When Up Goes Under and Under Comes Up: Time, Space, and the Current “World Reversal” in Indigenous Peruvian Thought

by Hillary S. Webb, PhD

The first time I heard the term yanantin was back in 2000, when I accompanied a group of people to Peru to learn about the indigenous spiritual philosophies as they exist this region of the world. It was May 21, and we were sitting in the Sacred Valley, watching the kuraq akulleq don Manuel Q’espi construct a despacho—a ceremonial offering to the spirits of the earth. On a large, white piece of paper, don Manuel created a kind of mandala made from a variety of symbolic objects—coca leaves, flowers, confetti, llama fetus and llama fat, tiny figurines in the shape of ladders, caballeros, skirted women, trees, stars, and so on. Each object carried with it a specific intent for the health of individual, community, and planet.

One of the first items to be included, placed right in the center of the despacho, was a small figurine in the form of a human being. The figure was split down the middle, with one half of it colored yellow, the other half, pink.

“This is yanantin,” don Manuel told us as he placed it on the paper. “Complementary opposites.”

As I would later discover, one of the most well-known and defining characteristics of indigenous Andean thought is its adherence to a philosophical model based in what is often referred to as a “dualism of complementary terms” or, simply, a “complementary dualism.” Similar to Chinese Taoism, Andean philosophy views the opposites of existence (such as male/female, dark/light, inner/outer) as interdependent and essential parts of a harmonious whole. Because existence is believed to be dependent upon the tension and balanced interchange between the polarities, there is a very definite ideological and practical commitment within indigenous Andean life to bringing the seemingly conflicting opposites into harmony with one another without destroying or altering either one.

Although I did not know all this at the time, the phrase complementary opposites struck me immediately. There was something poetic about it, something that gave me chills when I heard it. Perhaps it caught my attention because it illustrated a perspective that felt to be in such stark contrast to most “Western” philosophical models, which have historically tended towards a “dualism of antithetical terms”; the view that the opposites are incompatible with one another and are therefore engaged in an eternal antagonism and struggle for dominance. This antagonistic split shows up in much of Western thought, such as the religious dichotomies of sacred versus profane, spirit versus flesh, Absolute Good versus Absolute Evil, and so on. It plays a major role in our philosophical constructs, the most obvious of these being the debates over the primacy of mind/consciousness versus that of the physical body. As a result, much of Western thought within both spiritual and secular domains has been an attempt to prove once and for all which half of any given polarity is more constant and unchanging, and, therefore, which is more real or primary. Less accepted is the potential for their interdependence. It was my dismay over what I considered to be the overwhelming tendency for Western culture to fall into crippling psychological “one‑sidedness” along with my corresponding fascination with the Andean complementary perspective that prompted me, six years after that initial trip, to devote my doctoral work to studying the concept of yanantin as it is understood by indigenous Andeans living in or near the city of Cuzco, Peru. The following is an excerpt from the recently released book that came out of this study, an autoethnography entitled, Yanantin and Masintin in the Andean World: Complementary Dualism in Modern Peru, published by University of New Mexico Press.


Along the southeast side of Avenida del Sol (“Avenue of the Sun”), not far from the Plaza de Armas, is a 150-foot mural upon which is painted a pictorial representation of the history of Cuzco. Within the boundaries of the mural, illustrations of the city’s past, present, and imagined future roll into one another seamlessly, beginning with images of pre-Columbian times, then transitioning into scenes of the Inca reign, including the sun-honoring festival Inti Raymi. These more joyous images are replaced by brutal scenes of the torture and cultural decimation that took place during the Spanish invasion in the 16th century. The next section of the mural shows the Andean people’s resistance to the European invaders, including the battle at the great stone fortress of Sacsayhuaman that overlooks the city. The final portion of the mural shows Peru’s independence from the Spanish in 1821. Here, a group of Cusqueños looks off into the distance, their arms thrown up in joy and optimism. They stand on Inca stonework—a symbol of the literal and figurative foundation of their great city. At the foremost section of the mural, closest to the viewer’s gaze, a high-cheeked Inca dives forward into the future. The next section of the mural, it is implied, will be entirely his.

As well as being a chronicle of Cuzco’s history, the Avenida del Sol mural reflects a prophesy that at some time in the future the runa (indigenous Andeans) will return to power and regain their position as masters of the land (Allen, 2002), establishing “an age of plenty and social harmony” (Classen, 1993, p. 143).

Standing at the mural’s center is a depiction of Pachacuteq, the ninth Inca king‑hero, whose name translates to “he who turns time-space” (Sullivan, 1988, p 174). Pachacuteq is honored for having expanded the Inca civilization not only geographically but also spiritually. Amado told me, “He was a leader, a great governor, a prophet, and also a great and powerful healer.” It is from his name that the Andean people get the word pachacuti. The word pachacuti is used to describe a mytho-historical event of great significance. In Quechua, the prefix “pacha” represents both time and space simultaneously (Urton, 1981). Cruz (2007) said that in the Andes, “[time and space] cannot be separated. . . . They are like two faces of the same coin. You cannot separate one from the other because the pacha is time, but it is also space” (no page number).

