Inca priests bearing Inca symbols at a temple

Inca Symbols and Their Meanings: Andean Emblems 101

The Incan civilization and the empire it created is a fascinating topic. They controlled a vast swath of territory, from sandy beaches to mist covered mountains and humid rainforests. The meteoric rise of this empire, that spanned across territories in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, allowed their culture to flourish. But, to truly understand the lives of the Inca and their beliefs about the universe around them, we must understand the most important Inca symbols and what they meant to the Andean people who used them. 

The Most Important Inca Symbols and Their Meanings

To understand Inca society, we have to understand the symbols they found important and the meanings behind these symbols. The Incans created numerous symbols that they derived from the natural world around them, their religious beliefs, and the stars in the sky. But, writing about all these symbols would fill up a book! So, in this section, we’ll cover the most important Inca symbols and what they mean.

Inca Calendar

Like so many other societies through time, the Incas developed an intricate calendar to measure the passage of time. With this calendar, the Incas tracked when to plant and harvest crops and when to perform important religious ceremonies. 

Similar to the ancient Roman calendar, the Inca calendar was made up of twelve months, but with a twist. Every trip the earth takes around the sun takes just a hair over 365 days, coming in at 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds. So when you’re using a calendar, you have to make up for this discrepancy somehow or eventually your calendar will say it’s summer when it’s actually spring, and so on. To do so, the Incas threw in a thirteenth month every two or three years. Today, we make up the difference with leap years. 

The Incan calendar began with the month Capac Raymi, which correlates to today’s December. The Incas designed their calendar to begin with the onset of the rainy seasons, as well as the occurrence of the summer solstice. 

When we think of old calendar system, images of huge, intricately carved stones like those created by the Maya and the Aztec immediately come to mind. The Inca, however, did it a bit different. Rather than developing a form of writing that could be written on paper or carved in stone they created quipu, a series of knots tied into different colored strings. Though the ability to read quipu has been lost since the Spanish conquest, it’s believed that the Inca used it to track their calendar, manage imperial records, and more.

The Intihuatana Stones

An Intihuatana Stone from Machu Picchu
An Intihuatana Stone from Machu Picchu

To help keep their vast empire on the same time system, the Incas did build large sun-dial like structures known as intihuatana in Quechua, the language of the Incas. One could determine the time of the day and the month of the year by length and the position of the shadow cast by these stones. And, no doubt, when one showed up in your town you were reminded of the Incan power in the region. 

The intihuatana became connected with one of the most powerful Inca symbols – the sun (more on that later) – and was said to hold the sun in the sky. Though, whether this was a metaphor or not remains unclear.


The chakana, one of the most important Inca symbols
The chakana

The chakana, also known as the stepped cross or Inca cross, is one of the more mysterious Inca symbols to survive. 

The chakana consists of either a hole or a design in the center, with four tiered arms extending out. This tiered appearance is where it got the nickname ‘stepped cross.’ Its proper name, chakana, comes from the Quechua word chakay, which means “to cross.” 

Due to this etymology, some historians and archaeologists have suggested that the chakana represents the Incan Empire itself. According to this theory, the hole in the middle represents Cusco, the Inca’s capital city and the center of their world. The four arms then represent the four cardinal points of the empire, as it stretched north and south along the Andes, west to the Pacific Ocean, and east to the Amazon. 

Others suggest that the chakana represents the three different worlds of Inca mythology: the underworld (Uqhu Pacha); the middle world, or the world where humans dwell (Kay Pacha); the world of the gods (Hanan Pacha). This theory comes from the fact that each corner of the chakana has three distinct tiers or layers. And the name could suggest how beings, human or divine, can cross from one world to the next.

Yet another theory states that the chakana represents the Southern Cross Constellation. This collection of stars held an important place in Inca religion and Inca mythology. The Southern Cross Constellation was, and still is, the most plainly visible constellation in the night sky of the southern hemisphere. The Incas used this group for stars to help them predict the equinoxes, which played an important part in their religious ceremonies.  


The banner of the Inca Empire, showing a rainbow arching between two snakes
The banner of the Inca Empire, showing a rainbow arching between two snakes

Rainbows are one of the most interesting Inca symbols because of the dichotomous role they played in Incan mythology and belief. 

On one hand, a rainbow could serve as a good omen or symbol of good luck. We see this in the various tales the Inca told about the founding of Cusco and their empire. It was said that a rainbow appeared in the sky and the founder of the Incan state, Manco Capac, founded the city of Cusco on the spot where the rainbow began. 

On the other hand, the rainbow could be a malevolent and mischievous spirit. The Inca believed that rainbows, or perhaps the supernatural beings responsible for their creation, could steal from men and enter women. If a rainbow entered you, it was said you could expect great pains, especially in your stomach. 

But whether rainbows were seen as portents of good or evil, the Inca revered them all the same. We know this because of the way the Inca chose to create representations of rainbows – in gold. In Incan society, gold was a precious resource and used to create works of art that held deep meaning to the Inca people. By casting their rainbows in gold, the Inca made it clear how implement this symbol was to their society.


