The kharisiri of the Altiplano
11 Dec, 2019 | Caroline Risacher
Illustration: Hugo L. Cuéllar @hugolcuellar
A history of colonisation, repression and exploitation manifests itself as a mythical beast
The kharisiri, also known as the khari-khari and lik’ichiri in Aymara and the ñak’aq and pishtaku in Quechua, is a fat-stealing mythological figure whose hunting grounds are the Bolivian and Peruvian altiplano. He (or she) is a frightening creature commonly associated with outsiders and strangers. Traditionally, a kharisiri would assume the guise of a foreign or religious person; in the present day, a kharisiri could be anyone who doesn’t fit into a community. Because the origin of the myth dates back to the time of the conquistadors’ arrival in the Americas, it has come to represent the asymmetries of colonial power in Bolivia’s history and the exploitation suffered by the indigenous people. There is more to the kharisiri myth, though, and not just as a symbol. The kharisiri is also a portent of its time, a monster who, by looking like us, never looks the same, and attacks without warning, leaving no trace. Through the kharisiri myth, we can learn much about a history of indigenous persecution but also much about ourselves, as the kharisiri – or the myth of the kharisiri – is still very much alive today.
For indigenous people living on the altiplano, the kharisiri is not just a figure from a scary children’s bedtime story like the Spanish boogeyman sacamanteca (‘fat extractor’) or a pop-culture icon like the seductive blood-sucking vampire. In this region of the Andes, the kharisiri is perceived as a real threat whose attack can cause a deadly affliction if not treated promptly. Remedies for this kharisiri disease aren’t uncommon, though, and can be readily purchased in popular markets like the Feria 16 de Julio in El Alto. There’s no need to visit some shabby back alley, as the medicine is easily available. What’s more, when I went to inquire about the symptoms and cures for the kharisiri-afflicted condition, vendors would emphasise the urgency in taking the medication. The worry in their eyes revealed a genuine fear that went beyond pure financial motivation.
People’s beliefs about the kharisiri myth vary in details depending on which country and region a person is from. For instance, the Peruvian pishtaku is known to instantly kill its victims in order to steal their fat immediately, whereas in Bolivia, the death of the kharsuta (the kharisiri’s victim) can take from a few days to weeks after the attack. The victim sickens and, without the correct treatment, slowly dies. Additionally, descriptions of the kharisiri change according to historic period and region to fit a more localised and contemporaneous version of the Other.
Using a small device called a maquinita, the kharisiri extracts fat or tallow from somewhere around the victim’s kidney. No mark is noticeable until after the victim’s death. The kharsuta will then wake up with no memory of the attack and will slowly die if left untreated
A kharisiri is human in appearance, but some believe he or she can, at times, shapeshift into a dog or other animal. Kharisiris attack most often at night, and they are especially active in August, the month in which offerings to Pachamama and the achachilas – the male mountain gods – are made. In Aymara, August is called lakraniphaxi, ‘the month with a mouth’, and it is charged with strong mystical energy.
The kharisiri targets people in their prime – attacks on children or elderly people are rare – as it seeks to extract the most life force possible. Using dark magic, the kharisiri ensures that the target is asleep, possibly by calling out to the victim’s ajayu (soul). Using a small device called a maquinita, the kharisiri extracts fat or tallow from somewhere around the victim’s kidney. No mark is noticeable until after the victim’s death. The kharsuta will then wake up with no memory of the attack and will slowly die if left untreated.
After the kharsuta dies, the fat is infused with mystical power, and the kharisiri sells the precious substance to the highest bidder. Potential buyers are the cha’makanis, a specific class of Aymara ritual specialists associated with the dark arts and the Catholic Church. The fat is used to make candles, soaps and sacred oils. It can also be used to grease machines such as mining equipment and church bells. Alternatively, as part of a perverse, dark cycle, the tallow can also be sold back to kharsutas, who can recover their health using the healing powers of the fat.
