They say that traveling is an important part of one’s life. Many would argue that you can’t possibly live your life to the fullest without experiencing the thrill of packing your bags and embarking on a journey far away from home. These are the moments when you broaden your own horizons and bring a deeper understanding of oneself to your soul.
What may be surprising, is that according to some pre-colonial and current Philippine beliefs, you will also spend a good time traveling from earthly regions to the ethereal plane where you will not only meet your maker, but possibly your ancestors before reaching your final destination. Without the luxury of teachings and ceremonies in our arsenal, how will us modern city dwellers navigate our journey beyond the physical world?
Fear not, for our ancestors are surprisingly knowledgeable travelers of the world beyond ours and they are more than wiling to impart this ancient guide to help us to traverse the strange world of spirits that awaits us.
Sugar, We’re Going Down (to the Underworld)
First, let us have a fact check before we descend to the land of the dead. You won’t see any fire and brimstone roasting the despicable sinners of the world in this place. You maybe surprised to learn that dwellers of the underworld live nearly the same life of the living – perhaps even a bit more affluent.
Hubert Reynolds and Fern Barcokc Grant wrote a study on the Isneg in the Northern Philippines and found that according to their beliefs, the houses in underworld are not your usual Nipa Huts made of Bamboo but are made of silver and gold. The Bagobo’s underworld might make you believe you are in a food enthusiast’s paradise: rice grain as big as kernels of corns, sweet potatoes as big as a pot, and sugar cane as large and as tall as a coconut tree.
Time is also quiet strange in this land. Casal Gabriel who write “Folk Heavens” in Filipino Heritage Vol. II noted that, according the Kalinga people, the souls of the dead have a strict curfew from 10 to 11 AM and between the hours of 2 to 3 PM in the afternoon. The rest of the time is reserved for the living.
In addition to this, the Tagbanau and Bukidnon indicated that during daytime in the underworld, it was actually nighttime in the regions of the living. Who would have thought that the concept of time zones existed in our ancient beliefs?
Down the Rabbit Hole (via Boat)
This part might be confusing for the unseasoned traveler – knowing that our ancestors have different versions of the underworld. Ancient Tagbanuwas say it has seven major layers and you need to die seven times before reaching the lowest region. Here we will differentiate the afterlife itineraries of different ethnic groups and see if it suits your traveling style.
The majority of passage ways to the underworld are associated with rivers and boats. There was even a prevailing custom that it was actually boats, not coffins, that acted as the resting place for the remains of our ancestors where the sea would carry them to the underworld. This practice existed primarily in the Western Visayas. In the neighboring region of Palawan, the iconic image of the Manunggul Jar excavated from a Neolithic burial site in the Manunggul cave of the Tabon Caves at Lipuun Point in Palawan feature two prominent figures at the top handle of its cover representing the journey of the soul to the afterlife..
Different kinds of deities and spirits will aid you once you cross the river leading to the land of dead. First, the ancient Ilongos beleived that Magwayen (Mama Guayan) would carry souls to the end of the world in a boat. The Waray god Badadum will call on your dead relatives to welcome you once you reach the the underworld. The goddess Mebuyen, from Bagobo beliefs, will give you your first bath in the underworld to cleanse and refresh you after the long journey.
From the studies of Alicia Magos, river based travel of the dead is based on the belief that most areas in the Philippines had rivers that would eventually lead to a subterranean system that would eventually join one single stream and lead to an underground ‘metropolis’ and the center of the universe. On Panay however, the main stream will not lead to the underworld, but through Guimaras, to Negros and eventually to Mount Kanlaon.
An Alternative for the Sea Sick
What if you have an unusual fear of traveling by water? Or perhaps you are just scared that a Buwaya (crocodile) might pounce on you during your cozy travel on a boat? Bukidnons have an alternate route.
From the documents of Francisco Demetrio S.J, the journey to the underworld can be on land, which could prove to be exhausting without the use of jeepneys or trikes. The first stop will be a huge rock called Liyang where souls must pass through. After pushing yourself through the rocky walls, you will found yourself in Binagbasan. This will allow you to make a notch in the Tree of Record and show to the whole underworld that you have arrived. Think of it like ‘checking in’ via Facebook.
Of course, you will be accosted with a grand dance party as you enter the Pinagsayawan. Here you will dance to your heart’s content. As the Zumba sessions of your titas and nanays shed their unwanted fat, dancing here will get rid off your past faults and mistakes. This dancing session is a cleansing phase for the soul in preparation of a new life. After the dance party with your fellow souls, it’s time for you to be groomed at Panamparan where you will be given a new haircut followed by a sumptuous banquet in Kumbirahan. I guess that arduous land travel to the underworld isn’t so bad after all.