The Inca god Viracocha holding a thunderbolt in each hand. Thunderbolts were important Inca symbols.
Viracocha holding a thunderbolt in each hand

In the highlands of Peru and Bolivia, the Inca homeland, thunderstorms are a common occurrence. And these storms often proved deadly. While we don’t know how many died as a result of lightning strikes during the Inca period, hundreds of modern day Andeans are killed by these storms. Modern meteorology has shown that this region gets 50 to 120 thunderstorms a year. And, sadly, 300 rural Andeans die during these storms each year.

In a pre-scientific age, this horrifying experience would have made an even larger impression. Indeed, thunderbolts and lightning became prominent Inca symbols. Associated with the Illyap’a, often spelled Illapa, thunderbolts became symbols of war, death, and the power of nature to both create and destroy.

The embodiment of thunderstorms and lightning, Illapa came to serve a similar symbolic purpose to thunderbolts. Through the worship of Illapa, the Inca hoped to ensure good rains and bountiful harvests, while avoiding potentially deadly dry seasons.  

Another important inca god, Viracocha, was often depicted holding thunderbolts in each hand, reminiscent of the Norse god Thor or the Greek god Zues. Similar to these other gods, Viracocha was one of the most important gods in the Inca pantheon – in fact, the Incas believed he was the creator god. The fact that their most powerful deity could wield thunderbolts makes it clear just how powerful this natural phenomenon was in the Inca physical world and imagination.

The Inca Symbols and Meanings Behind the Most Important Incan Gods

The Incas were a polytheistic people and, so, they had a lot of gods. But like in any religious tradition, some of the most important Inca symbols were reserved for depictions of their gods. This still happens today! Think of the cross in Christianity, the Star of David in Judaism, or the crescent in Islam. 

So to get a fuller understanding of Inca symbols and their meanings, let’s examine some of the most important Incan gods and how the Incas chose to depict them.

The Sun God Inti

Depiction of an Inca man praying to Inti the sun god. The sun was an important Inca symbol.
Depiction of an Inca man praying to Inti

Even though Viracocha was the creator god, the Incas believed he did not tamper in human affairs and left that to the other gods in the pantheon. Due to this hands off approach, Inti, the sun god, became the most important god in the Incan religion. 

To solidify their position of power, Inca emperors claimed they were descended from Inti, and thus had a diving right to rule over their quickly expanding empire. Due to this association with the imperial court, Inti became the patron god of the Inca Empire. Wherever the Incas conquered, which was a lot of places, the worship of Inti suddenly became more common. 

But it wasn’t just the elite who revered Inti. As the sun god, Inti was seen as one of the major reasons for successful harvests and so he became an important symbol for Incan farmers as well. 

Due to Inti’s importance in Incan society, the sun naturally became a hugely important Inca symbol. Sun discs, golden masks, and golden statues were used to represent the god. The symbol of a sun with a benevolent face became such a popular symbol for Inti in the Incan world that it is still used today on the flags of Argentina and Bolivia. 

The flag of Argentina, using the Inca symbol of the sun.
The flag of Argentina, using the Inca symbol of the sun

The supremacy of the sun god in Inca society also gave rise to the Inca’s reverence for gold. The reflective quality and natural color of gold lend the material quite nicely for creating representations of the sun. The elite of Inca culture, the emperors, nobles, and high priests, often wore gold, decorated palaces and temples with golden statues of Inti and other important gods, and inlaid ceremonial tools such as cups and knives with the precious metal. 

Mama Killa

Gold statue of Mama Killa, the Inca Goddess of the Moon. Mama Killa was also an important Inca symbol.
Mama Killa Statue; image source

The moon goddess, or Mother Moon, in Inca religion, Mama Killa (also spelled Quilla) played a critical part in the Incas’ conception of the universe.

The wife of the sun god Inti, Mama Killa played his counterpart. Just as Inti crossed the sky everyday and ensured the successful harvests, so Mama Killa crossed the sky at night and was pivotal to the creation of Incan calendar. 

Overtime, Mama Killa and the moon became symbols for one another, rather than the moon just becoming a symbol for the goddess. According to the Spanish chronicler Bernabé Cobo, who witnessed Inca civilization firsthand during the Spanish Conquest, noted how: 

“They imagined that the Moon looked like a woman, and the statue of the moon that they had in the Temple of the Sun was in the form of a woman. This statue was cared for by women who held the rank of priestess, and when the statue was taken outside, these women themselves carried it on their shoulders.”

Though it’s possible Cobo misunderstood what he witnessed (as European colonizers often did when they saw indigenous practices), it’s at least clear that the moon and Mama Killa were important Inca symbols.

Mama Sara

Like Inti and Mama Killa, Mama Sara became associated with the physical manifestation of her divine power. For Mama Sara, however, her manifestation was earthbound – maize.

