Slim Fast: The Pishtaco

Last month’s post on el Sombrerón reminded a couple of my friends of a monster their old high school Spanish teacher told them about. They’d forgotten what the creature was called, but  remembered its legacy well enough for it to still disturb them some ten years later. A quick Google search yielded a goldmine of stories about this monster: the Pishtaco, a  400-year-old Peruvian terror who actually resurfaced in the news back in 2009. In him, we have a magnificent example of how monsters can dramatize the very real nightmares of a community.

Let’s roll back to the legend’s birth. In 1571 Spanish priest Cristóbal de Molina noted a specific revulsion among the Inca: they absolutely refused to bring firewood into the homes the conquistadors; not out of spite, but out of fear. It seemed that word had gotten around that during a battle some fifty years earlier, the Spanish, lacking proper dressing for their wounds, had taken Incan corpses, cut strips of flesh from their backs, and used the some human fat instead.

Now, the Inca knew that their people’s grease must be valuable–certainly it was of a better quality than that of the foreigners, as the Inca grew up with a hardier, healthier lifestyle. Fat was important in their culture; they had a whole deity devoted to it. The Spanish were already exploiting them in almost every other way–why not use that quality fat, as well? The Inca were sure that Spanish were willing to kill them for it to use in their cryptic European medicines.

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A small yet horrifying depiction of Pishtacos in action, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ridiculous? Perhaps not. Funny thing: Europeans really did use human ingredients in their quests for self-improvement, and often. Sure, they often got said ingredients from condemned criminals, but did they treat the indigenous Americans any better? Fat especially was considered a remedy for arthritis and gout, and could be used to speed the healing process. Regardless of whether the Spaniards intended to take it from the Inca or not, Incan fears were not entirely unfounded. Thus the soul of the Pishtaco was born.

This fat-sucking devil appears rather human, and rather European–often he’s even described as having blonde hair. Typically handsome and sporting an impressive beard, the Pishtaco changes his clothing to stay more or less modern with the times. He carries a knife; his eyes flash in the dark. There are stories of him raising a hand to his intended victim, only for the victim to realize that the Pishtaco’s fingers are writhing like worms. As the fingers drop to the the ground, the victim then freezes with terror, giving the creature his opening to attack. This is one of many examples that illustrate how adept the creature is at hypnosis; he doesn’t seem to need more than a command or a look to secure his victim’s fate.

The Pishtaco has been categorized by some as a vampire, albeit an odd one. Though it’s true that in some versions of the legends he eats what fat he extracts, more often he seeks to profit from it, usually by selling it to other foreigners. This role is one of the most fascinating aspects about the creature: he’s an outsider, an invasive species. What exactly the Europeans have been suspected to do with the fat he sells them has changed over the years…first it was incorporated into medicine, then friars were suspected of using it to oil their church bells to make them more sonorous, now it could be used in plane engines or beauty products.

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Human fat, courtesy of Bullenwachter over at Wikimedia Commons. You’re welcome.

So how does he extract the fat from his victims? In the more supernatural versions of the tale, the Pishtaco sucks the fat out through his victim’s skin or inserts a tube to tap them like a woodsman taps sap from a tree. Said to be priapic and rather violent, he occasionally rapes them while he’s at it. Sometimes the victim even survives the procedure, finding a strange gaps in their memory and feeling suddenly lightheaded and weak. In the more literal (and recent) accounts, the Pishtaco is less forgiving. He dismembers the victim entirely, then strings their body parts up to hand over an open flame, bottles lined under to collect their dripping fat.

It was a few of these grease-filled bottles that caused such a stir in 2009. The Peruvian police reported that they’d apprehended a group of men who had been trafficking human lard since the 1980’s. There was video footage of the trafficker’s lab, complete with stacks of  bones and a half-rotted man’s head. One of the men confessed to selling the bottles of fat–which tested positive as human–to the Italian Mafiosi for $15,000 a pop. The police said that this grease was to be used in European skin softener. The legendary Pishtaco had suddenly come terribly to life.

Fortunately, this particular incident turned out to be a hoax: there wasn’t really any fat sold to the Europeans (or at least, no one could find anyone who might have been buying it), and the numbers and locations of alleged victims and perpetrators didn’t add up. Unfortunately, the police were the ones perpetrating the hoax, and had done so to cover up a secret governmental death squad that killed 46 people over the span of two years. This was a horror of its own, and did little to quell Peruvians’ fears. People continued (and still continue) to see Pishtacos everywhere. They are the businessman with his briefcase; the fellow with headphones giving you the side-eye. Some say the Pishtacos are planning an onslaught; some even claim they plan to harvest hundreds of Peruvians to pay off the national debt.

