A pishtaco is a mythological boogeyman figure in the Andes region of South America, particularly in Peru. Some parts of the Andes refer to the pishtaco as kharisiri, or ñakaq.
Legend and its effects
According to folklore, a pishtaco is an evil monster-like man — often a stranger and often a white man — who seeks out unsuspecting Indians to kill them and abuse their bodies in disgusting ways. Primarily, this has been stealing their body fat for various nefarious cannibalistic purposes, or cutting them up and selling their flesh as fried chicharrones. Pishtaco derives from the local Quechua-language word “pishtay” which mean to “behead, cut the throat, or cut into slices”.
The preoccupation with body fat has a long tradition in the Andes region, and in pre-Hispanic natives prized fat such that a deity, Viracocha (meaning sea of fat), existed for it. It is also natural for the peasant rural poor to view fleshiness and excess body fat as the very sign of life, good health, strength and beauty. Many illnesses are thought to have their roots in the loss of body fats, and skeletal thinness is abhorred. With this, the conquistadores’ practice of treating their wounds with their enemies’ corpse fats horrified the Indians.
Andean aboriginals feared Spanish missionaries as pishtacos, believing the missionaries were killing people for fat, thereafter oiling churchbells to make them specially sonorous. In modern times, similar beliefs held that sugar mill machinery needed human fat as grease, or that jet aircraft engines could not start without a squirt of human fat.
Pishtaco beliefs have affected international assistance programs, e.g. leading to rejection of the US Food for Peace program by several communities, out of fears that the real purpose was to fatten children and later exploit them for their fat. Natives have attacked survey geologists working on the Peruvian and Bolivian altiplano who believed that the geologists were pishtacos. The work of anthropologists has been stymied because measurements of fat folds were rumoured to be part of a plot to select the fattest individuals later to be targeted by pishtacos. In 2009 the pishtaco legend was cited as a possible contributory factor in the apparent fabrication of a story by Peruvian police of a gang murdering up to 60 people to harvest their fat.
In popular culture
The pishtaco is prominently referenced in the novel Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa. In the book, two members of the Peruvian Civil Guard investigate the disappearance of three men, trying to determine if they were killed by the Shining Path guerilla group or by mythical monsters.
Pishtacos were primary plot source drivers and antagonists in the ninth-season episode “The Purge” of the TV series Supernatural, where a human male marries a pishtaco female and the two start a weight-loss retreat so the female could sustain herself while helping those who wished to lose weight. A minor running gag was the apparent similarity of the word pishtaco to the food fish taco.