Imagine partying non-stop for a month, as a sacred act. That’s what goes on throughout much of the Ecuadorian Andes starting on the summer solstice. In a tradition that extends back to long before the Inca in this part of the globe, communities and villages celebrate Inti Raymi, or the sun festival long and hard. It is serious business.
I learned more about this on my recent trip in Ecuador, where folks were already beginning to prepare for the festivities more than a month in the future. At dinner one evening, as we sat around the large dining table in the austere hostel where we were staying, a group of four males who looked to be in their early twenties were practicing their Inti Raymi music on us. They played their guitars and drums hard to a syncopated beat as we ate our food. The rhythm was contagious, it made you want to start dancing around with them – moving your body any way you felt like it.
“We still have more practicing to get ready for Inti Raymi,” one of them explained to us. “We have to prepare our hands and bodies because we need to be strong enough to play all night. Sometimes we play so hard that the blood runs down our fingers. And we must continue on, since we do this together. We hold each other up in our music group, and give each other strength. We can’t let each other down.”
When I first observed an Inti Raymi festival about five years ago now, I had no advanced preparation or knowledge. All I noticed at first that sunny day was a festival with free flowing chicha (corn alcohol) and a multitude of different groups of people dancing and singing – many wearing masks. But I sensed that there was more to this than first met the eye…and I was right. A shaman-like man I spoke to told me that the night before he and many others had gone to the sacred waterfalls to wash away all their pains and sorrows from the past year to welcome in the New Year. They had asked the blessings of the waters, as they were now doing to the mountains and the sun. He said that is where the real power comes from. And the healing.
A recent cross-national study has shown that folks from the US, Australia and New Zealand seem to have the highest level of anxiety in the world. While some countries may underreport anxiety, nonetheless it does seem quite clear that generally speaking the richer countries (materially) have a notably higher level of anxiety.
I began to think back to the anxiety in my own family – mother, father, children…and others. A branch of the Stephenson family immigrated to Australia for gold mining – one descendant took his life a generation later due to depression and despair.
I have come to realize that many of my ancestors in almost all directions changed their name and tried to hide their identity upon arrival to the United States. Daniel Cone who settled in the Connecticut River valley was actually Daniel McCombe…a Scottish soldier on the losing side of the fight against Cromwell. Briefly jailed in England, he was sent to the colonies. He seemed to have tried his hardest to keep his Scottish identity a secret. And then there are my Jewish relatives, the Skibelskis, whose name was changed to Cohen in Ellis Island. And the Irish man O’Diall (my great grandfather) who tried to hide that he was Irish in documents. And others too.
What mountains did their ancestors sing and dance to? What rivers were sacred to them?
I looked around at the group with me in Ecuador that evening and thought about what we would feel like if we stopped our summer jobs and day-to-day activities for a week or two or three and dedicated ourselves entirely – our whole community – to celebrating the sun and the mountain by us: Mount Monadnock. We could bathe in a waterfall to wash away our cares and anxieties from the past year. And then I would gather with a few of my friends and we would sing and dance all day and into the night – supporting each other and giving one another strength. We would open all our houses and we could drop by wherever we wanted and be greeted with hospitality and good food. We would do this because we felt that the course of our community and the world depended upon our connection with our mountain, waters and the sun.
“A lot of families may seem poor in our town to you,” one of the singers told us, “but everyone spends money on Inti Raymi. It might not make sense to you, but it is what keeps us healthy and sane.”
As I continue to wonder why so many people in my family and at work seem to have anxiety that impacts the quality of their life, I ponder about the role that the ancestors may play as well as our societal tendency to focus more upon so-called work than so-called play.
I also know that using stone/rock and water can help sometimes. Connecting with these elemental energies through ritual, healing layouts and uses and just through simple touch can really help ease anxiety and stress. Stones and water always appreciate a good song.