In my past articles covering the controversy around the carved figure from the Amazon Synod, I arrived at the conclusion that–contrary to the accusations from the usual suspects–there is no evidence that a pagan ritual took place in the Vatican. The statue could represent, depending on who you asked, a kind of Marian depiction of Our Lady of the Amazon, or a mere symbol of life and fertility, without idolatrous intentions. The Pachamama references (which could not be directly traced to the statue) were probably connected to a concept of Mother Earth inspired by St. Francis of Assisi’s Song of Creatures and the ecological movement.

However, all this evidence was gratuitously dismissed by papal critics who just kept repeating and repeating and repeating that the statue was a depiction of Pachamama. Not Pachamama as an abstract reference to the planet earth, but the goddess Pachamama of the Andean pantheon. They stubbornly clung to this explanation, notwithstanding the constant denials from official voices from the Vatican and REPAM.

Since the idea that the statue is a pagan idol will not go away any time soon, it’s worth asking: who is Pachamama, anyway? Please note, we are not asking this question because we think the “pagan Pachamama” hypothesis is anywhere near true, or because we think that we can convince people who have made up their minds in favor of convenient narratives. However, just like the Zeigeist conspiracy theory was making the rounds some years ago, spreading the ridiculous notion that Christianity was just plagiarized and repackaged paganism, it is important for Catholics to be familiar with Pachamama in order to adequately prevent false claims from being disseminated beyond the boundaries of ideological echo chambers.


An example of anti-Marian propaganda. See the forced parallels based on appearances. Nothing new under the sun.

Some of you might think I’m being too harsh on the critics here. Not so.  On Twitter, Mike Lewis noted that the “Pachamama” entry on Wikipedia received a surge of edits during the whole kerfuffle. In these edits, references to Catholic inculturation of the goddess Pachamama were repeatedly removed by anonymous editors, only to be restored by Wikipedia editors who recognized that the deletion was not justified. This was one example of how Francis’s detractors, who purport to be defending Catholicism for their love of truth, do not seem to have any love for truth at all. In the tradition of the best relativists, they try to do away with any truth that is inconvenient for their objective. The campaign against the Pope has priority over anything. The ends justify the means.

Truth demands that a deeper and more extensive investigation into this topic must be done, rather than allow propaganda to go on unabated. For this reason, I did a great deal of research on Pachamama, and studied scholarly and reliable sources. These are my findings.

The Andes, a failure to inculturate

Pachamama is not an Amazonian goddess, but an Andean one. Many apologists have tried to point out this fact to discredit the Pachamama hypothesis. I am not familiar enough with Amazonian animistic religion to know whether there was significant cross-pollination between the Andes and the Amazon, since they border each other. One thing that we need to know is that the culture of the Amazon is composed of tribal communities dispersed through an area more than half the size of the US, so there is a great deal of cultural and religious heterogeneity within it.

However, from what I read about the Andean Pachamama, it is very unlikely that this goddess could be carried over to Amazon spirituality without at least some significant transformations, since this deity is heavily influenced by the mountainous geography of the Andes.

Back in October, during the hottest days of the controversy, papal critics showed their vast expertise on Pachamama by saying: “That statue is clearly Pachamama, any Google Image search will show that.” But actually, no. The goddess Pachamama is characteristically depicted, not as a native woman, but as a kind of woman-mountain hybrid, and not necessarily pregnant. In this sense, Disney’s depiction of the polynesian goddess Te Fiti in the animated movie Moana is closer to the classical depictions of Pachamama than the alleged Vatican idol.

Pachamama collage

According to the critics, the picture on the right is “clearly” the same thing as the others

The mountainous geography of the Andes has a greater impact on native spirituality than mere renditions of Pachamama. The craggy landscape of the Andes also made it more difficult for missionary activity to penetrate deeply into less populated areas than, for instance, in Mexico. This explains why the Andes had greater trouble in letting go of elements of their pre-Columbian religions than other areas of America.

Still, we cannot blame this only on geography. The first contact the natives had with Christians also helped erect barriers. In his excellent book Eternity in their Hearts, the decades-long experienced missionary Don Richardson recounts the story of one of the last Inca kings, Pachacuti.

Richardson tells us about a collection of Inca hymns gathered by a 16th-century Spanish priest: Cristobel de Molina. He tells us how many scholars, for years, have thought that Fr. Molina had altered many of those hymns in order to make them look more Christian than they actually were, until further confirmation of their authenticity was discovered in the 20th century.

