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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carlos

Folktale Week and Filipino Folklore

This year’s Folktale Week was all about exploring my native folklore.

I Joined Folktale Week

For the second time now, I participated in one of Social Media’s most popular art prompts, Folktale Week, which happens around November. It is a week-long art challenge organized by talented artists from around the globe and anyone in social media can join in and visually interpret the daily prompts as they please by tagging the organizers and following #folktaleweek. The challenge also encourages artists to share traditional stories through illustrations.

sarimanok, a colorful rooster
The bird in the image is the magical mythical Sarimanok, a mixture of rooster, eagle and phoenix. In the Maranao legend of creation, a sarimanok called Manaul pecked the bamboo from where Malakas (Strong) and Maganda (Beauty) sprouted, who became the first inhabitants of the islands.

Folktale Week is the only art challenge I take seriously because it just gives me so much inspiration and it is good practice for book illustrations in any genre. Last year I made artworks from my original story, which I still intend to finish in the future.

This year I decided to feature my native folklore from the Philippine Islands. It's virtually unheard of unless you have a Filipino friend who dragged you to watch a campy Pinoy horror flick or likewise have been island hopping there and have engaged in friendly banter with the locals. Although as an honored guest, they would not even dare scare you with these stories about mythical creatures that our grannies told us to keep us quiet and stay indoors in the night. They're mostly scary stuff about blood-sucking and fetus-snatching vampires, ghouls, witches and necromancers! Some people still believe in their existence. With over 7,000 islands and nearly 200 languages you’ll be sure to hear so many versions of one creature or deity. So what better way to share some of our native stories than through visual storytelling?

In addition, I also featured regional weaving patterns, traditional clothing, tattoo art including a recipe for a chicken soup to highlight the rich culture from whence I came.

nuno sa punso, an old dwarf man dozing inside an anthill

Monday: Home

An ANSISIT is a magical being known amongst the Ilokanos of the northern Philippines, who is typically depicted as an old man living in mysterious earth mounds like anthills or caves. He owned the land underground and in the afternoons would roam below the huts or sleep on anthills. He did not like farmers working with tractors for fear of these machines destroying his home. He also disliked sweeping of floors in the afternoons and when offended, he would would cause the offender discomfort like bruising or fevers.

This being is also known in other parts of the country only named differently. In Tagalog, he is known as “Nuno/Matanda sa punso” or literally old man on a mound. In other parts a similar creature transforms into a piglet and causes misdemeanor against enemies.

manananggal, aswang, monster with long tongue attacking a sleeping baby

Tuesday: Secret

A MANANANGGAL is usually depicted as a flying vampiric female with only half of her body and having bat-like wings. The other half left in a hideaway within the thicket of the jungle. In daytime she lives and walks amongst humans but come darkness she detaches her upper torso from her lower body and sets off to hunt. She feeds off babies and fetuses from pregnant women by sucking the blood through the mother’s navel using her elongated tongue that passes through a secret hole from the roof of the victim’s house.

Sunlight is deadly and so she must return to her lair and her lower torso at dawn. It is also said that in order to kill the monster, one must search for the lower half of her body and pour salt, garlic or ash over the exposed flesh to prevent the transformation of the manananggal back into her human form. The same ingredients kept in the house should veer off any attack.

The Manananggal may well be the most popular monster or aswang in the country for other regions have similar creatures only with slight variations in gender, feeding habits and body structure. A wakwak from Surigao is something of human bird that flies in the night in search of a victim. The Bikolanos also believe in other beings such as the asuwang na layog, who transforms into a winged creature under houses, and the anananggal, who is similar to the manananggal. The ungo of Zamboanga also has wings, lived among humans during the day but feeds on the dead, while the tiyu-an of Capiz is a woman with a puppy by day but in the dark of night keeps its body in tact as it flies to hunt for babies and pregnant women.

ball of fire in a bamboo grove

Wednesday: Path

In the southern Panay islands, a fire ball, called MANGALAYO, chases lone travelers in the night leading them to dangerous paths and even into their deaths. In the north in Ilocos, it is also known as allawig or silew-silew that puts a person under its spell to disorient until the person collapses in exhaustion.

In order to break free from the incantation, one must take off one’s clothing and wear it inside-out.

Other versions of this exist in another form such as an old man who turns into a white rooster (bantay of Pangasinan), a half-horse-half-man (tikbalang in Tagalog), a huge dark man who hates noises (talahiang of Zamboanga) or similar but with enlarged head, grin and genitals (tambaluslos in Bicol, Mindanao, and Visayas) or an invisible being (mangigili in Kapampangan), who all lead night travelers astray.

kapre, a giant burly tattoed man smoking a cigar and a woman holding a torch

Thursday: Smoke

A KAPRE is an uncouth, burly, dark-skinned, gigantic, and cigar-smoking tree dweller, who terrorizes women and children. If in the middle of the night you smell cigars, see or feel a presence of a pair of large eyes by your window or on top of a large tree, it maybe your neighbor kapre chilling on a tree or visiting you. If you get lost in your evening strolls, it may also be the same spirit that is playing with you. Young ladies beware as he may take a fancy at you and take you for his wife till eternity.

