Early Conceptions of the Universe in Philippine Mythology

INTRODUCTION:

Stories of creation contain scattered references which indicate the early Filipinos’ conception of the universe. This universe consists of the Skyworld, the Earth or Middleworld, and the Underworld.  From the reports of early chroniclers, we know that the ancient peoples of the Philippines had a notion of a powerful being (or beings) who was responsible for the creation of the earth and of everything on it, the trees, the animals, and man. The name of the creator-god (or gods) varied with each region or tribe.

The supreme being is generally taken to be very good and kindly, very powerful, and dwelling in the sky. To him is invariably credited the work of creation.

“The following points must be borne in mind when one considers creation among the early Philippine peoples. First, there is no question of creation in the strict theological sense as ‘creatio est productio rei ex nihilo sui et subjecti’ or “the bringing of something into existence from non-existence, not only as regards itself, but also as regards the material out of which it came to be.” In other words, the creation which the early peoples in the Philippines knew, and, for that matter, also the other primitive peoples of the past and of the present, refers to what is known by theologians as “second creation.” This conception presupposes a pre-existing matter or substratum out of which the earth was made. When the primitives speak of the creation of the world, the term “world” is usually understood to mean the earth primarily, and, specifically, their native earth or place or island, and then also everything that their earth or place “founds,” or supports on its lap: the trees, the stones, the rocks, the trees, the springs, rivers, lakes, mountains, sky, flowers, caves, shadows, and so on; everything in other words that went to’ make up the “place” or “vicinity,” each in its appointed place. This conception of the earth has been characterized as cosmic, the earth as known to the earlier layer of mankind who were yet on the level of food-gatherers. Thirdly, in a number of folktales and myths, the animals are thought of as already in existence before the “earth” itself was made. The birds like the eagle, the ducks, the turtle, and the toad are often responsible for securing the pre-existing materials which the creator (s) used to form the earth. And lastly, the winds, the sky, and the ocean are also presupposed as existing prior to the formation of the earth.

In this connection one should add that in the stories of the formation of the earth there is always a struggle between two hostile forces. It is the struggle that looms large in the story. The creation of the earth happens only as a sort of accident. With the formation of the earth comes also the creation of the first man and woman.” (Demetrio)

[EXAMPLE: Formation of the World | Kapampangan Mythology]

Let’s take a look at the myths that provide these brief glances into the early conceptions of the universe in Philippine Mythology.

Animism-Universe-Philippine-The-Aswang-Project

Image from “The Soul Book”. Used with permission from GCF Books


MYTHS:

A Nabaloi creation myth presents the three worlds as it explains how the Earth was created and where the first man and woman came from.  The Ibaloi or Nabaloi are an indigenous ethnic group found in the northern Philippines.

Nabaloi Myth: Creation and Peopling of the Earth

Long ago, it is said, there was no earth, but only the Skyworld and the Underworld.

The people of the Underworld and the people of the Skyworld were enemies. The people of the Underworld would shoot their arrows to the Skyworld, and the people of the Skyworld would throw their spears at the people of the Underworld.

One day a man of the Underworld hit the sun with his arrow. The sun decided to make the earth so that the people of the Underworld could not shoot into the Skyworld.

For a long time there were no people here on earth. The people of the Underworld and the people of the Skyworld would come here to the earth to hunt.

One day the people of the Skyworld were following a deer. The deer passed by the place of the people of the Underworld who had just arrived from the cave, and they killed the deer. The people of the Skyworld became angry, and fought the people of the Underworld. Some were killed by their enemies.

There was one man from the Skyworld and one woman from the Underworld who were wounded, and their companions left them because they thought they were dead.

When they had recovered, they married. They had many children and they are our ancestors.


One Visayan myth also narrates how people from the Skyworld discovered the Earth, descended to it, and settled there. The Visayans is an umbrella term for the Philippine ethnolinguistic groups native to the whole Visayas, to the southernmost islands of Luzon and to most parts of Mindanao.

