed, the first two human beings, called Mama and Taita, were thrown from the Warina or Wari-puquio (which comes from the words wari, “a hidden place that keeps something sacred”, and puquio, “spring water”), since they had remained underground for a long time for fear of the amarus.

The descendants of this couple later built the Wariwillka temple, whose ruins still exist.

Today, it is a general belief among the Wankas that the amaru is the snake that, hidden in a cave, has grown to become immense, and it takes advantage of the winds that form during the storms to climb back to the sky, yet it is destroyed by the lightning between clouds; and depending on whether the figure of the amaru in the sky, is white or black, it is possible to foretell if the year will be good or bad.”

In my opinion, the story of Arguedas is the forerunner of the legends that depict the Amaru more as a winged dragon than as a serpent. One of them is the legend of the “Amarus de Junín”, which includes all the characters of the story compiled by Arguedas, though it also adds that original link with the land that has the amaru of the narratives of the chroniclers. According to the legend, in the past the Huancas (an ancient ethnic group of the Junín region) lived in the caverns of the hills because the lakes that lay at the foot of the mountains were inhabited by terrible beasts; distressed by their situation, they asked the sky god Wiracocha to help them; he ordered Tulunmaya (the rainbow) to help them, and then Tulunmaya took out of his chest a black beast with the head of a guanaco, the wings of a hawk, legs of an otorongo, a body of a toad and a snake’s tail called Yana Amaru (black snake in Quechua), which destroyed all the other beasts of the place; however, when it no longer had any enemies, the Yana Amaru began attacking the settlers, who implored Wiracocha’s help once again. He then ordered the creation of the Yuraq Amaru (white snake) to stop the previous monster; they were the same kind of creature, yet the later had a distinctly silver skin. Unfortunately, the battle between both creatures caused much more damage than those caused by the beasts that had previously harassed the settlers, so Wiracocha had to send Illapu (lightning) and Wayrapuka (the wind) to defeat the Amarus; the two beasts tried to flee upon seeing the power of these two forces, but Wayrapuka did not allow them to hide; he separated the waters when they wanted to submerge into a lake, and he made them return from heaven when they tried to fly higher, leaving them at the mercy of Illapu to strike them with a deadly blow. The Amarus increased in size considerably before dying, and their bodies formed the mountain ranges of the Mantaro Valley, on whose summits are born the sources of water that nourish the forests and fields of the region. (22)

Figure J – Amaru, by Mayukuna (2007).

Although the previous version is simply attributed to the local oral tradition, it remains an ingenious amalgam of the classic image of the dragon and the Andean Amaru; the body of the Amarus of Junín is composed of the parts of several animals, something very characteristic of the European and Asian dragons, but they manage to preserve that symbolism that connects them to the earth when they died. But there is one more detail that I think deserves some more attention, and it is that both stories seem to imply a relationship between the Amarus and the sky. For some unknown reason, the Amarus try to ascend to the firmament, but they are destroyed by the lightning and the wind before they can reach it, causing diverse atmospheric phenomena (rains, storms) that can either benefit or harm the inhabitants of the region. This fact is of special interest because there is another mythological being in the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures with the appearance of a snake that is associated with the sky and the wind: Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent of the Aztecs. Now, it is rather doubtful that there is a direct relationship between these two legendary creatures, especially when the link between Quetzalcoatl and the sky is perfectly defined in its legends, while that of the Amaru is hardly suggested in the story of Arguedas and the “Amarus de Junín”. Nevertheless, it is still puzzling that this element had been incorporated in both versions.

The myth of the Amaru is indeed as complex as it is fascinating; either as the two-headed serpent of the underworld or as the winged monster that fiercely battles its simile, the Amaru makes us think of both the first serpent-dragons and their offspring, the dragons of medieval mythology and conventional fantasy.


(1) Frisancho Velarde, Óscar (2012), Concepción mágico-religiosa de la Medicina en la América Prehispánica. Acta Médica Peruana 29(2 ) p. 121.

