02 November 2011

Tikbalang Stories and Modernity

There was, the other week, this offbeat story in the local news about three boys who went missing for a few days then were mysteriously found somewhere miles away from home. Finally reunited with their families, the boys told the news crew how they went into the woods, lost their bearings and just wandered aimlessly till they did not know where they were anymore.

For all I, know, the boys just went on an adventure of mischief and told the most convenient story that they could think of. On the other hand – laugh if you must – being Filipino, I could not help but think this thing that even modernity could not prevent me from doing so.

Tikbalang.

As a little boy, this was something the existence of which everyone took as a matter of fact. It was something elders warned children about whenever they had to go into wooded areas. Or, perhaps, it was to warn them against going into wooded areas, who knows?

As the topic of scare stories that children loved to tell each other when they got tired of playing in the yard, the tikbalang ranked among the classics. They were these half-human half-horse creatures that suddenly appeared from nowhere in the woods to give you a godalmighty scare.

Or, sometimes they would not even bother to show up at all but, all the same, lead you around in circles in the woods. It was said that those who were led around in circles walked for hours on end only to find themselves right back at the spot where they started from. They could be lost for days. Some – it was whispered – went lost forever.

Everyone had a similar story to tell; allegedly heard from somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who had an encounter with the tikbalang. Of course, when it came down to it, nobody really knew anyone who had a first hand encounter with the alleged creature.

I do not believe that I ever clarified if the tikbalang was half-human from the waist up or if it was the other way around. Not that anyone really could have told. The image of the tikbalang in my head, however, is just simply that of the horse from the waist up; and how this image came to be, I do not have the foggiest idea.

It was said that if one was under the spell of the tikbalang in the woods and going around in circles, the quickest way to break the spell was to take one’s shirt off and put it back on backwards. Nobody said anything about what to do if one was a girl with a lacy dress on.

My favourite tikbalang story was the one about the nanay who somebody knew from somebody and who was in the woods one day to collect firewood. The nanay was allegedly going around in circles; and it was getting dark in the woods. Fortunately, she stumbled upon a stone along the path and cried out, “Susmaryosep!”

That was supposed to have broken the spell and the poor old lady was surprised to find her house suddenly in plain sight. How the expletive was supposed to have broken the spell, I never did bother to find out. Translated, it means “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”

I do not think that the nanay said that in prayer, though. Probably more as a swearword. At any rate, we all simply assumed that tikbalangs did not like hearing the names of the Holy Family said out loud, whatever the context.

There is this expression related to the tikbalang that – believe me you – I still say to this very day; and not that I ever bothered to find out the how and the why of it. Whenever there is bright sunlight shining through a slight drizzle, I – and countless other Filipinos, I am willing to wager – just simply say, “May kinakasal na tikbalang...”

Like it means anything; and yes, even despite the modernity of the times.


There are those who say that the tikbalang’s mane is supposed to have three sharp spines. A brave man supposedly can try to get onto a tikbalang and hold onto it while it thrashed around through the air. When it is finally subdued, one of these sharp spines can be plucked from it to be used as an amulet.

How one finds a tikbalang when from all previous stories it finds you instead, that this story does not say. How one gets onto a tikbalang despite its sharp spine, the story does not say, either. Perhaps, being brave also means to have testicles made of steel.

By the way, this last story I did not hear from somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody. This is the age of modernity, after all. There is Wikipedia.


There is something about the modernity of a city that consigns the tikbalang to the fate of myth or a superstition. As an entity, after all, they were even thought of as guardians of the forests and the mountains.

In the quiet of the woods, where it is the sound of human footsteps that is alien, it is so much easier to accept that there are, indeed, mysterious creatures that watch unseen by human eyes.

Perhaps, those boys interviewed by the news crew just went on a silly adventure, who knows? On the other hand...

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