Vincente Rafael is a professor of history at the University of Washington, specializing in Philippine history, colonialism and nationalism. RadioActive youth reporter Maria Caoagdan interviewed Rafael for her story exploring Filipino supernatural creatures.
Caoagdan: So, what do you believe is the source of all of this folklore in the Phillipines?
Rafael: As you know, every society has folklore. It’s hard to say what the definitive source of these folktales are.
Where they do emerge is in people's attempt to make sense of their world: Why do you tell stories about how things happen or where things come from? Because essentially you don't understand them so you make things up.
People believe them, people pass them down, they become folklore, and they become the way things are. In the case of pre-colonial Filipinos and Filipinos today, the kind of folklore that existed was, more likely than not, handed down from pre-colonial period and many of them mixed in with Christian beliefs as well as other Southeast Asian beliefs.
Caoagdan: So what would you say about the folklores of the evil mythological creatures?
Rafael: That’s a very good question. Why are there beliefs about evil spirits? Again this is something that's quite universal. So we have to take into account the fact that, if we're all mortal, why is it that we're even alive in the first place?
One of the ways in which they try to make sense of their mortality is by assuming that there must be something more. There must be something beyond death, and what is beyond death?
Well it must be this thing called the spirit world. It must be this thing called the realm of the gods, right? And so from then on they begin to imagine what these realms of the gods — what the spirit world — are. They begin to think, well, because it is beyond this, it must be something that has a certain power over us.
One of the ways in which they understand this power is by thinking of this power as essentially divided into two: one is, power that is beneficent—that is good. Another is, power that is malevolent—that is bad.
One of the ways in which they try to make sense of this divide in the spirit world is to think of themselves as being in a kind of intermediary position. You need to be able to negotiate between yourself and the spirit world.
You need to be able to placate the evil spirit so they won't harm you, they won't cause your daughter to die, they won't bring misfortune on your family. And you do that by trying to attract the favor of the good spirits. You make sure that the good spirit can help you fend off the effects of the bad spirits.
One of the ways to do that is sacrifice. You make sacrifice, you say prayers, you bring what they call amulets or anting-anting—you probably heard that word.
One of the ways of placating them is making sure that you respect their space. Ancient Filipinos had a very very acute sense of the space where spirits live. Where do they live? They live in certain places in nature.
See, this is the big difference between ancient Filipinos and, say, other religious beliefs in spirits. Other religious beliefs in spirits tend to think of spirits as living in heaven or in hell — some place beyond.
In the case of ancient Filipinos, they believe that nature is infused with all sorts of spirits. Some good, some bad, and some spirits which can be good, but which can also be bad if you do not respect them.
So, for example, you've got to respect the spirit of the tree. If you don't respect the spirit of the tree, if you don't respect its space, if you throw garbage, if you urinate next to it, if you defecate, you do all kinds of things that defile that space, that tree will get even and will punish you. So you have to respect it. You have to keep it clean, you have to ask permission every time you take a branch, or every time you pass, and so forth and so on. So, life consists of constantly negotiating between good spirits and bad spirits.
Caoagdan: To this day, stories of mythological creatures are still widely and firmly believed by many people in the Philippines, especially those who live in the Provinces [rural areas of the Philippines]. Why is that?
Rafael: Again, very simple reason. These beliefs, these spirit tales, are ways of making sense of the world. They are forms of folk knowledge that are readily accessible, passed down from generation to generation.
For example, people still believe in things like the tikbalang — the kind of a half-horse creature, a kind of mythological creature — that dwells in the forest. And, as a result, Filipinos tend to be very scared of the forest.
Unlike, for example, in the Pacific Northwest where forests here are seen as these beautiful spaces where you go out camping. You would never go camping in the Philippines, right? I mean, that is absolutely unthinkable. Why would you want to mess with the spirit world by going to the forest and disturbing the nunos, the tikbalangs, the tiyanaks and so forth and so on, right?
The other reason — and I think this is something perhaps a little bit more contemporary — people in the Philippines, especially in the provinces, don't have ready access to things like health care.
Giving birth in the provinces is very difficult if you don't have access to hospitals. A lot of people give birth at home. And, the more fragile, the more brittle, the more precarious life is, the more people tend to fall back on traditional beliefs in order to find a way of ensuring the help of unseen forces.
Caoagdan: My grandmother told me her first account experiences of her encounter with tikbalangs and aswangs. When she was about nine years old she encountered what she called an aswang. There was this head that suddenly fell from the roof.
She was with one of her friends, and they know that it was a head because they saw the face and it had red eyes. Then it just continued to roll out of the house. What makes it more valid is that her friend saw it and then her father also came to see it. First of all, I would like to ask you if you yourself believe in these types of creatures?
Rafael: I'll tell you my quick answer to that. It's not so much that I believe in them. I believe that people believe in them. There's no question that they believe in them. As to whether or not they actually happen is beside the point.
Caoagdan: So what would you say about that story that my grandma told me?
Rafael: I think that it’s probably a lot more common than you would think. People tend to "see" things or tend to believe that they see things precisely during moments of deep anxiety, deep uncertainty.
What they see in front of them are, in some ways, ways of resolving the deep anxiety and the deep ambiguities that they have in their minds. For us, who may not be exposed to these kinds of phenomenon on a regular basis, the equivalent of this is dreams.
We all dream. When we try to think about our dreams, usually our dreams consist of either extremely ordinary unremarkable things or fantastic unbelievable things. And it’s very difficult to account for our dreams and yet we're certain that we dreamt them, right? And we’re certain that they must mean something.
Now, what are dreams? Dreams are ways of making sense of the contradictions, the unresolved issues, the puzzles that we encounter in everyday life that our conscious waking hours can't make sense of. And because we can't make sense of them, it is what we think of as our unconscious that takes over.
And that unconscious only emerges when we're asleep. Because what happens when you're asleep is that you're vulnerable, your mind is wandering, you're relaxed. And so therefore all kinds of images, all kinds of experiences you had during the day rise up and kind of sort themselves out and they come in the form of a dream.
I think the same thing happens in the case of your grandmother, is that you might think of them as a kind of waking dream. It's a form of dreaming while awake. And so, it's not a question of did it actually happen.
It would be like asking, did you actually dream? Well, of course, I know you dreamt, right? Was it actually real? Well of course the dream was real, now whether or not the dream itself related to something that exists in the real world, that's beside the point.
So her vision, her imagination of the aswang is, as I said, like a kind of waking dream that she had. And again, the whole point is to resolve a whole set of anxieties. It's a way of dealing with crises, fears, and so forth.