‘Aswang’ and urbanization
Pandemic restrictions strike at the core of our culture and traditions. No Undas this All Saints’ Day. No “trick or treat” this Halloween. No Thanksgiving 2020. Perhaps no Noche Buena, too, unless I quarantine from Dec. 9 to visit my sisters on Dec. 24. Working from home means I will miss the spectacular Halloween decorations set up on a house on Cambridge Circle and Buendia in Forbes Park that I’ve looked forward to for many years.
With no Halloween loot bags to prepare this year, I settled on rereading the works of folklorist Maximo D. Ramos, the “Dean of Philippine Lower Mythology” at the time of his death in 1988. His academic take on things that went bump in the night took the sting from the much-feared aswang of a previous age. When I was a boy, I bought his book “Creatures of Midnight” from the Ato Bookstore on Session Road in Baguio. It contained illustrations of creatures he classified broadly as demons, dragons, dwarfs, elves, ghouls, giants, merfolk, ogres, vampires, viscera suckers, weredogs, and witches. As a field guide to aswang lore, the book taught me how to identify and defeat such creatures. It also taught me to appreciate things outside my Kapampangan-Tagalog household: What was a mangkukulam to me was a mambabarang, maumuyad, or manggagamod to another ethnolinguistic group.
I never found his book “Philippine Demonological Legends and their Cultural Bearings,” but I did find his monograph, published by the Philippine Folklore Society, titled “Aswang Syncrasy in Philippine Folkore” (1971). It was the most terrifying book I read when I was 10 or 11 years old, because unlike “Creatures of Midnight,” this one contained 87 firsthand accounts of aswang drawn from informants interviewed by his students at the University of the East. These were submitted on 5 x 8 cards in various Philippine languages, arranged by aswang type, translated and published.
Relevant to us during Undas are the ghouls. Aida B. Ayong related her experience from Ifugao:
“There is an old custom among the Ifugao to hang their dead under the house and build fires around it. People keep vigil and keep all the fires alive, for they are afraid of the umangob.
“They also plant a crimson herb, dongle, around the house, for it is believed that the umangob is afraid of it. It looks like a big black police dog that comes at night to steal the big toes and the thumbs of the corpse. It does not touch any other part of the corpse except the big toes and the thumbs.
“It is not afraid of any other thing except the dongle and live fire. But it can pass through these, for it moves like lightning.”
Another informant, Iniceta Soriano, collected her account from Urbana Cruz, a housekeeper from San Miguel, Bulacan:
“In the old days the Bulakeños believed that the aswang usually came when the dead was lying in state. That is why they watch the dead and especially do not forget to keep vigil.
“According to them, the aswang usually comes to a wake without their knowledge. They have never seen what it looks like, so they are not sure if it is merely a spirit.
“According to witnesses, the dead body is given asoge by the aswang directly in the mouth, and a few minutes later he will stand, walk, and follow the one who gave it to him. This is how the aswang is able to get the corpse.
“What happened to our former neighbor is a good example. His wife died, and after all the visitors had gone home, he alone was left with her corpse. In order to make sure that the aswang couldn’t get near his wife, he lay down beside the corpse, embraced it, and slept.”
The same story recounted today would be seen more as necrophilia than fear of the aswang! Rereading Ramos’ monograph made me sad, that urbanization has driven the aswang from our consciousness. Most of the accounts collected by Ramos’ students were from people who lived in rural areas outside Manila. Aswangs live in darkness but cities have electric light. Can a manananggal fly high enough to snatch prey from a 30th-floor condominium? How can an aswang’s long tongue suck out a fetus from a woman’s womb if city people live in concrete homes instead of huts with thatch roofing and floors made of slats? A weredog will be disoriented by traffic on Edsa.
Aswangs are now history to us, remnants of another time and place.
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