These hymns tell us how king Pachacuti started to question the foundations of his pagan religion. For years he had been a pious devotee of Inti, the sun-god. But one day, he thought: if Inti is indeed a great god, then why does he not seem to be in any way free? “[T]he luminary always follows a set path, performs definite tasks, and keeps certain hours as does the labourer (…) The solar raidance can be dimmed by any passing cloud.” Not what we would expect from a supremely powerful god.

Pachacuti then concluded that Inti was a created thing, not a creator himself. But if Inti was not the Creator, then who was?

The king found out the answer in age-old traditions, so ancient that they were almost forgotten. These religious traditions laid dormant in the Inca culture for many years, but they were there as a far-flung memory: the cult of Viracocha, the Creator of all things; the father, among others, of Inti… and Pachamama.

According to Dr. Burr Brundage from the University of Oklahoma, Pachacuti described Viracocha thus:

“He is ancient, remote, supreme, and uncreated. Nor does he need the gross satisfaction of a consort. He manifests himself as a trinity if he so wishes, though otherwise only heavenly warriors and archangels surround his loneliness. He created all peoples by his “Word” (…) He is a bringer of peace and an orderer. He is in his own being blessed and has pity on men’s wretchedness. He alone judges and absolves them and enables them to combat their evil tendencies.”

There are other parallels. Apparently, Viracocha also created man out of clay. It is also confirmed that he was especially prominent in pre-Incan religions, being only later incorporated into the Inca pantheon among Inti and others. This is consistent with Pachacuti’s understanding of the evolution of his culture, as narrated by Don Richardson: “The concept of Viracocha, therefore, was probably of great antiquity. Worship of Inti and other gods, in this view, were only recent departures from a purer belief system.”

Pachacuti decided that, if any god deserved worship, it was Viracocha, not Inti. The hymns collected by Fr. Molina were composed by Pachacuti in honor of Viracocha. So the king assembled a Council with all of his priests (a Council dubbed by Dr. Brundage as the Council of Coricancha) in order to revitalize the worship of Viracocha, the Creator. There was some resistance from some of the priests, but others were open to the king’s suggestions. They ultimately decided that it was too risky to tell the people to stop worshipping the Sun and start afresh with the imposition of a new deity, of whom many knew nothing about. Therefore, Pachacuti and the priests decided to bow to political expediency and confine the cult of Viracocha to the upper classes, hoping that it would eventually trickle down to the masses.

Then the Spanish came. And Richardson describes the tragedy that ensued:

“Within a century of Pachacuti’s death, merciless Spanish conquistadores obliterated both the royal family and the upper class. Since the lower classes had been relegated to spiritual darkness with their mistaken notions about Inti and other fictional gods, they were incapable of carrying on Pachacuti’s reformation


What would have happened if Christian missionaries from Europe had reached Peru two or three generations ahead of the conquistadores? Surely that period was the optimum time for the gospel to arrive. Interest in the concept of one supreme God was at a fever pitch in the royal family and the upper class. Bearers of the gospel would have had nearly a century to reap a glorious spiritual harvest throughout the Empire before the conquistadores struck. The Incas themselves, moreover, believed a vague prophecy that one day Viracocha would bring them blessings from the west (…) But compassionate Christian message-bearers, whoever they should have been, defaulted. In their place, came a heartless political conqueror and commercialist – Pizarro – and his rapacious army. Pretending that he was acting in God’s name, Pizarro (…) exploited Incan monotheistic expectations to destroy both the Incas and the empire.


And how ironic that Spanish Catholics, in their zeal to abolish Inca idolatry, destroyed a monotheistic belief which in effect, constituted an interim Old Testament to open the minds of thousands to the good news“.

The two paths

From this case-study, we can see that there are two different approaches that Christians can take regarding non-evangelized (or insufficiently evangelized) peoples: 1) the approach of those who are willing to use a true evangelizing spirit, by accompanying non-Christians and inculturating their beliefs in order to make Christian propositions understandable to them, purifying what is erroneous but keeping what is sound; and 2) the approach of those who prematurely assume idolatry in every spiritual manifestation of indigenous people and react by destroying. It is also noteworthy that the latter often (like Pizarro) hold a sense of superiority about Western civilization, confusing it with the totality of Christianity.

