From Babaylan to Aswang: A Collective Deception

The study of Philippine Folklore and Mythology is an arduous task.  However, it is something that I have dedicated the last 10 years of my life to and feel a growing passion towards with each passing day.  One of the more difficult aspects is addressing old, outdated theories that have integrated themselves into popular opinion through broad misunderstandings.  In this article I am going to address the theory that the aswang was created from the Franciscan, Jesuit, and Augustinian missionaries persecution of the Babaylan.

Before I begin, I need to state that it is without question the Spanish wanted to eradicate indigenous and tribal religions in the Philippines.  I also believe they  had a vested interest in stripping power from the babaylan and catolonan.  They did this using (sometimes) brutal and humiliating tactics [Fray Diego del Villar,1595, Manila, ]. What I don’t subscribe to, is that they used the aswang to achieve this.

The babaylan was a prominent figure in pre-colonial Philippine society, sometimes described as a priestess or shaman. Babaylans acted as healers, prophets and mediums, curing illnesses and exorcising evil spirits from objects or people.

An Aswang (or Asuwang) is a shapeshifting monster in Filipino folklore usually possessing a combination of the traits of either a vampire, a viscera sucker, a ghoul, a witch, or different species of werebeast, or even all of them together.

Babaylan to Aswang: The Theory

In its most simplistic form, the theory suggests that traits of the aswang documented by folklorists and anthropologists are actually inversions created by the Spanish to subvert the powers and influence of the babaylan (or other shamans from the Philippines).  The aswang is known for its propensity towards human fetuses, internal organs, and bodily discharges.  The mirror of this is that the babaylan is known as a mid-wife and healer. Other inversions are the offensive odor of the aswang versus the possibly pleasant herbal odors of the babaylan.  It is theorized that the Spanish attached, and invented, aswang folklore to disenfranchise the most powerful women of the Philippines.  On the surface, and to most Filipinos, this sounds like a solid theory.  It successfully disowns what could be perceived as an “ignorant superstition”, while preserving cultural tradition and modern feminist ideals  – which are all positive things.

Image from THE SOUL BOOK


Misunderstanding the Aswang Origin

The ‘Babaylan to Aswang’  theory gained most of its traction with the 1991 paper written by  California based folklorist, Hermenia Meñez,  titled, “The Viscera-Sucker and the Politics of Gender” –  I will address some of the issues I have with this paper later on.  Meñez is specifically writing about the female, viscera sucking, self segmenting, witch classification of aswang – yet her theory has irresponsibly been applied across the entire ambiguous spectrum of the aswang by other agendas.  At no point does she insinuate that the aswang did not exist before the Spanish arrived.  Perhaps the Tagalog habit of interchanging Manananggal (self-segmenting viscera sucker) with Aswang is partially to blame.  The Mananaggal is only one of the many malevolent creatures and spirits under the Aswang category. This ‘demonization’ theory has also neglegently been applied to other mythical beings in Philippine myth and folklore.  In effect, this creates gaping holes in pre-colonial pantheons and belief structures and deceptively promotes a very romanticized version of ancient Philippine Mythology. While these theories may provide an outlet for the modern contempt towards the perceived intervention of progressivism by the church, it is neither historically or culturally accurate.

The above issue is accentuated because, in her paper, Meñez does not acknowledge that the areas first colonized by the Spanish (Visayas and Bicol) – in which she points out the female viscera sucker is most prevalent – also happen to be the areas that were influenced most by Hinduism and the concept of their demons,  Rakshasa. Rakshasas were most often depicted as ugly, fierce-looking, enormous creatures  with two fangs protruding from the top of their mouth. They had sharp, claw-like fingernails and are mean,  insatiable cannibals that could smell the scent of human flesh.

Further,  the “preta” classification of Rakshasa are described as a beautiful female who would appear to men and lure them to their death. They would also attack babies and pregnant women to drink their blood. Some believed that these vampires caused stomach sicknesses in people who had trespassed into their territory and that these fanged creatures lived in trees and could spy on those passing beneath.

This concept was brought to the Philippines through migration and trade between 300-900CE. I don’t fault Meñez for excluding this, as the extent the Indianized influence had on the Philippines was not completely known – or more importantly, accepted – until after her paper was published.

I am not alone in this comparison, the connection was seen as early as 1913 by Laura Watson Benedict  in her paper, “Bagabo Myths” published in The Journal of American Folklore. She writes,  “The anthropomorphic and amorphic evil personalities, whose number is legion. The traditional concept of Buso among the Bagobo has essentially the same content as that of Asuang with Visayan peoples. Both Buso and Asuang suggest the Rakshasa of Indian myth.”

