The Berbalangs: A Legend of Filipino Ghouls

640px KEPPEL 1853 pg112 FRESH WATER LAKE CAGAYAN SOOLOO

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.

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Witches vs. Sorcerers: What’s the Difference?

For my Mexican Monstresses series, I’ve been reading a fascinating (but quite academic) book called Bloodsucking Witchcraft (Nutini and Roberts, 1993), about a type of Mexican “vampire” in central Mexico. I put vampire in quotes, because even though this creature sucks blood, both Nutini and Roberts, as well as sources on early Mexican folk belief all the way back to the sixteenth century, refer to it (“her” mostly) as a witch (brujo/a).

A bloodsucking shapeshifter is not what I think of as a witch.

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Source: Wikipedia

And the European conception of a vampire (which is by definition a revenant — that is, the dead revived) isn’t a witch. But the definition that Nutini and Roberts use, and how they distinguish witch (brujo/a) from sorcerer (hechicero/a) calls out some differences I’d never thought about. Before, I’d always considered the terms somewhat interchangeable, and I think in common usage most people do. But the distinction is interesting, and useful.

Note that in the following discussion, I’m referring to witchcraft and sorcery in the folk belief sense of anthropomorphic supernatural beings, not in reference to Wicca or other modern Neopagan religions.

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Chatting with the Books Spirits Again

I meant to put up a Halloween post this year, continuing the book-scrying theme that I started last year. Alas, the last couple of weeks have been ridiculously busy, and I missed the date. But today is All Saints’ Day, and tomorrow is All Souls’ Day, also known as Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos — a time to remember and honor those who have gone before us. So I can still put up a book-scrying post, as a way of honoring writers from the past and the wisdom of the words that they’ve left to us.

Besides, it’s fun.

Here’s the procedure: write down the question, close my eyes, open the book at random, and point. Read the sentence or paragraph at my fingertip.

This year I chose The Book of Fantasy, edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo, and A. Bioy Casares. It was a glorious mistake, this choice, because I really have just barely the time to squeeze out this post, but I haven’t read the book in a long time, and now I want to…

Skull book

So here we go.

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The Wearing of the Green (or not)

March is here: St. Patrick’s Day is the 17th, when everyone (here in the States, at least) can pretend to be a little bit Irish… .

In honor of the occasion, here are some fun Ireland folklore facts to share with your friends over that pint of Guinness.

NewImageSt. Patrick and Shamrock. St. Benin’s Church, Kilbennan, County Galway, Ireland
Image: Andreas F. Borchert, Wikipedia

St. Patrick is as Irish as the Potato.

That is to say: by adoption only. Potatoes are a New World vegetable, originating in South America and not introduced into Ireland until the late 1500s or early 1600s (some say by Sir Walter Raleigh). By the 1700s they had become a staple food in the country. Likewise, the man known today as St. Patrick was not born in Ireland, but in Britain. The Catholic Encyclopedia says he was born at Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, Scotland, in 387. Biography.com says he was born in England to “a Roman family of high social standing” in 385. Either way, according to his own writings, he was kidnapped by slavers and taken to Ireland, where he lived for six years before escaping and returning home. He eventually entered the priesthood and was sent back to Ireland as a missionary, where he preached and converted much of the country to Christianity. By the seventh century, he was thought of as the patron saint of Ireland.

There’s a theory that some of the legends associated with St. Patrick were originally associated with another cleric, Palladius, who was the first Christian bishop to Ireland, in 431 (a year before Patrick arrived). Palladius wasn’t Irish, either; he was Gaul (French).

Incidentally, there’s a famous folktale that links St. Patrick to the shamrock: supposedly, Patrick was preaching to the locals, and meeting with hostility and incredulity. To make his point, the saint plucked a clover from the earth and said to them

‘Is it not as feasible for the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, as for these three leaves thus to grow upon a single stalk?’ Then the Irish were immediately convinced of their error, and were solemnly baptized by St. Patrick.