The widespread use of the word pacha in the Quechua language is noteworthy. Used alone, the word has multiple, yet interrelated, meanings. It can refer to a group of related entities (both human and nonhuman) existing in a similar geographic area (Apffel‑Marglin, 1998). As noted previously, the Andean cosmos is likewise split into three separate, yet interrelated, pachas—the kay pacha, the ukhu pacha, and the hanaq pacha. The term Pachamama­, while often seen as being equivalent to what we in the West would refer to as “Mother Earth,” is viewed as a multidimensional entity or energy that is both physically present and is contained within time.

The word pacha is also used to connote certain epochs in history. According to the Andean mythos, the history of the world is made up of a series of 500-year intervals of time called pachas (Allen, 2002). At the end of each 500-year cycle, it is said that the existing pacha ends and a new one begins. The transition time between the pachas is called a pachacuti (Allen, 2002, Classen, 1993, MacCormick, 1991; Sullivan, 1988; Urton, 1999; Wilcox, 1999). The word cuti translates as revolution or turning over/around (Urton, 1999, p. 41), and it is said that as one pacha or epoch replaces another, a “world reversal” occurs in which existence is turned inside out, thus revealing its opposite (Allen, 2002; MacCormick, 1991; Sullivan, 1988). In Quechua, the term pachacuti is said to mean, “the world is transformed” (José Imbelloni, as cited in Sullivan, 1988, p. 878). In the Aymara language of Bolivia, it translates as “like a time of war” (according to Bertonio, as cited in Sullivan, 1988, p. 878). MacCormick (1991) described a pachacuti as a time when “what is up goes under and what is under comes up” (as cited in Heckman, 2003, p. 155). Sullivan (1988) likewise reflected that a pachacuti is a process in which “the world is overturned and set upside down” (p. 588).  Urton (1999) reported that it is said that during this transition, time and space reverse themselves.

Although this may sound apocalyptic, it has been noted that while the movement from one epoch to another may include a certain amount of suffering (as any change invariably does), a pachacuti does not signal the absolute end of everything; rather, a pachacuti is considered a “cyclical cleansing and return” (Heckman, 2003, p.155). It is a creational event, a time of transition from one age to another, in which one world is destroyed so that another can be born in its place. Each new world begins as a result of the cataclysmic destruction of the previous world and will itself end in a cataclysm so that a new pacha can emerge.

This transition is likewise the product of a yanantin relationship, for a pachacuti occurs when contradictory states of being initiates a transformation from one mode to its opposite. The rainy season gives way to the dry season. The dark of night becomes the light of day, and vice versa. Though we may not always like it, birth and death engage in a continual exchange of ayni. Sullivan (1988) noted, “Cycles are the product of the encounter between two unlike temporal modes. . . . Each cycle embraces contradictory states of being, [thus] allowing mutually exclusive states to coexist in an integral experience” (pp. 626-627).

“To me it is a return of the essence,” Amado reflected when I asked him about the term. “It is a return of the soul. Especially when we are speaking about yanantin, pachacuti for me is the coming back of the highly enlightened and highly evolved soul—not only into humanity but also into all areas of life on our planet. It is not necessarily a reverse, but it is definitely a huge transition. It is a return of a certain essence that will bring the transformation to our planet that we need. Pachacuti for me is the return of that great soul.”

After saying goodbye to Juan Luis, Amado and I left the restaurant. We made our way across the Plaza to his car. From there we sped up the mountain road out of town, dodging stray dogs and small children as we went. Along the way we passed the Inca fortress of Sacsayhuaman and the multitude of tourists crowding around the giant stone structure. About a half a mile later, Amado pulled the car over to the side of the road and hopped out.

“Come, Princesa! Come!” Amado called as he took off across the grass towards a large outcropping of rock in the distance. I was breathing heavily by the time I caught up to him. Amado put out his hand and helped me up onto the rock. Smiling broadly, he threw his arms open wide.

“This is all about yanantin,” he told me. “Many people believe that this place is from Inca times, but I believe that it was created well before then. But look! Erosion had not faded it. It’s remarkable.”

I looked around. “What is?” I said.

Had he not been with me, pointing it out, I am sure I never would have seen the figures carved into the stone surface. But there they were. Once seen, it was impossible to un-see them. On each side of the rock, one on the right and one on the left, were the outline of two pumas. Between the pumas were two birds. Above and below these images were two snakes. The carvings were raised above the surface of the rock, in some ways easier to feel than to see.

