A Dozen Immortal Emperors Jostling for Position

Charles Mann, 1491, pp. 98-99:

Because the Inka [the Inkan emperor] was believed to be an immortal deity, his mummy was treated, logically enough, as if it were still living. Soon after arriving in Qosqo, Pizarro’s companion Miguel de Estete saw a parade of defunct emperors. They were brought out on litters, “seated on their thrones and surrounded by pages and women with flywhisks in their hands, who ministered to them with as much respect as if they had been alive.”

Because the royal mummies were not considered dead, their successors obviously could not inherit their wealth. Each Inka’s panaqa [court and its descendants] retained all of his possessions forever, including his palaces, residences, and shrines; all of his remaining clothes, eating utensils, fingernail parings, and hair clippings; and the tribute from the land he had conquered. In consequences, as Pedro Pizarro realized, “The greater part of the people, treasure, expenses, and vices [in Tawatinsuyu] were under the control of the dead.” The mummies spoke through female mediums who represented the panaqa’s surviving courtiers or their descendants. With almost a dozen immortal emperors jostling for position, high-level Inka society was characterized by ramose political intrigue of a scale that would have delighted the Medici. Emblematically, Wayna Qhapaq [the eleventh Inka] could not construct his own villa on Awkaypata—his undead ancestors had used up all the available space. Inka society had a serious mummy problem.

After smallpox wiped out much of the political elite, each panaqa tried to move into the vacuum, stoking the passions of the civil war. Different mummies at different times backed different claimants to the Inka throne. After Atawallpa’s victory, his panaqa took the mummy of Thupa Inka [the tenth Inka’s] from its palace and burned it outside Qosqo—burned it alive, so to speak. And later Atawallpa instructed his men to seize the gold for his ransom as much as possible from the possessions of another enemy panaqa, that of Pachacuti’s [the ninth Inka’s] mummy.

What makes this passage work so well is the literary device of treating the mummies as alive and meddling in Inkan politics. By taking Inka beliefs at face value, Mann is able to write a fairly direct account of the power struggles. Yes, it was “really” the Inka running each panaqa engaging in the politicking, and Mann says as much. Still, the institutional superstructure built up around the cultural practice of treating the mummies as alive made the panaqa politics often indistinguishable from the politics that would have obtained if there really were “a dozen immortal emperors jostling for position.” Taking that phrase literally would make for a great science fiction novel (and quite possibly has).

Love that line. It’s such a vivid picture.