In Bolivia, miners sacrifice llamas to appease the “Lord of the Underworld” – Art & Culture
Martin Silva (Agence France-Presse)
Oruro, Bolivia ●
Tue 1 March 2022
In a dimly lit mine shaft in Bolivia, a man sharpens two knives next to a table laden with offerings: wine, beer and coca leaves. Nearby, five white llamas are waiting.
The blood and hearts of woolly animals are the favorite food of El Tio (the Uncle), a horned deity who, according to Bolivian miners, offers them protection deep in the bowels of the Earth.
Statues of El Tio – “Lord of the Underworld” – abound in the mines, surrounded by offerings of liquor and coca leaves, a stimulant miners chew to get through the long dark hours underground.
El Tio resembles the Christian devil, sporting fangs, goat ears and, almost always, a lit cigarette placed in his mouth by believers.
Once a year, miners from the Oruro region in the western highlands of Bolivia gather to offer sacrifices to appease El Tio.
He is said to be a wrathful god.
“We bring the offerings […] so that we can sleep well at night, so that we don’t have accidents at work,” miner Miguel Valdez, 33, told AFP during one of these sacrificial ceremonies on Friday.
“If we don’t give him this offering, many things can happen.”
The miners also believe that El Tio controls the abundance of silver, tin and zinc they mine for a living.
Valdez and hundreds of his colleagues watched as the llamas, blindfolded and in their coats adorned with pink ribbons, were pushed into the mine on a cart to be put down.
To the sound of trumpets, drums and cymbals, they danced, sipping beer bottles and occasionally splashing on the floor for “Mother Earth”.
Luciano Alejo, a yatirior Andean healer, brandished his knives as miners squatted within reach with bowls to fill with llama blood, which some then smeared on their faces.
The hearts – still beating – were cut out and placed in larger containers.
A chosen few in the crowd then took the filled containers to the lower levels of the mine, to place them in front of El Tio. With a lit cigarette dangling from his sinister smile, he was dressed in colorful woolen clothes and miner’s boots.
After the animal sacrifice, the miners set fire to the other offerings they had collected on large tables, then made a quick exit as the pit quickly filled with smoke.
The ritual is performed once a year, in February or March, on the eve of the Oruro Carnival street parade. One of the biggest festivals in Bolivia, it is classified by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage”.
Carnival resumed this year after being skipped in 2021 due to the coronavirus outbreak.