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Corpus Christi
The dazzling shades of faith in Cusco

PAGE [ 1 ] OF 4
BY LUIS NIETO DEGREGORI
"At four o'clock in the afternoon, the main square is filled to bursting, the chicha has been served generously amongst the crowds, and one can see the large clay jars under the altars... From Mr. C.'s balcony we have a perfect view... The sounds of the square drift up in a wave of odd confusion; guttural Quechua conversation and drunken shouts nearly drown out the fantasy-like music of Indian flutes and drums... Over all this noise, suddenly the Cathedral bells begin to peal... A few minutes later, when all the bells are tolling altogether, we can see the procession is forming... To the shouts of "They're coming! They're coming!" the Indian women fall to their knees, while the children anxiously crane their heads to catch a glimpse of the saints..."

This peculiar blend of pagan orgy and Catholic ceremony described above is the Corpus Christi procession in Cusco as seen at the start of the century by Anglican missionary Geraldine Guiness. It is a testimony in which, together with the description of the festival and Corpus Christi proces-sion, we find the surprise and indignation of a Christian who cannot understand that song, dance and drunkenness can be manifestations of faith. "What a disgrace," wrote this shocked witness, "that the Christian Church should lend the name of the Savior to this licentious festival!"

Historian Raul Porras Barrenechea, who included this testimony in his Anthology of Cusco, wrote off to Miss Guiness' "myopic, beatific and aggressive secularism" her incapacity to understand the religious essence and artistic expressions of the Corpus Christi in Cusco. I would add, in defense of this sharp-eyed traveler, that surely not even the most impartial and well-prepared observer would be capable of understanding at first glance all the shades and complexities of a festival, which like few others on Earth, condenses the spirit of a people whose roots draw from two sources: Andean and Hispanic.

But in order to go beyond the mere appearances and the colorful world of Corpus Christi in Cusco, we could do worse than to look at the festival through the eyes of various personalities who were captivated by it.
THROUGH THE EYES OF A HISTORIAN
Those who have shuffled through old documents have learned that just a few years alter Francisco Pizarro rode into Cusco, the Spaniards began to celebrate in all its pomp and splendor the festival in honor of the Holy Sacrament known the world over as Corpus Christi.

It was possibly a native chronicler, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, a man who heard tales from his Inca relatives, who was the first to note -without saying so, of course- that the way the Indians celebrated Corpus Christi was very similar to how they celebrated their festivals and rites before the Spaniards arrived. Just look at the similarity between parading their Inca mummies in the Cusco main square and the later processions of virgins and saints. Would it not be possible that the dances and drunkenness that so shocked believers in other latitudes date back to the bacchanalian Inca festivals organized by the ancient rulers and which were the culmination of the religious celebrations of the era?

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