As simple as that. The quote is from Edward Jones, “Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards” 1794, as quoted by Nathaniel Colgan in “The Shamrock in Literature,” 1896. The folktale can’t actually be dated any earlier than the early 18th century; it’s not in Patrick’s writings, nor in any early Lives of the Saints.

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Revenge of the Rats! The Legend of Hatto

Sometime in the tenth century, so the story goes, a great famine hit the Rhine valley. The summer and fall seasons had been so wet that the grain rotted in the fields before the farmers could harvest. As winter hit, they ran out their food stores; they were starving. Desperate, they turned to Hatto, the wealthy Archbishop of Mainz, whose granaries were filled to overflowing.

Some stories say that Hatto charged the people such a steep price for the grain that they began to rebel. Some stories say he was just sick of their begging. Either way, Hatto finally announced that everyone without food should come to his barn on a certain day, and he would give them grain.

On that day, people came from all over the countryside, and filled the bishop’s barn until it couldn’t hold a single more person. Then Hatto ordered the barn doors locked and set fire to the barn, burning all the peasants to death.

‘I’faith, ’tis an excellent bonfire!’ quoth he,
‘And the country is greatly obliged to me
For ridding it, in these times forlorn,
Of rats that only consume the corn.’

Then Hatto went home to a good dinner, retired to bed, and slept like a baby.

The next morning, the servants ran to the Bishop and reported that ten thousand rats had eaten all the corn in the granaries, and were now converging on the Bishop’s palace. Terrified,
the Bishop had himself rowed out to his stronghold, a tower on an island in the middle of the Rhine. The rats dove into the river, swam to the island, swarmed the tower, and ate the bishop alive.

NewImageIllustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514)
Image: Wikipedia

Down on his knees the Bishop fell,
And faster and faster his beads did he tell,
As louder and louder drawing near
The gnawing of their teeth he could hear.

And in at the windows and in at the door,
And through the walls helter-skelter they pour,
And down from the ceiling and up through the floor,
From the right and the left, from behind and before,
From within and without, from above and below,
And all at once to the Bishop they go.

They have whetted their teeth against the stones,
And now they pick the Bishop’s bones:
They gnaw’d the flesh from every limb,
For they were sent to do judgment on him!

The poem that tells this tale is called God’s Judgment on a Wicked Bishop, by English poet Robert Southey. The legend itself is an old one.

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Advice from the Book Spirits

I wanted to do something different and fun for my Halloween post, not just review a book or point you to a good short story. But what?

Then I thought of M.R. James’s short story, The Ash Tree. In the story, after the mysterious death of the Lord of the Manor, a clergyman friend of the victim resorts to the old superstitious practice of “drawing the Sortes“, or bibliomancy.

…it came into my Thoughts, as at such moments of Helplessness we are prone to catch at any the least Glimmer that makes promise of Light, to make trial of that old and by many accounted Superstitious Practice of drawing the Sortes: …

“I made, then, three trials, opening the Book and placing my Finger upon certain words: which gave in the first these words, from Luke xiii. 7, Cut it down; in the second, Isaiah xiii. 20, It shall never be inhabited; and upon the third Experiment; Job xxxix. 30, Her young ones also suck up blood.”

This being an M.R. James story, the sortes were quite prescient — I’ll let you read the story and find out what the bible passages were hinting at. I linked to it above; it’s nicely creepy. Anyway, it occurred to me that some book-scrying silliness might make for a fun post, albeit not terribly spooky. But it’s a nice change from a Ouija Board.

BookPhoto: Nina Zumel

So I’ve picked a few questions to throw Out There, and picked a book to scry from. I didn’t want to use the Bible — I’m still enough of a Catholic girl that it would feel sacrilegious. Given the theme of this blog, and my more recent reading activity, The Weird Compendium would have been the perfect choice, but I only own it as an ebook, and I really wanted to physically flip through the book and point. So I settled on American Gothic Tales, instead.

