Of Aswangs, Garlic and Cultural Diversity

It’s strange to think that I might have politicians to thank for increasing my knowledge of Philippine mythology, but I’m glad I’m at least learning something from this Con Ass debacle. To explain the context of this post, and the innocuous garlic above, one of our esteemed Senators, Mar Roxas, recently brought garlands of garlic to the Senate as an expression of protest to the actions undertaken by congressmen of the majority party, who managed to ram through a controversial resolution last Tuesday. The senator compared the actions of the congressmen to a form of witchcraft, akin to those practiced by certain types of “aswang” and he brought the leis of garlic as he said these were the best defense against aswang.

This action prompted a column by noted Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo entitled “Garlic isn’t an ‘aswang’-repellant.” (Do check out the article, as it gives an interesting academic explanation for what an “Aswang” is) Putting aside his issues with the propriety of the Senator’s actions and Mr. Ocampo’s somewhat rosy memory of the “dignity” of Senates past, what makes his column of interest to me and this site is his stance, as expressed in the title of the piece, that Filipinos “never use garlic against the aswang.”

Senator Roxas’ staff who crafted his Con-asswang gimmick are obviously young and urban, they grew up on horror movies. Had they been from Capiz or had they been reared on aswang stories from their “yayas” (nannies) and grandmothers, they would know that the Philippine aswang is not repelled by a crucifix or garlic, which only works for vampires from Transylvania. To kill an aswang you do not drive a stake through its undead heart, rather you drive a sharpened bamboo spear into its back.

Furthermore, Filipinos never use garlic against the aswang. The traditional weapons are ginger and salt. This partly explains why Filipino males like to urinate in the most unlikely places. They are not marking their territory like dogs, but in an earlier time such a practice was meant as an anti-aswang method because urine was believed to contain enough salt to drive the aswang away. In this way holy water can also be used on an aswang, not so much because of the priest’s blessing but due to the salt that is traditionally added to the holy water. Many priests today forget that salt is the essential ingredient in holy water.

I certainly am no historian, and have only recently begun to mine the dense earth of our varied mythologies, but it seems to me that if indeed there is no tradition of garlic being a deterrent to Aswang (defined by Mr. Ocampo, adapting the research of Mr. Maximo Ramos, as “a generic term used to describe one of five creatures in Philippine lower mythology” including witches) then some enterprising soul is going to have to do a lot of correcting of the internets–starting with Wikipedia.

(Click to see larger image; More after the break)

Lest the veracity of wikipedia be assailed, one of my most prized possessions is a ratty old tome, in two volumes, entitled “Encyclopedia of Folk Beliefs and Customs” by one Fr. Francisco Demetrio S.J. Volume 1,  section 2720 under the heading “Aswangs and Witches” states that “A pregnant woman should put suwa and garlic in the house, to drive evil spirits away”; section 2725 states that the seeds of certain kinds of plants, garlic… wrapped in pieces of black cloth are pinned on the baby’s dress to protect him from evil intentions or witches;  2747 states that Salt grounded with garlic and ginger is a powerful compund dreaded by witches…; 2755 states that pomelo leaves, garlic and thorny plants drive witches away…

As can be seen from the above, the book is a bit of a mess, more a collection of disparate facts culled from interviews that are thrown together haphazardly under the broadest of categories–it’s more like a compilation of raw data than an actual book (And some of that data is very raw indeed, with priceless nuggets such as 2714 “Witches are scared of bullets”); but that’s sort of my point here: from the little I’ve seen, we Filipinos have no more one common mythology and folklore than we have one common language. There were no pre-hispanic “Filipinos” as a distinct cultural group, but instead a lot of separate tribes with their own cultures, the variation between which grows in proportion to their distance from each other.

In some ways I’d love for there to be a be-all and end-all template for our mythological creatures–it’d make research for that urban fantasy novel a helluva lot easier; as it stands though, I don’t think we can make statements about Filipino folklore that we can expect to be equally applicable to all the tribes.

And, in some ways, isn’t our culture all the richer for it? Wouldn’t it be great to have a folklore populated by creatures as diverse and contradictory as human beings themselves?

(Photograph of garlic by funadium, under creative commons, some rights reserved.)

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