Friday, October 24, 2008

Kapre: the Philippine Bigfoot

North America has the Bigfoot or the Sasquatch. The Himalayas have the Yeti. The Russians have the Almas and the Aussies have the Yowie. Here in the Philippines, we have the Kapre, our own version of the hairy, oversized not-quite-human-not-quite-ape being that's been the object of countless expeditions and hoaxes to date.

The UP Cultural Dictionary and Wikipedia says that "Kapre" is derived from the Arabic word "Kaffir" meaning "non-believer of Islam." The term was allegedly used by the Moors to describe the dark-skinned non-Muslim Dravidians. See, the moorish dynasties of the middle ages used to rule large swaths of land from South Asia to Northern Africa and as far north as the Iberian Peninsula.

So how did the term get here, half a world away?

Fact is, Spain, which ruled our country for 333 years was itself under muslim rule for 781 years. The syncretism of languages and cultures was thus inevitable. As for the pejorative use of the term Kapre/Cafre/Kaffir, it is alleged that we owe this to the Spanish penchant for demonizing people they deem undesirable. It all boils down to outdated color/race politics that serves to affirm the concept that dark people are sinister and should thus be shunned. It was said that the term was used to prevent Filipinos from associating with African slaves and other dark skinned people, indigenous or otherwise. Sounds familiar? This was the same technique they used to anathemize the dark-skinned Atis as well as local shamans or babaylans of Panay or any other people who cling to their culture in defiance of the Iberian rulers.

The Kapre is usually portrayed perched on a huge tree, mostly old, gnarly Banyan (locally known as Balete) trees with a huge, lit cigar in hand. The Kapre is the most un-cryptid-like among the previous examples I've mentioned. Unlike the yeti et. al., There has been no photographic evidence of the creature or even footprints and hair samples to work with. Testimonials from rural folk abound but no "smoking gun" has been found as of yet. Personally, I believe the kapre, if it does exist, is not really a cryptid animal. From the way the subject is approached here, people seem to agree that a kapre seems more of an elemental (nature spirit) than an unknown animal. Thus, the concept of Kapre is more in the realm of the supernatural than cryptozoology.

Although considered relatively harmless, Kapres can inflict harm and sickness if it wants to. There has been stories going around about Kapres leading people astray, driving them away forn their home or taking fancy on women and abducting them. Curiously, it has been noted that most alleged Kapre sighting involved trees: huge, old trees, not-so-old trees or any tree that's about to be cut (who would want a tree stump for a home?).

Not all kapres puff cigars, however. On the summit of Dolores, Quezon's Mount Cristobal a.k.a. "Devil 's Mountain" stories abound about a huge anthropoid "guardian" of the forest called Tumao. Tumao was described by locals as a huge, dark, hairy man with piercing eyes. He was rumored to dwell near the camping spot at the summit of the mountain which had a huge, age-old tree nearby. A friend of mine who recently visited the mountain agreed that Tumao's tree was huge but the hairy man wasn't there when they paid a courtesy call.

Personally, I believe that the legend of Tumao and the demonizing of Cristobal might have some historical links. What's ironic is, the demonizing tag could have been used against the people who only wanted freedom to practice their own brand of Catholic faith which was frowned upon by the peninsular-centric government of the time (even full-blooded Spaniards born in the Philippines were discriminated against at the time). In the mid 19th century, Mt.Cristobal and the nearby Banahaw Volcano became the refuge of thousands of Filipinos who were condemned and persecuted as "heretics" by the Spanish government. The group was led by Apolinario Dela Cruz a.k.a. "Hermano Pule" who wanted to be a priest and was refused by the Religious Orders in Manila for being an "indio" or a native. Hermano Pule set up his own religious group called the Cofradia de San Jose but the crackdown was swift and brutal. After initial victories, Hermano Pule's people were overwhelmed and slaughtered en masse although a few thousand managed to escape. The religious rebels who escaped and hid in the mountains were called all sorts of names like "remontados" or "ladrones" (mountain people, bandits). In a way, demonizing the mountain and the people who dwell there was sanctioned by the colonial government and they were partly successful in making the perception stick (in Mount Cristobal at least).

This goes to show that branding people who go against the status quo was a state policy during the Spanish era. Anyone who doesn't conform will be treated as an enemy or worse, avoided and ignored. It is fairly safe to assume thus that the collective memory of these people and events has evolved over time to account for some of the Philippines' local legends and myths as we know them.

Still, first-hand stories about these supernatural beings persist. Some of these stories can be explained in purely rational terms but some simply can be quite convincing to some extent. Since these things are "supernatural," their existence can run the whole gamut of possibilities from pure "mystical imaginings" to actual experiences that cannot be quantified or described by any existing scientific process. When something is branded outright as "Supernatural," the cryptozoological buck stops there and science (or pseudoscience if you may) can't go any further.

