Sunday, September 12, 2010

Don't Step on the Anthill!

(4th of a Series on Folk Beliefs Related to Trees and Forests)


One can easily dismiss the age-old belief in ghosts, spirits, and supernatural beings as figments of imagination made tenable and palatable by generation after generation of telling and retelling as bedtime stories for children.

As it is, however, rural communities still harbor tales of groves and fields and other spots that are best avoided because of the ugly and sinister deities believed to dwell in them. Many geriatric trees and patches of wilderness areas are shoo-in items in this category -- and, because of such belief systems, they have been spared until recently from the logger's ax or from land speculators.

In his book Boyhood in Monsoon Country, the late essayist Maximo D. Ramos (1975) gave a list of the more popular creatures said to dwell in trees in the rural areas of Zambales. One is the kai-baan who is said to look "like a three-year-old child, has a fair skin, and a treasure of long hair flowing like corn silk," and chooses the bagbagutot shrub (Phyllanthus reticulatus) as its favorite abode. This fellow, according to Ramos, is said to be a generous friend but is quite vindictive when harmed by careless folk. "It is believed to be capable of causing sore eyes, a wry mouth, and black and blue spots on the skin."

Also mentioned by Ramos are the agbarbarangay who "sail in fleets at night, and anchor their boats to the top of large trees." These night creatures are said to invite whoever is brave enough to go for a ride on their barangay (boat), in exchange for becoming a medium who would be told specific wild roots or herbs to cure the village's common diseases, after which he would be left up in the tree where his folks would find him peacefully asleep the next day.

Other creatures Ramos described are the pugot (also called lanib or kapre), the santilmo (St. Elmo), the agkarkarison (ghost that rides on a cart), and a headless black creature that could assume a variety of sizes, from an infant to a giant the size of a big tree. Ramos writes: "These beings are said to do nothing but evil. The moment a man trespassed their haunts, they would try to frighten him out of his wits, or sometimes they would carry him up to the crotch of the tree they lived in and kill or leave him there."

For precautions against these tree-dwelling evil beings, Ramos says "the best thing to do is never to get near, much less touch, big trees with oblong leaves." He cited the feared strangler fig (more popularly called balete [Ficus balete]), the bangar (Sterculia foetida; kalumpang in Tagalog), and the bulala, and said these trees are the domicile of the kapre and pugot.

Huge rocks, anthills, and spots "where grass never grows" are believed to be haunted, except probably this one by the roaring sea in Pasuquin, Ilocos Norte, where the UP-shirted "napugot ken lumakay" author recently went to.
The same prohibition holds for any termite mound, Ramos says, "where a blade of grass never grows and a fallen leaf never lingers." Such a mound (called bunton in Ilocano; dalimahon in Isinay; punso in Tagalog) is believed to be the footstool of the pugot or the lanib. "It is also the favorite entrance and egress of the dwarfs into and out of their underground world."

Ramos also pictured the sinanlakay and sinanbaket -- semblances of an old man and an old woman, respectively. He said they are demons garbed in black clothes and haunted trees near cemeteries or deserted lots grown over with shrubs and trees.

The sinanlakay is said to sometimes wear a sutana (priest's clothing) and is thus alternatively called sinampade (semblance of a priest). In my childhood barrio, I recall my grandfather's farm help Manong Ilding came home trembling one very early morning and stammering with words that sounded like he saw a sinampadi leaning on a coconut trunk when he was sent to go fetch the carabao under a jackfruit grove. No matter how my Apong Lakay kept nudging him after that, the guy could not be made to go out alone in the dark anymore, more so in the vicinity of that old grove where he said he saw a priest.

Don't get the impression though that tree-dwelling spirits are the monopoly of Ilocano-speaking communities. A more recent book by the same author, The Creatures of Midnight (Ramos, 1990), lists about 85 such creatures scattered throughout the Philippine archipelago. Which means that aside from their Ilocano and Tagalog nomenclature, the creatures also have Zambal, Pangasinan, Ibanag, Bikol, Tausug, Visayan, and Zamboangan names. Interestingly, except for those believed to dwell in rivers, ponds, lagoons, and other aquatic ecosystems, majority of the creatures inventoried by Ramos either lived in or have something to do with trees or forests.