Photo Credit: HF Magazine, Preta Statues at Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden, Thailand


The Gender of the Aswang

This is where I begin to disagree with Meñez on how the information has been presented in her paper.  She states that the female viscera sucker is “rarely known in upland Northern Luzon and Mindanao. More importantly, among these animists and their counterparts in the rest of island Southeast Asia, the viscera sucker is not gendered and usually appears as a bird or a dog.”

In regards to the first statement, I would like to counter that the viscera sucker does not exist at all in Northern Luzon or any area where there was no influence from the Indianized Kingdoms.  In Mindanao, the asuang (and similar beings) exist among many of the animist tribes, which had virtually no Catholic influence, yet did have influence from the Indianized areas.  These areas in Mindanao were also comprised of very small autonomous communities, so animist beliefs and the subsequent Indian influence developed only as far as the environmental and societal requirements needed them to.  In the more populated regions like the Visayas, polytheistic pantheons were created to incorporate the deities and mythical beings of many communities.

The vastness and complexity of a polytheistic religion can usually be attributed to the size of the population base it governs. The Philippines had approximately 400,000 people when the Spanish arrived.  In the Visayas, some of the interconnected communities may have been well into the thousands.  This is why their mythical beings and spirits are in greater number, and more complex,  than some of their fellow mountain dwelling communities.  For example, in Greek Mythology we are aware of the Titans, Olympians, and several mythical creatures and heroes.  At its peak, Greek Mythology governed close to 13 million people and actually includes thousands of deities, creatures and heroes – most of which many people have never heard of.  My point being, in the Visayas, the complex belief structure which included larger environments, communities, and personalities would invariably have specific beings associated with all gender variations.  In a smaller autonomous community, these malevolent spirits may remain non-gender specific.

As to Meñez’s second statement that these beings were non-gender specific in other areas of SE Asia. This is simply untrue.

LEYAK (Indonesia): In the folklore of Bali, the Leyak is a mythological figure in the form of flying head with entrails (heart, lung, liver, etc.) still attached. Leyak is said to fly trying to find a pregnant woman in order to suck her baby’s blood or a newborn child. There are three legendary Leyak, two females and one male.

KRASUE (Thailand): It manifests itself as a woman, usually young and beautiful, with her internal organs hanging down from the neck, trailing below the head. The Krasue is under a curse that makes it ever hungry and always active in the night when it goes out hunting to satisfy its gluttony, seeking blood to drink or raw flesh to devour. It may attack cattle or chicken in the darkness, drinking their blood and eating their internal organs.  If blood is not available the Krasue may eat feces or carrion. The Krasue also preys on pregnant women in their homes just before or after the childbirth. It uses an elongated proboscis-like tongue to reach the fetus or its placenta within the womb. This habit, among other unmentionable things that this spirit does, is believed to be the cause of many diseases affecting women mainly in rural areas during their pregnancy.

PENANGGAL (Malaysia): In Malaysian folklore, a Penanggal may be either a beautiful old or young woman who obtained her beauty through the active use of black magic, supernatural, mystical, or paranormal means which are most commonly described in local folklores to be dark or demonic in nature.  The Penanggalan is usually a female midwife who has made a pact with the devil to gain supernatural powers. It is said that the midwife has broken a stipulation in the pact not to eat meat for 40 days; having broken the pact she has been forever cursed to become a bloodsucking vampire/demon.

There are similar myths of creatures with almost exactly the same features. Among ethnic groups in Indonesia, the ghost is called Kuyang by the Dayak people of Kalimantan, or Palasik (or Pelesit) by the Minangkabau people. In Laos it is the Kasu or Phi-Kasu and in Cambodia it is the Ap.

Contrary to the theory proposed by Meñez, the female viscera sucker exists in the Philippines not because of Catholicism, it exists despite it. It exists in Malaysia and Indonesia despite Islam. It exists in Cambodia, Thailand and Laos despite various forms of Buddhism.  The common denominator is an animist base with a Hindu/ Indianized influence.

Filipino Identity Crisis Aswang Project

But what about the witch?

For me, this is the most troubling aspect of the aswang folklore.  Not because it is difficult to trace,  as much as the continued societal effects. To this day, it seems a common occurrence that a woman in the Philippines is beaten or murdered for being a suspected aswang.  The Spanish most certainly categorized the work of the babaylan as being witchcraft or in league with the devil.  In 1589 Father Juan de Plasencia even went as far as to document the catolonan (Tagalog shaman) in his list of “distinctions made among the priests of the devil”.  Again, I won’t dispute the Spanish had an agenda to remove these women from power, but black magic and the inherent struggle between good and evil (inversions) did not arrive with them.

Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology

Among the most untouched Philippine tribes of Northern Luzon, black magic does not exist.  The concept of spirits or “anito” being the cause of all bodily afflictions is common, but people wielding these spirits to do harm to others does not seem to exist [The Bontoc Igorot by Albert Ernest Jenks, 1904]. In the Southern regions like Mindanao, where Indianized influences were integrated (yet Catholicism had failed), curses and dark magic exist.  This is a common theme throughout the Indianized regions of Southeast Asia.

In Hinduism, Yajurveda (the Veda of prose mantras) talks very clearly about the spirit world and black magic and even educates people on rituals and mantra’s to do black or white magic to hurt or heal people.

A dukun is an Indonesian-Malay term for shaman. In Malaysia, they are often referred to as bomoh, but dukun or pawing/pawang also used in various languages. Their societal role is that of a traditional healer, spirit medium, custom and tradition experts and on occasion sorcerers and masters of black magic. When a dukun uses black magic to harm other people, it is known as santet.

Black magic in Thailand involves spirits, ghosts, souls, talismans and also extends to the use and practice of voodoo known as barang. Using barang, a practicioner can make various dangerous object appear inside the stomach of the intended victim. Not coincidentally, in the Eastern Visayas, a Barangan is a witch who uses insects and spirits, and any material to enter the body of anyone they hate.  These things are said to exit the body in the most gruesome of fashion. In Bicol, Mambabarangs are ordinary human beings with black magic who torture and later kill their victims by infesting their bodies with insects. In other areas of the  Philippines, Kulam is a form of dark magic.  One who practices kulam is known as a Mangkukulam. The aswang classification is often associated with the above mentioned “witches”.

The enduring social issues are also not something that is exclusive to the Philippines and its majority Catholic population.  In certain areas of Indonesia, the Dukun santet are feared, and feelings of revenge often occur among the people. In his book “Naming The Witch”, James T. Siegel explores the recent series of witchcraft accusations and killings in East Java – as many as 150 in a single year.  ” The author sees witchcraft as an effect of culture, when the latter is incapable of dealing with accident, death, and the fear of the disintegration of social and political relations. He shows how and why modernization and witchcraft can often be companions, as people strive to name what has hitherto been unnameable.”

MANGKUKULAM by Ian Balba via DeviantArt

MANGKUKULAM by Ian Balba via DeviantArt


The Damage Done

To Herminia Meñez’s credit, she effectively explains how some of the Mananaggal’s characteristics and methods of expulsion could be attributed to the people’s Catholic mindset.  I also have to credit her on some of the other essays she wrote for her collection “Explorations in Philippine Folklore” (Ateneo de Manila University Press 1991).  While I have addressed some issues I believe to be incorrect, I  don’t want to diminish what incredible work she has done in some of her other papers.  I have the luxury of searching Google for the ethnographic papers I wish to read, and then accessing every library in the world to receive a digital copy.  I am looking at her paper with an additional 25 years of scientific and ethnographic studies on language groups, migrations and DNA.

That said, I can’t stress how important it is to stop blaming the Spanish for the invention of the aswang.  This thinking not only devalues and discredits a very important cultural phenomenon, it sends people down an inconsistent and demoralizing path while exploring Philippine Mythology.  The demonization theory discourages study and understanding of the evolved indigenous beliefs that continue to persevere in both rural and urban communities. The aswang is a unifying aspect of Philippine Culture, but instead has been used to divide the ‘educated’  from the ‘ignorant’.  This is one of the many great cultural tragedies of Philippine modernism.

In closing, the aswang, and like beings, are a part of the Indianized areas of Southeast Asia.  The Spanish went to great lengths, causing immense cultural damage, to take away the power of the babaylan. Tagging these shamans as one of the superstitions they so despised was not part of their tactic.  The viscera-sucker (and the aswang) does not “represent a process of disenfranchising the most powerful Filipino women and a politics of gender that has deep roots in the Spanish conquest of the Philippines”.  It does, however, represent the deep roots Hinduism and the Indianized influence had on Southeast Asia and the Philippine area.

Additional Artwork from The Soul Book and The Aswang Inquiry (GCF Books)

ALSO READ: APOLAKI’S LAMENT: Who killed the ancient Filipino gods?


2018 © The Aswang Project

The following two tabs change content below.

Jordan is a Canadian documentary director/ producer. He made the 2011 feature length documentary THE ASWANG PHENOMENON - an exploration of the aswang myth and its effects on Philippine society. Currently he is in post production for "The Aswang Project" web-series, which will feature 6 myths from the Philippines. The TIKBALANG, KAPRE and BAKUNAWA episodes are available to watch on YouTube.