The Pishtaco: the origins and relevance of the "white vampire" of the Andes

From the Spanish conquest of Peru to today, the sinister figure of Pishtaco has haunted the psyche of the Andean Indians, to the point that the ethnographers who have studied the legends concerning him have linked them to a sort of "intergenerational trauma" which for centuries has allegedly fed itself, still terrorizing today the descendants of the Quetchua people.


di Marco Maculotti

Of Figure Pishtaco is undoubtedly one of the most sinister and disturbing of Andean folklore. Often compared to the eastern and continental European vampire, sometimes to the Wendigo of subarctic Amerindian folklore, the Pishtaco he is a legendary figure (although the natives are still convinced of his existence today) who is characterized by his extremely macabre actions towards the intended victims. According to the myth, which we find mention of in the centuries following the Spanish conquest, this mysterious figure would make the Indians who wander alone after sunset on the plateaus of the Cordillera lose their bearings, to then decapitate them and extract the fat from their bodies.

The "birth" of Pishtaco it is in fact traced back to the first traumatizing contacts with the Conquistadores: the first to mention the legend was in 1574 Cristobal de Molina, a Spanish religious and chronicler who accompanied the Spanish troops and lived until his death among the descendants of the Incas. In one of his diaries, Molina noted that the Indians refused to bring firewood to the Spaniards. When questioned, they told him that fifty years earlier, in the decisive period of the conquest, they had witnessed with horror the macabre practices of a group of Spanish soldiers who, after having massacred their indigenous counterparts, had extracted the fat from their corpses in order to produce potions to be used for various purposes: from the treatment of their wounds to that of their armor and guns, to prevent these to rust due to the humidity of the rainforest. The Indians began to think with horror that the Spaniards had invaded them precisely to obtain their fat, which would have allowed them to recover from a certain disease for which there would have been no other remedy.

It was above all the priests who knew the technique of "extracting" the fat from the corpses and therefore who made these ointments and potions: it is not surprising then that, for centuries, the native Peruvians imagined the Pishtaco dressed in the typical black tunic of a Catholic priest. Another recurring legend also took hold, according to which the Spanish priests used to use the fat obtained from the corpses of the Indians also to oil the church bells, in such a way that the sound magically obtained from this procedure would attract more and more faithful to the Catholic masses.

The legend of the Pishtaco has lasted for five centuries up to the present day. Still today, the descendants of the Quechua people believe that this disturbing figure is able to disorient his victims with a magical powder obtained from the grinding of human bones and that he hypnotizes them with his snake-like fingers. In the article and in the interview that we have translated here, both originally published on the Polish site, the beliefs that the Peruvian Indians have related to the Pishtaco in recent decades have been investigated.

di Tomasz Pindel

originally published on (2 parts)
translated by Marco Maculotti

Fans of South American literature may have already come across the pishtaco in the novel Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa. Corporal Lituma is transferred to an Andean community run by Sendero Luminoso terrorists, where he tries to understand this strange world and solve the mystery of a series of disappearances of local residents. In Peru the novel received a hostile reception from many of those who identify as Andean. It's no surprise. The writer expressed negative views on indigenous Andean cultures and indigenismo — the tendency that postulates the supremacy of native Inca heritage over the Spanish element in the country — and so readers were perfectly justified in being wary. Some experts on Andean culture, however, have considered the novel well-constructed and ethnographically valuable. In any case, i pishtacos appear several times in Death in the Andes; through their objective description, they help to create the image of an Andean world alien to both the hero of the novel and its author.

While readers may learn much about these creatures, they're more likely to consider them part of the monstrous pantheon — a local counterpart to vampires, ghosts, and the like. Unless they followed media reports about the tragic fate of some tourists in the Andes or the Amazon, such as the death of two Polish kayakers on the Ucayali River in 2011 or the murder of a tourist from Wroclaw in Bolivia in 2002. These tragedies have an intriguing common theme: in both cases the victims were mistaken for pishtacos.

