From centre stage to the edge of the page: how Inca queens and princesses were pushed to the margins of historical records

Helen Pugh
5 min readApr 6

Anyone who has lived in or studied South America could probably name a couple of Inca emperors and possibly even some lower-level Indigenous warriors. Pachakutik, Huayna Capac, Huascar and Atahualpa are household names. But how many people know the name of Pachakutik’s empress (Anawarki)? Or any of Huayna Capac’s hundreds of daughters, the half-sisters of Huascar and Atahualpa (Quispe Sisa, Mama Sarpay, Beatriz Huaylas, Cori Duchicela and Curi Ocllo to name just a few)?

I list these women not to shame anyone for not knowing. I didn’t myself until I dived deep into the historical records. I list them to highlight an unfair imbalance.

This imbalance was what led me to write ‘Intrepid Dudettes of the Inca Empire’ and to discover what caused this dismissal of Inca women when pre-Columbian Andean societies, on the whole, allowed women to have far more power and rights than most European cultures at the time. Indeed, the overall perspective of the Incas was that women and men carried out different roles but that these roles were of equal value.

For instance, the highest position a woman could hold in the Inca Empire was that of coya (or qoya), which we translate to empress. In terms of religious power, an emperor led all his subjects in the worship of Inti, the sun god. In parallel, a coya would have led all women across the empire in worshipping Killa, the moon goddess. In fact, each coya in turn was considered to be the earthly incarnation of Killa and people would have greeted her with great reverence using the words: “Daughter of Killa, one and only coya, friend of the poor.” Both the emperor and the coya were viewed as semi-divine.

As for political influence, a coya wielded a certain amount of power, especially over other women. Moreover, her role involved advising the emperor over all sorts of matters, A coya would also rule the whole empire as a regent whenever her husband was off fighting battles, which happened fairly regularly, as in the case of Anawarki (coya from c.1438 to 1471). If the emperor and his highest-ranking leaders were unable to come to a decision, she would intervene as a mediator.

Now, women did not choose to become a coya; it was an honour bestowed on them. Likewise, other royal women were given different roles. One was to become a highly respected secondary wife of…

Helen Pugh

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