A Kapre-like being
Among the Ilocanos and Pampangos, the Pugot was a nocturnal spirit, usually in the form of a gigantic negro figure, terrifying, but not particularly harmful. It corresponded to the Tagalog Kapre, which eventually took ownership of the Pugot’s early attributes.
Its power of rapid transformation made it a more or less formidable opponent. Sometimes it took the form of a cat with fiery eyes, a minute later appearing as a large dog. Then it would turn into an enormous black negro smoking a large cigar, and finally disappear as a ball of fire. It lived either in large trees or in abandoned houses.
Various Aeta groups in northern Luzon are known as Pugot or Pugot, an Ilocano term that came to be known as “goblin” or “forest spirit”, and is the colloquial term for people with darker complexions. The earliest belief of the Pugot “spirit” is found in Ilocano myths as the spirits of ancestral aborigines (Aetas) who guard treasures.
Suac and His Adventures: A Pugot Folk Tale
Once upon a time, in a certain town in Pampanga, there lived a boy named Suac. In order to try his fortune, one day he went hunting with Sunga and Sacu in Mount Telapayong. When they reached the mountain, they spread their nets, and made their dogs ready for the chase, to see if any wild animals would come to that place.
Not long afterwards they captured a large hog. They took it under a giant tree and killed it. Then Sunga and Suac went out into the forest again.
Sacu was left to prepare their food. While he was busy cooking, he heard a voice saying, “Ha, ha! what a nice meal you are preparing! Hurry up! I am hungry.” On looking up, Sacu saw on the top of the tree a horrible creature,–a very large black man with a long beard. This was Pugot.
Sacu said to him, “Aba! I am not cooking this food for you. My companions and I are hungry.”
“Well, let us see who shall have it, then,” said Pugot as he came down the tree. At first Sacu did not want to give him the food; but Pugot knocked the hunter down, and before he had time to recover had eaten up all the food. Then he climbed the tree again. When Sunga and Suac came back, Sunga said to Sacu, “Is the food ready? Here is a deer that we have caught.”
Sacu answered, “When the food was ready, Pugot came and ate it all. I tried to prevent him, but in vain: I could not resist him.”
“Well,” said Sunga, “let me be the cook while you and Suac are the hunters.” Then Sacu and Suac went out, and Sunga was left to cook. The food was no sooner ready than Pugot came again, and ate it all as before. So when the hunters returned, bringing a hog with them, they still had nothing to eat.
Accordingly Suac was left to cook, and his companions went away to hunt again. Suac roasted the hog. Pugot smelled it. He looked down, and said, “Ha, ha! I have another cook; hurry up! boy, I am hungry.”
“I pray you, please do not deprive us of this food too,” said Suac.
“I must have it, for I am hungry,” said Pugot. “Otherwise I shall eat you up.” When the hog was roasted a nice brown, Pugot came down the tree. But Suac placed the food near the fire and stood by it; and when Pugot tried to seize it, the boy pushed him into the fire.
Pugot’s beard was burnt, and it became kinky. The boy then ran to a deep pit. He covered it on the top with grass. Pugot did not stay to eat the food, but followed Suac. Suac was very cunning. He stood on the opposite side of the pit, and said, “I pray you, do not step on my grass!”
“I am going to eat you up,” said Pugot angrily, as he stepped on the grass and fell into the pit. The boy covered the pit with stones and earth, thinking that Pugot would perish there; but he was mistaken.
Suac had not gone far when he saw Pugot following him; but just then he saw, too, a crocodile. He stopped and resolutely waited for Pugot, whom he gave a blow and pushed into the mouth of the crocodile. Thus Pugot was destroyed.
Suac then took his victim’s club, and returned under the tree. After a while his companions came back. He related to them how he had overcome Pugot, and then they ate. The next day they returned to town.
Suac, on hearing that there was a giant who came every night into the neighborhood to devour people, went one night to encounter the giant.
When the giant came, he said, “You are just the thing for me to eat.” But Suac gave him a deadly blow with Pugot’s club, and the giant tumbled down dead.
