Aswangs: supernatural beasts in the Philippines

The Philippines is steeped in folklore and mythology. The very air seems supernatural at times and even today, Filipinos firmly believe in the supernatural creatures which also populate their country. Best known of these are Aswangs and Engkantos.

Many of these beliefs certainly date from the pre-colonial period and before the establishment of Catholicism as the dominant religion. Prior to this, the Philippines was not a unitary polity, but was made up of many small kingdoms and tribal areas. These all seem to have believed in a somewhat similar form of Animism but were all brought together under one faith and one colonial rule, by the Spanish.

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Animism is a belief system in which everything, even inanimate objects, is possessed of a spiritual power. It is animated, that is to say, it is alive and has will. This may be either benign or malignant. Trees, mountains, rocks, the sea, everything is brought into existence not by its physical reality but by its spiritual one. The tree that one shelters under is not really real, in this conception. Instead it is like the reflection, in a mirror, of the actual tree, which exists in the spirit plane.

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Animistic worship masks

In that spirit plane, one deity is dominant: the Great Goddess. Everything we see around us and we ourselves are actually manifestations of that Goddess. She takes many forms but is found all over the world. Indeed, Catholicism itself reveres the Goddess, with the person of Mary, Queen of Heaven — the same title that Inanna and countless others have borne — right at its centre.

Even the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, often thought to be as misogynistic as can be, has as its emblem the vesica piscis or mandorla, the symbolic representation of the Mother Goddess’ vulva and the portal both in to and out of life. This figure is found everywhere in Christianity.

(As an aside, this was what finally made me abandon atheism. I know the Goddess is real, so how could I deny Her? She is my mother, my sister, my bride and my daughter; She gave me life and in Her time, She will take that back. She is everything, because She is the Goddess.)

aswang lakanpati
Geena Rocero as Lakanpati, the Great Fertility Goddess of the Philippines. Lakanpati is both male and female and represents Divine Conception, the source of all life. She is One; undivided. She is identical with the Earth itself and has all her power. She is also the patron of all trans and gay people in the Philippines, as well as the farmers.

The supernatural bestiaries also found all over the planet are echoes of a time when we were all Animists and worshippers of the Great Creatrix, the Mother Goddess. I am grateful to The Aswang Project for this information and if you are interested in this sort of thing, please check their site out and share the love.

Aswangs

Aswangs are perhaps the best known of the colourful Filipino supernatural bestiary. They take a number of separate forms.

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A Manananggal in flight, her entrails dragging

Manananggals.

These are self-segmenting winged horrors. They can be either female or male but are usually female or in the form of women. During the day, like all Aswangs, they look like people, often elderly women. At night, however, they can separate their torsos from their legs by dividing at the waist. They sprout wings and then fly off, their intestines trailing behind. Like certain other Aswangs, they have long, prehensile tongues.

Manananggals seek out pregnant women, since they feed on the unborn babies. After landing on the roof of the house where their chosen victim resides, they will slide their tongues through gaps between the tiles or roofing panels, penetrate the womb of the woman and suck out the baby.

They make a distinctive sound, kik-kik-kik-kik. When this is loud, the manananggal is far away; when it is quiet, the beast is closing in on its prey and is at its most dangerous. Now the residents must frighten it away by banging on the walls with swords and other weapons, shouting ‘Umalis ka dito, aswang!’ (get away from here, aswang!) and making as much noise as they can. Throwing salt or wood ash also deters them.

If the legs of a manananggal are discovered, left standing where they were when the torso flew off, scattering ashes or salt on the stump will prevent the monster from reuniting with itself. Manananggals are afraid of salt and also, like all other aswangs, garlic and copper.

aswang-sigbin

Sigbin. Small aswangs that walk backwards bent right over with their arms extended between their legs, peering through them also. About 60cm tall, a sigbin lives in a cauldron with a cover. Sigbins feed on people. They can be driven off by beating them with the tail of a ray and, like others of their ilk, they fear garlic and copper.

Tikteks are aswangs with  a human body but who walk on all fours. They resemble oversized black pigs. Like manananggals they prey on the unborn babies of pregnant women.

Tikbalan. These aswangs have long legs and a human body, but a horse’s head and tail. Their legs are very hairy and their eyes are red. They live in trees and capture children, whom they take away to kill. Tikbalans hate nasty children most of all, so the threat of being killed by a Tikbalan is often used by irate mothers to discipline their children. They fear onions and salt.

Kapre. Not really an aswang, this is a very tall man, who smokes tobacco and usually lives in a tree. He is very dirty with red eyes. He has black skin and long unkempt hair. Mostly, kapres just observe, constantly smoking cigars. They can be good or bad; bad ones may prey on children and molest girls.  Holy water is an effective defence against this monster. On the other hand, good ones are protective and will ward off more malignant Aswangs. Sometimes these will live near to the entrance or gate to a property, where they are watchful defenders. There is reputed to be such a kapre living in a tree near to the gate of Malacanang Palace, the President of the Phlippines’ official residency. There is evidence that the name comes from ‘kaffir’.

Impaktas. These aswangs eat people. They live in clay pots. They look like people but are smaller and very ugly. They have red eyes and fangs.

Wakwaks. These are like birds but have human bodies; the name comes from the characteristic sound they make. They feed on the unborn babies of pregnant women and also capture people.

Tyanaks. These take the form of a child. They live in the community of humans. Tyanaks develop from the aborted foetuses of pregnant women. If these are buried, they may rise back to life as tyanaks. They eat people. They have red eyes and while they physically appear similar to children, they have the faces of very old people. They have prominent fangs. Garlic, salt and holy water are used to defend against them.

Dewendes are small dwarves. Sometimes they play with small children. They may be white, who are good, or black, who are bad. White ones will help around the house and look after the children. Black ones bring sickness and misery to the home. To avoid the black dewendes, an offering of chicken blood and candles is made and the people pray.

Aswangs are created when one passes an object like a pearl called a mutya from its mouth into the mouth of a human.

The legends of Aswangs are most common around the city of Capiz in Visayas. Most Visayans have a thorough knowledge of these horrors. One possible source of at least some of the myths is that in the area around Capiz there exists a rare hereditary condition that causes uncontrollable muscle spasm in the sufferers; it is easy to see how Sigbins, for example, might be derived from this.

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Please visit The Aswang Project for more.

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