Filipinos are familiar with the aswang, a shape-shifting creature of Philippine folklore that preys on animals and humans at night. But while Filipinos' belief in other superstitions has waned over the years, Filipinos’ cultish devotion to the aswang’s existence seems to be going strong. Why do people still believe in aswang? This was tackled in a recent episode of “IJuander”, a GMA News TV program that seeks to demystify various facets of Filipino culture.
Ancient cultures developed superstitions to explain human behavior and natural phenomena that they couldn’t understand. Today, experts offer sociological and scientific explanations for why some people may have been labeled as aswang.
According to Professor Anthony Lim, a historian, the various definitions of aswang have been around for hundreds of years. “Dinala ng mga sinaunang Malay noong 1200 ang paniniwala natin sa mga aswang,” he says. “Ang term na aswang ay mula sa aso-wang, dahil ang kadalasang anyo nito ay aso.”
When Spanish friars arrived to evangelize the Philippines, they spread propaganda about indigenous beliefs as a strategy for converting natives to Catholicism. Anything the friars didn’t understand was deemed un-Christian and evil. In his written accounts of pre-colonial Filipino culture, the Franciscian friar-historian Juan de Plasencia, a Spanish missionary in the Philippines during the late 1500s, listed the folkloric creatures deemed by the Church to be in league with the Devil.
In pre-colonial Philippines, the female spiritual leader of a barangay was called a babaylan. The babaylan was an important leader in the community, responsible for healing the sick and communicating with spirits. Lim said that Catholic authorities accused women priestesses of being aswang.
“The people would go to the babalyan for treatment of diseases,” said Bryan Argos, the curator of the Roxas Museum, in a 2009 interview for the foreign-produced documentary “The Aswang Phenomenon.” “So the Spaniards, in order to get clients for their modern medicine, attached evil to the babaylan.”
The Spaniards also used the aswang myth to suppress political dissent. “Lots of upheavals happened in the town of Capiz,” said Argos. “Women led these attacks, usually at night, because they had no modern weapons. The Spaniards then told the natives that the women were evil, that they performed magical acts, and that these women were aswang. The natives avoided these women, and now they had no one to join their upheavals.”
But why were women, in particular, the targets of Spanish oppression? Clinical psychologist Leo Deux Fis dela Cruz explains that strong women were considered threats to religious authority. “Sa behaviour ng isang tao, kapag naperceive kang hindi normal o may kakaiba sa iyong kinikilos, madalas iniisip ng iba na may mali sa iyo,” said dela Cruz. “Ito na nga ang nagiging cause ng label sa mga pinaghihinalaang aswang.”
“Ang image kasi natin sa mga babae ay yung mahinhin,” adds sociologist Clifford Sorita. “So kapag nagpakita ng kalakasan ang isang babae, hindi ito ordinaryo sa kulturang Pinoy, kaya nale-label na aswang.” Thus, women had to be suppressed into the Maria Clara mold. They were, literally, demonized.
Filipinos' strong oral tradition and respect for elders' authority are two more reasons for their persistent belief in aswang. It's not unusual for Filipino parents and grandparents to use stories about aswang to keep children from wandering off at night.
“You always hear it from someone old enough to tell you what they’ve experienced in the past. So I always had this feeling that they’re just telling stories. Because he’s an old man or woman, they must be telling the truth,” said actress Maricel Soriano, who was also interviewed for the documentary “The Aswang Phenomenon.” The actress starred in the 1999 film, “Sa Piling ng mga Aswang.”
We may never know for certain whether these creatures from myth are real or not. But whether or not you believe in aswang, the smart thing to do is to keep JUANdering.--Job de Leon/PF, GMA News
"IJuander" airs Monday nights at 10:00 PM on GMA News TV. Follow IJuander on Facebook andTwitter.
Illustrations by Kitt Lapeña