If there’s anything our native childhood tales tell us of what our country and people were before the White Man came, the most telling would be its setting in Nature, with invisible creatures like the diwata, duende, kapre, tikbalang and aswang sharing our world.
Growing up with a borrowed western worldview, we begin dismissing these mythical creatures as childish fantasy. In the past couple of decades, however, scholars of folklore have brought these creatures back to public consciousness, though with little explanation of what they still have to do with “post-modern” us. Even less does local cinema, exploiting these creatures in scare movies, shed light on their continuing mass appeal.
Comes now the Bicolano anthropologist Tito Valiente, schooled in both West and East, taking a very close look at the old tales of his birthplace, Ticao, Masbate. Recalling and, better yet, experiencing this invisible world in the first seven years of his life, he can now cast a fresh light on folk “superstitions,” with a deeper understanding of our origins and what our souls have lost since then.
Among the enchanted creatures in his new book, The Last Sacristan Mayor and the Most Expensive Mass for the Dead: Tales of Ticao are a half-man, half-horse nourished by cosmic energy, the aswang drinking the blood of a pregnant woman, giant kapres and enchanted maidens and their adult counterparts in female healer elders.
Such enchanted creatures are also found in fairy tales passed on to generations of children from old Europe’s fields and forests by the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen. Like our native tales, they hint at universal patterns of thought rooted in human relationships with Nature.
Makes you wonder. Did our ancestors tell these tales of enchantment not as mere evening entertainment but as the best way to pass on the most vital truth of human existence -- the intricate interdependence of life?
Take the giants called “kapre.” Could they have towered as very old, very tall trees casting long shadows and dancing lifelike in strong winds? History tells us that despite forests of mother trees having been felled and transformed into Spanish galleons, the Americans still found our islands 95 percent forested. Could this be why we still speak of the kapre all over these islands, from lingering memories of our first forest homes?
And what of the females, young and old, both feared and revered for their ability to see and speak to invisible beings -- like that enchanted maiden summoning a kapre to hide their island from invaders, or that housekeeper materializing invisible ingredients for her heavenly suman latik?
If recalling and retelling these tales shade into poetry, it’s because the author Valiente -- historian, public anthropologist, writer – crosses from past to present with ease. Valuing folk memory, he recreates the vanished past by linking its scattered remnants into a larger picture endowed with fresh meaning to live by in a needy present.
What enchantment in the loveliest tale of all -- a suite of stories passed on to him in childhood by his yaya Erlina. The hero is the handsome tikbalang Onglo, who “drinks starlight and moonbeams,” and falls in love with the earth maiden Maria. (Valiente believes Maria was really his yaya Erlina, an enchanted maiden in disguise.)
Simultaneously attracted and frightened, Maria/Erlina hides from the pursuing Onglo by disguising herself as a tree and then as the sands of the seashore. Could anything be more romantic than the hide-and-seek of primal forces in cosmic encounter, Onglo of the sky and Maria/ Erlina of the earth, who belong together for all time after all?
Valiente does not censor raunchy details of sexual encounters between visible and invisible. We, too, turn breathless as comely young Concordia dances in frenzy with the amorous Prince of Engkantos all day and all night for days. Their dance ends only when her wise old mother finally consents to their marriage in a world still in magic thrall. Raunchiest of all is a third story about the handsome rake Adolfo driven to climb a coconut tree naked, his penis engorged, “to fly to the moon.”
Who needs porn in a world like this, where Nature and its ways are the giddiest turn-ons? Thank you, Tito Valiente, for bringing back the joyful wisdom of our ecosystem, matrix of life tragically diminished when enchantment flies out the window.
How well we understand, how deeply we mourn our common lot with the people of Ticao, who now speak only of election fraud, poverty and killings, because they have allowed their island’s enchanted beings to die in their hearts.
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Sylvia L. Mayuga is a veteran Filipino writer on the arts, culture and history of the Philippines. She has three National Book Awards to her name.