Cougars in Incan Myths

Updated April 17, 2017

The Inca civilisation thrived for about 300 years in what is now called Peru, lasting from the 13th to the 16th centuries. The history of the Inca people, however, is shrouded in mystery, as they didn't have a written language and passed down stories and legends via the oral tradition. Archaeological evidence, however, suggests that the cougar was an important animal to the Incas, appearing in their myths, legends and architecture.


Viracocha is the Inca's chief god, the great creator god predating the Inca civilisation. Viracocha's attendants were also deities, and took the forms of a condor, a falcon, a snake and a cougar, which was called a puma by the Incas. Viracocha was a kind, peace-loving god, and was sometimes depicted as having a cougar lying at his feet. This may be the reason why the Incas associated cougars with wealth, and the Quechua people of Peru, descendants of the Incas, still believe that seeing a cougar will bring good luck.

Machu Picchu

Animals were important to Inca myths. The snake represented the underworld, the condor symbolised the upper world, or spiritual plane, and the puma represented the physical world in which the Incas lived. Images of these animals in their respective symbolic roles are found throughout the sacred city of Machu Picchu. In fact, the Huayna Picchu, the mountain located near Machu Picchu, is naturally shaped like a puma. Incan architects constructed small terraces high on the summit to create the impression that the puma's hair was standing up straight.


The Incas used their temples to follow the sun and moon to predict lunar and solar eclipses, as they believed a solar eclipse portended the death of their king. In Incan mythology, a lunar eclipse was created when the moon was attacked by a snake and a cougar. This belief was behind a tradition in which Incans screamed and howled during a lunar eclipse with the intent of causing dogs to bark and help the moon fight back against her attackers.


One of the most dramatic examples of the importance of the cougar to Incan mythology can be found in the ancient city of Cusco. In fact, the entire city was built in the shape of a massive reclining puma, with the fortress called Saqsaywaman serving as the puma's head. According to Inca Trails Tour, the name Saqsaywaman may be a derivation of the Incan words "saqsa" (marbled) and "uma" (head), which literally translates to "marbled head."

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