Tag Archives: filipino folklore

The Oxen and The Tiger

Context: J is a 21 year old Filipino American college student who grew up in California, who was regularly visited by her Grandparents who shared stories from their childhood. The piece was collected during a discord audio call. 

Intv: “Hey! I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind telling me the story that your grandmother told you about.”

J: “ Yeah sure! So There’s a story my grandma used to tell, she heard while growing up in cambodia! Just a little outside of the capital of Phnom penh. It’s about the origin of tiger stripes and why ox have no upper front teeth.”

Intv: “Okay sounds great! I’d love to hear it!”

J: “So basically this tiger was stalking these oxen getting beaten around by a man while working the farm fields, full of curiosity, the tiger approached the oxen after the man walks away and asks “my ox brethren, why do you let the weak man beat away at you and make you work for him when you could easily kick him down and be free like me?” and the ox replies “it’s because the man has intelligence that makes us listen to him” the tiger then asks, “what is intelligence?” and the ox replies ‘go ask him yourself’ which the tiger does but approaches the human arrogantly because the tiger thinks he is the most powerful being in the world and demands that the human man show the tiger what intelligence was or the tiger would maul the human. the human responds ‘ah, i left my intelligence at home so i would have to go retrieve it but i don’t trust you around my livestock’ and while the tiger insisted that he’d wait for the man, they came to an agreement where the man would tie up the tiger to prevent him from potentially attacking his oxen. However, after tying the tiger very tightly to a tree the human placed a bunch of leaves and branches on the tiger and lit him on fire. The oxen began to laugh at the tiger while pointing at him with their front legs and they laughed so hard that they fell on their front two teeth and broke them and they never grew back. while the tiger screamed in agony until the rope tying him to the tree burned away and he fled back into the forest, with the black stripes being his burned flesh for forever”

Analysis: As a first time listener to this story the main thing that stands out to me is the human animal relations. Humans are depicted at the top of the food chain, not because of power but because of our wit. The unnamed human in this story even acts like a common trickster character, by pretending intelligence is a physical object. Also through the oxen we see another aspect of human capability and intelligence, through just how the oxen says “intelligence makes us listen to him.”

The Balete Trees

Intv: “I was hoping I could ask you a little bit about some of your folklore from when you lived in the Philippines.” 

X: “Yeah definitely, have you heard about balete trees?”

Intv: “No I can’t say that I have.”

X: “Oh! Well where I’m from, and I think throughout the Philippines there’s one where, when you enter a place where there may be a spirit or deity or a forest with balete trees you should say ‘tabi tabi po’ (“excuse/pardon me or like move to the side, please”) or else they might hit u with an illness or misfortune”

Intv: “Oh interesting, so are balete trees specifically capable of holding spirits? Or could it be any forest?” 

X: “It can be in any forest, but I believe it has to be a balete tree specifically.” 

Analysis: I think the message of saying “tabi tabi po” can be viewed in two different ways. First as a sign of paying respect to the dead, or as a sign of respect to nature. Perhaps it could be both as it involves a communion of spirits and nature that’s combined to a sort of humble reverence. The Aswang Project, a web service dedicated to preserving Filipino folklore, has this to say in relation to the balete trees. 

“Regardless of physical appearance, trees are quiet noticeably mentioned throughout our own mythology and lore. Some are associated with engkantos and other nature spirits while others play a vital role in the shamanistic/animistic culture of our Babaylan. Perhaps more than just a source of physical materials such as wood, paper and even medicine, trees can also provide impalpable treasures that we must learn to conserve and protect.”

Guzman, Daniel De. “Down the Roots of Mystical and Sacred Trees in Philippine Lore • the Aswang Project.” THE ASWANG PROJECT, 2 Feb. 2022, https://www.aswangproject.com/mystical-sacred-trees-philippines/. 

The Aswang

Context: X is a 20 year old Filipino American college student who spent the first seven years of childhood living in the Philippines, before moving with his close family to California. The piece was collected over an audio call. 

Intv: “Can you think of any, like, ghost stories, or urban legends from the Philippines?”

X: “Probably the most famous one is the aswang, typically depicted as a vampire but can also be a ghoul/were-beast or something of the sort and like to kill and devour humans dead or alive. Can also be a witch but that’s not as common. Their strength is severely reduced during daytime/in sunlight so we tend to fill our wakes/funerals with candles and leave some on the grave after to protect the wake/corpse from being attacked. They are a very varied monster because of how varied the cultures of the 3 main islands and even the tinier islands inside of them are, but the most common one is basically bat-like ghouls/vampires”

Intv: “Where specifically in the Philippines were you told about the aswang?”

