If you’re a 2000s kid in the Philippines like me, there’s a chance True Philippine Ghost Stories landed in your hands. To the unacquainted, it’s a series of books that features short stories on the supernatural — however, these are no ordinary horror stories. These tales have a Filipino flavor, something that Stephen King or Shirley Jackson’s works did not possess.
True Philippine Ghost Stories is easily relatable for Filipinos because apart from being set just around the corner, the series spans retellings of urban legends handed down by your grandparents. A mainstay of these urban legends is the eponymous white lady, and I bet any Pinoy you know has at least one white lady story.
Apart from the white lady, another familiar fictitious nighttime critter is the kapre. This cigar-smoking tree giant is often used to scare children into behaving. Through various retellings, these creatures have become so ingrained in our culture that escaping each other’s narratives is virtually impossible. They live in our plane as much as we live in theirs.
Mythology and cultural identity
Myths and folklore make up a big part of our childhood and even our cultural identity, so why is it that these aren’t tackled as much in most schools? Why do we have lectures on Zeus and Hades in our curriculum but not on Bathala, Apolaki, and Amihan?
Historians define mythology as “a story presented as historical, dealing with traditions specific to a culture or a group of people.” Thus, we can better understand our ancestors’ mindsets through these myths and acquaint ourselves with their way of life — and these will enrich our self-understanding as Filipinos.
Our forefathers believed that deities inhabited our daily lives. There are individuals in pre-historic Philippines who dedicated their lives in communing with spirits. So much so, that even before traveling, farming, or hunting within the vicinity, they would first ask permission from the spirits living nearby. Failing to do so would give them misfortunes, which is how the phrase “tabi tabi po” would be born. They also believed in entities living in trees and playful dwendes hiding artifacts or household items.
Our superstitious roots endure to this day. I can still hear a few folks saying “tabi tabi po” while hiking or crossing grassy places. Likewise, my friends still ask me if I want to drop by a restaurant after attending a wake for a quick “pagpag”; this is a longstanding belief wherein one should not go straight home from a wake, to ‘dust off’ spirits elsewhere and not be followed home. Surprisingly, even a guest saying “tao po” when knocking on someone’s door has a pre-colonial and mythological origin. Our ancestors used the phrase as a code to let people know that they are human and not an “aswang”, a bloodsucking shapeshifter who ruled the night.
Myths open portals to our past and can enrich cultural identity, because these tales are markers of our ancestral roots.
Foreign influence in Philippine mythology
Even before the Spaniards colonized the Philippines, our ancestors already had a rich library of folklore. In M.A. Del Rosario’s graphic novel titled Tales From the Kingdom of Tundo, we get a glimpse of pre-colonial Philippines and some of the legends we grew up with. His story is set in a place inspired by an Indianized kingdom in the 10th century that practiced Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. While Tundo is in fact, a real place, M.A. Del Rosario’s version is a mythical one that is home to kapres, tikbalangs, and even dragons. His foreword mentions several foreign influences in our culture. For instance, the word kapre comes from an Arabic word kafir that means non-believer in Islam, while tikbalang has Hindu roots. Moreover, the legendary Bernardo Carpio shares similarities with Greek god Atlas.
When the Spaniards came, they destroyed our belief in multiple gods by reinforcing Catholicism. However, we held onto our belief in malevolent spirits and deities. Instead of forcing ancient Filipinos to banish these spirits from our culture, the Spaniards morphed their perception of these beliefs. From seeing these ghouls as part of the nature of the world, our colonizers persuaded our ancestors to look at them as devils. The engkantos, which were believed to bring either miracles or curses, were turned into demons that can take one’s soul to hell. Even the babaylans, which were revered in pre-colonial Philippines, were accused of being mangkukulams or witches, thus erasing their healing abilities. Centuries after, we sometimes fail to remember the origins of these deities and continue to see them as a cabal of demons, rather than bringers of boons, curses, and ultimately an embodiment of our history. Our folklore is therefore a blend of the different cultures that visited our lands, as well as the beliefs of early Filipinos.
Adding a modern twist to Filipino folktales
Another way to relive our folktales and legends is through pop culture in the form of komiks, which are excerpts of serialized narratives, and graphic novels, which are longer than the former and have complete storylines.
According to distinguished literature scholar Soledad S. Reyes in her journal article, The Komiks and Retelling the Lore of the Folk, “Komiks have always been identified with the common people. It is easier to communicate a message through characters who talk the way you do and places that are familiar to you.”
Numerous Filipino artists have tried to reinterpret myths as komiks and graphic novels. Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldismo’s Trese, for example, is a komik that follows the adventures of detective Alexandra Trese as she deals with the supernatural. Set in modern-day Manila, our heroine gets to meet Filipino creatures like the tikbalang, duwende, and tiyanak that are hiding amongst humans.
Another literary work is The Mythology Class by Arnold Arre, which chronicles the escapades of Nicole Lacson as she battles creatures from Philippine mythology. Together with Mrs. Enkanta, Nicole takes to the streets of Metro Manila to encounter diwatas and kapres, but also epic heroes Sulayman and Lam-Ang.
Paolo Chikiamco’s Mythspace reimagines our deities as different races of extraterrestrials. The first volume of the series is a collection of six stories, which Chikiamco said “involves space opera tropes and is influenced by Star Wars.”
Apart from literature, folklore has also crossed over to other pop culture mediums. For instance, trading card games have emerged and aim to reacquaint Filipino myths and legends into our collective consciousness. One good example is the upcoming Lagim Card Game, which when translated to English, means “dread” or “terror”. True to its name, Lagim features supernatural entities from Pinoy myth: Sigbin, Higante, and Bakunawa. Lagim invites the player further into the lore, with each card displaying a short description of its nature, alongside its strengths and weaknesses.
Beyond traditional media, Pinoy lores have come alive in cyberspace. For one, the hashtag #ManilaEncounters trended on Twitter early in 2019. The hashtag paved a way for users to exercise their creativity by coming up with their own fantasy-slash-horror stories. The social media-driven writing prompt situated manananggals and mangkukulams in the 21st century. A notable tweet tells of the “millennial albularyo”, and the unfortunate driver who couldn’t navigate through Balete Drive despite using Waze. #ManilaEncounters spread like wildfire. No doubt, there is something eerie yet fascinating about reading horror stories that are close to real life, much like how ancient Filipinos coexisted with these spirits .
Through folklore, we are given a glimpse of how our ancestors lived in simpler times. Moreover, it helps us make sense of the mysteries of the world through a lens we can uniquely call our own.
Fortunately, a lot of our countrymen have been keeping our myths alive through different means. By doing so, a big part of our culture is preserved and reincarnated into versions that help the future generation keep in touch with their roots.
This article was written by our contributor, Kat Mayuga.