Later Suac rid the islands of all the wild monsters, and became the ruler over his people.
*note: The 3 friends, interrupted meals and overcoming a giant with intelligence and wit are common motifs in SE Asian folklore. See “The Deer, Pig, and Plandok” of Borneo or the Pampangan tale of the Bungisngis.
The Headless Being
From what I can gather in my research, this is an Ifugao beleif. Maximo Ramos writes in “The Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology”, ” The term pugot denotes either “the black one,” “the decapitated one,” or “one with hands cut off,” and the creature is widely known by that name in Northern and Central Luzon, though less as a headless being than as “a black being that can assume varying sizes—from a man tiny as a new-born babe to a giant the size of a large acacia tree,” a gigantic Negro “terrifying but not particularly harmful.”
It is well known that headhunting was a common practice among the Ifugao of Northern Luzon. Scholars agree that the primary function of headhunting was ceremonial and that it was part of the process of structuring, reinforcing, and defending hierarchical relationships between communities and individuals.
Some experts theorize that the practice stemmed from the belief that the head contained “soul matter” or life force which could be harnessed through its capture.
Among the mountain tribes of the Philippines, matters of murder were usually settled through revenge. Thus, elaborate vengeance rituals were held as part of the funeral rites of the dead. The people believe that the souls of men buried by this ceremony lead most unhappy lives.
They are forced to wander about, for a time at least, among the war gods and great evil deities of the Sky World (Daya) and the Upper World (Kahunian). ‘ It is far from being an honor to have one’s head taken. In fact, to the Ifugao, it is the greatest of all mis-fortunes.
As the stories of the Pugot crept into Ifugao lore, it is only natural that they would place their own individualism. Perhaps the Pugot was originally thought to be the spirits of the dishonoured and decapitated bodies that were not claimed by their relatives and given proper burial rites.
The Headless Priest
So how did the Pugot turn into a headless priest? A combination of history, Christianity, and urban legend is to thank for this.
During the first two centuries of Spanish colonization, Ifugao life was relatively undisturbed. In 1741, the towns of Bayombong and Bagabag, Nueva Vizcaya became a base for Spanish operations. The Spanish used converts to try and convince the Ifugao to settle in lowland towns, but attacks on Christian villages continued. In 1832, Colonel Guillermo Galvey pillaged Kiangan (the oldest town in the Ifugao Province) using Ilocano and Pangasinan troops.
The attack was designed to punish the Ifugao for attacks on Nueva Vizcaya and Cagayan towns. Then, in 1847, military governor Mariano Oscariz “pacified” Mayaoyao, Alimit, and Kiangan by burning crops and destroying terrace walls.
He also executed three Ifugao for every head that had been previously taken during battles. In 1889 Governor General Valeriano Weyler tried to create a bigotry among the Ifugao themselves by underscoring lowland and highland differences. Around this same time, with headhunting still in full practice, priests (who viewed themselves as protectors of the natives) sought to evangelize the Ifugao by convincing them to pay tax, give tribute and be baptized.
These priests were subsequently killed. This case illustrates the difficulties to be met in “civilizing” the people. Legally, under Spanish view, the Ifugao were murderers; under their own customs and traditions, they had done a commendable thing.
The Headless Priest
One can imagine the thoughts of the Christianized lowlanders on learning this news. For me, historical fact and local superstition seemed the perfect marriage to create a whole new persona for the Pugot – The Headless Priest.
It would seem that we have the early Austronesian inhabitants to thank for the origins of the Pugot lore. In an attempt to explain the Aeta natives, they created the term and subsequent cautionary stories to stay away from them.
Later, the headhunting practices in Northern Luzon were incorporated. Lastly, the killing of Catholic priests by the Ifugao in the late 19th century was incorporated into existing lowland superstition.
Philippine Folklore is constantly evolving, even today. Many times, a variant in a folk tale may simple boil down to which province you are from. In the case of the Pugot, there are three clearly defined version – and those don’t even touch on the horrific child eating version known as the Pugot Mamu!