Floods, Tides and Crabs: More Folktales


Yesterday, I shared a flood story from the Igorot, a mountain people from the northern Philippines. Today, I have a short flood story from the Bukidnon, an indigenous people from the southern Philippines (Mindanao). According to this story, the flood wasn’t caused by any angry or careless deity (or the deity’s sons) — but by a crab.

This is verbatim, from Mabel Cook Cole’s Philippine Folk Tales (1916).

A long time ago there was a very big crab which crawled into the sea. And when he went in he crowded the water out so that it ran all over the earth and covered all the land.

Now about one moon before this happened, a wise man had told the people that they must build a large raft. They did as he commanded and cut many large trees, until they had enough to make three layers. These they bound tightly together, and when it was done they fastened the raft with a long rattan cord to a big pole in the earth.

Soon after this the floods came. White water poured out of the hills, and the sea rose and covered even the highest mountains. The people and animals on the raft were safe, but all the others drowned.

When the waters went down and the raft was again on the ground, it was near their old home, for the rattan cord had held.

But these were the only people left on the whole earth.

As Cole points out, the raft with people and animals part of this story is rather similar to the story of Noah’s ark. It’s possible that the raft/ark motif came from either Christian or Islamic peoples who lived near the Bukidnon, and got worked into the Bukidnon’s existing folklore. But the crab motif is local.

Cole mentions two other Filipino peoples, the Batak of Palawan (an island that’s part of the Philippines, just north of Borneo) and the Mandaya of eastern Mindanao, who have folktales about a giant crab that goes in and out of his hole, causing the tides. The idea of a crab being responsible for the tides is also widespread in Malaysia.


Here are two versions of the Malaysian crab story, as given by Walter Skeat in his volume Malay magic: being an introduction to the folklore and popular religion of the Malay Peninsula (1900).

The first version is due to Thomas John Newbold, who served under the East India Company for three years around the Straits of Malacca:

In the middle of the great ocean grows an immense tree, called Pauh Jangi, at the root of which is a cavern called Pusat Tassek, or navel of the lake. This is inhabited by a vast crab, who goes forth at stated periods during the day. When the creature returns to its abode the displaced water causes the flow of the tide; when he departs, the water rushing into the cavern causes the ebb.

And the second version is from Hugh Charles Clifford, a British colonial official and governor, who served in Malaysia for twenty years:

The Pusat tasek, or Navel of the Seas, supposed to be a huge hole in the ocean bottom. In this hole there sits a gigantic crab which twice a day gets out in order to search for food. While he is sitting in the hole the waters of the ocean are unable to pour down into the under world, the whole of the aperture being filled and blocked by the crab’s bulk. The inflowing of the rivers into the sea during these periods are supposed to cause the rising of the tide, while the downpouring of the waters through the great hole when the crab is absent searching for food is supposed to cause the ebb.

Rudyard Kipling borrowed (“pinched” is the word Kipling uses) the crab myth, along with several other myths and folktales that Skeat discusses, and mashed them all together into the story “The Crab the Played with the Sea” from his Just-So Stories (1902). Apparently, the story went through several versions and several titles; the version I linked to above is from the 1912 edition of Just-So Stories (it has pretty illustrations). You can find a discussion of the relationship between Kipling and Skeat’s Malay Magic from the Journal of the Kipling Society, along with annotations to Kipling’s story, here.

  • The top photo is of Drake’s Beach, California. Photo by Nina Zumel
  • The second image is “Pau Amma the crab rising out of the sea” from the 1912 edition of Just So Stories, available on Project Gutenberg

3 thoughts on “Floods, Tides and Crabs: More Folktales

  1. Very interesting and informative, especially the cross pollination among the various tales. Thank you, Nina.

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