A creature with a human face

Looks like a white man — or, strictly speaking, è a white man. Tall, often bearded, sometimes with noticeable gray hair. In colonial times, he often dressed like a Catholic priest, and was also seen in uniform, later in a doctor's gown; today, he may look like an archaeologist, a "citizen" in a suit and tie, or a tourist. When observed during the day, he behaves like the whites. He doesn't chew coke or drink pisco; he eats what foreigners eat and avoids local dishes. He often travels on horseback, although today more often by car. He owns expensive equipment and tools and can be seen reading books. He tends to not speak Quechua.

Its menacing nature manifests itself after dark. The pishtaco it waits for its victims in dark alleys, on quiet streets, near deserted ruins or at the exits of mines. He attacks unwary passers-by, sometimes using a special magical powder made from ground bones. He kills them by slicing and beheading them, then moves the bodies to a hiding place, usually in a cave, where he melts their fat. pishtaco he does not eat the fat, but sells it to foreign cities and countries [1]. pishtaco it only attacks men like this. He treats women differently: he sexually harasses them and sometimes imprisons them.

How to deal with it? The pishtaco, unlike other known monsters, is relatively easy to kill. No magic, specialists or complicated procedures are needed: that's it cut off his head. It is possible to protect yourself from the effects of its dust, but above all you must use common sense and not walk alone in the dark alleys at night. It is generally best to address the pishtaco in groups, not alone.

Embodied trauma

The problem is that the pishtaco, unlike other monsters, really exists. Well, from our European point of view, maybe we wouldn't define the pishtaco real. But in the Andes there are millions of people for whom this creature is authentic, or at least plausible: some believe it without any doubt, others are less sure but still take seriously the threat represented by the monster.

The ethnographers who have dealt with pishtaco — like pioneer Efraín Morote Best, who worked in the Ayacucho region in the 40s; American Mary Weismantel, who explored the Andes in the 80s and 90s; and Polish researchers and climbers Elżbieta Jodłowska and Mirosław Mąka [2] — agree that stories about pishtacos they are very common among the Andean peoples. Indeed, all the peoples of the Cordillera know the customs of these monsters: although they may say that it is a superstition, everyone knows what they are talking about.

Even a cursory reflection on the pishtaco reveals that the main feature of this creature is its strangeness: it's a non-rune in the world runa (runa means "human" in Quechua and implies a local, a native). Its individual incarnations correspond to the "incarnations" of the whites who have invaded the indigenous world: the conquest was led by soldiers and priests, followed by representatives of the authorities and business, the police and entrepreneurs, doctors and scientists, and finally tourists. As a rule, these were men, statistically taller than the natives, with facial hair (rare among the locals), foreign costumes and equipment. And they usually wanted something.

READ MORE  Viracocha and the myths of the origins: creation of the world, anthropogenesis, foundation myths

In the Andean and other traditions, the grasso it is associated with the power to give life. After all, fat people have enough to eat, so they are strong. The victims of pishtaco they are men of reproductive age, which implies the association of fat with potency. The fat that is taken from the Andes and used for purposes incomprehensible to the local population is a clear metaphor of exploitation, appropriation of resources and force. The danger does not appear in the guise of a demonic monster from fairy tales, but in the face of a bearded Spanish colonizer, a stranger from the coast, from the city, a representative of power and wealth, a foreigner, a gringo. The superstitious fear of the foreigner can be associated with obscurantism and backwardness, but in the Andean context it is absolutely rational.

The Spanish conquest of the Andes in the XNUMXth century marked a catastrophe with far-reaching consequences for the local populations: not only the events of 500 years ago are relevant, but the way in which the arrival of whites changed the lives of indigenous peoples permanently and for the worse. Disease, displacement, cruelty, feudal dependency, and the forcing of locals into hard labor for little pay did not end with the colonies, for the new states cared little for their "copper-skinned" citizens, many of whom were not they were not even able to communicate in Spanish with government officials. After all, everyone had always spoken Quechua and other native languages. The monstrous pishtaco it simply turns out to be the personification of a trauma that has lasted for centuries, a form in which real fears can be encapsulated.