“These carvings are believed to be part of a prophecy,” Amado told me. “The puma on the left . . . there, see? That represents the North. The North—Canada, the United States, and the northern part of Mexico. For us, those areas of the world represent the power of ‘Will’ and ‘Transformation.’ And also ‘Control’ and the taking of resources. North Puma is said to be unconscious. It is sleeping. Sleeping is considered very sacred here. Sometimes only when you are asleep are you in complete connection with all the energies. And look at its belly! It is pregnant! It is pregnant, so it must sleep in order to wake up. When it wakes up, it will be capable of anything, any transformation. When it wakes up, the North Puma will change the planet.”

He pointed to the other puma, the one on the right.

“This one represents the south, as in South America,” he said. “The puma of the South is the young puma, while the puma of the North is old. South Puma is the warrior. It is protecting Pachamama. South Puma can’t do anything to wake up North Puma, but eventually the North Puma will come to a point where it will have no choice but to recognize and accept its capacities.”

“What capacities?”

“To bring change to the world. To bring pachacuti to the world. That’s the main capacity I am talking about. Because already we know how the North and especially the United States affects the whole world. Anything that is done, anything that is said, arrives even to the most hidden corners of our planet. Fashion, music, English, the American dream . . . anything. So whatever happens in the North will also arrive not only in the shape of fashion or American culture but also in energy. That’s the power this place has. It’s a hub. It’s a concentration. It’s a vortex of energy for the whole planet. For that reason, it is said that when North Puma wakes up, even the color of the sky will change.”

“Waking up is painful,” I said, thinking of my own fears and resistances to change.

“Definitely,” Amado replied. “Especially when you have to give birth right after you wake up.”

He pointed at the two birds. “That one is a condor and the other is an eagle. You can tell the difference between them because the wings of the eagle point backwards, while the wings of the condor are straight. The eagle represents the North and the condor the South. The prophecy says that the condor and the eagle always fly together. Always. Like now, with this process that you and I are doing together.”

He moved around the rock to get an alternate view. “Then there are two serpents. The one for the South is rooted in Pachamama and has such respect for Pachamama. My people are in love with Mother Earth and love doing ceremonies and offerings. The serpent on the left represents the North. It’s longer than the other. See? The serpent of the North is not coming from Mother Earth. Instead, the North Serpent represents the inner world. It represents consciousness and things psychological. Even in the indigenous communities of the North, the Native Americans, only speak a little about Mother Earth. Most focused on is Great Spirit. But here, first is Mother Earth. First is Pachamama.”

“What’s the relationship of this place to yanantin?” I asked Amado.

“North and South,” he said. “We belong to one spirit; one source. That is the message of this prophesy. It doesn’t matter whether the puma of the North wakes up or if the puma of the South goes to sleep. The condor and the eagle will always fly together. Always they are yanantin first and last. Through this we are told that we always have an ally. The moment we are born into this life, we are born into this life with a yanantin, at that soul level. That’s a beautiful image for me—that although I can feel weak, or I can make mistakes, or I can be unevolved, or sleepy, or whatever, on a deeper level of my essence in spirit, in my connection to God, I am always flying with my yanantin. Always. That’s like . . . ahhh . . . beautiful! Our yanantin always exists. Not only for humanity, but also for all beings of life, in all dimensions of life.”

“This prophesy, then, is about a pachacuti?” I asked.

“To me, the pachacuti is about the awakening of the North Puma. Because in the south we are perfect!” He laughed and then shook his head. “No, no … Not really. The pachacuti will affect everybody—both condor and eagle, both pumas, both serpents. There is always a next level. For us as well.

“I don’t know if I told you this but I was wondering if maybe one day people in the North will be so awake and so connected to ceremony that people here in the South will forget about that and focus on something else. If the pachacuti will mean a time of us falling asleep while you all in the North are awake. Perhaps we are just temporary guardians of this wisdom and philosophy and lineages and traditions.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” I said. “If in a yanantin pair the two never become exactly alike, then one always picks up where the other leaves off. If a pachacuti is a ‘world reversal,’ then perhaps one turns into the other.”

“Yes, when you think of a reversal, it’s like, people who were awake go to sleep and people who were asleep wake up. And yet in the type of pachacuti that I connect with—where there is the return of that essence—nobody goes to sleep. That essence returns and everybody wakes up.”

“What happens when everybody is finally awake?” I wanted to know.

“We party!” he said. “The cool thing is that a pachacuti doesn’t have to be a hard process. It can be—and if it can be it will be—but it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t have to be a hard process. It is up to the person.”

“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head. “Human beings don’t tend to take change all that well. At least not where I come from.”

