The bloodthirsty aswangs of Philippine mythology

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In Philippine myth and folklore, bloodthirsty monsters include a wide array of creatures other than the vampire, from the bebarlang of Mindanao to the supernatural Danag. Illustration by TIM LOPEZ

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Mankind has always had its monsters. Many of the earliest stories have been about a culture’s fight against the darkness and the horrors that dwell within the unknown. Today, such beliefs survive in pop culture usually as remnants of a superstitious past, though there are still individuals and communities that believe in such creatures, especially (though not necessarily always) in isolated areas.

Not just Dracula

One of pop culture’s most popular monsters is the vampire. Though Eastern European in origin, it was popularized by Irishman Bram Stoker in his classic book, “Dracula.” Vampires have evolved since its pre-literary days, morphing from a scary, dangerous creature to dashing, well-dressed night dwellers who have the power to bestow the gift of immortality.

The vampire-type creature isn’t just an Eastern European phenomenon. Almost all cultures have their own version of a blood-sucking monster. The Malay penanggalan, for example, is a beautiful female whose head detaches from her body, flying off with her entrails dangling below. She feeds on human flesh and/or blood in almost the same way our manananggal does: by perching on the roof of a house where a child is born and lowering her proboscis-like tongue (basically a built-in bubble tea straw) so that it can suck the entrails out of the mother and child.

CNN Life - Aswang - 5 Manananggal - 170713.jpg The manananggal was made famous in the first “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” through Peque Gallaga’s short of the same name. Illustration by TIM LOPEZ

A more recent bloodsucker is the Mexican chupacabra, which first appeared in the 1990s. It got its name, which literally means ‘goat-sucker,’ because of its penchant for sucking the blood out of livestock, particularly goats.

Roots in nature

The focus on blood is simple: blood is life. The one thing our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors understood was that if you didn’t have blood, you died. If you didn’t have all your internal organs, you died. Another thing they understood was that offal was filled with the nutrients needed to survive a long drought or winter. So it stands to reason that blood and guts is what their most dreaded supernatural enemies would immediately gun for.

Another inspiration is the natural world. There are many fish, birds, insects, and animals that live on the red stuff. We (and our pets) know how painful, annoying, and potentially deadly mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks can be. Birds like the oxpecker eat the insects on the ox they perch on, but they can also drink the blood that flow from the ox’s wounds.

CNN Life - Aswang - 6 Sigbin - 170713.jpg In the Visayas, there is the sigbin, basically a bloodsucking cross between a dog and a kangaroo. Illustration by TIM LOPEZ

Vampire bat saliva have anti-coagulating properties that prevent the blood in their prey’s wounds from clotting so that they can feed on them longer. The lamprey is a leechlike fish that attaches itself to other fish so that it can suck their blood. With horrors like this surrounding our ancestors on a daily basis, it’s no wonder that one of their major preoccupations was keeping their insides intact, thank you very much.

One thing that these monsters play on is the concept of opposites. Since they are essentially the enemies of the forces of good, some of their characteristics are mirror opposites to what is found in nature. It’s kind of the same logic behind the upside-down Christian cross representing Satan as a bastardization of Christianity. It’s why the aswang’s companion tiktik and the ghoulish bebarlang (see below) sound softer the nearer they get.

Related to this is the concept of the other. Many monsters, such as the penanggal and our own manananggal, for example, have human forms, that usually of beautiful maidens or old crones. This was a form of exclusion — a cultural removal of the powerful feminine, the patriarchy’s way of keeping women in check by branding old, outspoken, or even just plain weird ones as dangerous.

CNN Life - Aswang - 3 Bebarlang - 170713.jpg Bebarlang are basically ghouls, monsters who feed on the flesh of the deceased. They also feed on the living by going into a trance and using their astral body to enter the homes of unsuspecting victims. Illustration by TIM LOPEZ

Filipino bloodsuckers

In the Philippines, we don’t have bloodsuckers so much as what folklore authority Maximo Ramos calls viscera suckers. That is, your friendly neighborhood monster isn’t just going to drink your blood. It’s going to suck up all your juicy, nutritious innards with its straw-like tongue, too. These monsters are generally grouped into the category of “aswang.” Contrary to popular belief, not all of our folklore come from before Spanish colonization. Some of them, such as the kapre and other kinds of aswangs, appeared in the World War II era as word-of-mouth propaganda to scare away the enemy.

There are many kinds of aswangs. Here are some of them:

Danag — One of the aswang creation myths involve the Danag, a supernatural race that lived side by side with humans in the old days. Legend is a human got a wooden splinter caught underneath his fingernail one day and a Danag offered to help by sucking it out. A bit of blood accompanied the splinter as it exited the nail, an iron taste which the Danag took a liking to. Since then the Danag have become aswangs, subsisting on delicious, delicious blood.

CNN Life - Aswang - 2 Danag - 170713.jpg The Danag was believed to be a supernatural race that took a liking to human blood. Illustration by TIM LOPEZ

Bebarlang — Tales of Mindanao’s bebarlang hail from before WWII. They’re basically ghouls, monsters who can be found in graveyards feeding on the flesh of the deceased. When there aren’t enough dead, they feed on the living by going into a trance and using their astral body to enter the homes of unsuspecting victims to feast on their entrails. How the physical entrails get carried through the astral aswang bodies is never explained.

Mandurugo — The mandurugo is the Filipino version of the black widow. Stories tell of a beautiful woman who married a man, who shortly after, passed away mysteriously. Her being beautiful, and beauty being the only thing needed to make a woman desirable back then, it wasn’t long before she found herself another husband. Unfortunately, it also wasn’t long until he too died under mysterious circumstances. The woman married again, but the same thing kept happening until the last man she married, afraid that the same fate would befall him, took a knife with him when they went to bed. When he felt pinpricks on his neck that drew blood, he plunged the knife into his assailant. When he woke the next day, he found his wife dead.

CNN Life - Aswang - 4 Mandurugo - 170713.jpg The mandurugo takes the form of a desirable woman who preys on one man after the other. Illustration by TIM LOPEZ

Manananggal — The manananggal was made famous in the first “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” (SSR) through Peque Gallaga’s short of the same name. The manananggal is usually a woman (though Miguel Rodriguez played one in “SRR” as well). At night, she grows wings, separates her torso from the lower half of her body and flies off in search of a meal. She prefers heavily pregnant women whose nutrient-rich fetuses she can suck out like a raw egg. The manananggal is sometimes accompanied by a tiktik, a small bird named for the sound it makes. As mentioned above, the louder it is means the further it is, and the more silent, the nearer it is.

Sigbin — In the Visayas, there is the sigbin, basically a bloodsucking cross between a dog and a kangaroo. These cryptids are said to be most powerful during Good Friday, where they are said to hunt for the hearts of young children that they make into amulets. They are said to be aswang familiars and may have been a folkloric interpretation of an actual animal, possibly the cat-fox.