Richardson unconsciously mirrors these two Christian approaches with two paths taken by the unevangelized pagan: the Melchizedek factor and the Sodom factor. He contrasts these two with the Abraham factor: the Judeo-Christian religion. In the Genesis narrative, both Melchizedek, king of Salem, and Bera, king of Sodom, come to Abraham to present him with gifts. But Abraham accepts only the gifts from Melchizedek, and refuses the ones from Sodom. Now, both Melchizedek and Bera were pagan, but Melchizedek presented himself as the priest of El-Elyon (“God Most High”), while Bera would eventually lead the city of Sodom to the destruction of fire and brimstone that we know so well. And what were the gifts of Melchizedek, by the way? Nothing more, nothing less, than bread and wine, a prefiguration of the Eucharist.

Here we can see how discernment can play a part in knowing what we should inculturate (Melchizedek factor) and what we should eschew (Sodom factor) from the pagan cultures we encounter. Even in preconciliar times, G.K. Chesterton wrote in his Everlasting Man, that world religions could be divided into 4 categories: 1) religions of God; 2) religions of gods; 3) religions of philosophers and 4) religions of demons. Only the latter, according to Chesterton, was completely unredeemable.

Is the religion of Pachamama a religion of a goddess or of a demon? Is it a Melchizedek factor or a Sodom factor? Should we dunk it in the river or baptize it?

Pachamama is mother earth, a created being, so it could never be identified with the Creator. But is there another creature we can identify it with? Don Richardson cannot help us much more, since he is a Protestant missionary. He found many striking parallels between God and other Creator pan-divinities from around the world, but he would be utterly uninterested in finding such parallels between a goddess and that major feminine element of Catholicism that we venerate: the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Mother Earth, Mother Mary and the West

Pachamama is a compound word in Quezua language, deriving from “pacha” and “mama.” The former can mean “earth” and the latter means “mother.” So one common translation of Pachamama is merely Mother Earth.

Many Catholics today are understandably wary of Mother Earth given its connotations with New Age beliefs and with a misanthropic ecological movement. However, there is actually a very ancient tradition of giving Mother Earth a Christian meaning, and even a place of honor in places of worship. I again refer our readers to this article from Eric Giunta (an unbiased source in this regard, since he is on record as saying he believes Pope Francis is a heretic). This article provides a numerous references to scholarly articles about Mother Earth imagery in Medieval Western sacred art and prayers/poems.

However, I wish to go further than mere expressions of Mother Earth imagery and right into identifications of Mother Earth with Mother Mary. In her book Mary, Mother and Warrior, Linda B. Hall, History Professor Emeritus from the University of New Mexico (specializing in Latin American history), asserts:

Some scholars believe that Marian devotion in Spain was related to earlier mother goddesses, often those associated with fertility and closely tied to the Spanish landscape.


It may be that the earlier Mediterranean reverence for mother goddesses made the development of Marian devotions rather easy both in the cities and in the countryside. Alfonso X, the Castilian monarch of the thirteenth century and great devotee of María, acknowledged this connection in Law 43 of his Setenario, which was titled “About how those who worshipped the earth, really meant to worship Saint Mary, if they understood it well.”
It explained that in adoring the earth they were actually praying to the Virgin. Among the seven ways in which Mary was linked to the earth, the document went on, was her complete freedom from the stain of sin, as the man-god Jesus Christ grew in her as plants grow in the fertile soil. The supporting discussion made the connections between Mary and the earth in startlingly graphic ways. The Virgin was like the earth in that the Holy Spirit had cultivated and opened her body so that Jesus Christ could descend into it and become Man and God. The watering of the fruit of her womb was related to her virginity, before, during, and after birth. Finally, she produced the most beautiful fruit of all beauties possible. The argument continued that Mary, the Mother, made possible all the good things brought to the world by her Son
I found it interesting that such a precedent happened in Spain in particular, since the Spanish would later be the ones who sailed the seas to conquer the Americas, including the Andes. By that time, their Catholic faith had become so ingrained that they probably had forgotten all about the roots of Christianity in Spain, much less the traditional praxis of inculturation. But still, the history shows how a popular belief in Mother Earth, when properly baptized, can transform over the centuries into a fervent and vibrant Catholicism. The Spanish at the time likely did not have the historical perspective needed to take the lessons of the past to heart when they encountered the native people of the Americas. Centuries later, however, we do not have the luxury of such ignorance.