In Bolivia, kharisiris can be found throughout the altiplano, from Potosí to Puno; however, the region around Lake Titicaca, especially near the town of Achacachi, is a known kharisiri haunt. I was even told that if I were to visit some of the places known to be frequented by kharisiris (which I won’t reveal here), I should eat and wear abundant amounts of garlic, which poisons human fat and would protect me from a kharisiri attack.
According to all the vendors and healers questioned on the subject, if a person is assaulted by a kharisiri, they will start developing a fever and stomach ache in a matter of days. These symptoms, despite being quite vague, should warrant a visit to a curandero, yatiri or amauta (different types of traditional Andean healers), who will diagnose and prescribe treatment for the victim. Doña Juana, a curandera based in the La Ceja neighbourhood of El Alto, told us about her daughter who was attacked by a kharisiri. After her daughter reported the usual symptoms, Doña Juana took her to a yatiri, who diagnosed the kharisiri disease by holding the young woman’s wrists and feeling the blood flowing through her veins. Doña Juana’s daughter was then cured after taking the medicine.
If a person is believed to be suffering from the disease, they should be treated quickly and, ideally, without their knowledge. ‘Drink the medicine and you will be better,’ explained a lady selling a 50-centilitre bottle for 50 bolivianos. ‘You have to drink it within one day and in three gulps.’ The lack of a label on the bottle made it look like a home-brew product of questionable origin. According to the people selling it, the medicine’s ingredients include, but are not limited to, wayruro (a type of bean), placenta, communion wafers and numerous herbs. The drink’s smell is not too pleasant (but not horrible either). It’s unclear how the patient can be compelled to drink this concoction without questioning why or realising what it’s for, but we were assured that it works better that way.
The bottled version of the cure is fairly accessible, but there exists a more traditional and less practical method to cure a kharsuta. For this remedy, a black animal is required, ideally a sheep but a chicken or dog will do. The animal is slaughtered and then bled above the victim who is then healed by the blood of the sacrificed animal. There is also a special diet to follow, where specific foods – rich in fat – are to be consumed. Again, how to convince someone to partake in this ritual without telling them why is beyond the scope of this article.
Nowadays, a kharisiri can be anyone, male or female. They are known to target sleeping passengers traveling alone at night. Because the kharisiri is human, he or she can be anyone, and anyone can become a kharisiri. In the past, kharisiris were closely associated with the Catholic Church, and, like vampires, could turn other people into kharisiris. Now, according to anthropologist Alison Spedding, there are stories of schools, not necessarily linked to the Catholic Church, where men and women can study the kharisiri craft.
Nowadays, anthropologists, scientists, journalists and influencers can be thought of as the modern-day version of the kharisiri. The kharisiri is more than a scary fairy tale; it’s a reflection of the fears of an oppressed people.
As for the fat itself, it has a strong significance. Blood can also be stolen, but tallow is the most rewarding substance, especially the hard fat located near bone that can be used to make candles. Generally, in Andean societies fat is considered to be ‘central to human life, as a life force and as a means of communication through offerings with the spirits,’ as noted by anthropologist Andrew Canessa. Canessa attributes the importance of fat, as opposed to blood, to its visibility in daily life, because it is used for cooking and for transforming aliments, and as a way to assess the health of an individual. Fat, usually llama fat, is used in ceremonies as a powerful offering to Pachamama and other deities, and there is little reason to doubt that it was an important substance in pre-Columbian times. What’s more, Viracocha, the Inca-god creator, literally means ‘fat of the lake [Titicaca].’
Historically, Europeans from the 15th to 17th centuries also believed human fat to have healing properties. The Spanish conquistador and chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo recorded how the fat of indigenous people was used to treat wounds. His commander, Hernán Cortés, supposedly caulked 13 boats using the fat of the dead. These stories must have struck terror in the native communities’ consciousness, and it is not hard to imagine how the figure of the kharisiri took shape in the consciousness of the Aymara and Quechua populations who were under the heavy yolk of the Spanish invaders. We may never know with certainty what the pre-Columbian beliefs were regarding kharisiris, whether or not the creatures were even known to exist before the arrival of the conquistadors. But we do know that the kharisiri is a syncretic entity comprising elements from two vastly different societies that took hold in Andean communities and has survived until today.
The kharisiri myth is still very much alive in the 21st century, adapting and evolving with the times. Originally described as a priest or a monk carrying a bell, the figure morphed into any ‘gringo’ traveling alone on the altiplano. In some places, international NGOs have been asked to leave communities because of the fear of kharisiris. However, today anyone, no matter his or her ethnicity, could be a kharisiri. But the idea of the Other remains, and someone accused or suspected of being a kharisiri is usually someone who doesn’t quite fit into the community. The kharisiri is still the outsider, but it has morphed and is not always quite so ‘white’ anymore.
The kharisiri is also up to date with current technology. The device used to extract the victim’s fat was once described as a needle or a small bell; now it’s commonly believed to be a ‘little machine’ made in Germany or Japan. Doña Juana described it as a type of cellular device – the apparition of the kharisiri app for phones doesn’t seem too far away.
The long-lasting legacy of the kharisiri myth can be attributed to historical reasons and viewed as a scar left by colonisation, the horror of the indigenous overcome by a wave of oppression, death and slavery at the hands of the ravenous Europeans transformed into a physical monster that still haunts the altiplano today. The fear of the kharisiri represented a fear of the conquistador and a fear of the Catholic Church. Then it turned into the fear of a foreigner and now a fear of the outsider. What hasn’t changed is that the kharisiri exists outside of the Andean cosmovision; it is not a mythological creature belonging to any of the three levels that comprise the world in that belief system. Mostly it defies the fundamental principle of reciprocity that is central to Aymara and Quechua cultures. Pachamama gives and receives; the collective must share its resources with all, and the balance of reciprocity and negotiation must always be respected. In fact, following this understanding of the world, stealing is one of the worst crimes that can be committed.
Kharisiris exist outside of this balanced notion of the world – they take and give nothing back, defying the laws of the universe. Similarly, when the conquistadors arrived, they too behaved in a way that was foreign to the concept of universal balance. The kharisiri exists as a manifestation of this imbalance, a rationalisation for the existence of a group of people who don’t respect the laws of nature and shouldn’t be able to exist. Which is also why kharisiris tend to become more active during times of hardship such as famines or epidemics. For instance, in 1991, a cholera epidemic hit an area south of La Paz, which was followed with an increase in reported kharsuta cases and of people accused of being kharisiris. It helps explain unfairness and imbalance and provides a convenient scapegoat. French anthropologist Gilles Riviere reported a lynching in 1983 of a presumed kharisiri in a small community near Lake Poopo, in which the condemned man had bought a small truck but didn’t share it with the rest of the community and wasn’t contributing as was expected of him.
There may be no one wandering the altiplano at night and stealing human fat – we certainly couldn’t find any information on where human fat could be purchased, and no one could explain specifically what sort of spells are performed with it and to what purpose. But this doesn’t mean that the kharisiri – or at least the spirit of the kharisiri – is not real. The kharisiri is an external powerful figure who steals (exploits) the vital resources of people and uses them for mysterious reasons. Based on these characteristics, the conquistadors themselves were kharisiris, and any person coming to extract precious resources – ore, food or even knowledge – for their gain alone is a kharisiri. The silver extraction from Cerro Rico in Potosí, the death of tens of thousands of people in the mines and the destruction of a land are all symptoms of a kharisiri attack.
Nowadays, anthropologists, scientists, journalists and influencers can be thought of as the modern-day version of the kharisiri. The kharisiri is more than a scary fairy tale; it’s a reflection of the fears of an oppressed people. By representing what the Other looks like, it informs us on what is considered part of a group and how that group sees itself. As Canessa observed, the kharisiri is ‘a powerful image of the Other, which constructs the identity of those who aren’t Other.’ The kharisiri is a symptom of a disease that Bolivia has suffered from since colonial times. How the kharisiri keeps evolving or if it disappears one day from the collective imagination will reveal precious information on the state of Bolivia as a postcolonial society. Until then, the kharisiri is also an opportunity to reflect on our actions and on how what we do impacts others. The distinction between kharsuta and kharisiri is not visible anymore, and we can all become one or the other.