Family Folklore Research


My parents moved a few years ago out to a suburb just outside of Reno. It’s a nice enough place, but since the Asian population here is considerably smaller than it is back in the San Francisco Bay Area, a lot of the foods they like aren’t readily available. So we bring them provisions whenever we come to visit. Our care package this time included frozen steamed saba (a type of banana), longanisa sausages (delicious, but so, so bad for you), sukang paongbong (“thatch-palm”, or nipa vinegar — I mentioned it a few posts ago: it’s the kind the penanggalan need to reattach their heads to their bodies), and sukang iloko (sugar cane vinegar).

For breakfast this morning, we happily chowed down on scrambled eggs, tomato-onion-ginger salad (I forget the name of it; it’s kind of a salsa cruda), rice, and the artery-clogging longanisa. Longanisa is best eaten by dipping it in vinegar, accompanied by a lot of rice. Anyway, I’m chatting with my Mom about how sweet and mild the sukang iloko is, and my Dad chips in with a story of some old auntie of his who supposedly drank the stuff straight, for her health.

“She must have been an aswang!” my Mom joked.

My ears pricked up. A research opportunity!

“What do you mean, Mom?”

She looked slightly confused. “Oh, I don’t know….”


From One Hundred Demons, Lynda Barry

According to Maximo Ramos, the term aswang refers to a “syncrasy” — what a great word — of several different creatures. In western terms:

(1) the blood-sucking vampire, (2) the self-segmenting viscera sucker, (3) the man-eating weredog, (4) the vindictive witch, and (5) the carrion-eating ghoul.

The viscera sucker (manananggal in Tagalog) is the equivalent of the Malaysian penanggalan, from which it probably originated, before merging with other existing Filipino folkloric creatures. Like the Malaysian version, the Filipino version seems to be exclusively female, but it separates itself at the waist, rather than at the neck. I’ve never read that the top half of the Filipino version carries its intestines dangling loose like the Malaysian version, either. The other variants of an aswang (the ghoul, etc.) don’t seem to be exclusively female.


From One Hundred Demons, Lynda Barry

If you find the bottom half of a manananggal, you can prevent the top half from rejoining to the bottom by either hiding the bottom, or spreading the cut portion with ashes, vinegar, garlic, or salt. If the aswang can convince you to clean off the ashes, etc., then she can reattach her body together; otherwise, she will die at dawn.

My mother’s joke about drinking the vinegar interested me; I hadn’t read anything like that, but it does make sense, given how important vinegar is to the Malaysian version (it’s funny that some stories say you can use vinegar to keep them from re-attaching). The ghoul version of the aswang eats the liver from corpses, and some stories say that you can be turned into an aswang if you are tricked into eating human liver. Like the Malaysian version, the Filipino viscera sucker likes to prey on expectant mothers, feeding on the fetus as the mother sleeps, by using its long, narrow, tube-like tongue. It attacks its victims through the thatch of the roof, or from under the floorboards. Sick people are also choice victims, in which case the aswang goes for the entrails and organs, especially the spleen and liver.

One apparently Filipino-specific aspect is that aswang are afraid of a stingray’s tail; you can use one as a lash to drive aswang away.

Herminia Meñez theorizes that the viscera-sucker in the Philippines became a female fetus-eater as an inversion of the baylan, the female shaman in traditional Filipino society. This inversion would have been championed by the Catholic priests, whose authority would have been threatened by the baylanes. But of course, the viscera-sucker in Malaysia is a female fetus-eater, too. I’ve seen origin stories for both penanggalan and aswang that refer to people who have made a compact with a demon; it’s possible that what Meñez theorizes could also have happened in Malaysia, as the region converted to Islam. Milligan and Maxwell (1906) report a similar inversion theory, from an educated Visayan informant.

‘Before the Spaniards came to these Islands each datto or rich man had an asuang, or official who served as counsellor in religious and political matters. The asuangs were the most learned people among them. The Spaniards came and began to preach Christianity, and, of course, they had to show the falsehood of the asuang’s doctrine, as contrary to morality. Then the neophytes and new Christians looked upon the asuang as a false teacher, and their hatred of him became so great that they forged and invented many attributes of him.’

The aswang myth (the viscera sucker, at least) is known in the lowland Christian regions of the Philippines, particularly in the Tagalog region, in Bikol, and the Visayas. It’s apparently unknown in Ilokos, and according to Meñez, it’s unknown to the non-Christian (and non-Muslim?) animists of upland Luzon and Mindanao. Perhaps the Tagalogs, Bikolanos and Visayans had more contact with Malaysians than the others. They certainly had more contact with the Spanish.

My mother, who is Bikolana, says that an aswang is a witch, “like the kind that rides a broomstick.” She’d never heard of an aswang who could split herself in half, and she’d never heard the term manananggal. My father, who is half Ilokano and raised in Ilokos, had never heard of an aswang at all.

Mom did say that her grandmother told her lots of stories, about the aswang and the taong lipod (who live in trees) when she was little; I’ll have to see if I can get some of those out of her, this visit.

More Reading:

Philippine (Visayan) Superstitions by W. H. Millington and Berton L. Maxfield,
The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 19, No. 74 (Jul. – Sep., 1906), available free to the public from JSTOR.
Some folklore about tamawos, duendes, and aswangs.

Philippine (Tagalog) Superstitions by Fletcher Gardner,
The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 19, No. 74 (Jul. – Sep., 1906), free from JSTOR.
Lots of aswang stories.

“The Aswang Syncrasy in Philippine Folklore” by Maximo Ramos,
Western Folklore, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Oct., 1969), pp. 238-248.
This one is in JSTOR, too, but not freely available. Most universities and some public libraries have a subscription to JSTOR; you can access it through them.

“The Viscera Sucker and the Politics of Gender”, by Herminia Meñez,
Collected in Explorations in Philippine Folklore, Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1996.

4 thoughts on “Family Folklore Research

  1. I love your posts on Filipino fokllore! I’ve been revising a poetry piece on legends and hope to check out some of the resources you used for your posts. Ha, our monsters were so obsessed with viscera!

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