History and present

Il pishtaco (also called nakaq, kharisiri, lik'ichiri or simply guzzler, Spanish word meaning "cutthroat") is not a legacy of the Inca era; there is no mention of it in any source prior to the conquest. However, some influences of pre-Columbian beliefs can be ascertained within the concept of pishtaco. In the Amazon, for example, there was a monstrous creature known to the Spanish as peel-darling, a name that clearly indicates its way of killing victims by skinning their faces. There are also evidences of indigenous beliefs about suckers (“suckers”), vampiric creatures found on the Peruvian coast that feed on human blood.

It is worth adding that the Spanish invaders brought with them not only Christianity but also a whole range of popular beliefs, including the Iberian folk character of the menacing sacamantecas, a creature that kidnaps children and extracts the fat from their bodies (the resemblance to the pishtaco it's very impressive). There are of course many other examples of intermingling of popular beliefs in the Andean region — for example, the presence of the deity of the mine, the muki, which perhaps owes some of its characteristics to European mining spirits such as Polish Treasurer ("Treasurer"). However, the pishtaco it is distinguished from the others by being undoubtedly a creation of the colonial era, an element of Andean folklore born after the arrival of the Spaniards as a reaction to their appearance.

In the following centuries, the persecution of the local population and the accompanying unrest continued, fueling the belief in the monster. This also applies to the 80s and 90s, when the Maoist rebel group Sendero Luminoso was expanding his influence in rural Peru: his activities focused on the Andes and plunged Peru into something of a civil war. The terrorists aimed to reshape the social order: their natural enemies were the state and its institutions, but also the indigenous peoples of the Andes, who did not want to submit to the new order and were ready to defend their traditional way of life.

Meanwhile, the Peruvian Army, sent to fight the Shining Path, accused the local population of supporting the partisans. Indigenous communities were attacked by both sides and suffered the greatest costs of the war (The number of victims of the conflict in the period 1980-2000 is estimated at about 69.000, three quarters of whom were Quechua speakers; terrorists and the military are equally responsible for the massacre). In the period of internal conflict, reports of pishtacos. Again, the same mechanism was at play: an external threat was given the face of a monster.

The bloody conflict had another very important effect on the fate of the pishtaco. Thousands of Andean inhabitants fled the dangerous mountains to the coast and the big cities; on the one hand, they lost part of their cultural identity, but on the other they brought some of its elements with them to the metropolitan communities. Il pishtaco not only does it "conquer" new territories, but it transforms itself. It has been associated with other gruesome practices, such as stealing organs for transplants, gouging out eyes, assaulting children and various other criminal activities. In 2009, the whole of Peru was affected by the case of band of “Pishtacos”, whose members were caught by the police for an alleged trade in human fat, and in 2016 in Huaycán the rumors of the abduction of children by of pishtacos they are turned into real riots.

Il pishtaco still lives

The Andean monster has not escaped the fate of other similar creatures: it has become an element of the pop culture, a recurring element of the CREEPYPASTA of Peruvian natives. If you type his name on YouTube, you will come across more or less amateur videos showing the pishtaco in various gory scenarios. But in reality there are few cinematic and literary works that have had this character as a protagonist, perhaps precisely because he is still real for so many people.

I once asked the Peruvian regionalist writer Wilfredo Silva Mudarra, whose work includes a volume of tales based on popular fairy tales entitled Entre Brujas y Pishtacos [“Between witches and pishtacos”], your opinion on the Andean monster. He answered me:

I have my own version. In the 60s, I canoed down the Ucayali and met a man from one of the Amazonian tribes, who told me that his community still ate human flesh, because local beliefs value it for the protein it contains. He has revealed to me that his favorite parts of him are his hands, because they are delicious and sweet, and the fat. I think maybe i pishtacos they are only members of this tribe. After all, in Peru there are also primitive tribes like the Jivaroan (Shuar), who shrink the heads of their enemies. I suspect many have civilized themselves, but I daresay they occasionally give in to temptation and a man disappears and ends up on their table.

What's interesting about this statement isn't just that the pishtaco remains authentic even for people outside the Andean world, but also the intrinsic reversal of the situation: in this version, the monster is not the embodiment of natives' fear of whites, but the opposite — outsiders' fear of "savages". The figure of the cannibal, immortal since the time of the conquest, returns. However, it is probably a bespoke, "rationalized" evocation. THE Pishtakos they still "live" today especially among the indigenous peoples of the Andes.

