Legend Has It: Pishtaco
Our next post for Hispanic Heritage Month brings us to the Andes Mountains region in South America, specifically Peru and Bolivia. Today, we will examine the legend of the Pishtaco – is it a boogeyman? Is it a vampire? Is it a bloodthirsty monster that will behead you in the dead of night? Let’s explore.
The Pishtaco can look like anyone. It looks to find people traveling alone. When it encounters a lone traveler, it will lure them to sleep by either reciting prayers to them or sprinkling them with human bones ground down into a fine powder. Once the victim is unconscious, the Pishtaco will extract the fat from their body. In some cases, it will then allegedly butchers the victim and cooks them into Chicharrón – which is typically a fried meat or meat rind dish. If the victim is lucky enough to not be dismembered, they perish within days. As for what the Pishtaco does with the fat it extracts, some believe it consumes it. Other iterations of the legend claim it sells the fat as a mechanical lubricant or as an ingredient for self-care products such as skincare or makeup.
The creature itself is often described to take the shape of a man with light skin – some variations claim it can shapeshift, but the vast majority describe it as a monster in the shape of a man. Its actual appearance seems to advance with the times, up to people describing suspected Pishtacos as driving cars. It then sucks the fat out of its victim, killing them. The name Pishtaco comes from the word pishtay which means to cut into pieces, or to behead.
The significance of this legend is very interesting to me, as it dates back to the time of the conquistadors. But before we get to that, let’s take a look at what fat meant to pre-colonial Andean Peoples. Viracocha is the Incan god of creation. According to Incan mythology, he created everything from time to the universe itself. Some suggest that his name translates to Fat from the Sea – suggesting that fat was revered – though this seems to be hotly debated amongst linguists. Regardless of Viracocha, however, there is also the idea that fat is the result of opulence in pre-colonial times. Fat, to the poor and less fortunate, symbolizes wealth and richness that they do not have.
Conquistadors also used fat in some…special ways, which likely fueled the legend. The Conquistadors used fat to treat their wounds – placing pieces of the dead on yourself to heal has some sort of grim symbolism, right? It has also been said that the humidity of the Andean jungle led to their weapons rusting quickly, so the Conquistadors used boiled fat from murdered natives as grease. Additionally, this grease was allegedly used on church bells to make them ring louder and further out – however, this bit seems to be a long-living urban legend.
So, I think it’s safe to say that colonizing Conquistadors at the very least reinforced the Pishtaco legend as they cut bloody swaths into the Andean region. After all, they are believed to often be white men – Spaniards have light complexions – who steal fat – Conquistadors fully utilized fat from corpses – and target Natives – Conquistadors were not shy about murder.