This creature is well-known in all regions and though these tree dwelling spirits are said to have been around even before colonization though in other forms and names, the term Kapre may have its origins probably from the black slaves (called “kafir” or infidels by black Muslims and later adopted by colonial masters) brought into the country by Portuguese slave traders during the Spanish colonization. Renditions by comic artists also have evolved the look of the creature with the addition of a cigar as tobacco became cheaper and a mass commodity amongst the natives.

dragon serpent swallows the moon

Friday: Darkness

In Philippine mythology, BAKUNAWA (Western Visayas) was once a sea nymph who loved the heavenly bodies. She loved so much the bright moons adorning the night sky that she turned into a sea monster and devoured them one by one. Bulan, the seventh moon, escaped for he was frolicking by the beach completely oblivious of the terror. Bathala, the god of all gods, punished Bakunawa who would forever remain a horrible monster. Vengeful as ever, the sea monster would resurface to swallow the moon once more. People would bang their pots, blow horns and chant for the monster to release the moon. This phenomenon we know today as a lunar eclipse.

According to Bagobo legends, a gigantic bird called Minokawa, would also swallow the moon when food is scarce.

Earlier I had a different version of the monster which I fashioned from an ancient shark creature. But the more I read about the myth of Bakunawa and its origins, I felt that a winged sea serpent would fairly represent the terrible monster.

One of my childhood memories was that each time there was an eclipse, whether lunar or solar, our neighbors would give us pots and pans and tell us to make as much noise to bring back the sun or the moon.

dead white chicken, papaya, tree trunk, snake
These are the ingredients in making Tinola, a dish of cooked chicken in ginger and garlic-based broth.

Saturday: Key

In Bukidnon, invisible beings called MAGTITIMA require a sacrifice of a white chicken before giving permission to anyone to fell a tree.

In other parts of the country, similar gestures of gift offering is the key to be allowed by spirits to cut down trees or build anything in an untouched land. Likewise in Ilocos, a tree-dwelling spirit called mangmangkik/mangmagkit responds only to a request to penetrate a forest once a ritual of permission is done.

Many Filipinos would also ask for permission when passing through jungles or by trees and even anthills by saying “Tabi-tabi po” in Tagalog or “Bari-bari apu makilabas ku pu!” in Kapampangan all meaning to acknowledge the spirits, then excuse themselves for trespassing and that they mean no harm.

In the majority Catholic society, an offering of fruits, food and rice wine is also practiced all over but more likely placed at home altars to give thanks and ask for blessings in return. My grandmother used to bring food outside the house whenever we had a celebration to show our gratitude and return our good bounty.

headhunted skulls

Sunday: Crown

In the mountainous region up north of Luzon live tribal groups of farmers of the famous rice terraces and former headhunters until the 30’s. Among them are the Ifugaos, who practiced headhunting during violent conflicts against other tribes. The taking of heads was a part of a ritual and belief that some form of life energy reside in the human head and that possession of this could harness the force.

The severed heads were decorated and usually placed on a bamboo stake or wooden planks and then displayed as trophies in front of the hunter’s house or a central shrine that paid respect to the spirits that guard the village.

In Kalinga/Gaddang cultures, a SANGASANG shrine was erected to appease a vile demon spirit called Bingil. Until an effigy was erected, the bingil would plague the village with illness or death. Only a headhunt or large animal sacrifice could propitiate the evil spirit. Villagers would then chase it away with spears also used in headhunting.

Revision of an earlier illustration of Mariang Sinukuan

Give and Take

What did I take from this challenge? First, I was able to visually narrate my native folklore that is slowly dying amongst younger generations. Would you believe that the source of all these came from a Canadian documentary filmmaker and producer, Jordan Clark, who as an aswang enthusiast collated an extensive research about our folklore and mythical beings aptly called the Aswang Project? Of course I knew about these folktales since I was a child but the origins and expanse of Philippine mythology is relatively unknown to me. Stories like these are not even taught in schools despite having Filipino Literature as a stand-alone subject. Thanks to conservative Christian teachings, Manila-centric point of views, colonial masters oppression and western pop culture, these stories are slowly dying out.

Having realized how rich our verbal culture was, I took it upon myself to let the international audience know via two of the biggest social media platforms, Instagram and Facebook, that we also have stories to tell and I hope I somehow did it justice through my interpretations.

My chosen stories are stuff that would scare children and the way I rendered them got pretty dark. But these stories were really used by our elders and the Spanish priests as scare tactics to distinguish good from evil as well as to discredit the old animist beliefs led by women priests called Babaylans; not surprising that monsters in our folklores were usually depicted as females. Also to be honest, I cannot and will not do it any other way.


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