Footprints

For Cultural Hybrids Seeking Home

NEGROS FOLKTALES

29 August 2020

In my previous articles, I had written about myths and legends: The great myth of GILGAMESH (uploaded 15 August 2020) explores existential questions, and THE LEGEND OF SIETE PECADOS (uploaded 15 July 2020) passes on visions and memories of a distant, indeterminate past.

There are also lesser stories mainly used to entertain: like myths and legends, they likewise reflect the beliefs and values of a culture. These are the folktales—fantastical narratives of diwatas (fairies) and duwendes (elves), of kapres (ghosts) and aswangs (witches). Negros has its fair share of these tales, though often they are not as dark as those collected by the Brothers Grimm in Germany, "polished" later by Walt Disney.

The following are some heretofore undocumented folktales gathered by the researcher Seraphin Plotria as narrated to him by the locals living at the foot of Mt Kanlaon.  An active volcano in Negros rising 2,465 meters above sea level, it is supposedly magical, an untouched wilderness that beckons to many a traveler.

Sitio Guintubdan, the last human settlement before entering the rain forest of Mt Kanlaon, is the source of inexplicable stories told by the local folk, the wild orchid hunters, and the forest guides.

One story tells of a hidden spring coming out of the root network of a huge tree.  When the moon is full, there are frequent sightings of packs of small dog-like creatures, no more than a foot tall with furs glowing silver in the moonlight.  They frolic by the base of the tree from where the spring flows and settles into a natural pond, where also swim many luminous eels.

These creatures are harmless enough, but if one were not careful, one could encounter the much more ferocious Adlay, a creature with the body of a bull, talons of an eagle, and head of a man.  It can fell a mature tree simply by using its saw-like claws. To date, no one has seen it, but many have heard it wailing and howling during the full moon. It is believed that the Adlay guards and patrols the wild territories owned by the Suta sa Bulkan, the powerful lord of Kanlaon.

To help the Adlay, the Suta has planted poisonous trees called Kahoy sang Kamandag along the boundaries of his land.  As no one knows exactly where these boundaries lie, or what the Kahoy looks like, someone can innocently try to rest under its shade.  Death comes instantaneously once the tree has cast its shadow on the unsuspecting trespasser. 

It is also said that when the tree flowers bloom, they send sweet-smelling air wafting down the mountains to the dwellings below.  Along with it, however, come various respiratory ailments, but these are not the worst that can happen.  Those who by chance eat the delicious fruits of the tree are condemned to roam around the forest, losing all sense of direction, until they die of exhaustion.

The locals end their tales by warning trekkers to be very observant, and to be wary of the mystery and danger lurking around them as they wander through the woods of Kanlaon.

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Not all stories about the volcano offer dire warnings, for it also houses benevolent beings.  Deep in the thick forest was once a lunok (large, dense tree that could be residence of a tamawo). Beside it was a large bamboo house-cum-hospital that treated patients afflicted with stubborn illnesses. One such patient was Anding, a 63-year-old woman.

Interviewed by Mr Plotria, Anding said that when she was 18 years old, she was going blind.  The ophthalmologist couldn't find anything wrong with her, yet her illness was progressing.  Her family finally decided to send her to the hospital where two tamawo doctors operated.

When she first arrived, she was met by the administrator Tiyo Antipas who led her to her cot, one in a row of beds occupied by other patients who were likewise waiting for the two doctors.  It would always be after nightfall when the doctors were scheduled to arrive.

Finally, late into the night, Tiyo Antipas went around telling everyone to switch off their lights as the doctors were coming and they could only operate in the dark.  Soon after, Anding heard a loud whirling sound, as though a helicopter was landing, and she could feel the house shake. Then, she heard footsteps. One of the two doctors stopped by her side--she of course couldn’t see him but felt his presence. He accurately told her where she was from, the job her father held at the sugar mill nearby, and other personal details. That’s the reason she trusted him implicitly, “I could feel his tiny, cool hands,” she said, “that’s why I knew he was a tamawo. He injected me with something, then tapped my eyelids, rolling them up with his fingers . . . . Afterwards we all swam in the waterfall next to the lunok.” Within three months of similar visits, Anding was cured. Her family paid Php100 for each visit, but it was well worth the price.

There are of course other instances of faith healing elsewhere in the Philippines as the country is known for them, as are stories of mysterious disappearances.

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Ana, a young girl, and her best friend Huya, often visited the forest in order to collect firewood. During one of their usual trips, they saw on a mound of earth a shrub covered with small multi-coloured berries. Unlike the dull evergreens surrounding it, this particular shrub burst in multiple hues of yellow, orange, and red, and was unusually beautiful. They noted that some berries had turned maroon and were tender to the touch, so they picked the ripe pea-sized fruits--they were nectar-sweet.

Fascinated, Ana impulsively broke some twigs from the plant to take home with her. Suddenly, the surrounding forest turned dark. A thick, rising mist with a swishing sound enveloped her. By the time it cleared, Ana had vanished.

With Huya leading them, the villagers combed the forest until sundown but could not find Ana anywhere. What they did find were her clothes scattered around the mound. They repeated the search the next day, and the next, but never saw Ana again.

After a few days, the villagers noticed that the mound had gotten soft and moist, as though there was water welling up somewhere. Also, instead of a lone bush, there were now multiple bushes of the same kind covering the whole mound, each full of multi-coloured berries. In order to honour Ana, they decided to name the plant Anagas, the last syllable standing for tagas, which means “where water runs”.

The elders of the village advised anyone picking the plant’s berries to first ask permission, “Anagas, Anagas, baylo ta sang ngalan, imo si (ngalan mo), akon si Anagas” [Anagas, let us switch names. You will be (your name) and I will be Anagas].

Areas across the region added their own adaptations. Some say that if you didn’t ask permission, you would itch all over as soon as you reached home; others that you should never pick the berries of an Anagas during high noon, as the spirits there could be taking their afternoon nap.

At any rate, these mounds even when dry and without Anagas growing, are living spaces of spirits such as the Nuno sa Punso (dwarf-like creatures residing in termite mounds or anthills), and they should be respected by passersby.

*******.

Social scientists usually opine that we say or do something because it serves a need. It is true of individuals as well as societies. A social institution that fulfills no function will cease to exist. What then are the functions of folktales, many of which are extravagantly fanciful?

Firstly, I think a number of them could be quite entertaining. But also, as in the three stories narrated above, they help us make sense of our everyday lives, suggesting ways we can control our environment, even those things we do not understand.

Especially for the uninitiated, what we often call superstitions give us pointers on how to deal with the unknown, whilst giving us coping mechanisms that relieve our anxiety over them. Other times, they may act as bogeymen to scare children out of dangerous places. When I was young, I remember I was told not to go into the dark alone as there might be an aswang there.

Of course, these cultural pointers can also give us false assurances. The tamawo doctor tells Anding not to be alarmed if she sees smoke coming out of the mountain, or hears rumblings from underneath it. It would simply be he and his colleagues cleaning their homes.

In truth, Mt Kanlaon is a stratovolcano, the most dangerous of all volcanoes as it can erupt without warning. But this highest point in the whole of the Visayas with its wild flora and fauna can also stimulate the imagination, breathing an air of romance and adventure to those who seek.

 

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Source: Seraphin Plotria, Jr., a Hiligaynon writer and researcher on cultural and historical subjects.  These stories are based on Mr. Plotria's research report on Negros mythography.