Food and fear. Two things that are part of every culture’s legacy. In the Philippines, the cultural preoccupation with both manifests in legends and myths of old, and more recently, in gossip, rumors, and urban legends. Fear and hunger are two of the strongest forces that drives human beings. And despite the proliferation of horror movies and monster tales, few people stop to consider the tie that binds two of the basest human emotions.
Enter the monster
The scholar Maximo Ramos described Philippine lower mythology as the branch of supernatural creatures that below deities. These include the cigar-smoking kapre, who dwells in big trees; the tikbalang, a man with a horse’s head; and the duwende, or dwarves; the enkanto, the Filipino equivalent of high fey; and of course, the aswang, which is a catch-all term for ghoul, viscera sucker, vampire, witches, and shape shifters.
The aswang has always captured the Filipino imagination; the first film with sound produced in the country was called Ang Aswang–The Aswang. Long the stuff of legends, the aswang has made appearances in komiks, local comics in the 60s and 70s, movies, fiction, TV shows, and graphic novels. Tales of the aswang has even reach foreign shores, with American TV show “Grimm” devoting one episode to this Filipino supernatural scourge.
Where did the aswang come from? It’s generally accepted nowadays that the aswang and some of its ilk entered Filipino pop culture as part of psychological warfare. Tales of these midnight creatures have been around since before the Philippines was colonized by Spain.
They were used to full effect in WWII by the Americans, who spread rumors about aswangs roaming an area to prevent the rise of the Hukbalahap guerrillas. To make the myths more believable, lone travelers would be murdered and made to look like aswang victims.
Tales people tell
The 1970s and 80s saw a rise in aswang lore. During the 70s, the proclamation of Martial Law came with a veritable media blackout, where news was heavily edited so that it reflected well on the government. The lack of media had an interesting side effect: the rise of urban legends. As humans have done since time immemorial, people turned to the supernatural to explain what they didn’t know or couldn’t understand. People disappeared for no reason, or were found murdered in fields. Children were warned not to go out at night because the aswang might take them. Aswangs were used, once again, as a form of control.
Their popularity continued into the 80s, this time in cinema. Director Peque Gallaga turned the aswang into a cultural icon, starting with “Aswang,” his short film in the first shake Rattle and Roll trilogy. The film took the premise of the aswang as a beautiful, solitary woman who grew wings at night and whose upper half of her body separated from her lower half so that she could fly off in search of food and cemented it in the public consciousness. The aswang in question was a manananggal, a viscera sucker that likes to feast on fetuses still in their mother’s bellies.
There are many stories about mananaggals. One of the most popular one is about a man and his pregnant wife who let a friend stay the night. The man was awakened in the middle of the night by the rustling of their thatched roof. He watched as a thin pink tube lowered itself from the roof, fastening itself on his wife’s belly button. He tried to wake her but she was sound asleep, oblivious to the threat.
Scared, the man took his bolo and cut the mysterious tube. He heard a screech of pain, followed by the sound of giant wings. He spent the entire night keeping watch over his slumbering wife. When his wife woke, he told her the story and was amazed that she had slept through the whole thing. He tried to look for the tube but couldn’t find it. They asked the friend who was staying over if he had seen or heard anything, but he couldn’t answer, because is tongue had been cut off in the night.
Fighting back with food
There are many ways to repel or kill an aswang. Depending on who you ask, they can be kept at bay by hanging strands of garlic by the windows. They do not like ginger. They hate holy water. They can die by fire. One of the ways to kill a manananggal is to sprinkle salt on the lower half of its body. You can kill an aswang by driving a bamboo stake through his or her back. Beheading works as well. The tail of the stingray is a potent charm, and in director Erik Matti’s movie Tiktik: The Awang Chronicles, was cleverly used as a whip.
Aswangs eat people. People fight back with food. But it is just more than a case of food versus food. Listed down, the items that are repulsive or fatal to the aswang are: salt, garlic, ginger, holy water, bamboo, stingray tail, and fire. They are also, more or less, the ingredients of a stew. And if you add vinegar, they become ingredients for adobo, arguably the Philippines’ national dish (sorry, lechon).
Though there have been stories written that turn the tables on the aswang, making it the prey instead of the hunter, as far as I know, there haven’t been any that focus on the culinary aspects of traditional aswang repellants. Taken separately, these ingredients are crippling and deadly to this particular agent of the supernatural. But taken together, they have the potential to make a delicious, if unsettling, dish.
Pass the rice.
From Aswang to Adobo was first published in Perro Berde 2016.