20 June 2021
When I visited my birthplace in Negros after a long absence, I met two researchers who claimed that in the course of their work they had heard many local folktales, especially from elderly people. It would be a shame, they said, if these stories were to disappear when the current generation passes.
I noted that notwithstanding the numerous myths, legends, and folktales written up about this country, very few of them come from Negros. There are a number of documentation on the Ifugaos or the Mangyans by renowned anthropologists and mythologists. Even Visayan folklore—tales, artifacts, customs--are often sourced from the nearby islands of Panay or Cebu. One reason is probably that Negros settlements were relatively late in coming. In spite of the fertile land and abundant sea life, Negros was sparsely populated until the promising sugar industry of the 19th century drew migrations from Panay in the west and from Cebu in the east. The fourth largest island in the Philippines, it now has a total population of over four-and-a-half million inhabitants.
A number of stories in the book are derived from the Ati folklore. /1/ Before the coming of migrant settlements in the lowlands, there were the Ati--relatives of the Aeta of Luzon, the Batak of Palawan, the Agta of the Sierra Madres, among others. However, successive migrations had driven the Ati to the mountains. Even though progressively diminishing in number, many have retained their tribal roots, with a culture rich in legends and folktales, handed down not only within their tribes but also to the lowlanders. These stories are still present in the memories of those living at the foot of mountains such as Mt Kanlaon, and Mt Mandalagan.
Traditions and beliefs contained in these narratives exert a large degree of influence on the worldviews of their listeners. Growing up in Negros, I had listened to similar tales about the tamawo and the bulalakaw. Thus, narratives contained in this book have a ring of familiarity to me.
This is not to say that things haven’t changed. In my youth, I would see from time to time an Ati by our house, perhaps with her baby on her back, with items to trade. Just as they now wear T-shirts instead of loincloths, just as they increasingly draw their livelihood through farming instead of remaining nomadic hunters and gatherers, so we too get from them some of our beliefs in the enkantos and other supernatural beings, still quite common among many Negrenses today.
Narratives I heard in my youth, I carried to my adulthood. For all I know, they could have come from the Ati. However, with the admixture of different influences over the course of time, I could no longer discriminate as to which came from where. I remember well into my young adulthood, a number of times I would dream of my hair or nails being cut, or my tooth being pulled out, or even of glass breaking. On waking up, I would immediately click a couple of incisors on my wooden night table--this in order to ward off any foreboding of evil. Reassured, I would peacefully get back to sleep. (I don’t know where this idea originated, but I do recall that it was a compromise on my part. I should have bitten on the trunk of a tree, but living in the city with no greenery in sight, I had decided that any good old wooden furniture would do). Superstition? Or perhaps an occasional reminder to be careful?
As I grew older and more familiar with the ways of the world, my interests expanding, I remained fascinated with mythical stories. I still love reading about gods, heroes, monsters, mythical places—all sharing similar characteristics: from classical Greece’s Mt Olympus, to the Valhalla of the Norse, and the Negrense sky gods. More than the meanings and symbolisms of the basic beliefs of these ancient peoples, I simply love . . . the stories! They are short, easy to read, and full of adventure. These stories further stimulated my interest in reading.
I called this to mind when I recently heard about the poor test results of Filipino 15-year-olds when compared to others of the same age from 78 other countries. Conducted in 2018, Filipinos scored second to last in math, second to last in science, and last in reading./2/ This got me a bit depressed and I did wonder about the future of the country.
What can an ordinary person such as I do in order to contribute my share to the country's development? Then, I remembered that many critics claimed JK Rowling’s main achievement as a writer was not the artistry of the Harry Potter books, but that these books encouraged children to turn away from their Nintendos, even just for a while, and read! What if, I thought, we could become instead of being the texting capital of the world, the reading capital of the world! What most of us don’t realise is that reading not only stimulates our imagination, but also develops our critical thinking.
Indeed, a thousand-mile journey begins with a single step. Hopefully, the stories in this book could tease the interest of us avowed texters to get us away from our phones even just for a while, and learn to appreciate reading!
Also true, in the country today, there is a relative abundance of popular literature, especially action-oriented comic books. And for the scholarly as well, I have noted that there are a number of learned academic publications. However, there seem to be a paucity of non-fiction written works to attract the educated laypersons. For the so-called sophisticates, the commentary sections as well as the background information on Philippine/Negros history and culture would hopefully provide greater clarity on the significance of these myths. These should complement the many anthologies on Philippine mythology available to the reading public. In short, my writings are intended to act as a bridge between ideas expounded in academic works and popular literature.
Hopefully, therefore, this book would not only entertain, but also inform.
Footnotes: /1/ Folklore includes tales such as myths, artifacts such as pottery, and traditions; /2/ Study conducted by sponsored by the OECD countries.