I'll relate some of those stories on a later post:)

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Thoughts on Myth and Reality

Greek mythos
1 a: a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon b: parable , allegory
2 a
: a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone ; especially : one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society myth of individualism — Orde Coombs> b: an unfounded or false notion
: a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence

4: the whole body of myths

Judging from M-W's definition above, our menagerie of beings, from the aswang to the nuno sa punso and everything else in between would definitely fall under the category of things with "imaginary or unverifiable existence."

I don't have any problem with that. Social norms agree that the belief of the majority should preside over the unfounded assertions of the few. In this day and age, very few people actually believe in the existence of the aswang, the mangkukulam, etc., and even fewer people claim to possess evidence pointing to the truth of these beings' existence, even in som
e of the Philippine 's remotest provinces. As the masses become more and more educated, people began to question old beliefs, superstitions and folk lore. A lot go by the dictum that "seeing is believing."

Careful, rational observation and studies have unclouded a lot of myths in the past few hundred years. Take the disease Malaria for example. In the olden times, people thought that Mal Aria, which literally means "bad air" in latin, was caused by the foul smell comin
g from stagnant bodies of water like moats or swamps. The debilitating chills and fever caused by Mal Aria afflicted mainly those people who live near such bodies of water leading to the classic cause=effect assumption that the foul smelling air itself causes the disease. It took the invention of the microscope for us to determine that microbes carried by mosquitoes breeding in stagnant pools were the real culprit. However the name "Mal Aria" has stuck, rendered a misnomer by the advances in medical science.

Creating assumptions from observable natural phenomena is a natural cognitive function. Much like a mental version of Pavlov's conditional reflex theory which essentially states that the presence of two variables preceding a corresponding effect can cause a subject to respond the same way in case one of the two variables (the dependent one) is removed. In short, we reduce everything to two things: cause and effect. Thus, the repeated presence of a presumed cause before a presumed effect will bolster out belief that the presumed cause is also the logical cause.

This is why preconceived notions play a vital role in the shaping or propagation of a myth. Take for example the Philippine Flying Foxes or Giant Fruitbats, some of which reach 5 foot wingspans. In a place were both the Bat (a reality) and the Manananggal (A myth) exists, it's fairly easy to mistake the reality for the myth. Factor in the element of dusk or darkness (where it's easy to mistake a large bat for anything sinister) and you have the perfect recipe for a folk horror story.

But would you do if you find someone who has supposedly seen a manananggal, and that person is say, reputable, has good knowledge of the fauna in his area, has good eyesight, and seeks no publicity whatsoever? Chances are you won't believe him but you will investigate further. Have you covered all the possibilities? Have you checked if he was inebriated at that time? Does schizophrenia run in his family? Is the area at the foot of an elevated hang-glider spot? Did someone lose a big umbrella that e
vening? Once you've satisfied all these questions, and more and yet the story stands on its own you have an Anomaly. Something that happened without dispute but can't be explained in orthodox scientific terms.

Having something anomalous is an invitation to come up with all sorts of crazy ideas and that's the fun part. what if these things really do exist? What if being a manananggal or an aswang is simply a malady unknown to science? What if Science is totally wrong and we really have a thriving menagerie of elementals or demons or monsters in our backyard? What if our age-old folk tales and belief in the occult and the paranormal is merely a form of mass hysteria, subconscious social control or plain uneducated misinterpretation? What is both science and superstition is wrong and there's a third, independently verifiable point of view on the matter? What then?

One thing is certain. Some myths or mythical creatures, however fantastical they sound, could have been derived from some sort of precursor reality which has been morphed, modified and distorted by society over time to fit the prevailing socio-eco-poli-cultural context. The concept of the "Aswang" can be explained in anthropological terms as a form of social control and a collective memory of the Spaniards' indictment of things indigenious or "pagan" in their attemps to spread Christianity in these islands since the 16th century.

Our fear of the unknown and the sick could also be partly responsible for the "aswang" concept. Take the case of the disease known as TDP or Torsion Dystonia of Panay. Victime of this neuro-muscular disease, to the uninitiated, would look like someone trying to morph or expel their inner demons. There is nothing demonic about this disease which is endemic to the island of Panay but somehow, the grotesque symptoms of the disease which includes involuntary muscular contractions and profuse saliva production
perfectly fits the concept of the anthropid "aswang" our parents or grannies or yaya from the provinces have been talking about every Good Friday or Halloween season.

This theory, however, does not explain the origins of the other "forms" of the Aswang which is known to take the shape of a huge pig, bird, cat or dog. Most people who reported aswang encounters reported seeing them in this configuration, like in the case of the boy who survived an alleged Aswang attack in 2004.

People can make all sorts of claims but they won't be able to establish the veracity of their sighting unless they have a photo or DNA-rich hair strand to back their claims. Conversely, people can't just debunk these stories outright without offering evidence that will eliminate the possibility of a hoax or mistake beyond reasonable doubt.