X: “So my (dad’s) family that told me most of the folklore lived in the very southern tip of the Province of Pangasinan (used to be in north Zambales before territory changes) in a village/town named Nayom and we primarily saw them as ghoul-bat creatures that range from monstrous looking to almost humanoid not really a definite one shape (not too sure if this is the only thing my family thought but that’s what they told me as a kid). Filipino media typically depict them as ghoul-bat vampires still but some of them could transform to look just like a really pale human.”

Analysis: I find it interesting how all across the Philippines they have many different stories of the aswang, going so far as to have the aswang often being viewed as different things across different cultures. The friend that I interviewed also informed me that he believes that it’s known as a man/bat creature where he’s from because of the golden crowned flying fox bat, which is native to the Philippines and X argues the tale of the aswang comes from before our knowledge of the bat as a species and therefore has been misidentified in the past.

The Curse Cast on Salt Creek Elementary

Context: Z is a 21 year old Filipino American man. Growing up with a close community of Filipino friends and family. Z went to an elementary school within California. This story was collected over a Discord audio call.

Z: “So near the back of my school, a lot of people would go through there for quick entry to school. There was this bridge nearby and underneath it went this pretty deep valley, and what every kid in that elementary school always noticed all the time, whether they were walking there or driving there, you could always see down into the valley and what you could see was this worn out mattress down at the bottom. Every time. So what we thought every single time was that there was this homeless man, but what we thought was he was actually down there casting some sort of dangerous spell or something like that beneath the school. Cause we found out, and I think it was just a funny coincidence, but you’d find around our school an abundance of holes in the grass area, and we thought that these holes are usually from snakes. We always thought you had to be careful because there were a lot of snakes there because of the old man, like he had something to do with it. It was our little story but we really always believed he was casting some spells.” 

Intv: “And what elementary school was this located at?”

Z: “This was at Salt Creek Elementary, and like every kid at the school knew about it.” 

Intv: “Do you think there was any sort of cultural significance to it being a curse? Thinking back on my time in elementary school in a very western upbringing, I don’t think I was particularly aware of curses as much as I was ghosts or spirits.”

Z: “I think, because among my friends a lot of them at the time were Filipino, so what kind of relation there would be culturally, I definitely think it could be related to this monster my mom always told us about in the dark. She would call it the mumu, or that’s what we called it as kids, I think that’s kinda the relation there, as we never saw him in the morning. So we thought maybe he was only there at night when it’s dark. Cause in the day every time we’d pass the mattress we’d never see anyone, and at the time as kids we just ended up putting it all together.”

Intv: “Can I ask you a little more about the mumu?” 

Z: “Yeah, I think it literally translates to monster in Tagalog, I think it’s like your equivalent to a boogeyman. You know? The whole, like, ‘look out or the mumu is gonna getcha!’ thing. At least that’s how I saw it.”

Analysis: After looking up a translation I can confirm that mumu translates to either ghost or boogeyman. This story speaks heavily on how our folk and specifically our more sinister folklore tends to reside in the dark. Across cultures, as growing up as a child in America I was aware of the mumu, just of a different name. It makes one wonder where the mumu or boogeyman originated or how it transcends cultures. A shadowy figure who targets children is seen often in folklore across the world. 

Biting your tongue

Background: This is a belief the informant has been told by multiple friends and coworkers who are Filipino.

Biting your tongue

KD: So, in the event you bite your tongue, you ask whoever you’re with to give you a letter of the alphabet. So if I bite my tongue and I say okay give me a letter, you say S–somebody that I know whose name starts with S is currently talking about me, could be good, could be bad.

Me: Who did you hear about that from?

KD: It’s a Filipino thing, heard about it from my coworker. Uh, he was explaining various Filipino customs and superstitions.

Me: And do you think about that every time you bite your tongue?

KD: Yeah, it’s something where it’s like that’s just, that’s weird, but like, also like, it makes sense.

Me: And why does it make sense?

KD: Cause, you bit your tongue and it’s bad to bite your tongue and people are talking bad about you.

Context of the performance: This was told to me in an in person conversation.

Thoughts: Although the informant is not Filipino and shares this information from an etic perspective, he believes it and thinks about it every time he bites his tongue. There may be more meaning from an emic perspective, since they would actually be a part of the culture this belief is in. There seems to be a connection between it being the tongue and the belief about the corresponding speech. As a form of synecdoche, the tongue represents speech, and the physical pain of the bit could symbolize a biting remark or pain of talking bad about somebody behind their back. This, however, only makes sense if someone’s speaking ill of you and the pain doesn’t mean anything, but the bite is more of an alert of speech.