11 June 2011

There's a bull on my roof

Well, actually there are two bulls, a cross and two ladders on my roof ... but that’s not uncommon in Cusco, where many houses have similar small items decorating the middle of their roof ridges. These are, apparently, traditional house blessings, placed on the roof when the house is first erected to enhance the well-being of the resident family, and the various items placed on the rooftops vary greatly from town to town, from one home owner to another.

The bull has, of course, featured in myths and legends around the world since ancient times; witness, for example, the biblical ‘golden calf’, the constellation Taurus, the stone-age cave paintings of bulls at Lascaux in France, the bull-leaping ritual of the Minoan civilisation, and the Hindu god Nandi, to name just a few.

According to one source, there is an Inca legend which states that Amaru, the snake god, emerged from a lake and was transformed into a bull, an animal renowned for its strength and willingness to assist the locals with ploughing their fields. Cultivating the fields brought fertility and wealth, hence the local association of bulls with the fertility and wealth of the household.

However, another source I found, a fascinating blog about ‘water bulls’ and other Patagonian monsters, says that domestic cows and bulls were only introduced into the Americas by the Europeans, after Columbus’s 1492 discovery, so the symbolism of the bulls would appear to have a Spanish colonial origin.

The cross and ladders that frequently accompany the bulls on the roof tops, or sometimes appear without the bulls, are obviously Christian symbols, the cross of the crucifixion and the ladders from the removal of Christ’s body from the cross. Presumably these are present to ward off evil spirits. According to one local, the cross is usually made of iron to stop the negative energies of lightning, though I’ve also seen many examples of wooden crosses.

Small water jugs can also be found on some rooftops, perhaps another fertility symbol. Other arrangements may include more than two bulls (if the homeowner raises animal or cattle), jugs with flowers (if the homeowners are farmers) or miniature ceramic musicians (if the homeowners are musicians). In the left photo above, you can see a saw, so perhaps the homeowner is a carpenter! These examples also show the dates the houses were erected, as well as roosters and other assorted items.

The bulls, cross and ladders on my roof, then, appear to be an example of the blending of the Catholic religion and native beliefs. The bulls are known as toritos, and are not just found on rooftops. I also have two ceramic bull sculptures decorating my apartment. These are toritos de Pukara, named after the Pukara region between Cusco and Juliaca, which is famous for its luck-bringing ceramic bulls. According to the Globetrotter Travel Guide: Peru, ‘Most are made in the village of Santiago de Pupaya, and the torito is linked to the centuries-old festival of Senalacuy, when cattle are herded together for branding and the most handsome bull is selected to sire next year’s calves. Ochre spirals are painted on the chosen bull’s hide, chilli peppers are rubbed under his tail and nose, and the unfortunate bull is then urged to canter around the village while being pelted with flowers and fruit.’

I'm glad I'm not one of those bulls! I'm also glad my house is blessed with wealth, though, fortunately, the fertility blessing is not something that concerns me these days! 


  1. Wow! Just when I thought these bulls are just simple roof decorations, it’s nice to gain knowledge from it and discover that there is a fascinating story behind it. I bet the roof has been a total eye catcher after knowing the importance of the statues. Hmm. Could it be that these bulls can bring luck to the owners of the house? =)

    Laurelle  Baughman

  2. Thanks for your comments, Laurelle. I find these bulls really interesting and I can't help but notice them now. They definitely bring good luck ... or, at least, I like to think so!

  3. Thanks a lot for sharing the history behind these peculiar objects! I think the roof is definitely the right location for them to be. Since it's the top of the house, the blessings would go all the way down onto and into it. Here's a good question though – who put them up there?! I hope they were very careful when they were up there, putting the bulls on!

    -- Ashlee

  4. Hi Ashlee. I'm glad you enjoyed my blog. The bulls are put on the roof when the house is being built, so by the builder. And there are little to no safety regulations in Peru so it can be a dangerous business. But maybe the act of putting the bulls in place is good luck for the builder as well. Let's hope so.