The aforementioned researcher Mirosław Mąka justified the age-old duration of monster beliefs as follows:

It's a bit like a person who is afraid of Muslims. Even if this person has a nice Muslim neighbor, deep down she is convinced that at some point that neighbor could turn out to be dangerous. This is the case with the indigenous Andean fears of white people: they may know white people and have good relations with them, but it is better to be careful, because those white people may be okay, but on the other hand, they are white, so who knows ?


[1] Among other things, fat was added to the metal with which church bells were cast to improve their sound. Today this raw material supplies the pharmacological and cosmetic industries, but it can also be used to lubricate machines.

READ MORE  "Altiplano": the birth pangs of Pachamama and Anima Mundi

[2] Their book Pishtaco. Phenomen symbolizacji traumy kulturowej w społecznościach andyjskich [“Pishtaco: The phenomenon of symbolizing cultural trauma in Andean communities”], published in 2016, is perhaps the best work on this topic, not only in Polish but in general.


Since 2008, Elżbieta Jodłowska and Mirosław Mąka have been conducting ethnographic research in Peru, as well as exploring the country and practicing climbing in the northern Peruvian Andes. One of the fruits of this research is the book Pishtaco. Phenomen symbolizacji traumy kulturowej w społecznościach andyjskich [“Pishtaco: The phenomenon of symbolizing cultural trauma in Andean communities”] (2016).

TOMAS Z PINDEL: How did the pishtaco in his life?


It was actually an idea of ​​my thesis advisor, Prof. Andrzej Krzanowski from Jagiellonian University. He is a highly regarded and well-known archaeologist, who initiated the Polish-Peruvian archaeological research stream. One day, in class, he suggested to me: «How about writing something about pishtaco, if you go there to do research?» and added that he himself was taken to eat a pishtaco on some occasion. He planted a seed of curiosity in us, so on our subsequent trips to Peru we started asking questions about this figure.

Which needn't have been easy...

Actually, it wasn't that easy. Unless the topic is intertwined with other ethnographic questions - less obligatory, less annoying for the interlocutors - it is not always possible to obtain information on the pishtaco. As this is a sensitive topic, we have not put pressure on people. We noticed that the less we pressed them, the more our interlocutors were willing to talk. We had to find a moment where they enjoyed themselves and place the conversation in the context of the incredible stories being told over drinks, never seriously - it was much better then.

In 2016 we joined an indigenous family, godparents (“godparents”) and therefore we were able to start talking to young people and secondary school students as well: the young people were eager to talk about the pishtaco. We were able to arrange these conversations through family as well. For example, on one occasion we met a woman from a nearby village. We had been officially announced and she had been warned that some ethnographers would come and ask about various things. She gladly told us what she knew about a pishtaco who was hovering nearby. In the 70s he had appeared in his village of him. We spoke to her through our family members as he only spoke Quechua. When we asked her what she look like she had the pishtaco, Mirosław pointed out to us: white-skinned, usually bearded; if he has gray hair, even better, because natives don't turn gray, so gray hair is a clear sign of foreignness. So Mirosław fit the situation perfectly.

While we were conducting the interviews, we could see the double thinking of the inhabitants of the Andes: on the one hand, the interlocutor knows perfectly well that we are a family, that we are people of flesh and blood, but on the other, this does not prevent him from believing that someone like us can participate in mysterious practices.

I can imagine that there were at least two main difficulties in conducting these conversations: It's about who they could be pishtacos and, moreover, delicate, perhaps even embarrassing topics are asked.

Talking about issues like the pishtaco it is difficult for the people of the Andes, not only because of the local-foreigner relationship, but also because they really aspire for a better life. This is part of a painful past they want to leave behind. They would rather not remember the pishtaco, even if the belief in it is still very much alive.

Your interlocutors, even if they say they don't believe the pishtaco, are almost always very knowledgeable on the subject.