“But, in fact humanity has the most powerful capacity to adapt! We are ready to live through glaciers and even through global warming and all of that. The thing is, we don’t use all our capacities until we need it. There’s just no will, there’s just no desire, there’s just no initiative to use these capacities beforehand, to prevent. We just use it when we need it. That’s when it comes out the most. So, we are waiting until something more intense happens, and then we will use these capacities to connect, to adapt, to wake up and everything. At that point, it is not a choice anymore. You do … or you do. And those who are able to become absolutely harmonized and absolutely connected will adapt.”

He hopped down from the rock.

“[S]omebody very wise once told me, ‘You can either wait for the pachacuti, or you can be the pachacuti.’ So choose now.”

“I want to be part of the solution,” I told Amado, “not part of the problem.”

Amado turned his face up at me with a surprised look,

“You are not part of the solution, Princesa. You are the solution.” And then, shrugging, “And perhaps there was no problem to begin with.”

This stopped me in my tracks. No problem to begin with. Was this an example of yanantin consciousness in action? Amado seemingly held no blame for what I considered to be the deeply destructive impact of Western culture. Thinking back on the times we have spent together, I realize that Amado hardly ever seems to see the world as divided into problem versus solution. Instead, it seems to be that whatever he is presented with, on some level he deals with as part of a higher process and design—what he often jokingly refers to as the “cosmic referential program.”

“Everything that happens represents a process that had to happen and is in complete harmony with the cosmos,” he later told me. “Nothing happens down here without the will from above. That is a law. So, if people in the North are sleeping, there’s no reason why we should panic or have fear. While a few people are hurting our planet so much, even that has its own time.”

As Amado and I drove back to Cuzco, I thought of the Avenida del Sol mural, which displays so prominently the concept of time as returning to the point at which it began. Not exactly the same point, perhaps, but a new version thereof. Time may not be a set of fixed sequential relationships bound by cause and effect through which we must pass and can never return but a continuously repeating cycle or spiral. The seasons roll round and round. The rainy season becomes the dry season. The sun rises and sets and then rises again. The destroyer comes, but the Inca will rise again.

I thought about my own relationship to time, one informed by linear Western models.

Time, it felt, was not my friend. Time marched on, ever forward. Time deepened the lines in my face. It softened the regrets of the past but could never erase them. On some level, I felt trapped in time. I felt trapped by the fixed positions of present, past, and future. How often—in a therapy session, in an “enlightenment” seminar—had I been asked to review my past (for example, the events of my childhood) as something I must try and escape from or evolve out of in order for psychological healing to occur? According to so many Western psychological schools of thought, one’s present difficulties have their roots in past traumas; therefore, it is believed that only by deconstructing our past and the remnants of it that we cling to can we achieve psychological health. Within this cause-and-effect mentality, we are trapped in the annals of our own personal history. The past was psychological quicksand from which we must try to escape and yet which holds us more strongly every time we tried to yank ourselves free. According to this perspective, I could deal with my past as productively as possible, but I could never escape it. And it was not just personal history that was apparently to blame, but the history of my family, of my culture, and of the entire human race. The Western linear model had developed an antagonistic relationship to the past and therefore could not seem to shake the unconscious dread of its contamination of the future. Certainly, this is an oversimplification in many ways. After all, deconstructing past events allows us to see how we relate to our present. And, yet, I couldn’t help but think that in many cases we identify so heavily with our past that we cannot free ourselves from it.

In “looking for yanantin,” I was consciously putting myself into a position for a personal pachacuti to take place. Was this why Amado and Juan Luis felt it was so important for me to join them in ceremony [with the mescaline-containing San Pedro cactus]? As Allen (1998) noted, “Through ritualized exchange, opposed but complimentary categories are drawn into conjunction . . . and categorical distinctions are blurred. . . . Andean ritual happens at an interface; it propels different dimensions of the cosmos into contact with one another and temporarily merges them” (pp. 148-149). Levi-Strauss (1963) observed that mythological time (the form of time observed during ritual) is both reversible and nonreversible (p. 211). One can go forwards or backwards. Likewise, Sullivan (1988) wrote, “For all their distinctiveness, periodic time and mythic time may be linked through the ritual symbolism that reenacts the beginnings, the time before time lines and cycles definitively separated from one another” (p. 626). In ritual, theoretically at least, one is able to access multiple spaces and multiple times. Divisions of past, present, and future; locality; and causality cease to exist and therefore cease to create the blockages that Amado spoke of. In this way, healing takes place. …

Yanantin and Masintin in the Andean World: Complementary Dualism in Modern Peru is available for purchase through your local independent retailer and/or on amazon.com.

Hillary S. Webb, PhD, is the Managing Editor of Anthropology of Consciousness, the peer-reviewed journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness. She is the author of Yanantin and Masintin in the Andean World, Traveling Between the Worlds: Conversations with Contemporary Shamans, and Exploring Shamanism. Author website: www.hillaryswebb.com

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