Visayan Myth: The Man’s Discovery of the Earth

In the olden times no one lived on earth. The only visible things on earth were the plants and animals that dwelt in the water, the rivers and the seas. Man lived in heaven.

In the portion of heaven where man lived there was a hunter named Ukunirot. He was highly skilled with the bow and arrow and in throwing the spear. He never missed any bird no matter how swiftly it flew, nor any beast no matter how fast it ran. But in spite of this, Ukunirot was not pleased with his lot in heaven. He grew jaded with eating and wearing warm feather clothes.

One day Ukunirot went hunting in a certain place. He saw a bird, the mere sight of which made him hungry. He held his bow and stretched it so far that it nearly broke. He released the arrow and hit the bird. The point of the arrow went through the bird’s body. The arrow landed headfirst and upright on the ground. Ukunirot pulled the arrow and in so doing created a hole on the ground of heaven. He looked through the hole and saw earth with its vegetation. He called his fellowmen and informed them of what he saw.

The people were captivated by the scenery on earth and decided to go down.

They gathered all the birds’ feathers, made a rope out of them, and with this they descended to earth. All of them were able to descend except a fat woman who could not get through the hole. She had to remain in heaven. Ukunirot was the last one to go down. When he was very near earth, the rope snapped but he was unharmed. The people slept and lived on earth.

Earth was peopled. The woman who was left in heaven could do nothing else but light heaven and remind us that we come from that place. The light we see are the stars, and the moon is the hole.

Descending-From-Heaven-The-Aswang-Project

Image from “The Soul Book”. Used with permission from GCF Books


On the other hand, a Kankanay tale narrates how two brave men accidentally discovered the Underworld through a hole in the Earth which they made while digging up a huge camote. The Kankanaey people are an Indigenous peoples of the Northern Philippines. They are part of the collective group of indigenous people known as the Igorot people.

Kanakay Myth: A Tale of Timungan

Long ago, in the old heroic age, when gods walked the earth, there were two famous brothers, the Timungan, whose deeds are often recounted at the canaos of the people.

One day, these brothers took their handspades (sankah) and baskets (kqyabang) and went out into their kaingin to dig camotes. They had nearly enough when one of the large Timungan happened upon an extra large camote. He kept digging around it until he had made quite a big hole. Then he called his brother to help. They both dug down deep into the earth following the camote until their excavation was very deep. And there they found a wide flat stone. Wondering what was underneath, they heaved and tugged until they turned it over to see it.

When the Timungan peered down into the hole, they were surprised to see that they were looking down into the Underworld (Aduongan): and there was a great house with many people about while the beating of ganzas informed the Timungan that a canao was going on. So they were eager to join it. Then they took their rope, tied one end securely to the stump of a tree and thus climbed down to the Underworld and hurried to the cafiao.

The first attraction was the food, set out on banana leaves. As they were eating in the house, they were surprised to see that the people were different. They had tails, and were looking at them hungrily. The Timungan were frightened and tried to sneak away. They pretended to be staying, and taking off their breechclouts, they tied them on the door. They sneaked out the window.

However, Maseken the old man, who was head of the house noticed their going, gave chase and caught them. Then one of the brothers volunteered: “Do not kill us, as I want to marry your daughter.” Maseken was pleased at this and ordered that the marriage ceremony (.Mangilin) be celebrated. A hog was killed and the priest (.Mambmong) prayed to the sky deities, requesting a successful marriage. Then he gave the couple water to drink together. After three days taboo, the couple went to the brook and bathed each other while repeating a short formula. Thus they were married.

After the marriage, Maseken took his new son-in-law hunting. They passed one of the four huge posts which hold up the earth from the Underworld. A great hog was scratching itself on the post and Maseken explained that this would cause an earthquake on the earth above.

