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The Andean Cross: An Old and Mysterious Symbol

One of the oldest and most mysterious symbols in Peru is the Andean Cross. This geometric design is seen throughout the country’s textiles, jewelry, and architecture, including several ancient places and holy temples. The cross is examined in many books and websites, too. During my recent trip to Peru, I saw the symbol in nearly every shop or market I visited (and I came home with numerous souvenirs to prove it!).

I was introduced to the Andean Cross long before I visited Peru, back when I first began researching the Incas. Each account I read seemed to present a different interpretation of the design. Some suggested a religious meaning, others spiritual or cosmic, and a few purely geometric. When I arrived in Cusco, I asked several locals – from storekeepers to cultural experts – and got just as many answers! In this blog/video post, I'll share some of the most common interrpetations.

Like all crosses, the Cruz Andino has four “arms” formed by the intersection of a vertical and horizontal axis. At 45-degree angles to these arms are two additional axes, which create four intermediate angles. In the center of the design is a circle.

Most interpretations agree that the circle denotes Cusco, the capital city of the Incas. Indeed, Cusco is derived from a Quechua word that means “navel” or “belly button.” The Incas believed Cusco was the starting point – or center – of the universe. Thus, it makes sense that the Andean Cross symbolizes an axis mundi (a universal nexus or cosmic link) with Cusco at its middle.

The four major arms of the cross have several possible meanings. They may indicate the four cardinal directions: north, east, south, and west. Perhaps they symbolize the four major elements: air, earth, fire, and water. Or they could signify the four geopolitical realms (or suyus) of the Inca Empire. It’s even possible that all three interpretations are correct.

The most common explanation for the four intermediary angles is that they symbolize love, sharing, knowledge, and work.

Combined, the four arms and intermediary corners create four “stepped” patterns. Stairs are very symbolic in Andean spiritualism and mythology. They likely represent ascendance or movement between cosmic planes. Correspondingly, the three levels formed by this “stair” pattern could signify the three realms (or planes) of existence in Andean mythology. If so, the lowest step would be underworld, or uqhu pacha, as symbolized by the serpent. The middle step would be earth, or kay pacha, as symbolized as the jaguar. And the top step would be the upper world, or hanan pacha, as symbolized by the condor.

Some interpretive diagrams of the Andean Cross also include a triangle drawn around the center circle. The apex of this triangle is identified as balance, while the base could symbolize duality – the contrast between good and evil, light and darkness, man and woman, etc.

Finally, the twelve angles of the cross might signify the calendar months. Or perhaps the Southern Cross.

In all likelihood, the single, original, “true” meaning of the Andean Cross will never be known – or at least never agreed upon. Intriguingly, however, a couple website forums assert that the “true” meaning of the cross actually is known… by a small cadre of indigenous Peruvians who maintain the ancient history of the Andes through oral storytelling. If this is the case, then the meaning of the cross truly is more than just a mystery – it’s also a secret.

Whatever the “truth” may be, the numerous interpretations of the Andean Cross provide plenty of intrigue for today’s explorers, archaeologists, symbologists, history lovers, and novelists! And it makes for a great dinner party story to share whenever I’m asked about the silver ring I now wear – including the strange design that adorns its border.

Originally posted 12/01/2017 here. ©Beyond the Range All rights reserved. Feel free to republish so long as credit is given.

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