Buried in the pages of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal for 1896 is a dry-sounding article called “Cagayan Sulu, its Customs, Legends, and Superstitions,” by one Ethelbert Forbes Skertchly. It starts out as a typical amateur (for I assume Mr. Skertchly was an amateur) anthropologist’s paper of the time would, with a physical description of Cagayan Sulu — now known as Mapun — an island in the southern Philippines, about eighty miles from Borneo, closer to Malaysia than to most of the rest of the Philippines. The paper meanders on, through descriptions of the flora and of the fauna, of the people, their dress, their customs, their industry. Mr. Skertchly gives us a couple of short folktales, including a charming one about a crocodile spirit covered in diamonds. I imagine a typical Asiatic Society member of the time perusing the paper after dinner, the journal in one hand, a brandy or perhaps a pipe in the other, perfectly relaxed. Nothing new here.
But then Mr. Skertchly veers off into a first-person narrative that would be right at home in a collection of classic English ghost stories: the tale of the Berbalangs of Cagayan Sulu.
At the time of Mr. Skertchly’s visit, the territory of Cagayan Sulu was split between two chiefs, Hadji Mahomet and Hadji Brahim, who each ruled half the island — except for one village in the center. This was the village of the Berbalangs, who had eyes with the slit-like pupils of cats.
The other islanders said that the Berbalangs were ghouls, who ate human flesh. Usually they dug open graves and ate the entrails of the corpses, but if the dead didn’t suffice then they would hunt. But not in their bodies. Instead they would hide in the grass (so their bodies couldn’t be found), and then hold their breath until they went into a trance. Then their astral bodies would separate from the physical, and fly away in the form of heads, with their feet attached to their ears, like wings. In this form they could fly into a victim’s house and into the body of their victim, then feed on his entrails.
You can hear the Berbalang coming by the moaning sound they make, and by the fire-fly-like flash of their eyes. Only don’t be fooled! The Berbalang do things in reverse. If you hear them getting further away, they are really coming closer, and if you see their eyes in front of you, then turn around! Because they are really behind you.
The only real protection against the Berbalang is a coconut pearl: supposedly, coconuts sometimes produce an opal or pearl-like gemstone like an oyster would. Of course, coconut pearls are rare, and you have to find your own: the pearls magic dies when its owner does, or when the pearl is given away. If you lack a coconut pearl, then attack them with a kris (knife) whose blade has been rubbed with lime juice. Lime juice sprinkled on a grave will keep the berbalang away.
After hearing these stories, Mr. Skertchly naturally wanted to visit the village in question, and equally naturally, no one wanted to come with him. Finally he convinced Hadji Mahomet’s son Matali to guide him. But Matali would go no nearer than about half a mile from the village. Skertchly insisted on continuing on, so Matali gave Skertchly his kris and some limes, with instructions to eat no food offered to him by the villagers until he sprinkled it with lime juice first. The Berbalang were in the habit of offering guests human flesh disguised as curried fish; if you ate the flesh, you would turn into a Berbalang, too. But the lime-juice would expose the meat for what it really was.
So off Skertchly went, and when he arrived, he found the village deserted, save a few goats and chickens. Recently deserted: he found rice pots that were still hot. After calling out and looking around, but getting back no response and finding no one, Skertchly returned to Matali, who became quite upset. If the village was empty, then the Berbalangs were on the hunt! The two headed back to Hadji Mahomet’s village just as the sun began to go down (isn’t that always how these things happen?).
The two were halfway home, in the dark, when the moaning began. Matali hid himself in the grass, pulling Skertchly down with him. The moaning grew fainter — the Berbalang were coming nearer! Then Skertchly heard the sound of wings, and saw little reddish dancing light flying overhead. The moaning got loader: the Berbalang had passed them by. The two continued on their way.
As they reached the first house on the outskirts of the village, the moaning grew fainter. The Berbelang were in the house. Matali urged Skertchly on, hoping fervently that Hassan, the owner of the house, had a coconut pearl. The two made it safely back to the village.
Early the next day, Skertchly went to visit Hassan, whom he knew, hoping to get an account of the evening from him. On arriving, he knocked on the door, but got no answer. He tried the door; it was locked. After knocking and shouting and getting no response, Skertchly forced the door open. Inside, he found Hassan, huddled up in his bed, his face distorted with fear — quite dead.
Skertchly concludes his article with the classic ghost story ending:
I have stated above the facts just as they occurred, and am quite unable to give any explanation of them.
As far as I know, Skertchly’s account is the only written primary source of the Berbalang legend.
- Lt. Ethelbert Forbes Skertchly of the British Navy died “as the result of wounds at Penang” in 1907. I assume he belonged to the Asiatic Society; he was also a Fellow of the Entomological Society of London. His father, Sydney Barber Josiah Skertchly, was a prominent botanist and geologist, who, sadly, outlived both his sons (despite what Wikipedia says).
- The descriptions of the berbalangs and their behavior remind me of some of versions of the aswang — there are many different creatures that seem to go under the name aswang. The manananggal/penanggalan version is a viscera sucker, and also hunts by splitting off the head or the upper half of her body (physically, not astrally). The ghoul version eats human livers — and if you are fed a human liver by an aswang, then you become an aswang, too.
- Berbalangs are apparently a monster in the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, described as a bat-like creature. This article describes the evolution from Skertchly’s description to the modern D&D berbablang.
- You can find Skertchly’s article in Google Books. I’ve also excerpted just the Berbelang story as a pdf file. It’s worth reading. (You do NOT have to sign in to download the file from Dropbox — look for the tiny link on the popup that says “No thanks, continue to view”.)
- Andrew Lang — yes, he of the colored Fairy Book series — combined the berbelang legend with the common fairy tale motif where a king imposes a contest on the suitors for his daughter (there’s probably an Aarne-Thompson number for this, but I can’t find it). The story is called “The Adventure of the Fair American,” and it’s from his short story cycle The Disentanglers (1902), which features the cases/adventures of two lawyers, Merton and Logan. The entire book is on Project Gutenberg, or you can download just the novella-length story from me [PDF] [EPUB]. The story is marred by the casual racism of its time and place, but it’s still interesting.
Top image from A visit to the Indian Archipelago, in H.M.S. Mæander, with portions of the private journal of Sir James Brooke…, by Henry Keppel (1853). From the British Library’s Mechanical Curator Collection. Source: Wikimedia.
Photo of Balinese Kris by Gwes, some rights reserved.