The Berbalangs: A Legend of Filipino Ghouls


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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The Origin of Sex Differences: A B’laan myth

01 LucaCambiaso Circa1560

Once upon a time, there were no men and women, only people. This is how the difference came to be.

Before there were people, there was the Supreme Deity, Melu. Melu had two assistants, Fiu Weh (the good spirit) and Tasu Weh (the evil spirit). Fiu Weh and Tasu Weh served as sort of the yin and yang of creation.

When Melu decided to create people, he assigned the job to Tasu Weh. Tasu Weh created people out of clay, and he gave them sex organs. But rather than split the sex organs fifty-fifty among his creations, he gave everyone both. The penis he put on one knee, and the vagina on the other.

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Trese: A Filipina Occult Detective Comics Series


When the sun sets in the city of Manila, don’t you dare make a wrong turn and end up in that dimly-lit side of the metro, where aswang run the most-wanted kidnapping rings, where kapre are the kingpins of crime, and engkantos slip through the cracks and steal your most precious possessions.

When crime takes a turn for the weird, the police call Alexandra Trese.

One of the things I did over the long Memorial Day weekend was read all the Trese comic books I could get my hands on (since I’m in the U.S., that isn’t very many). Alexandra Trese is a mysterious woman who owns a nightclub called The Diabolical and investigates supernatural crime in Manila. Budjette Tan has been writing the series since (I believe) 2005. It’s tremendously popular, and I can see why.

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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.

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The Divided Child: An Ifugao Folktale


Búgan was the only child of the god Hinumbían and his wife Dakáue. They lived in Luktán, the highest level of the Sky World. Búgan’s parents wanted her to get married, but she wasn’t interested in any of the available bachelors in Luktán. So her parents sent her down to a lower sky region, but there was no one there she wanted to marry, either. Then they sent her down to the lowest sky region, Kabúnian, which is the level just above the earth, and tried to set her up with Bagílat, the god of lightning.

Nothing doing, said Búgan.

“That Bagílat, he’s always running all over the Sky World, from the north to the south, from the east to the west, sending lightning bolts down to earth and destroying the plants and the trees. Why would I want to marry him?”

“In that case,” said Bagílat’s father, “maybe you should just go back home, to Luktán.”

But Búgan didn’t want to go home. Instead she went down to earth, to a place called Pangagauan, where she saw a young Ifugao man named Kinggauan, digging pits to catch deer and other game in. He was a poor man, so poor that he’d worn out his only clout [loincloth] and had to go about naked. He must have been handsome, too, because when Búgan saw him, she was filled with pity and decided that she wanted to marry him.

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Mangita and Larina: A Filipino Fairy Tale

This is a story from the 1904 collection Philippine Folklore Stories, by John Maurice Miller. It features two sisters, one dark, the other blonde, which makes me think that the story postdates the start of the Spanish colonial period. Certainly, the idea of a beautiful, good sister, and an evil, proud sister is a familiar motif in Western fairy tales (shades of Cinderella, anyone?).

This story caught my eye because it reminds me of when I was a little girl, with my coloring books. At some point, I had one of those big boxes of Crayolas, the 64-count size; this was back in the days when Flesh was still a crayon color. Or not — Wikipedia tells me that Flesh was renamed Peach in 1962, which was certainly before my time — but I remember that there was a crayon that was supposed to be flesh-colored, except it wasn’t the color of my flesh… .

NewImageThe original version of the Crayola 64-count box.
Image: Kurt Baty, Wikipedia

Coloring books (at least mine) usually tell a story, with heroes and heroines, good guys and bad guys. I would always color my favorite characters — the good guys, the princesses and their princes — with black hair and brown skin (Tan was the crayon I used, as I remember). The characters I liked the least, I colored with yellow hair and Flesh-colored skin (well, okay, maybe Peach). If I really disliked them, I used Apricot. And the characters I was neutral on had brown hair (different shades, if I was feeling nit-picky), or even red. Goldenrod-colored skin.

I know — it’s terrible. But in my defense, I was only four. I would be much more flexible about my crayon usage now.

