Monday, October 31, 2005

Anthropologist: What aswang?

Breaking the aswang complex

By Francis Allan L. Angelo

FOR a lady anthropologist from the country’s premiere state university, aswang or flesh eating monsters of Filipino folklore is nothing more than an invention.
Worse, the term represents the oppression and colonization experienced by the Philippines.
During Halloween season, stories of ghouls, ghosts, headless priests and other tales from the nether world emerge to spice up the occasion.
But for Dr. Alicia Magos, one of the big names in Philippine anthropology, these stories are offshoots of “combined military, religious and cultural tactics used to conquer the early Filipinos.”
Magos, who has conducted extensive studies into the indigenous culture and traditions of early Panay settlers, said the origins of aswangs are the powerful babaylans or priestesses of pre-Hispanic Panay.
“A datu or a village cannot earn respect if he was not a babaylan. So they resort to ‘hiring’ or getting the services of babaylans, who are mostly female, who are considered the link of the community to the spiritual world. Such was the high regard of our forefathers to these women priestesses,” Magos said.
Since they are the channel of the humans to their spirit gods and goddesses, babaylans performed certain rituals which the Spanish conquerors regarded as “pagan and demonic.”
At that time, babaylans have their own annual convention in Antique which a Spanish friar described as “diabolical.”
Since the datus heeded the advice of the babaylans, the Spanish, who were out to spread Catholicism and grab new territories in Asia, first went after the priestesses.
The first order of the day for the early Catholic clerics was to spread stories that babaylans were “agents of Satan and all that is evil.”
Coupled with the military might of the conquerors, the friars managed to wipe out the influence of babaylans over early Panay communities which eventually paved the way for the colonization of the country.
“It was a perfect religious-military tool for conquering other cultures. Through time, the term aswang was invented and its description became more morbid and cruel as generations passed these fabricated stories,” Magos added.
Even the famous legend of Tiniente Gimo, a purported aswang from Dueñas, Iloilo, was allegedly fabricated by American colonizers against a labor leader in the early 1900s.
The term aswang, which is now used to describe flesh eating and blood sucking creatures, was also used against freedom fighters who refused to bow down to American rule.
Even local folklores narrated of heroes who ate body parts of enemies they killed in the battlefield. “Such act of cannibalism was a badge of courage. Eating body parts of slain enemies serve as battle trophies of the victor.”
Even the word yawa, which is now equated to evil, originally meant supernatural powers.
Magos cited the tale of Malitong Yawa, a character in the epic chant of the Panay Bukidnons in the central part of the island.
“Malitong Yawa was a beautiful woman with extraordinary powers. Later, the Spanish and American colonizers transformed her into an evil creature,” Magos said.
Magos’ explanation was also used to justify the celebration of the Aswang Festival in Capiz province.
Criticisms from Catholic Church authorities and a handful of politicians forced organizers of the festival to rename it to “Lupad” festival.
“We should start to straighten these fabrications so we can recover our own identity which is a viable source of empowerment and development. We must free ourselves of religious and political deceptions that have kept us from advancing. We must be proud to be called aswangs and yawa,” Magos said. (Published in The Guardian, November 1-2, 2005 issue)


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