On a chilly morning in early spring she sat steadfastly, basking in the warm Andean sun. Savoring the moment, she wrapped herself in a brilliant blue tapestry, just as her ancestors before her … although they probably didn’t have the ball cap.
Surrounded by the symbols of her culture, she awaited the first customer of the day.
There were no printed words on any of her merchandise, yet each item spoke volumes in the secret language of the Andes – the art of icons. Every woven sun or snake, and each pair of ceramic oxen had meaning.
“In ancient Andean societies, where the written word did not exist, iconography was the primary form of communication…It took the place of writing. They used painting, drawing, carving, and especially weaving as graphic ways of communication.” –Daniela Cabrerizo
The Incas may not have had a written language, but they knew how to communicate … if you knew the secret language of their icons.
In Ollantaytambo, Peru, this market sits at the base of impressive Inca ruins and caters primarily to the tourist trade. Additional shops and Fair Trade organizations are also scattered throughout town. Excited explorers seeking to fulfill their bucket list dreams pass through here on their way to or from Machu Picchu. It’s the perfect place to expand your knowledge of Peruvian icons; if you’re not careful you’ll lighten your wallet and beef up your backpack.
From tunics to chullos (knitted hats), textiles imbued with mysterious patterns are all the rage in Peru. In fact, the first chullo that a child receives is traditionally knitted by her father. How nice!
Traditional weavings are created from wool shorn from sheep, alpaca, and llamas – with alpaca wool being the preferred fiber due to its softness and warmth. Then talented artists wash, spin, and dye the fleece to create yarn – all by hand.
The textiles are woven using a “backstrap loom” consisting of two sticks across which the warp is stretched. The first stick is attached to the weaver with a strap around her back. The second stick is attached to a fixed object. This configuration enables the weaver to adjust the tension by leaning forward or backward. And the best thing – it’s portable!
“Andean weaving includes a rich tradition of iconography. The designs and motifs used in Quechua textiles are passed down from generation to generation, repeated over and over again, and are based on the daily lives of the Quechua weavers. They are inspired by agriculture, flora and fauna of the region, astrological phenomenon, human forms, bodies of water, and geometric designs.” —Awamaki Cooperative
Load of Bulls
Seeing a table full of ceramic bulls certainly made us scratch our heads. When we inquired about them in our imperfect Spanish, the lady just kept pointing to a nearby rooftop. And sure enough, at the peak sat two oxen side by side, adorned with a beer bottle, flag, cross, chalice … and streamers.
The oxen are placed on the roof for good luck, fertility, and prosperity. The corn-based beer ties the occupants to their ancestors, and the chalice serves to sanctify the house. I guess the streamers are just for fun!
The pièce de résistance in the market had to be the walking sticks. Capped with fierce expressions, stunning dentition, and curling horns, they invite you not to touch! When we asked the ancient merchant about their meaning, we were greeted with a toothless grin, shoulder shrug, and twinkling eyes that said, “That’s for me to know and you to find out!”
We came up with all kinds of theories about their iconology:
- They’re fierce to scare away the evil spirits on the trail to Machu Picchu.
- The horns are there to make you as graceful and sure-footed as a mountain goat.
- The walking stick will give you the powers of a “Temporary Shaman” to protect you on the trail.
So what’s your theory?
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like others in our Peru Series:
Mysterious Machu Picchu: City of Chosen Women or Royal Palace?
The Train, Terrain, and Rain at Machu Picchu
Ollantaytambo: A Living City of the Inca
Before You Launch From Lima: 5 Faves
Cusco: Navel of the Inca World
Lima’s Major Domo
Lima’s Luscious Balconies: A Tale of Jealousy
4. By quinet via Wikimedia Commons
5. By Peter van der Sluijs via Wikimedia Commons
6. By Pethrus via Wikimedia Commons
7. By Jae via Wikimedia Commons