John & Susan Merrell
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Scio, OR 97374
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Alpacas and llamas held a special place in ancient Andean societies.  The alpaca in particular was seen as a gift from Pachamama.  These peoples made clothing from the fiber, fiber from the dung, meals from the meat and leather from the hides.  Further, textiles were a central part of their social system.  It should come as no surprise that alpacas assumed a religious significance, or that their form appears in amulets and other religious objects.  Conopas are an example of this.

conopaConopas are a relatively small (30 cm) figurine carved from stone used in traditional rituals.  While they are found in many styles, a very common form is that of the alpaca.  This example is clearly a suri alpaca.  Close examination reveals not only the flowing locks draping over the neck, but also the long bangs hanging over the eyes and the short tail of the alpaca.

Symbolically, the canopa represents the cosmology of the native peoples of the high Andes.  Legend maintains that alpacas entered the world after a goddess fell in love with a man.  Her father consented to allow her to enter our world with her alpacas only if he would show the alpacas special care, and under the condition that he would carry one small animal, the illa, in his arms at all times. She and her herd emerged into this world through the high lakes of the altiplano, and all went well until one day the man set the illa on the ground.

Immediately he goddess and her herd raced back to the lakes to return to her father.  The man tried to stop their flight, but in the end only succeeded in stopping a few of the alpacas.

Today a few sad eyed alpacas remain, preferring the swampy lands of the high Andes where they hope to return to the land of their origin through the lakes from which they originally emerged.  If humans do not take good care of the alpacas, their disappearance will foretell the end of the world.It is for this reason that conopas have a depression in their back, representing the lakes from which alpacas entered this world, and through which they will return when this world ends.

Ritually, the depression is filled with offerings of coca leaves and the fat from alpacas and llamas and used in rituals related to fertility and good luck.  Many canopas have been found that predate Columbus' discovery of America, and they are still being made and used today.

Historical records indicate that the Spanish priests confiscated over 3,400 conopas in the Archbishopric of Lima alone between 1617 an 1618 - this at a time when converting the native population to Christianity was seen as paramount.

Today the conopa represents the deep connection between the indigenous peoples and their alpacas.

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"I am always telling you that it is all rubbish," she continued, turning a broad expanse of alpaca-covered back upon her audience. "I am always telling you that you are no more a count than Fischelowitz is a grand duke, that the whole thing is a foolish imagination which you have stuck into your head, as one sticks tobacco into a paper shell..."

- F. Marion Crawford
A Cigarette-Maker's Romance
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