Apu Ollantay’s Help in Seeing the Past

There are very few literary pieces that have survived from the Incan empire, which dominated the Western coast of South America from circa 3000 BCE to the Spanish Conquest of the New World. Due to civil war and colonization, the Quechua written language was almost destroyed. Apu Ollanatay is considered a “shadow document”, which means the year of creation is unknown, however, it’s believed to have been performed as a play since the 15th century. The play was published as a written work in 1853 by J. J. Von Tschudi, first in German, and then in Spanish, English, and French. Apu Ollantay gives readers a chance to familiarize themselves with a more romantic play while also showcasing Incan culture through their values and superiority.  

Historical Look at the Incas

Referred to as the “children of the sun”, the Incans believed that their ancestors were born from the sun and wandered the earth until settling the in the Valley of Cuzco, which eventually became the capital city of their empire. It was under the first great Incan leader, Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, when the unification of the empire began in the mid-1400s. Under Pachacuti’s son, the empire was named Tawantinsuyo, which means the Land of Four Corners. It was made up of land that was conquered: Chinchaysutu (North), Anitsuyu (East), Collasuyu (South), and Cuntisuyu (West) One of the fastest growing empires in the world, unfortunately, fell just as quickly. An outbreak of smallpox that migrated from Central America, a civil war after the emperor died of smallpox and the invasion of the Europeans brought the Incan empire to a collapse by the mid-1500s.

Play by Play  

Apu Ollanatay takes part in three acts, and it tells the story of the hero, Apu Ollanatay. In Act One, the audience is introduced to Ollantay, who is a general in the Incan army who falls in love with Emporer Pachacuti’s daughter, Cusi Coyllur. They secretly marry, and she becomes pregnant. Because Ollanatay is from the region of Anitsuyu and is not a noble, Pachacuti rejects the relationship. Ollanatay is furious that Pachacuti rejects him and finds Cusi to be missing. Believing that she is dead, Ollantay leaves Cuzco for his home of the Antis to start a rebellion, meanwhile, Pachacuti imprisons Cusi Coyllur in the Ayahuasi, or the house of virgins. 

Act Two begins ten years later. Ollantay’s rebellion is still going on, Pachacuti has died, so his son, Tupac Yupanqui has taken over the throne and his father’s cause. Cusi Coyllur is still imprisoned, but a new character is introduced, Ima Sumaj. She has no idea who she is or why she has been in the House of Virgins her entire life. One night, she hears crying, and she follows the noises into a dungeon underneath the temple where she discovers Cusi. After talking they realize each other’s identity: Cusi is Ima Sumaj’s mother, and Ima is the niece of the new king. 

In Act Three, Ollantay is deceived, captured, and brought to Tupac. Instead of executing him, Tupac shows Ollantay mercy and pardons his crimes. While they are together, Ima comes to the castle and begs the king to free her mother from her imprisonment. She convinces both Ollantay and Tupac to accompany her to the dungeon, where Ollantay recognizes Cusi as his wife, and Tupac recognizes his sister. Cusi is freed from her bounds, and Tupac reinstates their marriage and accepts them into the royal family. A happy ending after all!

Qual é o argumento de Ollantay? 1

The Theatrics

SImilarly to other cultures, works of literature were not written first, but performed. While they were created for entertainment, historians belive that plays and poetry were created not to showcase the talent of one [writer], but to showcase the Incan culture and its superiority. Like the Greco-Roman and English plays, there are two distinct types of plays, but unlike the Europeans, the Incan plays aren’t sorted into tragic or comedic. Their theatric genres were either wanka or aránway. The wanka genre focued on a historical or ancestorial figure, while the aránway was more popular because it showed everyday life of the Incas. Both were normally accompanied by musical instraments and dancing.

Insights into Incan Society 

Thanks to the the quipa, the knot system that calculated details like population, the harvest, and commerce, there is a lot to know about the Incans; however, Apu Ollantay has provided us with clues about the Incan social structure along with its romantic tale. Although Ollantay was a high ranking military officer and loyal to the crown, the emperor denied his wishees to marry Cusi Coyllur based on the fact that he wasn’t a true Incan. It’s believed that Pachacuti passed reforms about expanding the Incan empire into the Amazonian tribes, like the Antisuyu, and marriage was one way to keep political alliances strong, but also to incorporate those tribes into Incas. An Incan could chose a wife from a tribe outside of the empire, and then the new spouse was brought to Cuzco to be molded into the Incan culture. It’s believed that Cusi was going to be wed to a local elite Incan to “rienforce Incan superiority”. This idea is also rienforced in the finale of the play when Ollantay is able to be with his family, but instead of going back to the Antis (where he has been living during his decade long rebellion and originated from), he stays in Cuzco and is folded into the Incan empire by acting as ruler while Tupac Yupanqui leads later campaigns. Ollantay, along with the Antis, became a part of the Incan empire, which was their goal all along.


The Quipa, by Jack Zalium
published on 07 May 2014

Final Thoughts

Apu Ollantay is a fine piece of literary work. It gives two possible interpretations: either the hero who would do anything to avenge his lover but ends up with a happy ending, or the whole verses the one.  Which one speaks to you the most?

This play was so revered for its statement about Incan superiority that it was banned in 1791 to prevent further uprsings againts colonists in South America in hopes to disassociate  the history and memory of the Incas. It provides us with a cultural background of a huge empire that most of us have some knowledge of but are unfamiliar with the details.


Bertazoni, Cristiana. “‘Apu Ollantay’: Inca Theatre as an Example of the Modes of Interaction between the Incas and Western Amazonian Societies.” Boletim Do Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi. Ciências Humanas, MCTI/Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, 1 Apr. 2014, www.scielo.br/j/bgoeldi/a/TWpkhLWHcqsXZQMdwGs8rPj/?format=html&lang=en#.

Cartwright, Mark. “Inca Civilization.” World History Encyclopedia, https://www.worldhistory.org#organization, 15 Sept. 2014, www.worldhistory.org/Inca_Civilization/.

Curl, John. “Ancient American POETS.” Bilingual Review / La Revista Bilingüe, vol. 26, no. 2/3, 2001, pp. iii–163. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25745755. Accessed 5 Oct. 2022.

Quoss-Moore, R. M. ENG 3193: World Literature I. Fall Semester 2022, University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond. Class Lecture.


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