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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Floods, Tides and Crabs: More Folktales

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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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Mana Márgara

This is based on a story told by New Mexico storyteller Paulette Atencio, in the bilingual collection Cuentos From My Childhood: Legends and Folktales of Northern New Mexico. The story of dueling sorcerers reminds me of anecdotes I’ve read about Cebuano sorcery (both benign and malign) in Richard Lieban’s book Cebuano Sorcery, and in other sources as well.


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In the village of El Nido, in northern New Mexico, there lived a woman they called Mana Márgara. She was a lone, surly woman, and her face and body were covered with warts. She wore nothing but black, and people often saw her gathering herbs along remote paths, out in the hills beyond the village. The villagers suspected her of being a witch; they feared and avoided her.

In this same village lived Mano Lencho, with his wife Corina and their beautiful daughter Sonia. I don’t know why Mano Lencho and Mana Márgara disliked each other, but evidently they did. One day, Mana Márgara awoke to discover that her beloved cat was dead. She accused Mano Lencho of having killed her pet. Mano Lencho denied it, but wisely avoided Mana Márgara, and his family did the same.

The next day, Mana Márgara brought Mano Lencho and his family some fresh-baked bread. Mano Lencho didn’t trust Márgara, and fed the bread to his dog. The poor animal fell ill and died the next day. But when Lencho confronted Márgara, she denied the whole thing.

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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.

Enjoy.


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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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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Visits from Spirits: The Ingkanto Syndrome

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Balete tree. Image: Wikipedia

The only definition for “ingkanto” that I could ever get out my parents was “they’re like fairies”. According to the description given by Francisco Demetrio, they live in boulders, caves, holes in the ground, or in trees like the balete (a relative of the banyan tree) or the acacia. They are mischievous and capricious. On the one hand, there are traditions of them lending beautiful golden tableware for the weddings and fiestas of people in need; on the other hand, they can curse you and send diseases on you if you disrespect them (even accidentally), or if you don’t give proper greetings when you pass their homes. In the anecdotes that Demetrio collected, they are often described as fair-skinned, blonde and blue-eyed.

They also have a reputation for stalking people. The name Herminia Meñez gives to this phenomenon is “Ingkanto Syndrome”, though I don’t know if the term originates with her or not.

Meñez identifies three distinct stages to the phenomenon. In the first stage, the victim is visited by invisible beings, who try to seduce him or her away with displays of wealth and power. This is manifested to others who may witness the victim havings spells of stiffness and unconsciousness, disappearing for intervals of time without explanation, hanging from trees, or displaying other unusual behavior.

In the second stage, if the victim resists the spirits, they begin to abuse him physically and verbally. This manifests to witnesses as the victim becoming violent, and often extraordinarily strong. Often, family members have to tie the victim down to prevent him from “running away with the spirits”.

In the third stage, the victim’s family has brought the victim to a curer (a mananambal, for instance). Assuming the cure has been successful, the victim goes from wild and uncontrollable to “quiet and well-behaved”.

Demetrio describes the typical instance of the phenomenon similarly: “the disappearance of the victim and the seizure of madness usually accompanied by a show of extraordinary strength”.

In the traditional belief systems, the ingkanto syndrome can be brought about by any number of things. The victim might have accidentally violated the property of an ingkanto, for instance by destroying an anthill or mound that was their home, by building on an ingkanto’s land, or chopping down an ingkanto’s tree.

But there is another, more interesting folk hypothesis: the symptoms of madness were brought about because the victim was resisting their spiritual calling — namely, the call to be a shaman or healer. When the victim stops resisting and accepts the call, then the madness cures itself, and the victim becomes a more centered, thoughtful individual, one who is ready to serve the community through their spiritual or healing arts.

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Visayan Sorcery, 2012

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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.


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“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.

Accidental Witchcraft

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Cebuano Sorcery: Malign Magic in the Philippines by Richard W. Lieban (1967)
Photo: Amazon

I rediscovered this on my bookshelf yesterday. The author spent a year in Cebu City, and a year in a rural area of Negros island, recording local beliefs about sorcery, and observing folk medicine practices. The two are related, since folk healers often attribute their patients’ maladies to curses, or other occult sources.

The chapter on aswang is interesting, but I’ve already written a post about that. The Cebuanos also believe in another kind of witchcraft — a curse, really — that they call buyag. The one who curses the victim is called a buyagan.

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The Soul that Swam

I almost didn’t post this one. It’s a classic near-death story, so classic it verges on stereotypical. It does have a few unusual details, though, so I just decided to go ahead.

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Photo: John Mount

“This happened to my father, your lolo, when he was a young man, doing missionary work,” Dad said. “He had been assigned to a parish in Mindanao — Cagayan de Oro.”

I’m a bit hazy as to what “missionary work” means in this context. My grandfather was a priest who belonged to the Philippine Independent, or Aglipayan, Church. The church was founded as a reaction to the Spanish-dominated Catholic hierarchy, which slighted native Filipino clergy and churchgoers. Its nationalistic position attracted a lot of converts.

So I would imagine that my grandfather’s missionary work entailed ministering to an Aglipayan parish, one similar to the Roman Catholic parish that his parishioners had abandoned. Mindanao has a relatively large Muslim population as well; it’s possible that he also proselytized.

At any rate, from what my father describes, his father had many of the duties of a parish priest: saying Mass, visiting members of his congregation, managing the day to day activities of the church.

“One night, he came home quite late in the evening, after visiting with a sick parishioner. As he entered his house, a large black moth flew at him. He killed it. Then he finished up for the day, and went to bed.”

“When he fell asleep, he dreamt that he died.”

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Footsteps from Empty Rooms

It was my mother’s turn. She sat at the kitchen table, eating tangerines. Dad leaned over the kitchen counter with a banana. I sat at the kitchen counter, so I could listen to both of them.

“The thing to look out for is a house where someone died,” Mom said. “You know, in California, when you sell your house, you have to disclose whether or not someone died there, or if there was a tragedy in the house.”

“Really? I never heard anything like that,” I said.

My husband and I bought our house from our landlord, after renting it for eight years. Our landlord had been the second owner, and I would not be at all surprised if the first owner had passed away in the house.

“Well, did you ask about it?” Mom asked.

“Um. No.” I said.

“Well, there you go. But the people who bought our house in Pinole, they asked. They had a whole list of questions we had to answer for them! No one wants to move into a house with a multo. Maybe you have one in your house, and you don’t even know it.”

“If we don’t know we have a multo, then it doesn’t make any difference, right, Mom?” She made a tsk noise.

“Okay, okay. Did you have a multo at your house when you were a kid?”

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My Great-Grandparents’ house, about 1929

“Well, the house that you remember was built in the fifties, especially for your lolo and lola, so it was brand new when we lived in it. Before that, when I was little, we lived in the big house, my lola’s house, which is next door to where your lolo and lola’s eventually built their house. My lola had moved out by then, to live with her daughter, but my uncle, Tio Pedro, still lived there, with us. The big house was old, and lots of people died there: my grandfather, and some of my great-uncles and great-aunts…”

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