Mother Mary, Pachamama and the Andes

Linda Hall goes on to say that the “Spanish brought the Virgin Mary to their New World as a comforting presence, a focus of reverence, an emblem of Spanish nationalism, a war leader who inspired them to victory against the Muslims. They had placed Mary’s image in Muslim sacred spaces, and they did the same in native holy spaces in the Americas.” And elsewhere “These factors made the Virgin, favored by the endless possibilities for the development of new advocations that could be related to the local situation, particularly important in the establishment of Catholicism in the conquered territories

However, Mary had competition in the pagan pantheon of the Andes. The Inca had indeed developed a notion of the “sacred feminine,” but this concept was already taken by at least two goddesses: Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Mama Quilla (Mother Moon).

Now, I don’t want to sugarcoat this. Pachamama was indeed a pagan goddess, and not necessarily pleasant. She was not evil, since after all, the earth seems to indeed sustain humanity with her “maternal” gifts. But she was also not inherently good, because sometimes she would not sufficiently distribute her bounty: crops might fail, and famine ensue as a result. Also, she might cause earthquakes and other natural disasters. Pachamama was considered good, but also fickle. She demanded sacrifice to be appeased and, therefore, to give away her fruits. Most of the sources I consulted mention the sacrifice of animals, namely llama fetuses, but I do not exclude the possibility of human sacrifice, namely of children (though many of the sources I have seen explicitly linking human sacrifice to Pachamama are not scholarly, but biased anti-papal sources posting articles on this topic in the wake of the Vatican Gardens controversy).

The Catholic missionaries thought it would be a good idea to contrast the goodness and maternal tenderness of Mary with the capriciousness (if not cruelty) of the pagan gods. However, while this strategy bore fruit (like in Mexico), it was not always effective.

Catholics had, once more, two paths they could take: they could either crush the pagan deities, or use the “sacred feminine” notions already present in the natives’ religiosity as an open door to introduce them to the Catholic religion, while purifying these indigenous concepts from erroneous propositions. Linda Hall explains:

“The Church had been using the Virgin Mary in conversion attempts in Western Europe for centuries. Often she became an antidote to what churchmen viewed as magic. They redefined, reformed, and reinterpreted practices as they found them, but according to Christian principles.


Mary continued to be invoked against indigenous religions that the Spanish termed “idolatry.” The Church had two techniques, with a continuum between them—repression on the one hand and toleration and incorporation of other religions and “magic” within a Christian framework on the other. The Virgin figured in both techniques but was more effective in the latter

Again we find that the constructive path is usually more effective than the destructive one. Missionaries found in the native Pachamama a good way to introduce Mary to the Andeans, for both shared and conveyed the same sense of “sacred” femininity:

“The idea of Mary that emerged was a result not only of confrontation of spiritual systems but also of accommodations on both sides. The new forms of reverence and worship that developed out of the cultural mix of Spanish Catholicism and existing religious systems in Mexico were in no way static or uniform (…) The moon on which she stands, the flowers, the elegance, the regal nature of the representations all contributed to a kind of “Double Mistaken Identity” in which mutual misunderstandings between the indigenous and the Europeans permitted each to see in the practices of the other what they themselves believed and practiced.”

This inculturated identification of Pachamama with the Virgin is confirmed, not only by the scholarly sources I have consulted, but also by Eric Giunta, in the Addendum to his article on Mother Earth (I remind the reader, Eric is not biased in favor of the Pope, quite the contrary). In fact, as I mentioned earlier, this is also confirmed by the Wikipedia article papal critics tried to alter in order to erase any mention of Mary in the Pachamama article.

A paper submitted to the University of Chicago explains even more how inculturation worked in a seamless and elegant fashion, even without the missionaries getting a full grasp of it:

“The Andeans imprinted their history on the countryside with different beings that co-existed as kin or rivals. “The relationships between different beings were negotiable, for humans could worship, consult, supplicate, battle, abduct, or even incapacitate gods, oracles, and shrines. The Incas captured all of these things within a simple concept — wak’a — that is, anything or place that had transcendent power” (D’Altroy 2002:142). These huacas, oracles, and shrines were revered with good intentions, as well as asked to avert maladies and disaster


Images …were themselves cult objects, a fact which gave rise to the Indian observation that the Christian images were the huacas of the Spaniards — an observation extremely difficult to contradict” (…) Thus, the Spanish understanding of saints and their relics coupled with the Andean notion of the huaca, led the latter to believe that the saints were the huaca of the Spanish. This notion allowed some predominant Andean deities to become identified with various saints, such as the Virgin Mary with the Pachamama, or St. Santiago (St. James) with Illapa, the god of thunder “

Marian representations of Pachamama

During the Vatican Garden controversy, many people claimed expertise on Pachamama by appealing to arguments like: “The carved figure is clearly Pachamama. Just do a simple Google Search and you will see.” It is an argument that has, alas, been repeated often during the whole kerfuffle: just isolate yourself from any evidence contrary to your narrative by shouting “It is clearly what I think it is. Do you think I’m stupid?”