Even educated people exhibited the typical attitude of "we know it's a superstition, that such a thing didn't necessarily exist—or if it did, it was a long time ago—but just to be safe let's not walk in the forest after dark." But not everyone is so shy. One of our informants, who worked as a nurse in Huaráz, a large city, told us directly that it is obvious that the pishtacos they exist, only that today they are afraid. Locals are more educated, not intimidated, so they can report i pishtacos or get together with neighbors and take care of it personally. He directed us to a specific abandoned house in the Olivos neighborhood on the other side of the river where they lived the pishtacos. This place has since been confirmed by other people. By the way, the places inhabited by pishtacos usually they are not "where we live," but in another neighborhood, across the river, somewhere farther away. The nurse also gave us some details: This creature can most often be seen at dawn, riding alone on a reddish-brown horse, from west to east.

When we tried to verify this story, we found that there was an element of likelihood. On the eastern outskirts of the city lived a horse breeder who had pastures on the west side of the city, so he often drove his herd along the suburban roads in the morning or evening and then returned alone. This worked for people: he rode alone, he was white-skinned and nobody knew why he did what he did. Mirosław and I even agreed that one day we would go to that street between five and six in the morning and wait to see if the pishtaco would appear. But then we decided not to, because if he hadn't arrived we would have been saddened, and if we had seen him and it turned out to be the farmer, it would have been even sadder.

This type of research requires a lot of tact. Did you use any particular approach?

We have developed a method that could be defined as a-scientific. We explained that we were writing an article, that we were mountaineers — we tried to use concepts from their world. Using words like 'tradition', 'heritage', 'heritage' or even 'customs' with the locals does not make any sense. Instead, we need to ask: “What are you doing?”, getting closer to the reality of the interlocutors. So we explained that we were writing an article, we also talked about it as a kind of homework, which was very relatable for our young interviewees. We have tried to make clear what we meant, without veering too sharply into uncomfortable topics.

One of our top tipsters was a man I met through Facebook and made an appointment with well in advance. The conversation flowed really well because we'd met online before, so I wasn't a stranger. He knew my job was to gather information. For him I was not a tourist, a gringo. She told me honestly about what she remembered from the 70s, before there was a road in the village. This is a very important topic, because when a road appears, civilization also appears. At that time, bad things periodically happened, there was a collective panic, and then i pishtacos.

Later, their emergence was associated with political events, primarily with the activities of the Shining Path terrorists, although in the Ancash region, where we were, they were not as active as in the south of the country. However, there have been armed clashes and attacks by bandits. The slogan "pishtaco" was used and a social psychosis was born. Mothers locked their children indoors for safety and the doors were bolted after dark. People organized themselves into voluntary units at grassroots level and that helped a lot. The situation calmed down and after a while it was discovered that there was none pishtaco. But still - for them - this character exists. The pishtaco it appears when bad things happen.

You mentioned the Shining Path — after all, those were the 80s and 90s, a very recent story. The pishtaco it originated in colonial times, but keeps coming back. He is like a ready-made form to embody the social fears of the indigenous peoples of the Andes.

Il pishtaco it lurks in the shadows, waiting to come to life. Another important contemporary context for the appearance of the pishtaco it is the mining industry. The more mines there are, the more people need to work. So there are workers - usually poor - who come from all over Peru, but also from Ecuador and Bolivia. These are different people: some have had a difficult past, others are on the run from the justice system. The mine accepts everyone because the work is hard and usually poorly paid. Crime tends to increase in these places. Rates of violence, vandalism, thefts and disappearances are on the rise. This is the perfect terrain for the pishtaco. In these areas it takes on mining characteristics. Indeed, the pishtaco very often looks like muki, or spirit of the mine, which requires sacrifices. If people die near the mines, an Andean wouldn't be surprised: everyone knows that the muki it requires victims.

Our informants presented the following story: People die where mines develop, because i pishtacos appear nearby. Perhaps they flock to these places from other regions where they don't have much opportunity to hunt. The fact that young women are often killed — even if traditionally i pishtaco they attack men — this theory does not invalidate: after all, they could change their habits.

today pishtaco it is constantly evolving and additions to Amazonian beliefs are being formed. It is no longer the canonical, pure and colonial image of a monster that sucks people's fat to sell it abroad. Now the pishtaco he dabbles in other macabre activities and overlaps the figure of the peel-darling (“face skinner”), vampire and demon. Everything is connected, amalgamated, and new versions of diabolical characters are born. In more recent times, populations migrate and bring with them some elements of their beliefs, giving rise to new "variants" of the pishtaco.