The procedure: write down the question, close my eyes, open the book at random, and point. Read the sentence at my fingertip.

Here we go:

What’s the outlook for my blog in the coming year? Will I get lots of engaged readers?

A man was speaking on the station Jim had chosen, and his voice swung instantly from the distance into a force so powerful that it shook the apartment.

Now that sounds hopeful. I think the blog will go gangbusters over the next year! The quote is from John Cheever, “The Enormous Radio”.

Will I get Freshly Pressed again?

The Head’s main street dimmed, dimmed, and at last was gone.

Not so hopeful. But at least I got my fifteen minutes of fame once. Quote from Stephen King, “The Reach”

Will the Giants take the World Series?

Viola imposed on her lover but a short probation.

Umm. Yeah. I think that means “yes, but the Tigers will still put up a little bit of a fight.” We’ll find out soon enough. Go Giants! The quote is from Henry James, “On the Romance of Certain Old Clothes”.

UPDATE: And the Giants sweep it! Viola’s probation was short, indeed.

What should I spend more time on this coming year? Writing or dancing?

She turned and tried to hold the baby over in a corner behind the stove.

But he came up. He reached across the stove and tightened his hands on the baby.

I think this means — especially in the context of this story, Raymond Carver’s “Little Things” — that I should split the difference. Which is the answer I wanted, though I hope things turn out better for me than they did for the baby in the story…

You can get advice from the Book Spirits too, and you don’t even need a paper-and-glue volume. Poet Reb Livingstone has set up a Bibliomancy Oracle online — just click and see what her favorite literature has to say to you.

Have fun, and to any readers on the East Coast or in Hawaii: stay safe from the storms and tsunamis. I hope you all enjoy the upcoming All Hallow’s Eve, no matter how you choose (or don’t choose) to celebrate it.

Vampires in Rhode Island: The Shunned House

The October issue of Smithsonian magazine has an interesting article on the nineteenth century vampire scares of New England. These scares tended to happen in remote, rural, agricultural regions in or near southern Rhode Island, beginning in the late 1700s and going on as recently as 1892. Much as in Eastern European vampire scares, a recently deceased person would be blamed for the further illnesses of people in the region, and the body would be exhumed to check for evidence of vampirism.

Once a vampire was “discovered,” the New Englander’s way of dealing with it was a bit different from the usual holy water and staking that we are used to from the movies. Instead, the heart would be removed from the exhumed body and burned. Some communities believed that inhaling the smoke from the burning heart was a cure for the still-living victims of the vampire’s life-sucking. Others believed that feeding the ashes from the burning heart to the vampire’s victims would cure them. Often, the “vampire” would also be beheaded.

The real vampire? Tuberculosis. TB is a wasting, draining, disease, characterized by fever and a hacking cough; the victims visibly become paler and more emaciated as the disease progresses. It’s also very contagious. Early outbreaks of TB hit New England in the 1730s and became the leading cause of death in New England by the 1800s. Not surprisingly, vampire scares coincided with TB outbreaks.

The last, and one of the most famous, New England vampire cases was that of Mercy Lena Brown, of Exeter, Rhode Island. Mercy’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1883, followed soon after by the Browns’ oldest daughter. Mercy’s brother Edwin got sick in 1890, and left for Colorado Springs, hoping that the change in climate would improve his health. Lena didn’t get sick until 1891, and died in January of 1892, at the age of nineteen. By that time, her brother had returned to Exeter, extremely ill.

The people of Exeter believed that one of the Brown women must be a vampire who was feeding on the rest of the family (and from them, probably, on to the rest of the community). They forced Lena’s father, George Brown, to have the womens’ bodies exhumed. The evidence seems to be that George didn’t believe in the vampire theory (the bacterium that caused TB had already been discovered, in 1882), but he gave in to his neighbors. The bodies were exhumed. The bodies of Lena’s mother and sister were in advanced states of decomposition — they had been dead for almost a decade — but Lena’s body, which had only been buried for two months, still showed evidence of fresh blood in the heart. She must be the vampire!

