Site Translator

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Pinoy Psyche and Folklore Creatures

For Pinoys, the junction marking the end of October and the beginning of November is the religious holiday of All Saints then All Souls Day. For Americans and parts of Europe though, it’s the season that mingles spookiness and a bit of amusement known popularly as Halloween which technically, is of Celtic (the early North-Western peoples of Europe) tradition and was only passed on primarily by its Irish immigrants.

We pinoys have no problem adopting such celebrations and the world being what it is today, you’ll find a Filipino child participating in this Irish festivity that was an influence of American colonialism by dressing-up like a Hungarian vampire with a costume that was made in China. Strange but true.

Our modern society now has taken a lighter, jovial look at these mythical horrors of yesteryear. Ghosts and specters have been ignored and replaced by characters from super heroes, Japanese cartoons or even a perky singing girl from a Disney musicale. The faces of ghouls have become comical in strange, goofy colors of purple and green, as well as from computer special effects in movies. Blood and guts have been desensitized from our kids by the lengthy exposure to violent video games. The time spent for telling weird and chilling tales has been replaced with texting and Facebook updates.

Notwithstanding the influence of modern science in today’s society, it does make one wonder if we have really outgrown that which is truly horrible and viscerally frightening? Or is it just a collective coping mechanism that makes us hide and bury all these otherworldly things?

I feel though that our psyche would never be totally free from “such things”. We consciously try to be distant from these dark creatures because it is rational, thus predictable and manageable for our daily sun-ripened existence. Anything that falls beyond that causes our psyche a certain amount of discomfort. When all is said and done we are still afraid of the night aren’t we?

Should we give-up a degree of control and peer into our innermost fears of the dark, unfortunately we end up with creatures that are familiar yet remarkably foreign. Let’s not delve into shapeless ghosts and intangible spirits, rather, an interesting issue arises when we tackle monsters or beastly forms namely Dracula (Romanian), the werewolf (various European countries), the “Frankenstein” ogre (various English body parts) and the mummy (if you don't believe that aliens built the pyramids, he's Egyptian). These monsters aren't even from our own race!

So where are the genuine spooks of the pinoy? The real Malay-Polynesian, tropical sun-bred and monsoon rains-fed creatures that crawled their way into our myths since long ago? Probably the most well-known for the task of formally identifying and preserving these scary beings for our heritage was undertaken by the late Dr. Maximo Ramos. As a younger man with a bit of inkling on all things mysterious and spooky, I had the good fortune of getting the late Dr. Ramos’s book “Philppine Demonological Legends and Their Cultural Bearings”. Sadly, I can’t seem to find that treasured book now and is one of the many reasons why I sometimes have this overwhelming need to bash my head against a wall.
As an academic, he straddles the worlds of literature, mysticism, folklore and anthropology into a very pleasant journey for the reader. Though he has authored many other works as well, for his efforts in this specific field he became known as the “Dean of Philippine Lower Mythology”.

It is a sad state of affairs when we need to be reminded that our own culture have evolved supernatural beings that are just as fanciful, if not more so, than what overseas popular culture presents us. So without further ado, my own Top Five Spooky Pinoy Creatures of Legend are:

  1. Aswang – This would probably be our “reference monster” or the most recognizable and feared in Philippine folklore. It was even noted by the Spanish during their colonial reign. Its popularity is that it is sometimes a catch-all term for all supernatural monsters. Unlike the European blood-sucking vampire, they love to eat human organs but share something similar along with most mythological beings worldwide; they are shape-shifters and are said to take on the form of the first animal that they see in their hunt. Should they happen to see a cat, it becomes a ferocious tom or if it sees a pig, it becomes a wild boar. Though usually female, they can come from both sexes. They can also turn someone into them by feeding them the food they consume and are also able to pass on to their children this condition thru a mystical object which they expel. If they are unable to pass this on, they go on being undead aimlessly. They have a revulsion for spices in food and some say that their limbs are stiff and zombie-like, thus one can try to escape by running in a zig-zag pattern or climbing up a tree.
A special type of aswang is the female manananggal. It’s basically the airborne kind as it can grow bat-like wings and separate its entire upper body from its waist and legs. Before doing so, it rubs a special oil to prepare its body for this transformation. This one has a long, thread-like tongue similar to an insect’s proboscis and deploys it to suck out organs when it lands on rooftops. It especially targets pregnant women as it has a preference for fetuses. To kill one, salt must be put in its lower half, in the remaining organs. As they seem to be normal in daily life, oddly they are still able to attend Catholic mass in church but do not or can not remain for the communion ceremony. If an aswang is killed, one will only find a banana trunk in place of the corpse.