Have you ever been mistaken for gods pishtacos?

It happened once, and it could have been dangerous, but we too had done everything wrong. When doing field research, you need to dedicate the right amount of time to it, introduce yourself to the community, go to the village head and explain what you are about to do in the simplest way possible. On that occasion we didn't take all the necessary steps, we thought they were a waste of time and maybe they wouldn't be necessary.

We went to a remote village in the cordillera di Raura, near Churín — a place rich in thermal springs that were still used by the Incas. Prof. Krzanowski had worked there but left dissatisfied because he had not explored a place, a mountain considered Apu (“sacred”), where his archaeologist's nose had told him that there could be Inca tombs. We decided that exploring that place would be a great adventure. We would have gone into the unknown, like Indiana Jones, and if we hadn't found anything, it would still have been an interesting climb up a remote 5000m mountain. We took three guides and a porter with us - not locals, but people from our friendly village in the Ancash region. In other words, foreigners.

There is a large mine in that area which blocks the GPS signal, so we were unable to pinpoint exactly the place the professor had told us about. We weren't sure what we were doing. When we rented the minibus, a man attacked us claiming he was the co-driver. In fact, he was probably a spy sent by the mine management. We have reached what felt like the end of the world. We arranged for the driver to return three days later and set off with our heavy bags across the work. We camped at the foot of the mountain.

At one point our men warned us that we must immediately pack up and flee. We didn't know what was happening, but they had seen a group of men armed with sticks and pitchforks heading towards us. We put our things in the tents, packed them up and fled up the mountain. A couple of hours of strenuous walking at over 4000m altitude was pretty tough, but in the end we hid behind a rock barrier and our men did a reconnaissance. When the locals did not find us where they expected, they dispersed and returned to their homes. We realized how careless we were. Most likely it would have ended only with a robbery, but we could also have lost our lives.

Reading his book, we learn that what promised to be an incredible story of a fantastic and exotic creature turned out to be a terribly sad story of the trauma and suffering of many generations of indigenous people of the Andes.

The continued presence of pishtaco it confirms that this people lives with a constant sense of danger. Despite the passage of time and the achievements of civilization and education, they are mentally stuck between two worlds. On the one hand, they are well aware of what white people do on their territory — tourists from all over the world come to visit Andean cities. But on the other hand, they live in their own mythical world where folklore beliefs often prevail.

Recently, in Huaráz, I spoke with Doris Walter, an anthropologist and ethnographer who studies the situation of whites and locals who come into contact in an apparently clear relationship: the tourist uses a tourist service. It turns out that the same natives who work with the whites, carrying their baggage or acting as guides—in other words, seeing everything with their own eyes—also believe that these same whites are climbing the mountain in search of gold. After all, such a huge effort and the fact that tourists pay for it must make logical sense.

Walter also presented another interesting interpretation of white people's behavior: if they are not looking for gold, then they are climbing high peaks, such as the Huascarán, to extract the root of the mountain and plant it in their world, so that they can make grow the same beautiful mountain. The professor. Krzanowski made similar observations: While Indigenous people working on the excavations saw archaeologists packing their crates with shells, that didn't stop them from believing that, once unpacked in the white world, they would become gold.

So it seems that if a white person comes to the Andes, it's essentially to take something away from the locals…

Yes, it's always about exploitation. I asked Doris Walter why even our Indigenous family members were reluctant to share their knowledge, even though they were so thoughtful and kind to us, and she replied that they probably had an inner belief that this knowledge would enrich us in our world white, and impoverished them. If an indigenous Bolivian woman covers her face when a photo is taken of her, it is not necessarily because she fears that her soul will be stolen, but because she believes that this impoverishes her and that the tourist gains at his expense - which, in in any case, it is a correct observation.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *