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On Living by Philippine Myths

One of the watchwords guiding me since graduating with a journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas’ Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, in Manila, is the phrase “credible source,” an essential part of a self-imposed code of ethics alerting those engaged in the profession of reporting on current events. Any narration highlighting any of the elements of what, where, who, when, why, or how must be authenticated by witnesses or persons-in-the-know; and every sentence must be a true pronouncement, a dictum. Otherwise the believability of a story is at stake and the so-called hanging “Sword of Damocles” will strike at any instance of falsity. Heads will roll, so to speak.

But there were stories—myths, legends, and superstitions on the creation of the earth, Supreme Being and deities, and the existence of malevolent creatures–held as true by the elders in the community where my family and my father’s parents lived, even though the veracity and the origins of those narratives were questionable. This was scores ago. At age 12, I could not understand why these beliefs stayed in my father’s mind who, at that time, was a practicing Christian and passionate about his acceptance of the Genesis and the other Books of the Bible. Later in my college years, he told me that since those beliefs were passed on to him by his parents, there must be some truth in them.

Philippine mythology embodying myths, folktales, and superstitions was an offshoot of beliefs held by Filipinos during the Pre-Hispanic period. Some of these beliefs showed traces of “Hinduism” and were viewed by the Spaniards as ancient “myth” and “superstition” that needed to be replaced by Catholic Christian equivalents. Narratives on the Pre-Hispanic mythology centered on Supreme Being, deities, creation stories, mythical creatures, and beliefs. Philippine mythology is known today primarily from the collection of oral traditions passed down from generation to generation. At the present, some of the pre-colonial beliefs are still held by Filipinos living in some rural areas in the Philippines.

Ancient Philippine mythology varied among the many indigenous groups. Some believed in a Supreme Being (“Bathala,” in Tagalog) who created the earth and everything in it; others worshiped a multitude of arboreal deities (“Diwatas,” in Tagalog); another group turned to gods and goddesses seeking protection from malevolent creatures. “Diwatas” was from the Sanskrit word “devata,” meaning deity, a Hindu influence.

The supreme god of being “Bathala” was also addressed by worshippers as “Bathalang Maykapal” who dwelled in “Kaluwalhatian” (Skyworld, in English) with the lesser gods and goddesses. “Bathala” would sometimes send down to earth emissaries, called “anitos,” to assist humans in their daily lives. When the natives were converted to Christianity during the Spanish Era, “Bathala” was referred to as the Christian God.

Worshiped by ancient Filipinos as lesser gods and goddesses were “Amanikable,” originally the god of hunters, later referred to as the tempered god of the sea; “Idiyanale,” the goddess of labor and good deeds sought by natives for her guidance to assure success in their works; “Lakapati,” also known as “Ikapati,” was the goddess of fertility, the giver of food and prosperity, and patron of cultivated fields in agriculture; “Mayari,” second generation goddess of the moon, with her sister goddesses “Tala” (stars) and “Hanan” (morning); “Dumakulem,” the strong agile guardian of the mountain; “Anitum Tabu,” goddess of wind and rain; “Anagolay,” the goddess of lost things’ “Apolaki,” god of sons and chief patron of the warriors; and “Diyan Masalanta,” the goddess of love, conception, and childbirth, and protector of lovers.

The “Aswang” was the generic Tagalog term for all types of ghouls, vampires, werewolves, demons, monsters, and malevolent creatures. Foremost among them was the “Nuno sa Punso” (goblin of the mound), an elf who lived within a mysterious lump of soil, called ant hill. Anyone who stepped on this shelter experienced either good or bad luck. Superstition had it that permission had to be sought before passing by the ant hill by saying aloud “Tabi-tabi po,” (In Tagalog, a variant of “Please excuse me). My father surprised me many years ago, while hunting with air rifles for pogo birds in the forested areas in central Rizal Province, uttered these very words when we came upon an ant hill. He had to warm me to step lightly lest the elf would wake up.

The other malevolent creatures included “Duwende,” goblin, hobgoblin, elf or dwarf was a little creature who could provide good fortune or bad fate to people; “Tiktik,” a creature with a form of bird-like human, who at night would search for victims, and known for the sounds they made; “Garuda,” a large bird-like creature, with a muscular upper body of a man but with a face and large wing of an eagle; “Kapre,” a filthy giant who smoked huge rolls of cigar and sat on top of a tree, most often on top of acacia, balete, or mango tree; “Mangkukulam” (witch), a sorcerer who cast evil spells to humans; “Sirena,” a mermaid, a sea creature with an upper body of a human and a fish tail at the lower extremities; “Tikbalang,” a demon horse that was half-man and half-horse, with a horse head and a body of a human who travelled at night to assault female mortals; and “Tiyanak,” was a baby who died before receiving baptismal rites and who was vanished to the “limbo,” a chamber of Hell.

Philippine mythology embodying written myths, folklores, legends, or oral traditions passed on from parents to offsprings reminds us of a way of life not impacted by science and scientific discoveries. Because the old mythologically-founded taboos have been unsettled, there is everywhere in the Philippines and elsewhere in Europe or Asia a reportedly rising incidence of vice and crime, mental disorders, suicides and dope addictions, violence, crimes, and despair. In an isolated corner of the world, there is heard a crying plea to return to the “old religion”. It has been on myths, as historians of mythology would argue, that the moral orders of societies have been founded, myths canonized as religion. Since the impact of science on myths could have negative results, there is a need for a “scientific” understanding of the supporting nature of myths, that in criticizing their archaic features we do not misrepresent and disqualify their necessity.


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