Scholarly articles, however, do not validate this notion. Pachamama is usually not depicted as a native pregnant naked woman. The way Pachamama has been inculturated with Mary shows us its original form, as Linda Hall explains:

“Many attributes of Andean depictions of Santa Maria could be related directly to native manifestations of the sacred. One of the most important was the connection with mountains, an association directly linked to Pachamama, the earth mother. A consistent feature of Andean representations of Mary is the triangular shape of her dress, a reference, according to Carol Damian, “to the shape of a mountain and, especially, her role as Pachamama, the Earth Mother.” In several examples from the colonial period, the Virgin as Pachamama is taken to an extreme with Mary appearing within the mountain itself.


Another noteworthy example can be found in a small church near the town of Urcos, a few miles from Cuzco. This image emphasizes the significance of rock, obviously part of the spiritual landscape of mountains and the connection with Mary. Rocks, in indigenous spirituality, are often wak’as, that is, sacred places, objects, or personages. This image, the Virgin of the Candlestick of Kaninkunka, is painted directly on rock above the altar of a church. Her blue mantle forms the characteristic triangular shape as she looks majestically out at the congregation. As Damian points out, “She is not a painted representation of a mountain . . . she is the rock of the mountain and venerated as the wak’a.”


[T]he most usual form of representing the Virgin as Pachamama is painting her on a triangular rock in her advocation as the Virgin of Candlemas; in this way the concept of Maria/Mountain and Maria/Stone is emphasized.”

This makes sense, since Pachamama is Mother Earth. Of course, any inculturated version of the goddess must emphasize its telluric symbolism. One of the most striking examples is the Potosí Madonna. Potosí is a mountain in current day Bolívia. Linda Hall explains how Potosí’s majesty and height made its identification with Mother Earth very natural in indigenous spirituality. Later on, Potosí came to also be identified with the Virgin Mary, and one small hill nearby (Huayna Capac) with the child Jesus, being embraced by His holy mother.

The Potosí Madonna draws from this double identification. As Pachamama, her body is a mountain holding trees, horses and men. As Mary, she has the Trinity hovering above her, crowning her head.

Potosí Madonna

However, the most famous depiction is actually the Mamacha Belén, an appellation both to Pachamama and to the Mother of Bethlehem, as described by Hall: “Her iconography is that of the Queen of Heaven, recalling the Inka Coya. She carries the baby Jesus in her arms but stares impassively out at the viewer, aloof and self-contained. The numerous paintings of her in Cuzco style are all statue paintings, as she was in fact a dressed statue. She too is depicted with ropes of pearl draped in moonlike crescents across her robes and with the ubiquitous Andean rosettes, flowers, and birds. In the representation we have of her in the seventeenth-century series of paintings, she is dressed in white and gold, her long black hair woven with flowers

Mamacha Belén


Miracles associated with Mary-Pachamama

I found it interesting that the devotion to Mamacha Belén actually started with a miracle, similar to those commonly associated to other Marian devotions:

“The popularity of this figure may be related to the legend of her miraculous arrival in Cuzco. The claim is that fishermen from the town of San Miguel, outside the walls of the fort of Callao near the Spanish capital of Lima, discovered a box floating in the ocean. Inside they found the image of the Virgin of Belén, with a note inside saying “For Cuzco.” The viceroy, the archbishop, and the royal council, faced with this miraculous discovery, determined that Cuzco indeed should be her destination. On arrival, lots were drawn to decide in which church she should reside.”

This kind of miracle, where a statue of Our Lady just appears suddenly in a village and propels the building of a sanctuary there, starting a new and intense Marian devotion, is also very typical of Iberian medieval legends: one such case is the story of Our Lady of Nazaré in Portugal. Usually, when such Marian statues emerge, they are divinely rubber stamped by miracles. This was also the case of the newfound Mamacha Belén. Hall goes on to name two miracles associated with it: “a procession of the image that resulted in relieving a severe drought and salvation from the Devil of the soul of an individual who helped carry her image and then gave the first coin he earned to her church.”

