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Fantasy-Faction World Tour of Wonderment: The Philippines – Part One

Welcome back to the Fantasy-Faction World Tour of Wonderment! This is where we shine the spotlight on different parts of the world and their unique contributions to and traditions of the fantastic. It’s been a while (October 2011) and I’m not your regular guide (that’d be Paul), but when Paul brought up the possibility of doing a World Tour “stop” in the Philippines, I pestered him to let me be the one to do it, and he graciously agreed.

Of course, since I’m a Filipino living in Manila (the capital of the Philippines), my approach won’t be quite the same as Paul’s. I don’t have a good grasp of which creators/concepts from the Philippines are the most well-known beyond our shores, but what I can do is give you an overview of our fantastic traditions, and creators whose work you may want to check out.

Philippine Mythology

The thing about Philippine mythology is that it’s not a unified body of tradition. You can speak of a Norse pantheon, a Greek pantheon, an Egyptian pantheon, but there’s no such thing as a Philippine pantheon. You can see the reason for this in our geography and in our history: the Philippines is an archipelago, and many of these islands were home to distinct cultural communities before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century and decided they wanted to bring all the islands under the rule of their King. So unlike other countries, the Philippines is home to more than a dozen unique indigenous communities, each with their own myths, epics, cosmologies and deities. Many of these stories are only now being made available outside their original communities, in the form of recordings and translations (the Philippine Ballads and Epics Archive is a great place to start), and we have a long way to go before we have anything resembling an exhaustive list of Philippine epics, myths, and legends. Still, what we do know is fascinating, so let me highlight a few of the better known characters and tales:

Alternative Alamat (cover)
Cover Art by Mervin Malonzo

Maria Makiling

She’s probably the most well known mythical figure in the country, largely because it’s hard to forget about you when you have a mountain (Mount Makiling) molded in your image. Maria Makiling is the guardian spirit/goddess of Mount Makiling. The most popular stories about her revolve around her love for mortals of humble origins. We have many mountain deities–probably because we have so many spectacular mountains – but Makiling is by far the most well known. (Which is why she’s the cover girl of my anthology.)

Bernardo Carpio

As is often the case with our legendary heroes, there is more than one version of the Bernardo Carpio story. In one, he is a giant; in another, just a powerful man. Bernardo Carpio finds his origin in a 13th century Spanish story, but this source material was adapted by Filipinos into a nominally pro-Catholic metrical romance with subversive undertones. (Adaption and subversion is something we’re quite good at.) At the end of the story, an angel leads Bernardo into a mountain, where he is eventually trapped. Some tales take off from this ending, and say that Bernardo is chained between two mountains, and that whenever he breaks one of his chains, an earthquake occurs.

Biag ni Lam-Ang

An epic from Ilocos, this tells the story of Lam-Ang, a hero of incredible strength and courage, capable of hurling a giant across nine hills. Lam-ang possessed many amulets, which granted him magical powers, as well as two pets – a rooster and a dog – that possessed powers of destruction and creation. For example, when Lam-ang is killed by a giant fish (it was a very impressive fish, okay?), the rooster is able to resurrect him.

Hudhud hi Aliguyon

A chanted harvest narrative from the mountains of Ifugao, this tells the story of how peace is brought between two warring tribes. The hero Aliguyon, versed in warfare and in the magic words of the priests, was determined to put an end to the enemies of his father. He travelled to the enemy tribe, but instead of facing his father’s rival, he faced the latter’s son. Pumbakhayon. The battle is long, fierce…and yet, frequently has humorous interludes, as when the youths take breaks to snack in the midst of battle, during mutually agreed upon timeouts. Eventually, the rivals learn to respect each other, and Aliguyon courts and marries Bugan, the beautiful sister of Pumbakhayon.

The Ulahingan

An epic of the Livunganen-Arumanen Manobo, closely related to the Agyu epic of the Ilianon Manobo. It’s way too long to do justice to in a few sentences, but it involves two main parts. The first is an exodus, led by a single family of heroes and heroines, from the earth to a paradise (not heaven) that has been especially created for them by the gods. The second part involves the defense of this paradise against a series of invaders. The Ulahingan is not as well known as should be, but I mention it here as it has some of the most distinct imagery of all the Philippine epics: rings that become giant lobsters; a ship that is pulled up to heaven on a chain; a golden shaman who foregoes paradise to stay behind and guide future generations. The paradise itself, Nelendangan, is lovingly detailed.

I have a more comprehensive list of myths (just the names) and deities on my site, Rocket Kapre. The Myth List for the former, and Philippine Pantheons for the latter.

Philippine Mythical Creatures

When people talk about Philippine mythological creatures, they usually think of creatures from the so-called “Lower Mythology”. These are creatures who live in our folktales as opposed to our epics and legends, creatures who feature in cautionary childhood tales, as opposed to the stories intertwined with our pre-Hispanic religions. As is the case with our myths, different regions can have their own versions of these creatures, which can make classification difficult when the same name is used for different things (the term “aswang”, for instance, can mean either a specific creature, or a type of monster that has four distinct sub-types). Anyway, here are a few of the most interesting:

Philippines - The Tikbalang
Art by Kajo Baldisimo

The Tikbalang

A demon with the head and legs of a horse, the Tikbalang delights in misleading travelers by assuming the form of close relatives. If you’re able to steal three hairs from the Tikbalang’s head, and keep from getting thrown off its back, it will become your faithful servant. Nowadays, it seems more common in our popular culture for the Tikbalang to be portrayed as a noble creature, as opposed to a monster or trickster.

The Tianak

A demon that takes the shape of an innocent child, but when picked up, takes on the form of a wizened old man with fangs and claws, who then tries to bite you. One way to pacify it is by making it laugh, usually by wearing your clothes inside out.

The Manananggal

A beautiful woman by day, this creature is able to segment her body–most commonly at the waist–and grow wings, enabling her upper portion to fly off while her lower portion remains behind. She feeds on internal organs with her tubular tongue, and is vulnerable to salt, fire, and garlic.

The Batibat

A horribly obese creature that lives in a hollow in a bedpost, the Batibat comes out if you sleep too close to it, and sits on your chest in order to suffocate you as you sleep. (There’s a male equivalent, but I’ll spare you that particular description.)

The Ibong Adarna

One of the few “upper mythology” creatures which is very well known, the bird has a melody so soothing it can lull the unwary to sleep, after which it defecates on its poor listener, and turns him or her to stone (yes, literally, not just out of mortification). It was much sought after because its song could also heal the sick.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s trip to the Philippines.  Come back next week for part two, when we look at some of the authors in the speculative fiction community from this unique country.

Visit the other countries in our world tour here:

The Netherlands
The Caribbean

Title image by Rob Carlos.



  1. Avatar EDB77 says:

    Great stuff! I train Filipino Martial Arts and have read a little about Filipino history, this was a nice introduction into the myths.

    Thanks…I am off to swing a barong around!

  2. Avatar Paolo C says:

    Glad to be of assistance! Come back in a few days for part 2. Keep the FMA flame burning 🙂

  3. […] Fantasy-Faction (Paolo Chikiamco) World Tour of Wonderment: The Philippines – Part One. […]

  4. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Love this “World of Wonderment” stuff

  5. Avatar J.L. Mbewe says:

    Thanks for sharing! I love learning about other cultures and their myths.

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