At the Cross Road of Life and Death

During my recent visit to the indigenous township of Salasaka, we happened upon a family ritual, commonly conducted in these regions in the aftermath of a funeral, in the form of a group of people celebrating at a small local cross roads around a bonfire.

Local chakana, Salasaka

Here I learned that the body of the deceased lies inside the house for three days following the death, and is then removed for the formal religious aspects of the funeral, then interred. After the body is removed, the house is subject to a thorough cleansing with the standard Andean magical herbs, guinea pigs, and smoke. In this way, ‘negative energies’ still residing there within the family home are driven outside, where they are then directed to a local nodal point – the intersection of two directional ways, in the Andes known as a chakana, or “axis mundi” – which symbolically is a portal to different cosmic dimensions. Here the spirit of the deceased is invited to take whichever direction they choose to pass on from the world of human reality they have recently departed.

This is not seen in any negative way, although similar to the tradition in many parts of Europe, surviving until the 18th century, wherein bodies of people who committed suicide were buried at cross roads in unconsecrated ground, in order to ensure that their wandering spirits would be too confounded to be able to return. Here in the Andes it is believed that the spirits of the recently dead may be confused as to whether they should remain bound to the world recently inhabited, or to pass onward into alternative dimensions. Many traditional societies worldwide have similar understandings.

Cross roads, Salasaka

In our present day world view, we tend to regard beliefs such as these as irrational, superstitious and unfounded. However, whatever our personal views about concepts of spirit and soul and what may or may not happen to people when they physically die, we can see that such rituals serve a vital purpose in addressing the emotional needs of the families and friends of the recently deceased person, as of course, funerary rites always do. Emotionally intensive family gatherings around the deceased body, the sharing of memories and feelings about them, allows people to express their feelings and then to ‘clear them out’, with rituals such as these. Fires are lit at the site of the cross roads and burning materials taken through the house to cleanse away the negative energies, as much symbolising the feelings of the surviving participants, who need to continue with their lives in the world of the living, cleansed of whatever feelings they may have had about the deceased.

Guinea pigs

The symbolic role of the Andean cuy – guinea pig – which serves a key role in so many diagnostic and therapy rituals hereabouts, is manifest in the corpses of these little animals strung from the belts of participants in the ritual. Certainly their treatment arouses uncomfortable feelings in people from different cultural backgrounds, but these creatures were domesticated here in millennia BCE for food and ritual purposes, and their continued use represents an important surviving component of traditional beliefs and practices here.

About this blog entry

This blog entry was posted on Thursday 19th October 2017.'s picture
Dr Elizabeth Currie

Dr Elizabeth Currie is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Experienced Researcher and Global Fellow at the Department of Archaeology, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Health Sciences, University of York.

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