Before we can look at the condor and its meaning, a good place to begin is the Inca Cross. There’s is difficulty in understanding everything that the Incas did, because most records were destroyed by the Spanish. What has developed from analysis of the ruins, textiles and pottery is the emergence of what is called the “Chakana” cross, the Quechua name of a three-stepped Andean cross, representing the three stages of Inca life.
The snake, puma and condor are also symbolic representatives of these three levels. The snake represents the lower or underworld; the middle world of earth is represented by the puma; and the heavens are represented by the condor. These sacred animals, the condor included, find themselves not only on ruins but as parts of the Inca’s holy cross.
The Incas considered the condor as the most sacred bird. Its large size and ability to travel long distances – from Lima to the Andes, for example – are some of the reasons why the Incas believed it to be the messenger for the heavens. It was one of the most scared animals in their eyes, because of its connection to the divine. It was considered the connection between the earth and skies and was believed to carry the dead on its wings to the afterlife.
The puma was the symbol of power and strength and was also the symbol of life on Earth. It was important to show qualities of the puma in this lifetime, as it was considered the greatest predator and something to emulate. Because of this, the Incas designed Cusco in the shape of a puma. Take a look at any Cusco map and you can see a primitive puma with Saqsayhuaman as the head.
The snake represents the underworld, which, in Inca traditions, has different connotations than Christianity. Rather than representing hell or being a sign of eternal punishment and temptations, the snake represented the beginning of new life. In the Inca mythology, the snake is also believed to represent wisdom and knowledge.