20 January 2011

The Mythical Filipino Aswang and Other Stories



There was a time when the mere mention of this shadowy figure was all it took to subdue a hyperactive child or convince him to hit the sack at night. “Hala nand’yan na ang aswang!” The instinctive reaction was to dive onto the bed and drag the sheet over one’s head. Which child – pray tell – has ever spared a thought to consider if, at all, that the flimsy bed sheet offered any protection?

Ah, the aswang… We used to debate among ourselves when we were young if the aswang had a Western counterpart. The werewolf was the closest we would arrive at; albeit, none of us were convinced that the werewolf was the exact same thing.

Where the werewolf was a man who in the full moon turned into a hideous half-man, half-canine creature, the aswang was – at least this was how it was told to us – not particularly choosy about what it became. It could become a large dog if it caught its fancy; or an exaggeratedly large boar.



But I am getting ahead of myself again as I sometimes tend to do in telling my stories…

Folklore had it that, to become an aswang, one had to be made to eat human liver either by persuasion or deceit. As a consequence, one started to develop coarse hair all over the body during a full moon along with blood-shot eyes, long and sharp talons and a craving for human liver. I do not know if one developed immunity to hepatitis as well.



The aswang, thus, prowled the dead of the night in the hope of chancing upon a hapless victim whose liver it could feast on. It was patient and could wait in ambush behind some large acacia tree or a bamboo thicket. That was why walking past a kawayanan during a full moon with the bamboo squeaking as it danced to the wind used to be the most unnerving thing.

The aswang was also known to attempt to invade homes, waiting patiently in the dark until all the members of the household fell sound asleep. Then, it would sneak in to snatch either the young or the weak.

The neighborhood suspected there was an aswang among them if somebody mysteriously disappeared and his or her remains were later found ravaged somewhere; or if some pet dogs or livestock were found in a similar state. If it was the latter – it was assumed – the aswang failed to find a human victim and made do with an animal as a sort of poor aswang’s meal.



This was when out went the braids or heads of garlic, which were hung menacingly – to that aswang, that is – in front of windows and doors. If a house had a silong, the garlic was hung from underneath the floor as well. Naturally, when as a child I asked why the aswang was put off by garlic, the most intelligent answer I ever received was, “Basta!”

An aswang-infested community was naturally impelled to organize patrols that likewise prowled the neighborhood at night. Groups of gentlemen toting bamboo lanterns and armed with guloks took turns roving in search of suspicious looking people whose eyes were blood-shot and who always seemed to itch all over. These were said to be the tell-tale signs.

So the aswang had to be stealthy by turning itself into the first animal it set its eyes on if it was under threat from the marauding gulok-armed neighborhood macho men. How it managed to do so, I never learned. There was a weakness to this supposed supernatural power, of course. I do not remember ever hearing of an aswang who turned into a toad or a lizard. It always became an oversized mammal, the sort that looked like it had been taking illegal steroid shots.



Also, there was an inherent weakness to this supposed supernatural power itself, because the aswang always became an oversized whatever rather than just an ordinary whatever. What was the point in converting itself into a boar when everyone knew that the oversized boar was the aswang, anyway?

Of course, we never thought of things this way when we were still children. We all believed the supposed stories of this man and that man who were allegedly seen with scratches all over their bodies the morning after the night when some oversized dogs were chased into thickets of thorny shrubs. Nobody even paused to wonder if ginalis lang pala ang mga pobre.

Some communities were thought of as aswang hotbeds. Visiting these communities could be creepy; and one was warned to look out for and avoid people who were always scratching their bodies. One was also warned never to look into the eyes of a person whose eyes were bloodshot. It was through eye contact – or so the stories went – that the aswang managed to get inside a prospective victim’s head.

Naturally, one was told to avoid the dinuguan. Or, if one was bold enough to try it, anyway, to at least press a freshly-sliced calamansî over it before eating. If the innards in the dinuguan were those of a human, the slices of bituka were supposed to squirm… How sliced and cooked intestines could feel the acidity of the calamansî juice to the point that they would actually squirm, that part was never really explained.



The aswang was by no means the only subject of tall tales spun just to spook children into going to bed. There was the bampira; albeit, this was a more universally known creature of the unseen realm. Ditto the dwendes and the engkantos.

There was the manananggal, which developed bat wings and flew into the night but strangely left behind the lower half of its body. The tikbalang patrolled the forests and had people going around in circles. Then there was the kapre, this large half-man, half-beast which was supposed to laze the night away smoking ridiculously large cigars atop trees.



One supposed creature used to get my heart racing inside my chest whenever there were strange noises coming from the roof. This was the ikî, a man who became something of a bat – and not the sort who rode in a fast car with Robin – and flew the nights to hunt for victims. It was said it would land on rooftops and send its ridiculously long tongue downwards to penetrate the bodies of those who slept and extract internal organs from them for it to feast on.

Stories about these supposed creatures used to be told to persuade young children to go to sleep. Who, pray tell, could go to sleep when one had to watch the ceiling lest a strangely elastic elongated form started work its way down to one’s bed to suck out one’s innards?

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