Nearing the climax of this journey, things get serious as you are guided by the god Andalapit and asked to come at the foot of Mount Balatukan where the gods of the dead assemble. If your soul is judged good, it is sent to Dunkituhan, the cloud caped ‘stairway to heaven’. If you are deemed wicked, you are sent to a river for punishment. Here you will perform the chore of fetching water, day and night, until you sweat blood. This is a combination of punishment and penance until you are forgiven. Take note that there is no hell in Philippine cosmology and if the souls are tainted with evil, they will undergo penance instead of eternal punishment and eventually be granted passage to ‘paradise’.
If the penance of fetching water for your wretched ways doesn’t seem appealing, the Sulods of upland Panay offers an easier prospect. In a Sulod version from Panay, your journey begins at a huge anthill where instead of entering it, the soul must go around it. Be mindful of the evil spirits that will try to devour you when you reach the stream. After crossing two more streams where you will be questioned by two gods, you arrive at a cockfight where you will bet on one of the spurred roosters at the entrance of Mount Madyaas. A feast follows, after which you will be led to a rest house to await a ritual to strengthen your new body.
“Special Places” for “Special People”
Besides the many incarnations of the underworld coming from the multiple tribes and ethnic group in Philippine,there are also versions of underworld that depend on how you meet your demise in the mortal realm. For those who have died by the sword (either as a warrior or a victim of murder) there is a version of the underworld called Kayong, where according to T’bolis, the sun is always red and souls enjoy an eternal music festival of the dead – listening to instruments such as Kulintang, Agong, two stringed guitars and a bamboo violin called S’ludo.
When a child dies on their mother’s breast, they will to a place where the goddess Mebuyen will continues to nourish them with her numerous breasts. Once they gain their strength, they will join the other souls who died via disease or sickness.
According to Fr. Gabriel Casal, those who meet their end naturally will go to a region called Mogul, which is a place where all your wishes are granted and is quieter than Kayong. For those who are killed by any sort of weapons, they will go to an unnamed plane where all the plants bear the color of blood. The scars you had in life will remain on your body.
Judge: “How Many Spouses Do You Have?”
Things might feel a little bit odd for those souls who were not married during their stay in the mortal realm. According to the Sulod’s of Panay, you will be greeted by the giant god Bangla’e and asked, “How many spouses did you have on earth?” When a male soul said that he had more than one, he will received praise and have a chance to ride the giant’s shoulders. For bachelors however, they will be dragged through sticky black water with nothing to cling to but the giant’s pubic hair.
As for the female souls, if they answer they have more than one husband, they will be scolded and ridiculed by giant deity. It seems that double standards may not be entirely new to the Philippine area.
The Tagbanwa have a different chief deity in the underworld called Talikuyod, whose ‘punishment’ may seem drastic once you are found to be wicked. The deity simply asks if you are a good or bad soul. Seems simple enough – except a louse (your conscience) answers on your behalf, so lies are impossible. The good soul may pass through and live a life of happiness, while the ‘evil’ ones will be burned in the fire Talikuyod tends between two tree trunks.
The Final Destination
As you can see, the Philippine underworld boasts rich experiences and diverse sights, all based on the lore and myths of ancient Filipinos. It is not an easy journey and may not be the best fit someone simply seeking lush scenery and a multitude of selfies. In my honest opinion, it is more akin to a pilgrimage with vivid details of what we might expect after our lives here on Earth have ended. With little influence coming from the beliefs we have adopted from foreign nations, this shows our traditional vision of the world that awaits us and welcomes us with a promise of paradise, whether we have been lost or guided in the choices we have made during our mortal lives. A heaven, if you will, that is open to every single one of us.
The Soul Book: Introduction to Philippine Pagan Religion, Demitrio, Fernando, Zialcita, 1991 GCF Books
Book Worm and Frustrated Writer. Currently working as a clerk in a university somewhere in Luzon. Starting to be in love with Filipino Myths:-)
Latest posts by Daniel De Guzman (see all)
- How to Travel the Underworld of Philippine Mythology - April 14, 2018
- How to Travel the Skyworld of Philippine Mythology - April 14, 2018
- Rooted in Truth: Strange Trees & Beasts from the Philippines - February 6, 2018