Saturday, 31 October 2015

Philippine Witches: Why I was Scared of the Aswang!

            (The full moon as seen from my                          neighborhood in Seoul)

The full moon that rose from the horizon and hovered over Seoul tonight reminded me of the scary stories I heard when I was kid. When it was late at night and the moon was full, and everyone was huddled together next to the big window with cool night breezes blowing in, it was the best time to tell scary stories. And those stories sounded even scarier with the neighbor's dogs howling.

Although there are many supernatural beings in the Philippine folklore like the kapre, tiyanak, multo, or tikbalang that scare kids, let me just talk, for now, about the aswang. (By the way, when I was a kid, I have seen a kapre in an actual photograph that was taken in the early 1970s, and there was no photoshop then!).

'Aswang' is the local word for a Philippine witch, which unlike their western counterpart, does not need to ride a cleaning tool to fly. In Hollywood movies, witches need a broom to take off and defy gravity.  The Philippine witch does not need a broom; they simply splash on their witches' oil, pick a hidden spot in the forest, spread their big bat-like wings, and their body's upper half separates from the rest! 

An aswang could be a man or a woman. During the day, they're just ordinary people. But at night, they turn into a cursed being, craving to feed on other humans, especially babies and children, and the occasional unborn child, or someone's liver or innards. The scent of a pregnant woman excites and makes an aswang salivate.

Since most aswangs I heard of were women, let's talk about their 'dress code'. In the olden times, the women in the barrios usually wore 'baro at saya' (blouse and skirt), and when the upper half of their body separates to fly, the lower half from the navel to the feet are still covered, keeping to the conservative tradition of the Filipinos. Yes, even witches observe decency. Ha-ha-ha! And leaving behind the other half of the body on the ground probably agrees with the laws of gravity and aerodynamics. It's easier to fly with no excess baggage! I wonder if the aswang of the 21st century now comfortably wear kaftans for easy separation and flight?

And since aswangs (I'm not sure if I can pluralize it that way) are usually women, they have long, black hair, bloodshot eyes, big fangs and their sense of smell can pinpoint a newborn miles away. I remember when my young sister was still a baby, I clearly heard the 'tik-tik-tik-tik' sound near our second-storey window one night; it was loud and it was past midnight. My sister was crying like she was being vexed and my grandma was cursing and even threw water out of the window, expecting to chase away whatever, or whomever, was out there. The aswang usually makes a 'tik-tik' sound whenever it is around. Maybe it tries to pretend it is some kind of a nocturnal bird. But when you hear that sound at night, while walking alone in a rural village, do watch out. Something might be waiting for you a few steps ahead.  

I grew up in the Negros Island in the middle part of the Philippines where the landscape is dotted with haciendas. These are agricultural farms planted with sugar cane. If you happen to visit Negros Occidental, you would land on an airport which has one of the postcard-perfect views.

And throughout my childhood, I heard stories from people living in those haciendas about the aswang, kapre and all those other scary creatures that, not only embellish the colorful Philippine folklore, but also scare kids who are too stubborn to go to bed early!

I heard the aswang do not victimize the people from their own village, so as to avoid suspicion, or being caught by their own neighbor. Victimizing other people within the same village, or hacienda, would definitely arouse some suspicion among the very nosy and gossipy neighbors. In small villages, the order of the day is sunrise, gossip, then breakfast. Or sometimes, sunrise may not even come first! Ha-ha-ha!

From the aswang stories I heard from people living in the haciendas when I was a kid, I remember two names who were believed to be aswang. Those stories made me very curious that, when I was big enough, I had to ask someone to accompany me at around 1PM one summer day to quietly walk past the house of that aswang in the hacienda. The house looked eerie and was isolated from other houses. I was able to satisfy my curiosity, but saw no aswang. Or so I thought? All those stories I heard about them were from their own neighbors, who, I wondered, might have embellished their stories to make them scarier. 

The Philippines is an archipelago made up of thousands of islands, and the stories about these creatures coming from different islands were very consistent as to their description of the aswang, the way they transform into an animal, and the way they victimize. And as they say, if there's consistency, there could some truth in it. Could it be that they're actually real?

There was even a story of a famous aswang. It was so famous that it was serialized as a drama over the radio. Teniente Gimo, or Colonel Gimo, was a famous aswang in Dueñas, Iloilo Province. As he was a head of a barrio; he was addressed as 'teniente', the Spanish word for colonel. According to stories, Teniente Gimo mistakenly killed his own daughter (whom they eventually cooked!)! As to how his story went, you can just google it.

The last movie I saw about the aswang was 'Yanggaw'. I bought its DVD. Here's a video clip featuring 'Yanggaw' as one of the most frightening Filipino horror movies. 

And as I finish writing this aswang blog, I am thinking of watching my 'Yanggaw' DVD to relive the stories!

And in the meantime, Happy Halloween, everyone! 

Watch out for the aswang in your neighborhood! 
(The aswang painted green with her bat-like wings and separated torso is depicted in Carlos Francisco's painting 'The Progress of Medicine in the Philippines' displayed at the National Museum of the Philippines in Manila)

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