This month, the indigenous people of the Andes celebrate a high holy season in Incan mythology, honoring their beloved Pachamama. Pachamama is venerated as the earth goddess and during August, her followers give her payment (pago) with their central ritual of Challa. So, I’d like for my monthly article about Holy Women Icons to celebrate this earthy goddess of Peru, along with a similar manifestation of mother earth, Gaia. Thus far, the biblical dancer, the Shulamite, feminist scholar, Mary Daly, and literary figure, Baby Suggs, have been the icons with a folk feminist twist that I have discussed on Feminism and Religion. Now, I’d like us to join with our Andean sisters in toasting the holy women icons of mythology: Pachamama and Gaia.
Pachamama translates more literally as “mother world” and she is the fertility goddess who presides over planting, farming, and harvesting. In these ways, she is quite benevolent, but she can also become angry and cause earthquakes. Because of her association with fertility and nature, people often pour a small amount of chicha or wine into the dirt before drinking, as a way of expressing gratitude to Pachamama for the bounty of the earth. The spilling of drink onto the ground becomes a holy offering. Similarly, her followers often raise a toast to her before festivals, meals, or upon traveling through the Andes. This toast is daily called challa, which is also the name of the festival in her honor throughout the month of August.
Pachamama is said to be married to Inti, but with the convergence of Catholicism in Peru she has become more of a Virgin Mary figure for many converts. At worst, this is a classic example of indigenous traditions being “baptized” or altered to fit the desires of colonialists. At best, it is an example of the strength of Andean women to maintain their heritage and beliefs during the onslaught of western missionaries.
Either way, Pachamama prevails. Her body is one with the Andes and she births the caverns, canyons, and rivers that sustain the earth. So, this August, I raise my glass to Pachamama, toasting her bounteous spirit as her icon gazes back at all her followers, proclaiming:
Her heart quaked and out poured
All the mountains, rivers, and canyons of the world…
To her great, big heart
Similar is the myth of Gaia. Gaia is the goddess or personification of Earth in Greek mythology. She reigns as mother of all, responsible for the bounty of the earth. So, as I painted Gaia’s icon I knew she must rise up from the earth, surrounded by the skies, with the waters to her right and the mountains to her left. But I also knew that, like Pachamama, her heart must be brightest of all. As she reigns over nature, she beckons us to wonder:
The beauty of the earth
Her heart pulsing life, sustenance, and bounty for
All creatures of the earth…
So, as summer draws to a close and we enjoy a sunset, splash in the oceans or rivers, or climb through the mountains, let us remember the beauty of the earth. Let the power of Pachamama and Gaia embolden us to treat this planet with kindness and respect. Let us gaze in wonder at the majesty, greatness, and awe of both the grandeur and intricacy of the natural world. And let us raise our glasses in honor of these women who bore our world, who bear us, and whose stories make us stronger still.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Wake Forest Baptist Church at Wake Forest University. She has a Ph.D. in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, along with numerous articles about the intersections among the arts, religion, and gender/sexuality. She has been a clergy woman and professional dancer and artist since 1999 and she teaches a course as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com