Apacheta - A Definition and Brief History
As the term is used in my Inca Trail story, an apacheta is a stone cairn, a small pile of rocks, built along the trail to atone for ones sins. However, in response to the question of what is an apacheta, the term has a broader spiritual meaning especially in the Inca culture.
According to Michael A. Malpass in his book “Daily Life in the Inca Empire”, Incas worshipped Viracocha, the supreme god, as well as many principal and lesser gods. In addition to worshipping these deities, Incas had a host of other beliefs in the supernatural. This included beliefs “that many places and objects were imbued with supernatural powers.” These supernatural features were called huacas. The most common huacas were springs and rocks although mountains, caves, lakes and tombs of ancestors were also considered to be huacas. These sacred sites could be manmade or natural. An apacheta is a type of huaca.
Apachetas are best known in Latin America and have been a part of the Inca culture since the beginning of civilization. However, the practice of building apachetas is also widespread among native peoples of southwestern and northern North America according to Stephen C. Jett in his paper “Cairn Trail Shrines in Middle and South America”. To a lesser degree, apachetas are also found in the Aztec and Mayan cultures.
Apacheta were built by Incas as they climbed the trail up the Andean mountain passes. They picked up a small stone and carried it for a short distance to the summit. They then added the stone to an existing apacheta located along the trail or left the stone as the beginning of a new apacheta. Travelers then said a prayer to the gods for luck and protection during their travels and for the elimination of travel fatigue. If no suitable stone was available, travelers would add other objects such as sea shells or coca leaves. In addition to being a source of spiritual power, apachetas also served as trail markers for the rugged mountain terrain.
The word apacheta means “the source where the flow begins” and refers to either the spiritual flow or the flow of the mighty Amazon River, the source of sustenance for many Inca people. In fact, in 2008 a stream of the Apacheta River in the Arequipa region of southern Peru was confirmed by Peruvian geologists and scientists as the beginning of the Amazon River.