The neighbors took out Lena’s heart and liver and burned them. They fed the ashes to Lena’s brother Edwin. It didn’t work; he died two months later.

A reporter from the Providence Journal was present at the exhumation. His story caused an outrage in the more urban parts of New England. It was picked up by an anthropologist named George Stetson, who eventually published his research in the American Anthropologist, and the story spread all the way to Europe.

NewImageIllustration from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House”
Image: Project Gutenberg

Some people believe that Mercy Lena was the inspiration for the character of Lucy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which was published in 1897, the year after Stetson’s article). She is definitely referenced in H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Shunned House,” which he wrote in 1924. It was published posthumously in 1937, in the magazine Weird Tales.

Mercy should have known better than to hire anyone from the Nooseneck Hill country, for that remote bit of backwoods was then, as now, a seat of the most uncomfortable superstitions. As lately as 1892 an Exeter community exhumed a dead body and ceremoniously burnt its heart in order to prevent certain alleged visitations injurious to the public health and peace…

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Filipino Folklore in a ‘Weird Fiction’ Piece

Of the twenty five kills that took place in the port city of Siargao, eleven were young men between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, ten were young girls between the ages of twelve and sixteen, and four were young women between seventeen and twenty years of age. All victims shared one common denominator: they were virgins.

That’s from Rachita Loenen-Ruiz’s short story “Of the Liwat’ang Yawa, the Litkok-litok and their Prey,” online at the Weird Fiction Review blog site. It’s a very short story within a story that takes its inspiration from Filipino monster folklore.

I’m not sure, but I believe she made the Liwat’ang Yawa up, though it is similar enough to actual filipino folklore to sound plausible (at least to me). I’d never heard of the Litok-litok, either, but its description fits that of a familiar Filipino mythical creature.

The story’s Liwat’ang Yawa (“yawa” means “demon”, I think) is a human looking monster that feeds on virgins. He is accompanied by a bird called the Litok-litok, which is a classic viscera-sucking style monster that eats unborn babies from out of their mothers’ wombs.

In the Philippines, viscera-suckers are called aswang or manananggal; they are usually in the shape of a woman. A similar monster called a penanggalan exists in Malaysian folklore. In some parts of the Philippines, there is a demon-bird called the tiktik. It’s said to be the companion of the aswang: it guides the demon to its prey. It you hear the tiktik’s call overhead (I assume the sound is, well, “tik-tik”), then the aswang is nearby. Sometimes, the term “tiktik” is used as a synonym for aswang. I have a post about the aswang here, if you are interested.

NewImageThe Plaintive Cuckoo, or Sewah Mati Anak (“mati anak” means “lost a child” in Malaysian).
Walter Skeat, in Malay Magic (1900) said that the mati-anak was supposed to be the child of the penanggalan and the langsuir, a kind of owl demon.
Photo:Wikipedia

Anyway. Loenen-Ruiz’s story is more of a mood piece than a narrative. Given the subject matter, there is inevitably some gore, and I don’t usually go for that. Still, I was especially struck (in a favorable way) with a metaphor that the author uses the hunt scene, of the human heart as fruit. And I’m always interested in seeing Filipino folklore woven into literature.

This is the only story by Loenen-Ruiz that I’ve read, but now I’m curious to find more. In another article she wrote for the Weird Fiction Review blog she mentions her Ifugao background, and her memories of the storytelling traditions that she remembers from her childhood. I’d like to see how (and if) she incorporates her folkloric memories into her fiction. Not just the monsters and demons, either, but the myths and legends as well, like Bugan and Wigan (the Ifugao “Adam and Eve”).

Check it out.


This post is part of my Peril of the Short Story, for the Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P) VII reading event. It is also part of the The Short Story Initiative ongoing reading project.