Though there hasn’t been any big news since the police scare, I doubt that the Pishtaco’s story is over. Even if human fat trafficking is a stretch, organ trafficking isn’t. What’s more, the perpetrators in 2009  never themselves claimed to be selling things to cosmetic companies–they were more in the line of Satanic candles, which is a little easier to imagine, so there might have be some truth in that tale. Between all this and the terrible historical context of the Andes, it’s no wonder people are jumpy.

Sometimes, the things that go bump in the night come uncomfortably close to reality.

 

Have you seen (or heard) any Pishtaco-type tales? Did you pronounce the word “fish taco” or “pistachio” in your head, and then giggle uncontrollably? Share your story in the comments below.

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The Kongamato: Destroyer of Boats, Soiler of Underwear

You might remember our visit a few weeks ago to the billabongs of Australia, when we encountered everyone’s favorite dog/sheep/serpent/flippery thing.  Now we travel to the Jiundu backwaters of Zambia, Angola, and the Congo, where something else waits to burst from the murk–a prehistoric monster that should have went extinct, but never did. As it turns out, a lot of scary things can come from swamps.

Accounts of the Kongamato date back to 1745, though given that this “breaker of boats” is essentially a pterosaur and that the locals were already well acquainted with it then, it’s likely to have existed long before. What’s a pterosaur, you ask? A pterosaur is like a pigeon, if the pigeon had a seven foot wingspan, an elongated head, a snout, needle teeth, black eyes, and leathery red or black scales instead of feathers. Also, the pigeon would not only fly, but walk flat-footed or run on all fours, like the Landstriders in The Dark Crystal. The pigeon comparison doesn’t work for you? Fine. Imagine instead the pterosaur subspecies that Jurassic Park has made so popular–the pterodactyl. That is what is living in the Bangweulu swamps. That is what the fisherman there have feared for centuries.

Ivan T. Sanderson, an accomplished biologist and cryptozoologist from the early 20th century, became famous for bringing his account of this hellish reptile back to the Western world. As was usual for kongamato sightings, he encountered the creature at night. Sanderson had just shot a fruit bat, which had then fallen into the water. He was reaching for it when his companion warned him to duck.

“Then I let out a shout also and instantly bobbed down under the water, because coming straight at me only a few feet above the water was a black thing the size of an eagle. I had only a glimpse of its face, yet that was quite sufficient, for its lower jaw hung open and bore a semicircle of pointed white teeth set about their own width apart from each other. When I emerged, it was gone. … And just before it became too dark to see, it came again, hurtling back down the river, its teeth chattering, the air “shss-shssing” as it was cleft by the great, black, dracula-like wings.”

As mentioned, the sighting was not unexpected for the local Kaonde, nor for any number of other tribes near the swamp. Many viewed the Kongamato simply as a danger to be avoided–in the same category as a lion or a rogue elephant, if more rare and more frightening. Though white cryptozoologists were never able to locate bones or other such proof of the creature’s existence, numerous, consistent eyewitness accounts and grevious wounds spoke to something out in the reeds. The kongamato was said to upset boats, attack children, dig up corpses to feed on. It was a fact of life, if an unhappy one.

But for Western tourists, the kongamato was a fascinating treat. Sanderson was far from only one to report back on them; Frank Welland emerged in 1932 to also affirm their existence, emphasizing the compatible accounts from the local people:

“The evidence for the pterodactyl is that the natives can describe it so accurately, unprompted, and that they all agree about it. There is negative support also in the fact that they said they could not identify any other of the prehistoric monsters which I showed them.”

Sightings continued through the 1950’s, with one engineer’s report making it into the newspaper after he saw two “prehistoric” dark birds glide overhead when he went to get his canteen out of his trunk. A year later, another man would be hospitalized nearby with wounds to his chest. When asked to sketch the creature that attacked him, he drew what looked like a pterosaur. Even as late as 1998, Steve Romandi-Menya, a Kenyan exchange student visiting Louisiana, affirmed that the kongamato still haunted the bush-dwellers remaining at home.

Is there something else these could be? Sanderson referred to his kongamato offhandedly as “the Granddaddy of all bats.” Considering that the largest known bat is otherwise the Philippines’ Giant Gold-Crowned Flying Fox–whose maximum wingspan is 5 feet 7 inches–the suggestion that the kongamato is actually a heretofore uncategorized species of them is not implausible, though hardly less horrifying. Another theory is that the kongamato could be a giant stingray which, when disturbed, overturns boats and flaps a bit out of the water, though that does not account for sightings of the kongamato high up in the air or running before taking off, and is not entirely reassuring, either. The simple answer is often the best one; perhaps legends are real. It was just off the coast of Africa that fishermen caught the coelacanth, a marine contemporary of the pterodactyl. Who’s to say the pterosaurs couldn’t have survived mass extinction, too?

In 2010, the Creationist group Genesis Park traveled to the swamps to look for evidence of the kongamato themselves. They interviewed local fisherman and held night-long vigils, but found nothing conclusive. Perhaps it is time we took up the torch. After all, the swamp’s other claim to fame is that they are a popular site for bird-watching. Perhaps we will spot a lovely sparrow in addition to our flesh-eating friend.