For those who are not convinced of the connection between Mamacha Belén and Pachamama, there is at least one more miracle: a Marian apparition in the place where sacrifices to Pachamama were usually offered:

“Outside Cochabamba, in the town of Quillacollo, the Festival of Urkupiña is held every August, celebrating the fusion of the Virgin Mary and Pachamama. The story of this mingling of two cultures dates back to pre-colonial times, when the indigenous people of the Cochabamba Valley would make offerings to a waca—a sacred hill where spiritual energy is concentrated—where Quillacollo now sits. This particular waca was revered for its female energy, and devotees would make offerings to the Pachamama there.

Then, in the late 18th century, when Spanish colonialism was in full bloom and the Catholic Church was trying to make inroads among the native population, a young indigenous shepherd girl was approached by an apparition of the Virgin Mary on the waca. The next day, when she returned to the hill with her parents, the Virgin appeared once again. The girl shouted, ‘Ork’hopiña! Ork’hopiña!’—’She’s already on the hill,’ in Quechua. Since then, the Festival of Urkupiña is held every year, celebrating not only the Virgin and her Pachamama predecessor, but also national integration, the combining of Spanish and indigenous culture.”

The miraculous apparition was subsequently validated by the parish priest and there is now a chapel on the site. In 1998, the archbishop elevated the temple to a sanctuary. The devotion to Our Lady of Urkupiña is now well established.

This is not an isolated instance of Mary making use of pagan imagery and cults to penetrate a foreign culture. Many papal detractors have protested: “Why use that ugly figurine as Our Lady of the Amazon? Why don’t they stick with Marian depictions that I am familiar with? Our Lady of Guadalupe is indigenous enough, so I say! Let them have it instead!” This ignores that Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared on a hill previously associated with the cult of Tonantzin, a fertility goddess. I recommend reading this article to see how the rhetoric from ancient opponents of the devotion of Our Lady of Guadalupe so strikingly mimics the detractors of today.

Pachamama and the Devil

Some may argue that these miracles may actually be attributed to demonic activity. Let’s not forget, one of the major claims of the detractors is that Pachamama is a demon. They have cried out for exorcisms and reconsecrations of the Basilica of St. Peter, in the wake of activities held during the Synod hosting the controversial pregnant woman figure.

This seems to overlook that one of the miracles associated with Mamacha Belén actually is the driving out of an evil spirit. I am reminded of a biblical passage where Jesus Christ, when being accused of being in cahoots with Beelzebub, replied that, “A house divided cannot stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself” (Mt 12:24-26).

There is more. In the aforementioned article submitted to the University of Chicago, Dr. Matthew Brewer dissects the symbolic meaning behind the Carnival festivities (Mardi Gras) in the town of Humahuaca, Argentina. This article shows why simply shouting “the pagan gods are devils” may backfire. It turns out, the indigenous peoples were not prepared to conceive of a creature encapsulating all the evil in the world. For them, the gods were, from a morality standpoint, just like humans: a mix of good and evil. Therefore, they could not grasp the idea of Satan like the missionaries tried to convey it:

“This parallels an argument by Fernando Cervantes in The Devil in the New World, where he suggests three considerations to understand the continued reverence of the devil and his introduction into the Mesoamerican pantheon, something that the Inca had also always done (D’Altroy 2002, MacCormack 1984). “Firstly, the importance of sacrifice and the need the Indians felt to preserve it, despite the bans; secondly, the insistence of the missionaries that sacrifices were the work of the devil; and finally the [Andean] understanding of deity as a compound of good and evil, with consequent difficulties for the Indians to conceive of a devil that was totally malevolent or even undesirable” (Cervantes 1994:47).”


“In this idealistic and religious crusade against idolatry, “the Spaniards equated the gods of Indian religion with the devil of their own. They saw the Indians as the spawn of the devil and their rites as devil worship” (Taussig 1980:169-70). At the same time, however, neither the extirpation campaigns of the missionaries, “nor the theft of sacred property by other Spaniards were particularly new in the Andes, for the Incas had not infrequently vented their displeasure at Andean deities in precisely these ways” (MacCormack 1991:183).”

