Monday, October 11, 2010

“Sshhh… Keep Quiet and Don’t Go Under the Trees!”


NOTE: This is the third installment of my 1995 essay on folk beliefs associated with trees and forests that I sharpened a bit and retitled  “Of Fireflies and Forest Fairies” in the hope that its form and content, let alone its call for appreciating  indigenous knowledge systems and practices, would make for pleasant reading and not turn off visitors of Oh yes, if you have queries, complaints, suggestions, or whatever, you’re welcome anytime to prick my balloon via the comments section of this site or, if you are shy (like me), you can pour out some lines and send them to or

any rural communities in the Philippines consider certain times of the day – usually high noon and twilight – as sacred and/or critical. During such hours, it is taboo to go outdoors, climb a tree, build a fire in the fields, throw rocks in the thickets, or engage in vigorous activities like chopping wood. 

The belief is that spirits are active and prone to doing harm to human beings, especially gallivanting kids, during those particular hours.

I recall how in my boyhood days in an upstream barrio of Dupax del Sur, Nueva Vizcaya, the womenfolk often warned us hyper-kinetic boys from straying too far from the village lest the kumaw (called sipay or manunupot in Tagalog) would get us, put us inside the langgotse (rice sack), bring us to a rangtay (bridge) being constructed in the towns of Bambang or Bayombong downstream, and use our blood as atang (food offering) to the spirits guarding the area, so that the bridge won’t easily be washed out when the Me-et or the Magat River went berserk during heavy rains. 

For some time that scare-tactic worked. And so at least, many a bayyek (tadpole) in the carabao pond, many a tuwwato (dragonfly) along the mountain trail, many a bambannagaw (chameleon) by the riverside, and many a pirruka (bulbul) in the bignay or the samak tree have been spared from some naughty kids’ itchy hands and from their slingshots’ raring-for-action mode. The deep parts of the river that we called lipnok similarly became quiet for a while as no right-minded fellow would go take a dip there without the company of big uncles.

Pretty soon, however, we noticed that the rusty trucks that we suspected to be those of the kumaw were hauling gigantic lawaan and bagtikan logs – not naughty kids – from the blue forests further upstream of the barrio. And pretty soon it was open season again for us mango-munching, bird-hunting and river-loving lads.

But then someone revived stories of the marmarna (roving spirits) or the di makitkita (unseen beings) who roamed aplenty at high noon.  Some of my Isinay relatives talked of seeing tiny footprints  –  believed to be that of the dwarf and long-haired lampong   – on carabao trails in hilly areas where not so many kids go. As if on cue, a couple of mysterious deaths of people we knew – one under a bitnong tree, another in his kaingin – also started to go around. It didn’t take long, indeed, before we kids  avoided engaging in raucous outdoor play again or using our ubiquitous slingshots during the hours that Ilocanos call agmatuon (namalintur in Isinay; literally “time when the sun is directly overhead”). 

I’m not sure if such a belief was intentionally nurtured to ensure peaceful and worry-free noontime siesta for the Hispanized farm folk. I suspect however that the warnings about diurnally active ghosts were also meant to give mango-owning neighbors – when the fruits are in season -- time out in guarding their heavily laden trees from slingshot-happy kids on perpetual search for ripe fruits to target. 

In retrospect, I tend to believe now that in my childhood the belief has somehow helped extend the expiry dates of certain birds, reptiles, and other wilderness creatures. 

Holy Week Blues

Photo from
I don’t know how it is in other rural communities in the Philippine archipelago, but at least in southern Nueva Vizcaya, the enforcement of  the “noontime curfew” was  at its strictest during cuaresma or Lenten season.  For, indeed, it would not be only us malleable adolescents who would observe the ngilin (literally “fasting and abstinence”) but also our basi-loving uncles. If at all they would go out, it would only be to bring the carabao to the river, not to the kaingin.

