The Papitos come as condors: A healing ceremony in Peru’s Andes

By Rinda Payne

Rinda Payne attended mysterious healing ceremony in Cusco.

There is a tradition among some of the people in the Peruvian Andes that certain men can call the apus, or spirits of the mountains, to materialize in order for the apus to perform operations and give advice. The apus materialize in the dark, most frequently in the form of a condor. The male apus are known as Papitos (little fathers), the female apus as Mamitas (little mothers). They also are called angels.

A woman from Europe who has lived in Peru for a number of years invited me and two other American women living in Cusco to join her when she visited the Papitos. The apus were going to operate on her throat; she had several cases of laryngitis in the past. A Peruvian couple from Cusco would accompany us in order to translate from Spanish into English and vice-versa. The husband had told us that the apus bring with them something that cuts two or three slits in the skin and tissues. (A participant from a different group in Cusco described needles going into his knee during his knee operation.)

The woman had scheduled her operation the previous day at which time she received a package of herbal pills. These were to be used to purge and cleanse her system the night before the operation. Cleansing her system meant spending the night vomiting and having diarrhea.

The temple of the apus

We drove to the outskirts of Cusco. At the end of a dirt road was the temple with benches in front of it. People from the local communities were sitting outside. The owners have constructed open-fronted buildings in which food and drinks are served and housing for toilets, as well as an office where people schedule their operations.

The owners of the temple and its adjacent buildings host the appearance of the apus every morning, Monday through Saturday, in order to perform operations and dispense advice. One of the owners supposedly has the ability to call the apus. They also travel to other towns. There are two other groups in Cusco that call the apus. At this temple, each person with questions for the apus paid about four dollars at the door; an operation cost about 18 dollars.

The participants slowly drifted into the temple and settled themselves on long benches that lined both sides of the temple. Just inside the door in a corner was a life-size statue of the Virgin. Bouquets of flowers were placed beside her. As people entered, they lit candles and placed them in boxes in front of her. Paintings of Jesus, Mary and Señor de Huanca hung over the benches. The temple had no windows.

Cell phones were forbidden inside the temple. The rule was enforced by a man who repeatedly asked the participants if they had a cell phone. Several women reluctantly left to deposit their cell phones outside.

One of the owners signaled that the 10 people who were to receive an operation should sit together near the massive table that spread across the end of the room opposite the door. The table was spread with a white cloth and had sacred objects on it. Two men and a woman carried bowls of cubed cheese, green olives and rice to the table for the apus to eat. Twenty-two people who were to ask the apus questions sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the remaining spaces on the benches.

Meanwhile, the wife instructed us that we did not have to remember the answers that the apus gave to our questions, because the owners of the temple would write the answers on slips of paper that they would give to the participants after they left the temple. (After the ceremony, however, no one received the papers with answers.)

A man rose from his seat near the door and pulled a curtain over the door, shut the door and bolted it. The interior of the temple was plunged into total darkness.

The ceremony begins

A man stationed near the table began a sibilant, high-pitched whistle to call the apus. The whistle alternated with the participants chanting prayers to the Blessed Mary and to Jesus. Suddenly, thuds sounded on the roof accompanied by bangs and raps. The first apu entered. He announced himself as Apu Ausangate. The next apu entered, identifying himself as Apu Sacsayhuaman. Two other apus entered whose names were not familiar to me. Then a female apu entered. I later was told that she represented Pachamama, Mother Earth. The voices of the male apus were hoarse and gruff, not at all refined; the voice of the female apu was more pleasing. Each of the apus entered to the sounds of scrapes and bangs as they landed on the table. They begin to eat; the dishes of food on the table clattered.

It was time for the operations. One by one the participants were led to the front of the table. They spoke in Spanish or Quechua, telling the apus what operation they desired. The sound of sawing or filing filled the temple — it was impossible to see what was occurring. During each operation, the people said the same prayers to Mary and Jesus that they had repeated when the apus were called. After each operation, an apu would say to the patient, “despacio, despacio” (slowly, slowly) as he or she returned to the bench.

It was the turn of those seeking advice from the apus. A man led the advice-seekers down to the table. The temple stayed in total darkness; no one carried even a faint light.

Each person gave their name and politely addressed the individual apus as Papito or Mamita. It was our turn to go to the table, the two American women and myself. We joined hands with the wife of the couple who had accompanied us as our translators.

Granting wishes?

The first American asked the apus why she was in Peru. Was it to discover some secret, hidden documents that she would make public to the word? She sincerely believed that this was the reason why she had been “sent” to Peru and wanted confirmation from the apus that this was to be her mission. They asked her for her full name and date of birth. One of the apus told her that he would examine the star on the top of her head, and the apus would discuss the matter. The conclusion was “We will consult among ourselves and guide you in your dreams.” She asked four more questions; the answers were similar. The second American asked how she could earn money in Peru and how to cure her smoking addiction. In the case of earning money, the apus responded that she should follow her heart and that they would come and guide her. As for her smoking, they answered that she must use her will and only then would they help her. During our time in front of the table with the apus, I could sense the man by my side. And could hear him laboriously writing on sheets of paper.

The two Americans had been led back to their seats. I remained standing with our translator on my left and the male guide on my right. Instead of asking a personal question, I asked for “una bendicion para Cusco y los cusqueños” — a blessing for Cusco and the people of Cusco. The guide pushed me to the left and closer to the table. A claw was placed on the top of my head. A hoarse voice spoke in Spanish the words, “In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” Our translator asked if I had another question. “Nada mas,” I replied — nothing more. The guide then led us to our seats. In front of the exact spot where I had been sitting, the male guide commanded in English, “Sit down.”

After each person had asked the apus their questions, the door was unbolted and opened; the curtain was lifted. Everyone exited the temple and retrieved their cell phones, bundles and mantas from in front of the temple. The woman from Europe was so weak that the couple who had accompanied us needed to support her to her car so she could rest. They returned, and we stood in line to schedule an operation on a subsequent day for one of the Americans. The line was long. It seemed as if everyone wanted to sign up for a future operation and receive a packet of herbal pills to purge themselves.

While we waited in line, the couple told us about the many miracle operations the apus had performed. The husband had an operation on his back and spent five days in bed, only getting up in order to eat. The woman’s mother had an operation that a physician had labeled a “miracle.” The couple pointed out a man in a wheelchair who had been completely paralyzed, but after coming every day to the apus for three weeks, he could begin to move his legs. The apus had told him that he must use his will to exercise daily in order to get well. If he followed their instructions, they would assist him. The couple translated some of the questions for us, such as “Will I do well on my exams?” The apus had answered, “Have you studied hard? If you’ve studied hard, we will help you.”

While we were waiting to book the operation for the American, the wife informed us, “The apus remember us every time we visit them and ask us why we have been away for so long. When we repeat the same question that we have asked on a prior occasion, the apus remind us of it.”

As I listened to her exclamations of amazement at such feats of memory on the part of the apus, I wondered if she really believed everything she had told us.

I could not forget the man who stood beside me in the dark, busily writing the name of the person who asked the questions, the questions and the answers of the apus.