When I was a child, I loved reading myths and legends from all over the world: Greek, Roman, Chinese, African, Norse, you name it… The exceptions were, you guessed it, myths and legends from my own country. The sad fact of the matter was that none of the folklore presented to me in school appealed to sensibilities already ignited by my early exposure to fantasy fiction–where were the grand battles, the horrific monsters, the contending divinities?
Of course when I grew older, I discovered that our myths and legends were more varied and interesting than I’d surmised from the sanitized, committee-approved versions of the old tales that were fed to school children. However, actually finding these stories, or at least those not studied in schools, can be difficult given that most of these tales form part of our oral, not written, tradition. