Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There’s a fascinating incongruity that refracts Filipino world-consciousness. We believe in the doctrines of physics and the mitosis of the cell, but there is also a nuno in the empty lot across the house, or an aswang that soars over the roof at night. The Philippines is a country where it is entirely possible to know someone with a third eye. It is also a place where a deeply ingrained belief in the unseen persists. I had a professor who convinced some construction workers not to cut a tree along her street by telling them a kapre lived in it.
But no matter the degree to which we indulge precolonial myth, they will always be stories with singular worth. These aren’t mere superstitions, they’re cultural treasures, illuminating the contours of our ancestors’ creative psychology.
Edgar Calabia Samar’s recently reissued book, “Mga Nilalang na Kagila-gilalas,” is a valuable pocket treasury of the beings that have captured the Filipino imagination. Its references span regional epics and academic articles, but the end product is sharp, concise, and pleasantly readable. Each halimaw, anito, or lamanlupa is outlined in around three paragraphs. Every creature is brought to life through vivid artwork, provided for by a bevy of illustrators.
Poring over “Mga Nilalang” begets two overarching feelings: there is nostalgia for familiar tropes and figures, but there is also a sense of wide-eyed discovery. The 2019 reissue expands the scope of the 2015 edition, “101 Kagila-gilalas na Nilalang.” Now, 46 additional beings have been added, and they aren’t the recurring characters of our brown-out anthologies. Samar gathers figures from a wide breadth of regional tradition, showcasing the plurality of folkloric imagery.
There is the Aklanon kiwig, an aswang that transforms into a bloodthirsty beast at night, entering houses and eating its inhabitants. There is the Subanen kokok, a being with a horned head and a predilection for convulsive laughter. There is the Tagbanwa ikugan, a giant monkey that chokes its victims with its tail. And there is the Ilokano batibat, a spirit that haunts its victim’s dreams and sits on their chests until they suffocate (to survive an encounter with a batibat, Samar helpfully adds, try biting its thumb.)
But while “Mga Nilalang” can stand on its own as a guide to the creatures of Philippine folklore, that would be overlooking its function as a catalog of age-old social critique. In the book’s introduction, a transcript of a lecture Samar gave in a TED Talk at Ateneo de Manila University last May, he refers to these imagined beings as exactly that — imaginary. Yet fiction doesn’t preclude the truth: it lends it a channel for expression.
“Malaki ang ambag ng mga kinakathang takot ng mga nilalang na ito sa pag-unawa natin sa mga sarili natin bilang tao,” posits Samar, “dahil nakikita natin na natatakot tayo sa mga nilalang na ito sa napakasimpleng dahilan: sa lahat ng kuwento tungkol sa aswang, buhay natin ang nakataya […] At patuloy tayong kumakatha ng mga kuwentong ito dahil ang mga kuwentong ito ang susukat sa kung ano ang hanggahan ng ating pagkatao.”
For Samar, the bloodcurdling creatures of Philippine myth represent the flipside of human life, our greatest fears in corporeal form. Reacquainting myself with these beings, I did detect a current of parental anxiety gurgling beneath the surface. The tiyanak is the demonic resurrection of a dead infant. The manananggal extends its proboscis-like tongue to prey on the unborn fetus of an expectant mother. The aforementioned kiwig targets households where children can be heard crying. The Hiligaynon tamawo kidnaps kids who eat the treats it offers them.
Several other kinds of fear are embedded in these stories, some less obvious than others. Samar notes that the tradition of asking guests if they’ve eaten isn’t so much a gesture of hospitality as it is one of suspicion. Typical Filipino cuisine contains salt, garlic, or vinegar — the very things aswangs are repelled by. This custom, according to Samar, is therefore born out of precaution. Serving food to a guest is an interrogation of otherness, a test to determine whether your neighbor isn’t also a monster.
Samar doesn’t stop there. If fear, no matter how fantastical, is always grounded in the real, it can also impel one to action. He cites a character from his young adult series “Janus Silang,” who reminds herself repeatedly that it’s okay to be afraid. “Kinakailangang ang takot natin ay maging pandayan, maging hulmahan ng higit na pagpapakatao […] Ang takot na ito ay lumalampas sa personal na karanasan patungo sa pagharap ng mga suliraning higit sa indibidwal lamang.”
Fear, Samar argues, is manufactured to instill heightened awareness, practiced skepticism, and collective agency. In the book’s afterword, he writes: “Isinasalin ng tao ang pinakamatitindi niyang ninanasa at kinatakutan sa mga larawang ito; narito ang kanilang mga pangarap at pangamba.” Our folkloric tradition thereby gains additional value as an archive of poetic experience. When these myths are read allegorically, our ancestors are meaningfully — and not just ritually — exhumed, comprehended, and eulogized.
It's a profound way of looking at things. But of course, this renewed worldview makes no claims to uniformity. There must always be an allowance for doubt, a refusal to be completely certain. In what comes across as a surprising defense of the aswang-as-other, Samar upholds the monsters that form the fabric of our nightmares as much-needed figures in an otherwise flat, knowable world: “Sabi ng ilang pilosopong pangkultura, isa sa pinakamatinding karahasang idinulot ng sibilisasyon sa kasaysayan ay ang pagtatatag ng nosyon ng karaniwan dahil lahat ng hindi pumapasok sa hulma ng karaniwang ito ay itinuturing nating kakaiba. Nagiging marginal. Naisasantabi. Ikinukulong. Pinipigilan. At ang pagkukuwento natin tungkol sa mga halimaw na ito ay pagpapaalala sa atin tungkol sa panganib ng isang mundong puro karaniwan lang. Isang mundo ng singularity, walang espasyo para sa pagkakaiba.”
In Samar's philosophy, the monolith of human knowledge is endlessly tested, and unknown forces are always squirming to rip through the seams.
Get a copy of the book here.