Arriving at the hunting grounds, the son-in-law stayed on the trail while the others went below to stalk the game. They jumped upon an old carabao which ran up beside the son-in-law. He started to lasso her; but saw that she was really an old woman, their mother named Akodan. So he let her run by. Then Maseken came puffing up, scolded his son-in-law for letting her go, and running after her, caught up with the old woman, and wounded her. Then the son-in-law said: “We do not like to eat people.” Maseken replied, “Return to Earth if you do not like to eat people.”

Maseken accompanied the Timungan brothers to where their rope hung and they all ascended to the Earth. They observed that the Sun had been shining in the Underworld so that it was now dark on Earth. However, it soon came up again.

Then Maseken asked for the rope and they made a hunting net (batung) with which to snare people. The brothers said: “Take this in order that you may eat,” but Maseken declared that they should also give chickens or else they would catch the Earth people in the net. This is the origin of the Manhating ceremony, which is held when a person is bleeding in the nose and mouth. No doubt Maseken is after him. So the priest (.Mambmong) holds a chicken in one hand, while he sits in front of a basket containing a rope and repeats the tale of the Timungan.



 

The Ifugao, the Maranao, and the Blaan have more elaborate conceptions of the universe. From Beyer comes this detailed description of the universe, according to the belief of the Kiangan Ifugao:

The people … think of the universe as bing composed of a large number of horizontal layers which are very similar one to the other. The upper face of each of these layers is of earth, while the lower face of each of them is of a smooth blue stone called muling or foiling. The layer on which we live is called the Earth World (Luta). The four layers above us constitute the Sky World (Daya), and are called, in order from top down, Hudog, Luktag, Hubulan, and Kabunian. The last is the layer immediately above the Earth World, and it is the blue-stone underfacing of this layer that we call the “sky.” The Under World (Dalom) consists of an unknown number of layers beneath the one on which we live. All of the layers meet in the farthest horizon where lie the mythical regions of the East (Lagud) and other places …

… The Earth World or layer on which we live, lies approximately at the center of the universe. It is therefore the largest layer, and the layers of the Sky World and the Under World grow successively smaller as they approach the zenith and nadir of the celestial globe, the boundary of the universe.

“The Story of Bugan and Kinggauan” vividly portrays the gods and goddesses as they move through these several layers of their Skyworld. Beyer also makes the interesting observation that the Ifugao have no belief as to the origin of the universe. To their minds it has always existed and will always continue to exist.

[READ: Bugan and Kinggauan: Ifugao Marriage of a Goddess with a Man]

The belief in a many-layered universe is shared by the Maranao and Blaan. The Maranao believe that the earth is divided into seven layers, with each layer inhabited by a different kind of being. The uppermost layer is inhabited by human beings, the second layer, by dwarfs, and the third, by nymphs. The sky also consists of seven layers, each layer having a door guarded by huge mythical birds called garuda. Each layer of the sky is inhabited by angels. The seventh layer is the seat of heaven, which is also divided into seven layers. Interesting features of the Maranao heaven are the tree of life, the leaves of which bear the names of all people living on earth, and the tightly covered jars which contain the souls of every person on earth. The Maranao people, also spelled Meranao, Maranaw and Mëranaw, is the term used by the Philippine government to refer to the southern tribe who are the “people of the lake”, a predominantly-Muslim region of the Philippine island of Mindanao.

Maranao Myth: Origin of this World

According to Maranao folklore, this world was created by a great Being. It is not known, however, who exactly is this great Being. Or how many days it took Him to create this world.

This world is divided into seven layers. The earth has also seven layers. Each layer is inhabited by a different kind of being. The uppermost layer, for example is the place we are inhabiting. The second layer is being inhabited by dwarfs. These dwarfs are short, plump, and long-haired. They are locally known as kanbangs. The kanbangs are said to possess magical powers. They are usually invisible to the human eye. The third layer of the earth which is found under the sea or lake is inhabited by nymphs. These nymphs also possess certain magical powers. It is stated in the story of Rajah Indarapatra that he met and fell in love with the princess-nymph with whom he had a child.

