[OPINION] Aswang: A strange new energy

Sylvia L Mayuga

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[OPINION] Aswang: A strange new energy
Contemporary Filipinos have humorously deconstructed and reconstructed the aswang and its beastly kin as intimate parts of the Filipino worldview, much like the beasts of ancient Greek mythology

What is this strange new energy the Bicol region has been sending out throughout this country in crisis? Its latest surprise, if Comelec is to be believed – in-your-face victory only Naga City gave the whole oppositionist senatorial slate Otso Diretso vis-à-vis its national defeat.

Was it Jesse Robredo’s legacy personified by his widow Vice President Leni?  Likely, but only partially. As a prominent Nagueño points out, Naga has always been stubbornly oppositionist since they defied Marcos in the ‘60s. More interesting is their relatively undamaged culture’s inner life far richer than obsessive politics.  

Palpable pride in Bicol’s indigenous languages and cultural practices focused in the written word is more widely disseminated in social media these days.   

Pride of the heap are the Ateneo de Naga University Press’s new books, designed to be small and slim but packed with original concepts matched by fresh vibrant art by gifted local artists. The first was the The Last Sacristan Mayor and the Most Expensive Mass for the Dead: Tales of Ticao by the polyglot professor Tito Valiente, followed by the moonlighting dermatologist Mary Jane Guazon-Uy’s The Book of Pedro Bautista. 

Enchantment is real in these two books firmly attached to their native roots. And it seems to spring from their rich volcanic soil, clean waters, sinuous forests, and looming volcanos wedded to artistic imagination.  

Clearly a source of inspiration is oral tradition from Bicol’s rich vein of local myths, folklore, and history in this environment. Combining fiction and non-fiction, both Valiente and Guazon-Uy tickle the mind to a new way of seeing familiar to gems of world literature.  

How naturally such energy led to a Savage Mind Bookshop recently opened at the center of these writers’ 4-century old native Naga. A proudly independent cultural hub and “creative workspace,” Savage Mind was brought to life by a Bicol migrant now Deputy Director of Ateneo de Naga University Press – the prizewinning poet, filmmaker and translator Kristian Sendon-Cordero. Soon after its opening, it was hosting live wire discussions for young and old on subjects ancient and new, some of them Bicolano translations of world classics like The Little Prince, and recently, two full-length prizewinning novels in Bicolano. 

No surprise then that Savage Mind is becoming a virtual magnet for like minds in and out of Bicol, reminiscent of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Bloomsbury in early 20th century London.  

A recent major event in Savage Mind was a lecture/performance by the outrageous original Allan N. Derain, a Bulakeño fictionist teaching creative writing and Philippine literature at the Ateneo de Manila, toting his two ground-breaking books. The first, the fictional tour de force Ang Banal na Aklat ng mga Kumag, retells the story of Creation in hilarious human dialogue with the tiniest forms of life.  

Contemplating the near invisible world of the gnat-like kumag, Derain turns the visible world inside out as kumag endowed with human speech poke fun at alternately tragic and comical human failings. Illustrated by the author himself, Ang Banal na Aklat richly deserves the Palanca first prize it won for the Filipino novel in Tagalog, bending and twisting in surreal folklore parody.  

Equally provocative is Derain’s second book, May Tiktik sa Bubong, May Sigbin sa Silong – tiktik being a synonym for the humanlike aswang notorious for feeding on human livers, and sigbin, the goat-like minion he sends out to hunt for his food.

This first-ever anthology on these creatures of childhood lore breaks centuries of silence beneath the modern Filipino’s veneer of westernized rationalism which has long dismissed as superstition. Now contemporary Filipinos have humorously deconstructed and reconstructed the aswang and its beastly kin as intimate parts of the Filipino worldview, much like the beasts of ancient Greek mythology.

This philosophical turn of mind in the pre-academic realities of Filipino cultures and languages – plural because there are many – is indeed well worth a close second look in the chaotic confusions of 21st century Philippines. 

Adopted by the world of komiks and pop movies since the ‘50s, reexamining the aswang and company’s continuing hold on the folk mind 7 decades later do lead to a striking philosophical question: Is their out-of-this-world existence really a font of knowledge, creativity, and who knows, even liberation from still colonized mindsets? 

In search for deeper meaning in folk knowledge, Derain’s anthology portrays these mythical creatures as more powerful and self-determined than the vampires and werewolves of the West. 

As artist scholar Edgar Calabia Samar points out, famous komiks creators like Mars Ravelo turning snakes, trees, and rocks into human-like creatures with nature’s own powers casts new light on folk “superstition.”  

Acknowledging their hold on the folk mind as the country was taking its first baby steps towards industrialization amid social unrest from the wartime Huk movement- turned-communist, is indeed a desirable, if belated first step to deeper understanding of our Filipino selves. 

As Derain suggests in his own essay, the CIA’s “Ugly American” Edward Lansdale’s successful use of the aswang as a counter-insurgency tool in the ’50s was a major lesson for Filipinos credulous in the deadly colonizing grip of the West.  It even set the template for the CIA’s anti-communist campaign all over Southeast Asia that started in the ’60s. That’s how powerful it was. 

No longer. In this book, aswang and kin are no longer just imaginary creations. They’re redefined as conscious beings in human-like bodies the creative folk themselves imagined, whose superhuman powers bent on domination obliged  humans to defend themselves with new learning.  

This book neither blinks nor winks as it sums up the aswang and company as personifications of a challenge to full consciousness in a poor, still largely ignorant country run by atavists. Finally asking the right questions, May Tiktik sa Bubong, May Sigbin sa Silong offers promising answers.  

But why is this energy radiating from Naga City today? An answer glimmers in the alternate reality Valiente’s and Guazon-Uy’s books opened to discourse, aided by Valiente’s social and mass media presence as public anthropologist, film critic/historian and creative mythologist.  

Guazon-Uy’s The Book of Pedro Bautista introduced us to the native healer Maestra Angge who would have been called a babaylan before the Spanish conquerors condemned our people’s native healing and divination as “works of the devil.” In its violent suppression by medieval friars began the crippling fear of our  own gifted healers as “aswang” perverting their natural powers.

First to highlight the fullness of time for this paradigm shift was Valiente’s Tales of Ticao. Its return to ancestral knowledge of the dual nature of reality both visible and invisible was deeply familiar in his own childhood in Ticao island off Masbate.  

In the mountains surrounding his home lived the asog, the local name for babaylan, mostly female but sometimes male. He remembers encountering them as a boy camping with two looming volcanoes in full view. At the base of Mt Isarog and Mt Asog, named after these healers once banned all over the archipelago, asog were gathered again for the ancient ritual trance called Pagdiwata once practiced all over our islands pre-Conquest.  

They refused to let the curious city boy witness their rituals in the inner forests. But after a once-over, they diagnosed him as possessing “kinaptanan” (literally, something borne or carried). And so, they took the time to tell him about the power of rara or toxin and the kabagsikan or potency in trees and forests, hinting at what more he could learn if he came back. 

“I promised I would be back but didn’t,” he says decades later. But to this day, a mature scholar, writer, and artist still feels their silent presence feeding his writing in what forests remain. 

Perhaps recalling and transmitting such memories to a nation losing its most precious heritage is indeed a kinaptanan, a mission the asog saw in that boy, perchance for him and other gifted writers and artists to point the way back to our people’s deepest roots in volcanic ground, thick forests, and crystal waters fast vanishing to highways, mines and lethal pollution. – Rappler.com

Illustration provided by Sylvia L. Mayuga.

Sylvia L. Mayuga is a veteran feature writer and columnist in Manila, with 3 National Book Awards to her name.   

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