Sitting in a Vinegar Vat


I’ve been trying to write an article about the Filipino aswang (specifically the variant that’s called manananggal in Tagalog), and I can’t get started. I think my last post (about too much endless recycling of the same information on the web) gave me writer’s block. So here’s a just a little bit, to get myself started again.

The Malaysian version of the demon that separates head from body is called pananggalan, or penanggal, from the word tanggal: “to detach”. The same root word is the origin of the Tagalog term, manananggal, although most Filipino stories that I’ve read refer to the manananggal simply as an aswang. I suppose that the creature originated in Malaysian folklore, and came over to what is now the Philippines (mostly the island of Luzon, I think) along with one of the waves of Malaysian migration. Once arrived, the stories of the creature fused with some other existing ghouls/vampires/werecreatures (the aswang) that were already in the folklore of the existing Filipinos. That’s just a guess, though.

Unlike the Japanese (or Chinese?) nukekubu, it’s not just the pananggalan’s head that flies off; the intestines and entrails of the creature are still attached. The pananggalan is either a viscera-sucker or a bloodsucker; it especially likes children and fetuses. They seem to be exclusively female, and they disguise themselves as ordinary human women and live in normal society. According to Skeat, in Malay Magic: An Introduction to Folklore and Popular Religion of the Malay Peninsula (1900), the pananggalan keeps a jar of vinegar at its home. When its head detaches from its body, the intestines swell up, so when the head returns home, it must soak its intestines in the vinegar until they shrink enough that they will fit back inside the body, and the pananggalan can reattach itself. Eww.

Okay. That’s all stuff you can find out easily enough on the web. Here’s a little more.

Skeat includes an origin story (three, actually) for the penanggalan. In the first story, a woman is sitting and meditating in a large vat that is normally used to hold vinegar. A man walks by and finds her, and asks “What are you doing?” The woman is so startled that her head actually comes off her body — in Skeat’s version, she kicks her own chin while trying to escape (out of the vat, I suppose). I prefer to visualize that her head whipped around so fast when she heard the man that her neck just unscrewed, like in an old Warner Brother’s cartoon. Anyway, the woman was understandably rather ticked about this turn of events, and she turned into an evil bloodsucker because of it.

The first line of Skeat’s version is:

The story goes that once upon a time a woman was sitting to perform a religious penance (dudok bertapa) in one of the large wooden vats which are used by the Malays for holding the vinegar made by drawing off the sap of the thatch-palm.

(On a side note: the vinegar in this story, known in the Philippines as sukang paombong, is one of my Dad’s favorite things. Yeah, it’s probably homesickness, or nostalgia.)

If you google “dudok bertapa”, as I did (I wondered if it was the name of the religious ritual), you will easily find the entire story, verbatim, and several paraphrases. Some of the paraphrases state that bathing in vinegar is a penance ritual (and that’s what the woman was doing). That may be true, but “dudok bertapa” simply translates as “sit meditating”, according to Google Translate. Why does Skeat define it as a religious penance? Well, I found a 1912 Malay-English dictionary here that translates dudok as “to sit”, and bertapa as “penance”. Note that the dictionary was published by a Singapore-based Methodist publishing house — for their missionaries, I imagine.

I don’t speak Malaysian; bertapa may in fact have, or have had, some religious shades to its meaning, but I’m not sure that it necessarily ever meant “penance” in the sense that a nineteenth-century Christian westerner would understand the term, as opposed to a more Hindu or Buddhist conception of meditation. I can imagine, though, that Skeat had a dictionary rather like the one that I found while he was in the civil service in Malaysia.

So that’s that. But why is she sitting in the vinegar vat, then? Obviously the man in the story wondered the same thing (which is another reason to doubt that it’s a religious rite: then the man would have known what she was doing). My guess is that the vinegar vat story was devised to tie into the intestine-soaking procedure that I mentioned above. When you think about it, there is actually no logical reason (not even in the folktale sense) why a woman who decapitated herself in this manner would turn into an evil fetus-loving bloodsucker. I mean, if I were she, I’d exact my revenge on sneaky men who go tiptoeing around and startling people.

Skeat also mentions another writer’s origin story:

Note: Cp., however, “The Penangal, that horrible wraith of a woman who has died in childbirth, and who comes to torment small children in the guise of a fearful face and bust, with many feet of bloody, trailing entrails in her wake” — Clifford, loc.cit.

This origin story makes more sense out of a penannangal’s typical feeding habits. Note that Clifford mentions a “fearful face and bust”; the Filipino version of this creature segments at the waist, rather than at the neck. I wondered when that change happened. This suggests that there may have been similar versions prior to the legend moving to the Philippines. Or Clifford just got his stories mixed up.

The final origin story says the penanggalan was a woman who studied black magic under a devil, and her condition is a “reward” for her service. This is more in line with a theory that Herminia Meñez has about the Filipino viscera-sucker: namely the story is an attempt by the Spanish Catholic authorities to discredit the female shamaness who was the primary medical, religious and spiritual authority in pre-colonial Filipino culture. I will write more about that in another post (really!), but for now I’ll just say that I think the existence of an exclusively female version of the creature in Malaysia takes the force from her argument that the Catholic priests are responsible for the exclusively female manananngal in Filipino folklore. On the other hand, one can argue that a similar process could have taken place in Malaysia as that region converted to Islam.

Much of this is purely my amateur speculation, of course. I don’t study any of this for a living. But the speculation is fun, isn’t it?

I’ll finish up with a folktale from The Malayan Peninsula, by James Begbie and Diptendra M. Banerjee, 1834.

The Malays state the a man had two wives, the one black and the other white, who were both Penangalans. He was informed of the circumstance, but scarcely credited it. In order to ascertain the fact, he feigned a journey of some days, and the women, believing him to have left the house, departed on a Penangalan trip, leaving their bodies behind. These the husband changed, putting the body of the black on in the place of the white one, and vice versa. On the return of the women, with their entrails amazingly swollen from their foul banquet, each entered a jar of vinegar in order to diminish their size, and then re-animated the bodies, but, unknown to themselves, effected an exchange, the white one entering the black body, and the black one the other, as they had not remarked the substitution. The husband, coming in, said, ‘Ha! what is this? The head and neck are black, and the body white, and the other is black with a white head and neck?” He reported the circumstance to the king who ordered them both to be put to death.

Oh, one more thing. I finally figured out that the Clifford text that Skeat cites above is In the Court and Kampong by Sir Hugh Charles Clifford (1896). I just downloaded it; it seems to be a collection of folktales and “folk-like tales”, rather in the way that Lafcadio Hearn told folktales of Japan. Might be worth checking out.

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