Witch Hunts: The Use (and Abuse) of Child Testimony

In a previous post, I talked about the anti-Catholic aspects of the Lancashire Witch Trials. Though I only said it indirectly, the post drew a parallel between the political/religious motivations of witch hunts, and the negative aspects of what Eric Hoffer called the True Believer — issues that still affect us today.

In this post, I’ll talk about the role that the testimony of children played in incriminating accused witches. Why did these children make such ludicrous accusations? And why did adults believe them? The accounts form a sobering account of how easily one can transfer one’s own beliefs to the impressionable. It’s a pattern that continues to manifest, even in modern times.

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Witchcraft at Salem Village, William A. Crafts (1876)
Image: Wikipedia

Much of the key evidence in the [Lancashire] trial of 1612 was given by two children, James and Jennet Device, aged about nine and twelve. Caught up in a terrifying web of charges and arrests they panicked, and their stories, designed to clear themselves, ended up in the deaths of most of their own family members, and indeed of James himself.

— Robert Poole, “The Lancashire Witches: 1612-2012”, Public Domain Review

James and Jennet were the younger siblings of Alizon Device, the first woman accused of witchcraft in this case. The Devices were a poor family living on the edge of the Pendle forest. Alizon’s grandmother was a local healer; apparently her rituals often used Catholic symbology. Given the prevailing anti-Catholic attitudes, this would likely be considered evidence of consorting with the devil. Naturally, the entire family fell suspect, and the investigators found the evidence they wanted in James and Jennet — primarily Jennet.

James Crossley, in his introduction to the 1845 reprint of James Pott’s 1613 The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, is not as charitable towards Jennet Device — “the little precocious prodigy of wickedness” — as Robert Poole is.

A more dangerous tool in the hands of an unscrupulous evidence-compeller, being at once intelligent, cunning and pliant, than the child proved herself, it would not have been easy to have discovered.

I’ll agree with the “unscrupulous evidence-compeller” part. Crossley directly accuses the investigators of instructing Jennet to testify that the wealthy and respectable Alice Nutter had been present at a “great meeting of witches.” Apparently, the magistrate, Robert Nowell, had some sort of property dispute with the widow Nutter — and the fact that she was probably Catholic didn’t help, either.

It’s hard to read Pott’s treatise, which is redundant, in addition to being couched in archaic language and spelling. Still, I do get the impression that Jennet was rewarded for saying what the investigators wanted to hear. They refer to her testimony as “the wonderful work of God,” and there is a scene where she is placed up on a table in the middle of the trial to testify against her mother and grandmother.

James Device (and another child, Grace Sowerbuts, age fourteen) tried to please the court, too. Unfortunately, James wasn’t as good at it as Jennet — or perhaps he was a little too good. Based on Jennet’s testimony (and his own confession), James was convicted of being a witch, and executed. The account mentions that at his own trial, James was so “insensible and weak” that he couldn’t speak or stand, and had to be held up during the proceedings. Perhaps it had finally dawned on the poor boy that he had been too effective a storyteller.

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The Lancashire Witch Trials: Part 1

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Mother Chattox, Alizon, and Dorothy.
From The Lancashire Witches, A Romance of Pendle Forest, by William Harrison Ainsworth (1854)

2012 marks the four hundredth anniversary of the Lancashire Witch trials, the biggest peacetime witch trial ever held in England. The Public Domain Review today features an article by Robert Poole about the trial. Like most witch trial accounts, the story is both fascinating and depressing — not because of the occult aspects, but because of the demonstration these trials provide of how credulous and hateful human beings can be.

Unfortunately, these accounts are still relevant cautionary tales to us, today.

Poole’s article covers the history of the trial quite well. I’m going to focus on two specific aspects of the case. In this post, I’ll talk about the anti-Catholic aspects of witch trials. In my next post, I’ll discuss the reliance on (and abuse of) child testimony.

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