Thus, no matter how the gurgling song of the clear and cool river was luring us... no matter how sweet it would be to run after the grasshoppers sunning by the side of the carabao grazing field... no matter how seductive were the love calls of the alimuken (bleeding-heart pigeon) or the “come and get me if you can” shrieks of the kilyawan (oriole), it was “stay where you are” command for us. 

For a couple of hours or so, even our enemy tsakuk (Philippine coucal) would have peace taunting us uncircumcized boys with its “kukukukuk… supput… supput” song as the good boys among us would hang our slingshots by the post and do our share in husking the corn, shelling the peanuts, drying the tobacco leaves, baby-sitting kid sisters, squashing the fleas of the dog, or shooing away the neighbor’s hen and her dozen chicks from ruining the newly sown tomato seeds.

If we happened to be in the uma or in the taltalon, we would be expected to have taken the carabaos to their favorite mudhole or bamboo-shaded “parking lot” by then. Then we would join our old folks in the kalapaw (farm hut) to while away the witching hour often by nursing one’s leech bites or squeezing out the thorn of the kwantung (spiny amaranth) lodged in somebody else’s foot. 

More often than not, while doing our “foot surgery” or corn-husking chores , we would get a generous dose or litany of reminders (almost always in reference to our Olympian slingshot skills) the likes of but not limited to: 

Why don’t you go after the uwak that raided the ripe papaya and banana, instead of the meatless, harmless and sweet-singing sitsitik? Why not pull the barsanga (a weed) or bain-bain (makahiya) off the upland rice patch in the uma instead of combing the hills all day for pugo nests? And why not learn how to make rama (fish aggregating bamboo-cum-river stone contraption) or weave pasiking (rattan backpack) instead of challenging the kids in the ballasiw (other side of the river) to a fight?”

The same curfew would be imposed at dusk when the night cicadas start to sing and it is time to inventory the chickens up in the tamarind or caimito trees and to kindle the dalikan (earthen stove) for supper. In case we needed to go out to urinate or to dump rubbish in the abandoned tupig pit, we would caution the spirits by saying “bari-bari…,” “kayu-kayu….” or “tabi-tabi…”

And when we would eat outdoors whether noon or dark, we would remember to invite the unseen beings who are guarding the place – river, big tree, mountain, farm – by saying “Mangantayo, apo…” (come, let’s eat)  or like what my grandfather himself had been mumbling, “Ne, bagiyo….” (hey, here’s your share). Failing to do such would invite the wrath of the guardian spirit and it would give you stomach ache or some such trouble.

In the Cordilleras

Prill-Brett (1986) relates a similar belief in critical hours among the Bontok Igorot: “There are designated times of the day, from 11 AM to noon and from 5:30 PM to 6:30 PM, that are believed to be dangerous for walking mountain trails. These designated times are dusk and the hottest part of the day, times when malevolent spirits that push people over the mountainsides are believed to be roaming around.”

Beliefs like that, Prill-Brett says, are based on the “assumption  that for activities there is a proper time and place to be observed and respected in order to be in harmony with the supernatural beings in the area.” The said belief is the Bontok’s way of structuring their relationships with the environment, since they perceive themselves to be sharing the land with these supernatural beings who hold them responsible for the stewardship of the land.

Looking back, it would appear now that many forest areas -- especially the Benguet pine (Pinus kesiya) remnants that go tinder-dry and fire-attractive in the sweltering months of March-May -- have been spared from despoliation as a positive result of the reprieve brought about by such belief in sacred and critical hours. 

If summed up over the years, those seemingly insignificant “idle times” or times spent doing nothing would have otherwise been used to engage in forms of spirit-harming activity like chopping down saleng trees for use in the fireplaces of Baguio and La Trinidad, or clearing runo-covered hillsides for growing cabbage, strawberry and snap beans.

(NEXT: Belief in Haunted Places. FORTHCOMING: Belief in Unfit or Disfavored Trees; What’s Next for Folk Beliefs?; Appendix: Isnegs Declare Lapat to Conserve Natural Resources)

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