Anyway, here’s the story, verbatim from Miller’s collection. I’m not sure, but I think the vegetation that he refers to might be kangkong, or swamp cabbage. It’s a tasty vegetable, if you can find it.


Mangita and Larina

This is a tale told in the lake district of Luzon. At times of rain or in winter the waters of the Laguna de Bai rise and detach from the banks a peculiar vegetation that resembles lettuce. These plants, which float for months down the Pasig River, gave rise, no doubt, to the story.

Many years ago there lived on the banks of the Laguna de Bai a poor fisherman whose wife had died, leaving him two beautiful daughters named Mangita and Larina.

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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….

Food Origin Myths: Two from the Philippines

I’ve been reading various myths on the origins of different foods lately. It’s an interesting and slightly gruesome genre. So many different countries tell stories of how fruits and grains (staple foods, usually) spring originally from someone’s body — often someone divine or supernatural, but not always. And quite often (but not always) female as well. A Mother Earth metaphor, indeed.

I began this blog with one such story: the Bicolano origin myth for bananas. In that story, bananas sprung from the hand of a enkanto (kind of like a fairy) who had lived as a human so he could marry a human woman.

Page 1The first page of The First Bananas. Click on the image to read the story.

Today I have one from Aklan, in the Visayas:

The First Mangos

Once upon a time there was a wealthy man named Thunder (Daeogdog). He had a terrible temper, but luckily he had a gentle wife, Mabuot (which I think means “kind”) to balance things out. Daeogdog and his wife had a beautiful daughter named Agahon, which means “morning”.

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Visayan Sorcery, 2012

800px Salagdoong beach
Salagdoong Beach — Maria, Siquijor
Photo: Peter V. Sanchez, Wikipedia

Once something is on your mind, you see it everywhere. I came across a feature story in BBC News Magazine today, called “Healing rituals and bad spirits on a Philippine island”. The reporter visited the island of Siquijor, to investigate what she calls “witches”, and the island’s tourism department calls “traditional healers”.

In Visayan, they are called mananambal. If you’ve been following my blog, then you’ll remember that I’ve written a bit about witchcraft and sorcery beliefs in the Central Visayas before, specifically as described in Richard Lieban’s 1965 book, Cebuano Sorcery. Lieban didn’t visit Siquijor, but he did mention it a few times. Apparently, the island is infamous for its witchcraft.

The BBC reporter, Kate McGeown, visited three mananambal, including a woman who is the last living practitioner of bulo-bulo on the island. Here’s Lieban’s description of bulo-bulo:

…the practitioner blows through a bamboo tube into a glass of water held over the patient; if the illness is supernatural, vegetable, animal, or mineral matter appears in the water, “extracted” from the patient.

You can see a video of the mananambal doing bulo-bulo on Ms. McGeown at the BBC link. It took three rounds of the ritual before her water came clear — apparently Ms. McGeown had some bad mojo going on.

Much of what she describes from her visit is familiar to me, from having read Lieban’s book. The mananambal she met with are devout Catholics, and they see no contradiction between their traditional rituals and their official religion. One of the mananambal dowses for spirits. Another one is an herbalist, who makes potions from herbs and roots that she gathers every year, between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

And this was familiar, too: Ms. McGeown asked the healers she visited why their services were still in demand. Because bad witches still exist, and put curses on people, they answered.

Or perhaps it is the more practical reason suggested by Francisco – that because the island did not have its own hospital until recently, traditional beliefs about illness and disease have stood the test of time.

Lieban said that, too — back in 1965. Back then, even in Cebu City, where modern medicine was readily available, people still visited mananambal, so lack of modern resources isn’t the only reason that folk medicine endures. Still, it’s a bit depressing that almost fifty years later, there are still places where people visit folk practitioners primarily because they have no other choice.

More Reading

“Healing rituals and bad spirits on a Philippine island”: The BBC Article

Siquijor Island: Tourist site about Siquijor. It looks like a beautiful place. I may have to grab my snorkeling gear and head out there for some, um, ethnographic research. Yeah, that’s it.

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….”

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