Just as
relying too much on science is an invitation to be arrogant, relying too much on superstition and myth makes a society utterly backward and ignorant. A learned man trained in the ways of science sometimes finds it easy to be smug and dismiss the mythical and the supernatural as a fabrication, misidentification or plain lunacy. I personally believe we must temper our reasoning with a sense of wonder and an open mind to ask "What if...?" in the face of strange questions that science cannot readily answer. As Jordan Clark* (director of the documovie Aswang: A journey into Myth) puts it, "I can't say that the person who claims to see an aswang is mistaken since I was not there." I'd say that's admirable for an outsider looking in to find the truth behind the lingering myth.

*Jordan Clark is currently in Panay Island filming his full length documentary about the "Aswang" phenomenon in the Philippines

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008


One of the most popular and enduring mythical creatures in Filipino lore. The tikbalang is said to be a half human, half horse creature in the mold of the Greek Pan, that is, having an upper body of a human and lower limbs of a horse (check out my original drawing above ^). There are two known versions of the creature's appearance: the more popular and oft portrayed version has the tikbalang with the head of a horse while the lesser known version has it sporting a human visage. Both versions however agree that the tikbalang has unusually long, powerful legs that resemble the rear quarter of a horse, hooves and all.

Legend has it that whoever can ride the tikbalang and pluck the golden hair from its nape can tame the beast and make it a willing slave. In its element however, the tikbalang, powerful as it is ,does not hurt or kill people. At worst, it leads people astray and plays mischievous tricks on their senses.

As far as I know, the word tikbalang is universally understood throughout the Philippines although there might be other regional variations of its name that I don't know of. As for the etymology of the word, I'm not that sure, really. In tagalog, a balang is a locust. Of course, we all know that locusts have relatively long hind legs so I'm wondering if this has got something to do with the portrayal of the tikbalang as hunched over with legs folded, knees taller than its shoulders. It would sure look like an oversized locust somehow.

I know a couple of people who had tikbalang stories. One of them is my father. When he was a teener living in Antique he mentioned one particular night when two of his brothers were quarreling and socking each other outside their hut after a late evening drizzle. You can hear shouts and a dull thud here and there. After sometime, their mother broke up the fight and asked them to sleep away their tempers and change their clothes for the night. The two grudgingly obliged. A few hours later, there were dull thuds all over again, this time however, the sound shifted from one side of the house to the other. Father said the last time he checked, both his elder brothers were fast asleep, tired from their fisticuffs earlier. Who or what could be making the sound outside? He tried to sneak out of the back door to check but his mother, who was still awake and sitting near the window, stopped him and told him nonchalantly that he should stay inside as "there's a tikbalang outside". He obeyed and made sure that everyone was inside at the time. My father was the 7th of nine siblings by the way, and everyone except for himself and my grandma was fast asleep already.

Still the dull thud-thud-thud continued, one at a time on each side of the house. He describe the sound as akin to the sound of the heavy pestle used for separating the rice chaff from the grain. He was forbidden even to sneak a peak at the window so he can only imagine what it looked like. Apart from the dull thuds, there was no other sound to hear except the stridulation of crickets and cicadas. He fell asleep to the sound of the "tikbalang" jumping like crazy outside.

The next morning he woke up to find that their neighbors and relatives were all milling around a strange sight: huge hoof impressions, each the size of ripe coconut littered each side of the house. the impressions came in pairs and overlapped each other. Each mark was several inches deep and filled with rainwater from last night's drizzle. No one owned a horse in the barrio and not even a thoroughbred bronco can make impressions that big. It's clearly not a buffalo's since the hoof is not cloven in the middle. Whatever made those impressions would be immensely bigger and heftier than a carabao or a horse judging from the depth and size of the impressions. The fact that the impressions came in pairs suggest a bipedal creature left those marks. Granting that this thing had legs proportionate to a horse and the torso of a human relative to its legs, it could've easily scraped the ceiling at around 10-15 feet tall.

Unfortunately, no one had a camera at the time. Which was understandable considering that the area was so poor at the time some students had to walk unshod to and from school just to make their precious "bakya" last longer. Umbrellas were expensive and were almost unknown so if it rained, people used banana leaves instead. The blessings of Tesla's electricity still hasn't reached those parts yet (this was in the early 60's).

What was the tikbalang's business jumping over the roof at those late hours? What it did was similar to the Filipino chidren's game called "Luksong Tinik" lit. "Jumping Thorns" but its motives were never known. Tikbalangs have been known to be playful and mischievous so it's anybody's guess.

I only wish I was there. I could've punched a small hole on the wall and taken a peek, but after a night of rains (cloudy sky, no moon, no electricity) I don't think I can make out much, if anything at all.

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