If simply trying to scare the paganism away from the natives by invoking the Devil was ineffective, then what was left? This is where knowing the culture you are tying to evangelize pays off. Not only were the indigenous people unaware of concepts like as pure evil and pure good, they tended to think in terms of dualities. For every action, the universe had a reaction in order to keep cosmic balance. Of course, those dualities were not the pairs of “good” and “evil” that Christians are so familiar with, but the typical pagan pairs of “chaos” and “order.” In this sense, if there was a Devil wreaking havok, there would need to exist a parallel entity restoring order. Mary was a natural candidate for this role.

There was already a pair in the Andean Pantheon that could make the inculturation job easier: Pachamama for Mary, and the devious Supay/Pulljay for the Devil:

“[T]he Supay contained the idea of an Andean duality encompassed into notions of a good and bad deity, and the male-female nature also made the Pachamama a logical companion.


The confrontation between the Pachamama (Virgin) and the devil figure (Tío or Supay) in the Bolivian mines and the Argentine Northwest reflects the drama of threatened destruction and salvation played out in many highland Indian areas of Latin America. A masculine power, embodied in an alien symbol drawn from the culture of conquest, is seen as bent on the destruction of the Indian community, while female power, which embodies Indian concerns, is seen to be holding him at bay”


The distinction between the Pujllay and the Pachamama highlights several dichotomies of order and chaos, prudence and destruction, space and time, and the burlesque and the delinquent (…) For the most part, however, the Pachamama receives the widespread veneration, while the Pujllay and devil are present in carnival, local myth, and legend. This distinction is important because of the very nature of carnival. The burlesque, jocular, and errant social inversions that occur during carnival make the devil a logical scapegoat, while the Pachamama, on the other hand, brings order to quotidian life and provides a spatio-temporal understanding of the infinite (…) In the end Pachamama is identified with the Virgin Mary and her infinite good nature, protectorate and prodigal characteristics to modify the normally immutable”

Saying that the Pachamama is a demon, without any qualifier, is a fundamentalist, simplistic and ideologically-driven strategy that has failed several times, as I have repeatedly shown. It is also a big waste of evangelizing potential, just like the overthrowing of Viracocha was. The Andeans are already primed to see Pachamama as a fighter against the Devil, and to identify Pachamama with the Virgin Mary. Convincing them that Pachamama is a demon will make this entity switch sides, resurrecting her bloodthirsty nature as it was before the Spanish arrived. It would probably be more productive to allow the Holy Spirit to take over from here and continue the slow work of Christianizing Pachamama, slowly replacing her with Mary, and allowing her to do what She knows best: fight Satan.

The proper ordering of Pachamama

Of course, one might say, “All of that is well and good, but as soon as Pachamama is worshipped as a goddess, then all pretense of inculturation is gone, and we are in the realm of syncretism.” Yes, that would be true… if Pachamama was actually being worshipped as a goddess in the Vatican Garden ceremony. As Monsignor Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, Bishop Emeritus of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, said in an article for Zenit:

“Some condemned these actions as if they were idolatry, adoration of “Mother Earth” and other “divinities.” Nothing of that happened. They aren’t goddesses; it was not an idolatrous worship. They are symbols of Amazonian realities and experiences, with motivation that are not only cultural but also religious, but not of adoration, as this is owed only to God. It’s very bold to condemn the Pope as an idolater, as he never has been or will be. At the end of the ceremony in the Vatican Gardens, he was asked to speak and he limited himself to praying the Our Father. There is no other God than our Father in Heaven.

Years ago, in a CELAM meeting, which I had to coordinate in Cochabamba, Bolivia, on the different names of God in the native cultures of the Southern Cone, I asked an Aymara Indian woman if, for them, Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Inti (Father Sun) are gods, and she answered me: Those who haven’t received evangelization consider them gods; for those of us who have been evangelized, they aren’t gods, but God’s best gifts. Wonderful answer! That’s what they are! They are manifestations of God’s love, not gods.”

The good bishop continued speaking from his experience with the sense of discomfort that some indigenous gestures might provoke (as they did in the Vatican Gardens) in those outside their cultural context:

“In my previous diocese, when I heard with much affection and respect talk of “Mother Earth,” I felt uncomfortable, as I said to myself: My only mothers are my mamma, the Virgin Mary, and the Church. And when I saw them prostrate themselves and kiss the earth, I was even more bothered. However, living with the Indians, I understood they didn’t adore her Mother Earth as a goddess, but they wanted to value her and acknowledge her as a true mother, as she is the one that gives us food to eat, the one that gives us water, air and all that we need to live. They didn’t consider her a goddess; they didn’t adore her; they only expressed their respect and prayed, thanking God for her.”

