Luis Millones & Mónica Belevan

Of Dogs & Death: A Quipu

August 31, 2018

The following are fragments strung together from various notes and papers on the subject by Luis Millones. About half of these impressions have been put into print elsewhere —though in Spanish—. About half have never seen the light of day.

The result is a kind of piece à quatre mains, in the spirit of the author and the style of the medium. 

We didn’t have pets growing up. With only two rooms for five people, the presence of more mouths to feed would have thrown my grandmother, who was tasked with finding and distributing food to the entire family. A dog, however, would have more to her distaste than other animals: her culture saw them as ripe for demonic possession or, at least, as warm to death.

Though the construal of representations to channel the anguish of death is constant to human societies, the different shapes they take are usually meant to allay the anxieties posed by losing touch with the familiar(s). This is not the case in some parts of the Andes, though, where a past in which death was but a hiccup in the grand train of life is still invoked. As with many religions, this state of privilege was compromised because of a mistaken gesture, a glitch in ritual or an unforgiven trespass; so that calamity was wrought upon the human race, from which point we’ve all lived on borrowed time.

But we do not suffer alone. Other creatures —many of them, animals— participate in this world-complex and, once dead, reappear in the afterlife to make sure we observe established protocols. The parrot and the hummingbird are among them. Another —as we gathered during fieldwork in the commune of Cuspón, in Chiquián, Áncash— is the dog.

My grandmother, who was herself from Áncash, believed the devil could take the shape of a black dog (a very European superstition, too). It would be a large and most threatening beast, a hellhound that would charge at anyone it found alone and wandering unawares, especially if they were not just guilty —but impenitent. So dogs were kept at bay. I was taught that it was ill-advised to play with them, and that putting their rheum in our eyes could grant us the power to see beyond our usual purview, into a space that overlapped with ours but wasn’t of it.

With taboo as the gateway to curiosity, I sought out the forbidden company of dogs in books. I was haunted by Cerberus, whose eldritch shape was first revealed to me by Hesiod, and whom I met again –with fewer heads, but no less bite— through Virgil; first as author of the Aeneid, then as psychopomp to Dante. Nor should it be forgotten that, even to the Greeks, to call someone a “dog” was meant to summon up the animal’s “frank shamelessness” (García Gual 2009: 19). And so the word persisted as a slur, and it was as a slur that it first reached Peruvian shores. As the crónicas repeatedly lay bare, a myriad native languages translated “dog” with equally unpleasant connotations (though it is harder to establish if the colonists and colonised did so for comparable reasons).

Dalí, Salvador. Divine Comedy Suite. Inferno, Canto VI , Cerberus. 1960. Original woodblock engraving. 33.02 cm. x 26.8 cm.


A Peruvian hairless dog surveys excavations at the Temples of the Sun and Moon in Trujillo, La Libertad. Peru Paradise Travel. Date and photographer unknown. Accessed on 31 August, 2018. 


Christianity indented many traditions, its own included. The episode of Lazarus and his resurrection percolated into  tales that found him travelling —together with his holy sisters— on a rudderless boat without oars which, when left to the ruth of the waves, somehow docked in Provence. There, it is claimed that Lazarus became a bishop. News of this miracle was reaffirmed when, in the year 900, the Byzantine emperor Leo VI had his relics taken to Constantinople along with those of Mary Magdalene, his sister (Sgarbossa and Giovannini 1994: 484 -485).

The tradition was reformulated and expanded through its intermingling with the parable in Luke that speaks of a rich man who would “dress in purple and fine linen, feasting lavishly every day”, and a poor man, Lazarus, who “lay at his gate, covered with sores and longing to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores” (the italics are mine). When Lazarus died, he was seated next to Abraham in heaven, while the wealthy Epulon was buried in Hell, from where he could still see the patriarch and the one-time beggar. He pled with the former to grant him permission to visit his brothers so that they would not perpetuate his damning lifestyle; to which Abraham responded they already had the words of Moses and the prophets, without which they would not be persuaded, “even if someone rises from the dead”.

Artistic renderings of this parable and the oral tradition it eventually spawned brought together the figure of death, the passage into the afterlife and –what concerns us— the presence of dogs as participants. Alfredo López Austin has studied this syncretic process by expanding its horizon through the figure of the orisha Babalú Ayé worshipped at the Santuario Nacional de San Lázaro, in El Rincón, near Havana. We will content ourselves with looking at what form these elements acquired in the Andean area.

