For Americans, mythical creatures and superstition tend to play at most a minor role in society and day-to-day life. With the exceptions of certain History Channel and Travel Channel shows, little attention is paid to these otherwise innocuous tales and myths. This is, however, not true of the Philippines. A nation boasting a rich culture and colorful history, the Philippines is a hotbed for superstition and stories of mythical beasts. Growing up the child of a Filipino immigrant, it was not uncommon for my mother to tell me these tales or restrict me from certain actions due to superstition; for example, I was forbidden from cutting my nails at night, because according to her it would cause her early death. As one might expect, Filipino folklore is wildly different than Western folklore and tends to take on a more supernatural bent. As a result, the myths my mother described were often outrageously strange and outlandish, yet also supremely entertaining. In the Filipino spirit of hospitality, I will share some of my favorite tales with you and hopefully give you an appreciation of my people and their mythology, as well as a good chuckle.
At the forefront of the monsters that haunt the Philippines is the aswang, a shapeshifting spirit that is known for hunting humans. My mother described it not as a physical creature, but more of a demon or spirit; just as well, its name derives from the Sanskrit word for “demon.” She also used it more as an umbrella term for monsters rather than a specific creature. The aswang’s description varies between regions, but my mother described them primarily as shapeshifters that looked human by day but at night morph into various animals or other monsters and hunt humans. Interestingly, the aswang is capable of forming friendships with humans, and avoids friendly humans while hunting. This gives rise to the saying “Mas mabuti ang aswang kaysa sa isang magnanakaw” or “An aswang is better than a thief.” One can detect an aswang by looking straight into their eyes and seeing if your reflection is upside down, or by looking at them between your legs and seeing if their image changes. Like other demons, they can be fended off using holy water, blessed weapons, or by standing on holy ground. They can also be defeated with a whip made of stingray tail.
While aswang may be an umbrella term, certain kinds are prevalent enough to have their own name. The tiktik, named for the sound it makes, is a harpy-like creature that preys upon humans. The tiktik is a possible morph of the aswang, and the two are often synonymous in parts of the Philippines. My mother described the tiktik as a bird-like humanoid that flies around in the dark of night hunting for humans, especially the old, sick, and pregnant. Favorite foods of the tiktik include phlegm and fetuses. According to my mother, the tiktik lands on houses and pierces the through their roofs with a long proboscis, which it then uses to suck fetuses out of their mothers. Fortunately, all the methods described for identifying and defeating the aswang also apply to the tiktik.
If you assumed that Filipino folklore only had one baby-eating monster, unfortunately you would be wrong. The manananggal is a derivative of the tiktik, and is mostly similar with one key difference: instead of outright morphing into a monster at night, it instead splits at the waist, with the upper half growing a pair of wings and flying away while the lower half remains motionless on the ground. It employs a similar hunting method to the tiktik, but may also seduce men before eating them alive. Unlike the tiktik, the manananggal is weak to sunlight, which can be used against it. In order to defeat it, one must locate its lower half and cover it with salt, ash or garlic; this leaves it unable to rejoin its half, and therefore vulnerable to sunlight.
Luckily, in addition to their odd fascination with baby-eaters, Filipinos have no shortage of benevolent myths as well. One in particular is the tikbalang, a creature with the head of a horse and the general body of a human. It is a long, gangly creature, with stick-like, emaciated arms and legs so long that its knees rise above its head when it squats. Despite its rather terrifying appearance, the tikbalang bears no ill will to humans, and is a trickster at most. The tikbalang inhabits remote forests or mountains, and is said to disorient travelers and constantly return them to the same location no matter which way they go. Luckily, the situation can be remedied by turning your shirt inside out (the rationale behind this escapes me). One can also ask the tikbalang politely if one can pass, or simply refrain from making too much noise while traveling. Additionally, if one is wily enough, the tikbalang can be tamed. This can be done by tying a specially prepared cord to the creature and then riding it while it attempts to throw you off. After it has tired and admitted defeat, you are then able to remove one of the thick spines in its mane and keep it as a servant. Another method includes plucking three golden hairs from its mane, after which it will serve you for the rest of your life.
Another common tale is of the duwende or dwende, the Filipino equivalent of fairies or sprites. Similar to Western fairies, they can be mischievous or helpful to humans. They often inhabit trees, houses, and dirt mounds. When a Filipino encounters misfortune, it is common for them to say “tabi-tabi po” or “bari-bari apo ma ka ilabas kami apo,” which is an apology to the duwende for bothering them in hopes that they stop causing trouble for the Filipino. It is also common to politely ask a suspected duwende dwelling, such as a tree or dirt mound, if one may pass. When a duwende takes up residence in your home, it is expected that you leave food out for the creature in order to stay on its good side. My mother is a firm believer in the existence of the duwende, and has frequent conversations with her sister about the actions of the duwende that live in her sister’s house.
Among all the Filipino legends, the kapre is possibly my favorite. Described a large ape-like creature that inhabits trees, the kapre is physically similar to a bigfoot or sasquatch. However, unlike bigfoot, it smokes cigars, wears a loincloth, and plays pranks on people. According to some, it wears a belt that renders it invisible and carries a stone that, if acquired, allows the kapre to grant wishes. Like the duwende, it can be mischievous or friendly towards humans. They may approach humans to offer friendship, or in some cases because they have fallen in love with the human. They will then continuously follow this human around, who has gained the ability to see them. If this person sits on the creature, then others will be able to see it as well. They also enjoy playing pranks on people, disorienting travelers and making them lose their way in the forest or mountains. If one forgets they are in their own home, it is said a kapre has tricked them. Fortunately, like the tikbalang, an easy way to escape its control is turn your shirt inside out. They can be vengeful as well, especially if their territory is encroached upon. My mother is fond of telling the story that her brother once came home badly bruised, claiming that a kapre beat him like a rented mule. Given the other stories my mother tells about my uncle, it’s more likely that he was actually beaten by a girl’s angry father.
While countless myths populate the Philippines, the ones I have described are the most well-known, as well as being some of my favorites. The mythology of the Philippines is deep and complex, reflecting the blend of cultures present in the islands. Hopefully this has given you a small glimpse into that mythology, as well as deepened your appreciation of the strange, yet vibrant, island.