Mama Sara was the goddess of maize and the harvest. Like all agrarian societies, the Inca depended on their ability to harvest plenty of crops in order to sustain their population. So, without Mama Sara the Inca Empire could face serious trouble. As such, Mama Sara, whose name means “Maize Mother” in Quechua, played a crucial part of the Inca religion.

A great example of Mama Sara’s importance, and the importance of maize in general, comes from the Mama Sara rite. Performed in December to coincide with the summer solstice when crops were planted, the Aztec gathered unusual looking pieces of maize for a sacrifice of sorts. Once the maize was gathered, it was placed into a bin for three nights. Then a religious official would determine if the maize had “strength.” If it didn’t, the bin was burned.

Modern Symbols for the Inca Empire

Certain Inca symbols, like the chakana and an anthropomorphized sun, can still be found throughout South America. But certain Inca creations, that were not highly symbolic to them, have become symbols of the Inca empire in the modern world. 

To get a grasp on how we remember the Inca, let’s examine these modern symbols of their civilization.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

​One of the most iconic and well known sites in the entire world, Machu Picchu has become a symbol of how we remember the Inca, their empire, and their ingenuity. Thousands of people fly into Lima and Cuzco every year to ascend the Peruvian mountains and take in the grandeur or Machu Picchu. 

For scholars, it has done even more. The alluring site has given historians and archaeologists deeper insights into Inca religion, the lifestyle and power of the Inca emperor, and the level of imperial organization that the Inca civilization could muster.

Completed in the 1400s, Machu Picchu seems to have served several functions. It likely served as a royal retreat for the Inca emperor. It’s not uncommon for rulers and leaders of large scale societies to use these types of retreats – the Roman emperors created luxurious villas outside the city, European monarchs held vast estates across their kingdoms, and even the president of U.S. has Camp David set aside when it’s time to unwind.

Machu Picchu also seems to have served as an astrological observatory. Observing the movement of the stars was key to the keeping the Inca calendar correct as well as the Inca religion, as it served as one means of understanding their place in the universe. 

Several buildings within the Machu Picchu complex align nicely with astrological phenomenon. Perhaps the most famous, the Temple of the Sun, sits on the southern edge of construction and overlooks the valley below. During the summer solstice, the sun shines directly through a window in the Temple of the Sun, illuminating a stone within.

Archaeologists of have also identified an intihuatana within Machu Picchu. Standing at 6 feet tall, the intihuatana stone aligns perfectly with the winter and summer equinoxes. On these two important days, the sun would reach its peak directly over the large stone and the intihuatana would cast no shadow. 

Given what we know about the role of the sun in Inca religion, it seems Machu Picchu played an important role in how the Inca interpreted the will of Inti and the world around them.


Quipu, the Incan form of writing, which has become a powerful Inca symbol in the modern world.
Quipu from the Larco Museum in Peru

The Inca had no written language (as we understand written language today). Instead, they created an ingenious system of knowledge keeping in which they tied different style knots into strands of varying color and length. These different strings were then attached to one base string which held it all together, sort of how the spin of a book holds all the pages in place. This system has become known as quipu.

The reader of the quipu could decode it’s meaning by understanding the patterns formed by the combination of knots, string lengths, and string colors. Incredible, right?!

Unfortunately, many quipu were burned or otherwise destroyed during the Spanish invasion of the Inca Empire. The quipu that remain have never been fully deciphered. But, experts do believe they were used as a form of record keeping. The Inca, after all, controlled vast swathes of territory across western South America and needed to know who was paying taxes, causing trouble, and a whole bunch more.

But, as we largely remain in the dark on what exactly each quipu says, this fascinating Inca invention has become a symbol of how little we truly know about the Inca. 

Sources on Inca Symbols and Their Meanings

  1. The Astrological Almanac for the Year 2018 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2018)
  2. Caitlin Hotchkiss, “Looking Back in Time at Machu Picchu,”
  3. “Chakana: Inca Cross,”
  4. “The Chakana: The Meaning Behind the Inca Cross,”
  5. “Mysterious Chakana: Sacred Inca Cross and Its Connection to the Southern Cross Constellation,”
  6. “Rainbow Was a Powerful Symbol in People’s Ancient Beliefs,”
  7. Daniel W. G. Ade, “Lightning in the Folklife and Religion of the Central Andes,” Anthropos, vol. 78, no 5./6. (1983), 775
  8. Ade, “Lightning in the Folklife and Religion of the Central Andes,” 775-776
  9. Mark Cartwright, “Viracocha,”
  10. Mark Cartwright, “Inti,”
  11. Ibid
  12. James Hardy, “Inti: The Sun God of the Inca,”
  13. Wu Mingren, “Inti, Sun God of the Inca, Spawned the First Rulers of An Unforgettable Empire,”
  14. “Metalwork of the Inca,”
  15. Bernabé Cobo, Inca Religion and Customs, accessed via
  16. Timothy Insoll, The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 578
  17. John Howland Rowe, Inca Culture at the Time of the Spanish Conquest (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1946), 216
  18. Mark Adams, “Top 10 Machu Picchu Secrets,”

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