Saint Lazarus (with dogs). Anonymous. Colour lithograph. Date and dimensions unknown. Wellcome Collection, London. Accessed 31 August, 2018. 


Andean mortuary rites have been described since the sixteenth century by the extirpadores, missionaries charged with the eradication of aboriginal religions. Through documents such as the Huarochirí Manuscript, transcribed by the extirpador Francisco de Ávila, we were left with telling fragments of the world they sought to understand in order to destroy.

In Áncash, as in many other places in the Andes, funerary rites lasted a full five days, a timeframe that is still observed today. It makes for a long farewell that is meant to account for, and tend to, the space of the two souls that all living things share –one in the heart, one in the head— each of which suffers a different reaction with the passing of their host. The soul that’s contained in the head dies with its bearer; the one in the heart must be goaded by its relatives and made to see the time has come for it to move towards its paqarina, the patron-mountain or the place from which its people came when they were first created by Wiraqocha.

This incorporeal exodus was not always the norm. In ancient times and following the five days ritual, the dead would return. “I am back”, they would say, and they would rejoice with their loved ones. But humans multiplied in excess and it became increasingly difficult to keep them all fed, which is why they had to learn how to grow crops and squeeze life from the faces of cliffs on the sinuous andenes that, even today, wind beside the abysses. Man lived to suffer:

“[a]nd when the suffering became too much, he died. His father, his brothers and his wife expected him. The fifth day came, the fifth day passed, and he did not appear; he did not come back. On the next day, the sixth, he arrived. His father, his brothers and his wife expected him angrily.

Upon setting eyes on him, his wife rebuked him: ‘why are you so lazy? Every other man comes back without breaking a sweat and you have made me wait in vain.’ Then she continued to be angry. She raised a corncob and threw it at the shade that had returned. No sooner had the shade been struck by it, it went ‘sió’ and, humming [like a fly], it disappeared again. Ever since that day, the dead have not come back.”

Today, the dead must face a tedious path to reach their final destination. After the five days ceremony, the soul starts to collect the hair and nails it was not careful to pick up in life, in a place with no known coordinates: “the pampas of Saint Lazarus”. These are supposed to be arid, hot and windy, with their only saving grace being Saint Lazarus himself, who oversees the hardships of those looking for their epithelials. Touched by the plight of these incautious souls, he sends them his dogs, whose task —as it were, in the spirit of Anubis— it is to judge them.

Those who had in life been kind to them would be rewarded with the water of their ears, relieved of their exhaustion and escorted to the Aya Marka, or land of the dead. Other stories, heralding from Ayacucho —which stands for “corner of the dead” in Quechua, after all— add to these claims by stating those had been cruel and careless with their dogs would receive no such no help, and that the hounds would watch their former masters suffer for their negligence. Yet another version says the animals expect their owners as stones (another form of immortality), but that they will attack whomever abused them in life and prevent their passage. These uncharitable souls will thus be doomed to roam the world, inflicting grief and disgrace on their fellow-men.

A quipu, dazzlingly displayed at the British Museum. Item Am1907,0319.286. Unknown photographer. Accessed 31 August, 2018.  


Quipu or khipu, as we know them, are monochrome or multicoloured wool or cotton strings tied into knots, the net of which comprise a pre-Columbian system of communication that has yet to be fully deciphered. This is, in any case, what we had hammered into us at school, and it poses a source of frustration and pride for Peruvians, insofar as we intuit that they must have served functions outside of those attributed to them since 1532, as the catch-all Andean response to counting and accounting, to book-keeping and writing. While not incorrect —where they were not supressed, quipu were sometimes used in lieu of written Spanish by native informants— this appraisal is limited. Recent research by the likes of Frank Salomon, Gary Urton and their associates has established other, likely later, applications for these arcane Enigma machines, several of which pertain to their roles as cultural and kinship markers or ingroup identifiers.

My particular preoccupation is with the quipu and death. Though we ignore if it is pre-Columbian in origin or if it emerged as a byproduct of the Christian evangelization process; the information accrued in our fieldwork demonstrates that quipu serve a purpose regarding some funerary practices. In Chiquián, the bodies of the dead, attired for burial, are cloaked with deftly woven quipu, the immediate use for which is to guide prayer of the Holy Rosary. These quipus even have the shapes of Christian crosses spun into the yarn of the sash-strings that are used to tie the garments to the body. Nor is this custom limited to Áncash: it is performed in many parts of the Peruvian sierra, where postmortem rituals involve strict ceremonies —among them, clothes-washing and farewell feasts— all of which are still important.