  1. Kapre – A giant that is dark-skinned (sometimes hairy) and filthy. It is said to live in trees or in the wilds and can change its shape. It’s a smoker, puffing away at a giant tobacco that never seems to get shorter. Other than frightening one to death, it just sits contentedly perched up in a balete tree all by its lonesome but its not advised to annoy it or venture into its territory. It’s not like the North American “Bigfoot” since it is more man-like rather than ape-like in appearance and widely regarded to have mystical attributes. Some scholars say that the name could have derived from kaffir, a racial term for the the Moorish peoples who descended from North Africa and occupied Spain and Portugal. Its invention could have been a similar evolution with that of the American “Boogeyman” which parents used to scare their children. One could imagine the Spaniards telling their children that the dark, foreign, non-Christian kaffir from the far-off places would get them if they did not behave.
  1. Tikbalang – If a centaur is more horse than man, the tikbalang is the opposite; it’s got the body of a man with a head of a horse. This is also the trickster archetype of creature which are also present in other cultures. They engage in either to scare or fool or mystify people. They are described as tall, hideous and frightening with their large horse faces and manes. Tradition tells of stories that they can be magically made to render service, if one is brave enough that is. All it takes is to grab three strands of hair from its mane, then wrap it in your index finger and ride its back. It will try to shake you off of course like a bucking bronco, but if you prevail, it will take you on a flying trip no airliner could match. You also won’t have to worry about doing much manual labor after this, as it will do it for you. One theory proposes that since horses were only introduced during the Spanish era, this creature was propagated to exercise control over the native populace, like preventing the locals from venturing out into the night.
  1. Duwende and Nuno sa Punso – Humanity the world over is filled with stories of the “little people” who are mostly unseen. The “wee folk” from the sidhe of the Irish again for example. For pinoys, almost anyone who grew up in the provinces near rural areas remember how they were taught by their parents to always “excuse oneself” so as not to step on or offend them. The duwende are elves or dwarves that are either beneficial and friendly or completely mischievous and hostile. Depending on what type it is (sometimes determined by the color of their apparel like white, red or black) they could bring good luck and fortune or sickness and misery.
The nuno sa punso is the grumpy old man version since it literally means “old man on top of the mound”. Better keep your distance from any mound-like object on the ground, including anthills. This grumpy grandpa could be ill-tempered and mean.

  1. Bangungot – I believe this creature more than the rest deserves special mention since it just might be the most potent killer. It is the word we use to describe a “nightmare”, the sinister, lethal kind. The bangungot is said to be fat and large, its girth the size of a sack of rice. Out in nature, it lives in a hollow portion inside a tree trunk. In houses or structures, it can live inside posts. Unlike the disturbing image of the “old hag” or the incubus (male) succubus (female) sleep-invading demons, it is not a real spirit in form but it does share a quasi-sexual way of attacking victims akin to its western counterparts. It is said that at night during deep sleep, it leaves its place of hiding and settles on the victim’s chest and stuffs its genitals in the victim's nose and mouth effectively suffocating and paralyzing him or her. To counteract it, the victim needs to wiggle his or her big toe.
As many deaths while sleeping have been attributed to the bangungot, it has only recently received scientific attention. On one vein, it falls under the study of the physiological condition known as sleep paralysis. However, a deeper and more ominous look into this phenomenon leads it to be known as Sudden Unexplained Death Syndrome (SUDS). This condition seems to be endemic especially to South East Asian males who are in the prime of their lives and are apparently in good health. The link below for more info -

How many times were we warned by our elders not to eat or drink too much before going to bed? “Baka mabangungot ka!” was the stern lecture.

I might not like the idea of coexisting with ghouls and monsters, especially if they find me appetizing! But I believe they have a paradoxical twofold purpose. They were meant to both restrict as well as to free us. This sense of restriction comes from a subtle reminder by the great spirit of nature herself that we human beings are still part of her, not above her. She makes the rules and we follow. While we would want this thing called “progress” to encroach on virtually every nook and corner of this world, she sends these terrifying denizens to halt our quickening paces into more measured ones. To know our place and accept it is her subtle message.

As for the freedom it allows? What kind of unappealing and hollow existence would we have if we did not have these myths to invade our imaginations especially in the dark? These myths helped shape our imagination, and our imagination in turn fuelled the innovating spirit for the myriad of things we see today. From Archimedes to the Wright Brothers, new and wonderful things have come about from stepping outside the prescribed, linear way we think. All it took was that spark of imagination that also dreamt-up these monsters which are still lurking in the dark caverns of our minds.

I keep my flashlight at the ready when I go to bed, for those things seen and unseen.

No comments: