Pachacuti: What Happens if We Live Out of Balance?

In follow up with last weeks post about yanantin I mentioned an event called a pachacuti. This is one of my favorite Andean concepts because it’s apparent everywhere in the world and in any time period. In fact, it’s described in western philosophy, but to my knowledge, it remains nameless. At least in English.

A pachacuti is based on cyclical time and occurs when the balance of yanantin is broken or when the gods are mad. In Andean mythology, gods are usually mad because rituals honoring yanantin, or reciprocity, are broken.

Okay, so what is a pachacuti?

I will leave it to miss Marin-Dale , author of Decoding Andean Mythology to explain it because I don’t know of a better definition.

“Cyclical concept of successive destructions and creations of the world is called pachacuti, from the union of the word pacha, signifying time-space, age, world, or earth; and cuti (also spelled kuti), meaning inversion, revolution, or turning over, around, or upside down. In essence, pachacuti expresses the inversion of time-space within a cyclical framework of destruction and creation.”

So if space-time (a concept the Inkas and perhaps the Andeans at large understood) wasn’t linear but constantly repeating itself, a pachacuti would be when one cycle ends and the next begins. The thing is, a pachacuti isn’t dependent on a specific amount of time. It’s based on balance and not everyone agrees when one occurs.

What’s the big idea?

The idea behind a pachacuti isn’t destruction, positive changes or negative changes. Westerners seem to view ends and beginnings; whereas, in cyclical time the end is the new beginning. Some pachacutis are seen as negative, and others are seen as positive. But no matter, they always require change and that is what the Inca feared the most. No one enjoys change when things are comfortable.

Yanantin and pachacuti are not exclusive Incan ideas, they are pan-Andean and precede the Incas by thousands of years. You can see how a victory over a small community by the large Inca Empire would be a pachacuti to the inhabitants of the community, but not necessarily to the Inca. The election of Morales in Bolivia might be a pachacuti for those in Bolivia, but others may view it either as a minor event or as a distant event that won’t affect them. When the Spanish invaded it was probably clear to all in the Andes that a pachacuti had occurred, but some viewed it as a positive pachacuti because they could escape the yoke of the Inca. Others, specifically the Inca viewed it as a bad pachacuti.

Inca History

In Inca history, there were at least 3 pachacutis. The first one was when they were forced out of their original homeland and resettled in what is now Cusco. That was the creation of the Inka. Some Andean historians argue that the second pachacuti happened when Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui was in charge and made the Inkan empire into what it was when the Spanish invaded. The last pachacuti would be the fall of the empire by the hands of the Spanish. Since then, Andean life has been changed radically.

In the Andes, a major pachacuti occurs on the average of every 500 years. We’re coming up on the 500 year anniversary of the fall of the Inca empire. Is it time for another pachacuti in the Andes? Or did it come early in the form of South American independence 200 years ago, or with the agrarian land reforms of the 80s, or with the election of Morales. Whatever it is going to be, it will likely be noticed by everyone living in or near the Andes.

What the Incas did, and even modern-day Andean communities do, to avoid another pachacuti.

All pairs in yanantin are either from the upper world or the lower world, neither is “bad,” because both need each other to create existence. There were gods from each of the worlds and it was dependent on mortals to keep those gods happy and the world in balance. To do so, Andean people were apt at performing their religious duties which included ceremonies, festivals, and rites. Most, if not all, of these duties, served the function of providing offerings from one world to the other to fulfill the needs of ayni (reciprocity), and to help remind the people to remember what yanantin was and was happened if the balance failed. For example, the upper world gives rain to the lower world. Some of this water is captured by the middle world which it uses to survive. The lower world then uses the water it receives (the Quechuan word for water when it comes from the ground is different than the word for when it comes from the sky) for plants which push upward into the upper world. It then provides substance for this world as well. So a ritual might go something like pouring water that was meant for human consumption into the ground and planting seeds over it and honoring the resulting plant. Another ritual might be providing a sacrifice to the upper and lower world as appreciation for their gifts to those stuck in the middle.


Imagine this: agriculture and crop rotation. If a field consists of one crop it will expire the field of the required nutrients and will die (the destruction aspect of a pachacuti). With the freed up land, and the excess of whatever nutrient the original crop didn’t use, another plant will come in and take over the field (creation aspect of a pachacuti) until it too exhausts the soil (destruction part of pachacuti). At that point, the original plant can return or a new one (creation). If those two plants would coexist, they would both avoid the pachacuti.


A pachacuti is an ancient Andean idea based on yanantin. When the opposite pairs of any object fall out of balance a cataclysmic event happens which destroys existence and restores it in a new and balanced manner. Pachacuti’s can have negative or positive changes, but there is always change. Indigenous Andeans used a series of rituals to maintain the balance between the opposites and to remind themselves of the importance of maintaining balance. Some Andeans speculate that a pachacuti occurs once every 500 years in the Andes and that puts the timing for the next pachacuti to happen any day. The 500 year anniversary of the last major pachacuti of when the Inka Empire fell will be 2032.


Marín-Dale, Margarita. Decoding Andean Mythology (Kindle Locations 2318-2321). University of Utah Press. Kindle Edition.

Webb, Hillary S. Yanantin and Masintin in the Andean World: Complementary Dualism in Modern Peru (Kindle Locations 1978-1983). University of New Mexico Press. Kindle Edition.