Would you come on an ornithological trip to search for a prehistoric hell beast? What three items would you bring, besides a pair of binoculars and your trusty khaki shorts? Share your answers in the comments below.

The Bunyip: Swamp Monster of the Down Under

Let’s play a game. What is thirteen feet tall, bipedal, and with scales all over?

By Robertpeters9 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
No idea? Okay, what is snake-like, but with flippers, and black fur all over?

Via Wikimedia Commons

Not quite? What is essentially an enormous dog, only aquatic and possibly covered with feathers or featuring tusks?

By Macfarlane, J. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Still don’t get it? Surprise! This is the same creature, one and all. Regardless of how it’s appeared, this puppy has been terrifying Australians for some 50,000 years, ever since they first arrived on the continent. It lurks in the swamps, riverbeds, and billabongs;* howls in the night; and has a hunger for human flesh–especially that of women and children. Ladies and gentlemen, meet…the bunyip!

The stories surrounding this terror are only slightly more straightforward than its physical description. The bunyip was said not only to kill people by eating them, but to crush them to death with its arms. Indigenous Australians thought the bunyip to be a malevolent spirit from the Dreamtime, the realm in which earth itself was created.  As such, it was purported to have supernatural powers,  and on a continent full of things that can easily kill you, it scared some people so bad that they would actually avoid water sources for fear of falling in its clutches. Some have suggested that this might account for its varying descriptions–if a person was lucky enough to run into a bunyip and survive, she was likely too afraid to have taken careful stock of what the thing actually looked like.

When white settlers showed up, stories of the bunyip not only persisted, but proliferated. On July 2, 1845, the Geelong Advertiser provided the first written mention of the creature, interviewing indigenous Australians upon the discovery of a strange new bone:

“[T]hey one and all recognized the bone and picture as belonging to the “Bunyip,” repeating the name without variation. One declared he knew where the whole of the bones of one animal were to be found; another stated his mother was killed by one of them, at at Barwon Lakes, within a few miles of Geelong, and that another woman was killed on the very spot where the punt crosses the Barwon at South Geelong. The most direct evidence of all was that of Mumbowran, who showed several deep wounds on his breast made by the claws of the animal.”

They weren’t the only ones talking about it. In 1852, escaped convict William Buckley returned from his adventures living with the Wathaurong people to write a memoir. He himself had seen the bunyip several times–but only a large back drifting through the water, never a tail or head. He, too, knew of a woman who had been killed by one.

But even as the settlers were infected by bunyip fever, descriptions–and interpretation of–the creature began to change. In a rash of sightings in the 1840’s and 50’s, the bunyip went from being a horrifying supernatural predator to a shaggy herbivore the size of a large dog. In March of 1846, the Port Phillip paper reported the sighting of a bunyip (or an immense platypus) sunning himself on the side of the river Yarra. A crowd gathered and a team went to investigate, but the creature disappeared when they came within a few feet away. In 1852, a pair of friends canoeing on Lake Tiberias actually bumped into a bunyip with their boat, whereupon it simply turned and swam out of sight. As the years passed, the bunyip got even smaller–on one occasion in 1886, a couple of horseman came across one near a river, and threw rocks at it to drive it away.

A lack of recent sightings has led some to believe that if the bunyip did exist, it’s gone extinct. But with such a long and complex history, it would be foolhardy to say that nothing could have existed at all.

Even if you disregard supernatural explanations, the bunyip still represents a cultural terror passed down over millennia–a terror that might have been carried over from something very real. It could have been from something as simple as the saltwater crocodile–a known aquatic mankiller–but there were other, bigger things around when humans first arrived on the continent. Take the Diprotodon, the largest known marsupial to have ever lived, who could have existed alongside humans for as much as 20,000 years and whose name means “two forward teeth.” This is the creature crytozoologists point to most often as the inspiration for the bunyip, but there is also the Nototherium, the Zygomaturus, and the “ancient leaper” Palorchestes to consider.

Then we have the theory that for later sightings, witnesses might actually have encountered escaped convicts skulking in the swamp. Nicknamed swaggies, these fellows would evade capture by hiding out in one of the more inhospitable environments of Australia, only to rise, dripping and covered with muck, when the coast was clear. If the observer were forced to choose between that and a supernatural man eater, in theory the former would win, but it’s difficult to say by what margin.

Regardless of what the bunyip is or where it came from, I’ll leave you today with the wise words of a children’s song from Dot and the Kangaroo:

“So you better come come quickly

You better hide very soon

Or the bunyip’s going to get you

In the bunyip

Moon…”

Thanks for reading.

Have you ever seen a bunyip? Perhaps in your local sewer drain, creek, or the quagmire of your neighbor’s overwatered yard? Share your story in the comments below.

*billabong = stagnant river backwaters