Every country has its pantheon of gods and lesser beings, and the Philippines is no different. It’s got a pantheon of supernatural beings that Neil Gaiman, on his first visit to the country, said was pretty impressive. The great thing about it is that no matter how technologically advanced the Philippines gets, belief in the supernatural never wavers.
The scholar and folklorist Maximo D. Ramos is widely credited as the first academic to document what he called ‘lower mythological creatures,’ which include monsters and elementals, from different parts of the Philippines. His Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology, though written and illustrated like a children’s book, is considered canon for anyone interested in the subject, and is still the go-to piece of literature for horror writers, graphic novelists, and filmmakers to this day.
Here are some of the most popular supernatural beings in the Philippines. Most of them are from Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology, others are from popular books, movies, and real life. Everything is pronounced the way they are spelled, with short vowels.
The aswang is loosely classified as a ghoul, though unlike its European cousin, the aswang does not eat corpses, instead preferring to feast on live flesh. They can change shape, often appearing as oversized dogs or hogs. An aswang’s abilities can be inherited via familial line or can be procured for oneself by following a set of spells or rituals. It gained popularity in the US when it appeared in an episode of Grimm.
The manananggal is a type of aswang that feeds on the fetuses inside pregnant women. An aswang is usually a beautiful young woman who, at night, grows wings and whose torso separates from the lower half of her body and flies off to look for food. She alights on the roof of a house of a pregnant woman and lets down her long tongue, which attaches itself to the pregnant woman’s belly so she can get at what’s inside. The manananggal, which loosely translates to “will remove,” is probably the most popular supernatural creature in the Philippines.
The kapre is a hairy giant who lives in big trees (presumably because they’re the ones that can support his weight). He’s always male (at least so far), always smoking a cigar, and sometimes has red eyes that glow in the dark. The kapre seems to be scary mainly because he’s huge and hairy, but he doesn’t seem to be harmful. Kapre stories usually involve people getting started by a big face peering through a window, or being freaked out by a huge man sitting amongst the branches of a tree.
The tikbalang is the opposite of a centaur: it’s got a horse’s head and a man’s body. They are said to run as fast as the wind. Like the kapre, they seem to be always male, and don’t seem to do anything except startle people. The most violent tikbalang story I’ve heard was from a farmhand at my uncle’s chicken farm in the 80s, who was blaming a then recent slew of mysterious chicken deaths to a mischievous tikbalang.
The tiyanak is a goblin that disguises itself as a baby so that unsuspecting soft-hearted humans can take it home. Its first appearance in Filipino pop culture was in the 80s, through the movie Tiyanak, which basically built its modern mythos. The movie made the tiyanak out to be a monster baby, though older texts describe it as an old goblin with a limp who only disguises himself as a human baby. It resembles the Indonesian pontiyanak, which is also a baby-looking goblin.
The albularyo, whose name is probably derived from the same word as herbalist, is an herb doctor. They are still popular in the rural areas, and can sometimes be found in urban areas as well, if you look hard enough. Not only are they cheaper than doctors (hence, their popularity), they also know a slew of herbal remedies that can cure anything from the flu to witchcraft. Aside from being a healer, the albularyo is called when spirits need appeasing, and to rid people of demons and/or evil spells (because why would you want to rid yourself of a good spell?).
The mangkukulam, loosely translated as “person who casts spells,” is a witch doctor. People go to the mangkukulam when they want to do harm to others. They usually use sympathetic magic such as burying a lock of the intended victim’s hair, etc. I’m not entirely sure how the mambabarang differs from the mangkukulam, only that s/he’s a worse, more powerful version. Victims call albularyos to remove the spells put on them. Someone bewitched by a mangkukulam can exhibit symptoms as undramatic as contracting an unknown, medically incurable illness, to the more bombastic insects coming out of their orifices. Some people believe that contracting the services of a mangkukulam automatically means you’re going to hell.
A faith healer is someone who heals people through the power of faith. Though the healer claims to be Christian, his (he’s usually a man) practices are actually more pagan, with the trappings of Christianity. They’re mostly known to be charlatans, but attract crowds all the same because of the theatrics involved with the practice. They claim to be able to pull out sick body parts and conduct operations. There’s usually a lot of prayer and later, blood involved, though the patient feels no pain. The faith healer must not be mistaken for an albularyo because the albularyo actually helps people.
The enkanto (female: enkantada) is basically the Filipino fairy. They are said to be fair, with European features (probably the influence of Spanish colonizers) and live in a beautiful kingdom in another dimension. Sometimes, they fall in love with humans, and when they do, said human falls ill, and may die unless an albularyo intervenes. When invited to the fairyland (we don’t really have a name for it, though a local tv show christened it Enkantasiya, which works, but is also boring), humans can eat anything except black rice, because anyone who eats that will not be allowed to leave. This puts a damper on the diet of anyone who wants more fiber.
Not to be confused with the Spanish duende, the Filipino duende is a dwarf. They’re generally mischievous spirits who do whatever pleases them. Some folks believe that there are two or three kinds: white duendes who help humans and black ones who cause havoc. Sometimes, there is a red duende, who can be persuaded to go either way. They usually live among the roots of big trees and like to party.
3 thoughts on “A Crash Course on Philippine Lower Mythological Creatures”
Very interesting topic! I wish more people would write books about our mythology. Like how other countries have universities that tackles theirs.
In Leyte and Samar, this ‘land of fairies’ is called “biringan”. We also have the signature black rice. 🙂 nice article. p.s. there’s a typo on the manananggal bit.