The belief in benevolent and maleficent spirits dwelling in Nature -- in trees, rocks, streams, forests, caves, and mountains -- is also said to be strong among the Manobo people of Central Mindanao. In an essay, the anthropologist E. Arsenio Manuel (1977) wrote that the Manuvu (or Manobo) have this belief due to their pervasive faith in the "duality of existence" -- that is, that the physical body has a spiritual double.

Manuel added that the Manuvu also believe in "superior gods and lesser deities who dwell in the skyworld and whose favors are sought for success in agricultural work, fishing, hunting, recovery from illness, or protection and victory in war."

Another case in point exists in the remote upland villages of Mankayan, Benguet. People there take precautions when they get near certain big rocks and deep portions of mountain streams (Michael Dapdapig, pers. com., 1995). Huge rocks are believed to be guarded by a tumungaw (unseen dweller) and deep parts of streams are said to harbor a pinten (a ghost that drowns unlucky bathers). Thus you must refrain from roughly stepping on or even touching big rocks. For the deep ban-aw, you must first warn the resident pinten by gently throwing pebbles on the water before you dip or swim.

Curiously, among today's relatively urbanized Filipinos, the belief in haunted areas still exists -- yes, even in what Sylvia Mayuga (1995) has termed "the stunted, monoxide-coated trees of Manila." A durable example is Balete Drive in Quezon City which, in addition to its actual line of balete trees, is said to be occasionally avoided by motorists on moonlit nights because of a white lady who becomes one's surprise passenger but later disappears when confronted.

In Jalajala, Rizal (across the Laguna Lake from Los Banos), the old folks of Barangay Pagkalinawan talk of their avoiding a mountain spring in the upper reaches of the village. According to my Forest Anthropology professor Daylinda Banzon-Cabanilla (pers. com., 1988), this is because the place is believed to be haunted by spirits "who have the power to increase or decrease the volume of water flowing out of the spring when provoked."

Somewhere in the northern edge of Narvacan, Ilocos Sur, is a hill called Bantay Tirad. Franklin Cabaluna (1977) writes that on the hill's slopes are luxuriant grasslands where deer and other game abound and where deep and perpetually gushing springs attract animals seeking watering holes. Townsfolk, especially hunters, are wary of the place, Cabaluna says, because it is believed to be "inhabited by nymphs and other enchanted creatures." Thus, for a time the folklore resulted in the area's pristine and wildlife-rich state.

To those who live in the Quezon-Laguna area, accounts of "mysterious coincidences" in the Dolores, Quezon part of the mythical Mount Banahaw must still be fresh. Of particular interest were the ones related to the electrification plans for Kinabuhayan, a famous pilgrimage site kept serene, tree-covered, and tourist-attractive by members of the Samahan Tres Persona Solo Dios. The mysteries include the "effective intercession of the DENR in the environmentalist people's protest against the cutting of trees by Meralco to pave way for posts and power cables -- after going to court and other such legal means of seeking redress proved futile" (Mayuga, 1995).

That was not the first time, however, that such "coincidence" occurred. Mayuga cited an account recorded in Fr. Vicente Marasigan's Banahaw Guru: Symbolic Deeds of Agapito Illustrisimo:

"In 1940... an increasing number of pilgrims and excursionists to Kinabuhayan spring had begun to show commercial possibilities that tempted a business syndicate well connected with the municipal and provincial governments to plan a swimming pool resort around the spring of Resurrection. Tres Persona, technically squatters on national park land, would have to go. Suddenly the spring dried up and returned after the plan was abandoned, flowing until 28 years later when the old plan was resurrected. Again, the same thing happened. That last time was 1968...."

"Since then, government and big business have left Kinabuhayan pretty much alone, even when 7,283 hectares of Banahaw watershed were handed over to NAPOCOR management by Marcos' P.D. 1111, creating the Makiling-Banahaw Geothermal Reservation in the energy crisis of the mid-70s."

[Coming up next: "Beware of Trees with Fireflies!"]

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