Earlier this year, Natalí López and Roxana Lazo, two graduate students in the Social Sciences at the Universidad Nacional de San Marcos, conducted the fieldwork that would lead to the recording of a testimonial by Honorata Gamarra (one that is shared by her family, by the community of Cuspón and throughout the district of Chiquián, all of whom firmly believe in its contents). This testimonial is of special interest to us because it bridges the funerary use of quipu —on which death bestows a power of speech that may or may not date to Incan times— to the otherworldly role of dogs. Be as it may, the funerary rite peculiar to Cuspón –the most detailed description of which can be found in Galdo’s and Cavero’s 2015 Kawsakuyninchik— is considered a National Cultural Heritage, and protected as such, on account of its uniqueness.

Though the trope of the newly deceased man who returns home –typically because some mortuary formality has not been well observed— is recurrent in Andean mythology, Honorata’s tale relates specifically to the use and faculties of the quipu that is cinched around the body of the dead preceding burial. As a myth —that is, as the explanation for a supernatural phenomenon and a guide for future conduct— the informant provides us with every element discussed thus far: death, the road to the hereafter, the dogs as guarantors of ritual observance, the cords that are tied to the dead and that care for the living by “talking” to them.

Mama Licuna, an elderly quipucamayoc, works on a funerary quipu in Chiquián. Unknown photographer. Chiquianmarka, April 2017. Accessed on 31 August, 2018. 


The ghost of a recently dead man returns to terrorise his wife, parading the remnants of his last meal –mazamorra— on his chest since, for lack of human tissue, his jawbones and teeth could not retain their intake. While trying to clean him up –and escape the hideous spectre— the wife decides to fetch some water outside. Distrusting her intentions, the dead man asks the quipu wrapped around him to ensure that she returns but, once outside, the quipu “speaks” to the terrified widow and, making good use of its powers of communication, tells her that if she goes back indoors, the wraith will take her with him and she will be the one that’s never seen nor heard from again. It also tips her as to how to avoid this frightful fate: she must tie the quipu to a brushwood, and then flee.

When the dead husband demands her return, the quipu excuses itself, explaining it got tied up in the branches. Since he needs his quipu to walk in this world, the spectre is forced to slowly leave the house to find it, giving the wife just enough time to run and hide in a neighbouring home. The dead man, once again sporting his quipu, can at last move nimbly and discover where she’s taken shelter. He’s unable to take her, however, because she is protected by the guard-dogs of the place, who repel him upon recognising his unearthly presence and who watch over the neighbours and the escapee alike. They let the dead man know that he can either abandon pursuit of his wife and return to his resting place, or wander the earth as a ghost.

This is how the quipu demonstrates the current need for its existence, and –together with the dog— shows its ability to serve as a communicating cord between the living and the dead.


Anonymous (Francisco de Ávila, comp.). Dioses y hombres de Huarochirí. Lima: Universidad Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, 2007. 

Galdo, Virgilio and María Alina Cavero. Kawsakuyninchik. Ciclo vital y relaciones familiares en los Andes. Lima: Universidad Agraria La Molina, 2015. 

García Gual, Carlos. La secta del perro. Vida de los filósofos cínicos. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2014. 

Holy Bible: Holman Christian Standard Version. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009. 

Sgarbossa, Mario and Luis Giovanni. Un santo para cada día. Santa Fe de Bogotá: San Pablo Editores, 1994.

Luis Millones is a Peruvian anthropologist and professor emeritus at the Universidad Nacional de San Marcos, Lima, and the Universidad San Cristóbal de Huamanga, Ayacucho. His latest work includes Después de la muerte (2010); Taki Onkoy: de la enfermedad del canto a la epidemia (2007) and Dioses familiares (2000). Recent collaborations include Santiago Apóstol combate a los moros en el Perú (2017) and Dioses y animales sagrados de los Andes peruanos (2013), with Renata Mayer; as well as Los mitos y sus tiempos. Creencias y narraciones de Mesoamérica y los Andes (2016); Cuernos y colas. Reflexiones en torno al demonio en los Andes y Mesoamérica (2015), and Animales de Dios (2012), with Alfredo López Austin.

In her slightly more persuasive human guise, Mónica Belevan is a writer and entrepreneur based in Lima, Peru. As The Nightjar, she wields air rights in Hell and is a stateless salonniere for the numerous underground networks that converge in this site. 

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