Another priest with experience on the field, Fr. Ivan Bravo of the Montículo parish in La Paz, is quoted on this article as confirming what the Bp. Esquivel said:

‘The Church in Bolivia has presented Mother Earth as a creation of God,’ he says. ‘Pachamama is so important in the people’s belief that it can not be ignored, but Pachamama was created by God, and is not a separate goddess.’ In other words, the Church accepts the people’s love of Mother Earth because being grateful to Mother Earth is being grateful to God. ‘The Second Vatican Council recognised that we have to reach people in different ways,’ Father Bravo continues. ‘Bolivian priests are able to understand the traditions because we come from them, and are able to reach the people because of it.’ Open-mindedness and creativity are helping Catholicism stay strong in Bolivia.”


This article was not written because I accept that the controversial wooden statue was Pachamama, the goddess. As I have said several times, the figure was, for the REPAM organizers and the Vatican officials, a mere non-idolatrous representation of the Amazonian peoples, fertility, womanhood and Mother Earth (here, understood not as Pachamama, the goddess, but as it is usually referred to by a Christian-influenced ecological movement). Also, for at least some of the natives, that figure acquired a Marian connotation as a depiction of Our Lady of the Amazon, and this was on display during the Vatican Garden ritual.

However, given that many people have accepted as dogma that the figure was Pachamama (the goddess), I think it is important to allow those who are actually confused or honestly concerned to better understand what Pachamama, the goddess, really is. Its significance is not necessarily pagan, and not necessarily irredeemable for an orthodox Catholic. The meaning of Pachamama is not the same before and after Christianity was introduced to South America. Before, it was certainly a cruel deity that could be associated with practices contrary to human dignity. It was also not virginal, as fertility goddesses usually are not. But afterwards, it acquired a symbolism that allowed God’s grace to enter and sanctify it through the maternal influence of the Theotokos. This benign Marian influence is well-documented and no amount of Wikipedia editing can erase that.

Of course, my studies show that Pachamama is not necessarily innocuous. The pagan Pachamama may still be worshipped in certain parts of the Andes, more isolated from Christian influence. However, that was not the case of the Amazonians at the Synod, who were clearly Catholic. Yes, it’s true that Mary-Pachamama may be associated with syncretism, as Dr. Brewer admits, being so exalted as to feature in a “quaternity” alongside the Holy Trinity. But this happens with the Virgin Mary even without any association with Pachamama, in many uncatechized populations (and not necessarily South American). That is not a reason to bend to Protestant complaints and do away with Marian devotions altogether. Yes, Carnival rituals for Mary-Pachamama are meant to stave off her intervention during some days in order to allow the festivities, but the fact that she is asked to tolerate the Devil during Carnival does not deny that she is the one who will imprison him as soon as Lent begins. And yes, Mother Earth has been associated with New Age movements, but it has also been used in orthodox (and even Church-approved) ways by Catholics, both inside and outside South America, as I have demonstrated.

Instead of destroying that which we do not understand, let us be discerning enough to see the “seeds of the Gospel” present in that native woman that presented the wooden figures as Our Lady of the Amazon. As Fr. Bravo from Bolivia says:

“Father Bravo uses the Parable of the Farmer Scattering Seed, from the Book of Mark, to illustrate Pachamama’s significance to Catholicism. Jesus tells the story of a farmer who throws seeds on different surfaces. The seeds thrown on rocky soil sprout but then wither in the sun, and the seeds thrown among thorns are choked out from the sunlight. Only the seeds sown in fertile soil grow and yield crops. In Bolivia, the seeds of God’s message must combine with the fertile, fecund, and ancient Mother Earth—like Jesus in Mary’s womb—in order to yield a successful crop of Catholic Bolivians”

This is also the path that Pope Francis himself clearly prefers, as he concluded the Synod with the following message:

“For the way ahead, let us invoke the Virgin Mary, venerated and loved as Queen of the Amazon. She became one not by conquering, but by “inculturating” herself: with a mother’s humble courage she became the protector of her children, the defence of the oppressed. Always going out to the culture of the peoples. There is not a standard culture, there is not a pure culture that purifies the others; there is the Gospel, pure, which is inculturated. To she who cared for Jesus in the poor house of Nazareth, we entrust the poorest children and our common home.”

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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

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