The sky also consists of seven layers. Each layer has a door which is guarded day and night by huge mythical birds called garoda. The seventh layer of the sky is the seat of heaven which is also divided into seven layers. Every layer in the sky is inhabited by angels. Maranaws believe that angels do not need food. They also possess wings with which they fly.

Heaven which is found on the seventh layer of the sky is where good people’s spirit go after death. Saints are assigned to the seventh layer while persons who “barely made it” are confined to the lowermost layer which is found at the bottom of heaven.

It is in heaven where we find the tree-of-life. On each leaf of the tree-of-life is written the name of every person living on earth. As soon as a leaf ripens or dries and falls the person whose name it carried also dies.

The soul of every person is found in tightly-covered jars kept in one section of heaven. This particular section of heaven is closely guarded by a monster with a thousand eyes named Walo. Walo in addition to his thousand eyes, has also eight hairy heads. The epic Darangan speaks to Madale, Bantugan’s brother Mabaning, husband of Lawanen, entering this section and retrieving the soul of Bantugan.

 


 

The Blaan people, alternatively spelled as “B’laan”, are one of the indigenous peoples of Southern Mindanao in the Philippines. The universe of the Blaan which Melu created is composed of nine layers and has the shape of two bowls set rim to rim.

The topmost layer is the abode of Mele or Dwata. Immediately below Mele’s abode is an unidentified layer. Next to this is a layer known as kayong, a place where men who die of accidents and murder go. The next layer is the sky where the sun, moon, and stars are. Next to it, the middle layer, is the abode of men. Below the abode of men is the layer of water. Below it are two layers, the kilut and bolul mawing, the layers for the dead. Through the lowest layer runs the pole that supports the bowls of the hemisphere. Its other end is tied to a finger of the owner of the world .

[READ: Beliefs from the B’laan Ethnic Group (Mindanao) | Philippine Mythology]

The T’bolis also believe that the sky has seven levels, the highest of which is the dwelling place of their god.

[READ: T’boli Myths & Deities | Beliefs of the Philippines]

Part of the early Filipinos’ concept of the universe is the belief that once upon a time the sky was low, and many myths attest to this belief. It was so low that women, while doing their housework, could hang their beads and combs on it or even the hammocks of their babies. Because the sky was low, the heat of the sun was so intense that people had to dig deep holes in the ground to creep into, to protect themselves. According to the myths, the sky raised itself after people, pounding palay and inconvenienced by their pestles’ constant hitting of the sky, complained and asked the sky to go higher. Francisco R. Demetrio considers this belief as a stage in the early Filipino outlook on the world:

Despite this remoteness and otherness of the heavens, there lingered in man’s soul the memory of an original closeness, and, at times, particularly in his myths and rituals, this gave him the hope of someday recapturing this closeness and returning thither.  ~ Demetrio 1978

Image from "The Soul Book". Used with permission from GCF Books

Image from “The Soul Book”. Used with permission from GCF Books


IN CLOSING:

Animism is the belief that everything has a spirit and a consciousness, a soul, from the tiniest microorganism on earth to the great planets in the heavens to the whole of the universe itself. Animistic faiths usually contain a belief in rebirth & reincarnation either as another human, an animal, tree, star, or unique spirit. Anything, or anyone, can be an ancestor and in a way this is true as even scientists will tell you every single thing in the universe is created from the same star dust — all matter gets recycled and reused. When it comes to modern views of the universe and our place within it, there is more natural harmony and more earthly wisdom within animism than almost any world religion.

 

ALSO READ: Stars Through the Eyes of Ancient Filipinos

 

SOURCES:
Maria Delia Coronel, (comp.) Stories and Legends from Filipino Folklore (Manila: UST Press, 1967)
Abdullah T. Madale, “A Preliminary Study of Maranao Folk Literature,” (Marawi City: MSU, Institute for Filipino Culture, 1966)
Damiana Eugenio, “Philippine Folk Literature: The Myths”, (UP Press, 2001)
Francisco Demetrio, S.J., “Creation Myths among the Early Filipinos”


2017 © The Aswang Project

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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.