(2) Arce Ruiz, Óscar (2007), Tiempo y Espacio en el Tawantinsuyu: Introducción a las concepciones espacio-temporales de los Incas. Nómadas – Revista Crítica de Ciencias Sociales y Jurídicas, p. 4.

(3) Zuidema, R. Tom (1967), El juego de los ayllus y el amaru. En: Journal de la Societé des Americanistes, Tome 56 n°1, p. 49.

(4) Ávila, Francisco de ([1598] 1966), Dioses y hombres de Huarochirí. Narración quechua recogida por Francisco de Ávila. Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, pp. 97-99.

(5) Gentile, Margarita E. (2017), El Amaru como emblema de los Incas del Cusco (Siglos XVI-XVII). El Futuro del Pasado, n°8, pp. 302-304.

(6) Duviols, P. (1984), Albornoz y el espacio ritual andino prehispánico. Revista Andina, 2 (1), pp. 201-202.

(7) Gentile, Margarita E. (2017), El Amaru como emblema de los Incas del Cusco (Siglos XVI-XVII). El Futuro del Pasado, n°8, pp. 304-305.

(8) Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui Salcamaygua, Juan de ([1613] 1993), Relación de antiguedades deste reyno del Piru (1613). Lima-Cusco: Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos-Centro Bartolomé de las Casas, pp. 223-224.

(9) Gentile, Margarita E. (2017), El Amaru como emblema de los Incas del Cusco (Siglos XVI-XVII). El Futuro del Pasado, n°8, pp. 306-307.

(10) Gentile, Margarita E. (2017), El Amaru como emblema de los Incas del Cusco (Siglos XVI-XVII). El Futuro del Pasado, n°8, pp. 318-319.

(11) Molinié, Antoinette (2003), Metamorfosis Andinas del Toro. Revista de Estudios Taurinos N°16, Sevilla, pp. 25, 26.

(12) Molinié, Antoinette (2003), Metamorfosis Andinas del Toro. Revista de Estudios Taurinos N°16, Sevilla, pp. 27, 28.

(13) Zuidema, R. Tom (1967), El juego de los ayllus y el amaru. En: Journal de la Societé des Americanistes. Tome 56 n°1, p. 41.

(14) Burgas Guevara, Hugo (1995), El guamán, el puma y el amaru: formación estructural del gobierno indígena en Ecuador. Ediciones Abya-Yala N° 29, p. 49.  

(15) Zuidema, R. Tom (1967), El juego de los ayllus y el amaru. En: Journal de la Societé des Americanistes. Tome 56 n°1, p. 49.

(16) Burgas Guevara, Hugo (1995), El guamán, el puma y el amaru: formación estructural del gobierno indígena en Ecuador. Ediciones Abya-Yala N° 29, pp. 49-50.  

(17) Poma de Ayala, Felipe Guamán ([entre 1584 y 1614] 1936), Nueva crónica y buen gobierno. Paris, f. 80, 82.

(18) Gentile, Margarita E. (2017), El Amaru como emblema de los Incas del Cusco (Siglos XVI-XVII). El Futuro del Pasado, n°8, p. 315.

(19) Anello Oliva, G. ([1631] 1998), Historia del reino y provincias del Perú y vidas de los varones insignes de la Compañía de Jesús. Lima: Pontifica Universidad Católica del Perú, pp. 63-64.

(20) Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui Salcamaygua, Juan de ([1613] 1993), Relación de antiguedades deste reyno del Piru (1613). Lima-Cusco: Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos-Centro Bartolomé de las Casas, p. 227.

(21) Arguedas Altamirano, José María ([1947] 2008), Mitos, leyendas y cuentos peruanos. Edición de José María Arguedas y Francisco Izquiero Ríos. Siruela, Biblioteca de Cuentos Populares, p. 44.

(22) Historias y Relatos – Los Amarus de Junín o Amaru Aranway

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