The Living Head

Apologies for not having posted for a while. I hope to pick up the pace again, soon, but in the meantime here’s a short, sweet (and mysterious) food origin myth collected in Panay (one of the Visayan islands in the Philippines) in 1904.


Once upon a time lived a man and his wife who had no children. They desperately wanted a child, and so they prayed to their God, Diva:

“Please, Lord,” they prayed. “We want a son so badly. He doesn’t have to be perfect, we’ll gladly accept him however you see fit to give him to us. Even if he were nothing but a head, we would be so happy.”

Ask and you shall receive. Diva took pity on the couple, and he gave them a son — a son who was nothing but a head. His parents were as happy as they promised they would be, and took loving care of Head (that’s what they named him, apparently). Head grew up to be a good son to his parents.

One day the chief’s daughter passed the house where Head and his parents lived. Once Head laid eyes on her, he fell hopelessly in love, and thought of nothing but marrying her. He begged his mother to go to the chief and ask him for his daughter’s hand. Head’s mother refused.

“The chief would never let his daughter marry only a head.”

But Head gave his mother no peace. Finally, just to quiet him, Head’s mother went to the chief and told him of her son’s request. Of course, the chief refused. Head’s mother returned home with the news.

Heartbroken, Head went downstairs into the garden and began to sink into the ground.

“Head, come back up,” called his mother. “It’s time to eat.”

“Sink! sink! sink!” cried Head.

“Head, please, come back up,” called his mother again.

“Sink! sink! sink!” was all Head would say, and he continued to say it until he sank beneath the ground and disappeared. His mother rushed down to try to take him back up, but she couldn’t. Some days later a tree sprang up from where Head had disappeared; the tree eventually bore large round fruit almost as large as a boy’s head.

And that’s where oranges came from.

NewImageImage: Wikipedia

My retelling is based on a version collected by Berton L. Maxfield and W. H. Millington and published in 1906 in The Journal of American Folklore. The article, Visayan Folk-Tales I, is available free from JSTOR, and contains several more stories.

I confess — I don’t really get this one. I suspect it’s an imperfectly remembered version of a more elaborate dema deity myth, but who knows. I found an interesting Ifugao story about coconuts having sprung from a buried head, but I want to do a little research on that one before I retell it… .

Wikipedia tells me that oranges probably originated in Southeast Asia, which I never knew; I tend to associate them with the Mediterranean.

I also can’t find anything about a Visayan deity named Diva, but diwatas are nature deities, like enkanto, who live in trees and give blessings to people who bring them offerings — and curses to people who disturb them or the trees that they live in. The term diwata probably comes from the term devata, which denotes a Hindu demi-god. Deva is the Sanskrit term for a deity.

Someday, I would like to seriously track down how the Hindu pantheon and mythology worked its way from India eastward into Indonesia and Malaysia and eventually to the Philippines. Someday….

7 thoughts on “The Living Head

  1. Oh, how I wish you were near so I can lend you a booklet on Cebuano folktales (in English, of course). There are many unusual origin stories of many things that people before create because they are the best way to explain to children who ask so many “why and how” questions, or so I’ve been told. And yes, Malcolm is right; oranges will never be the same again.

    • Ooohhh, I wish you could lend me that book, too! What is it called/who is the publisher? If it’s not too terribly old or too obscure a publisher I might be able to get it through Arkipelago Books (Filipino bookstore) here in San Francisco. Or at least I can ask….

    • This one is an odd story. I’m pretty sure it’s an abbreviated version of a more elaborate tale, but when the folklorist interviewed his source, this was all the storyteller could remember…

  2. Pingback: Four lucky men, some unlucky ones and a witch | she who scrivens got a swamper

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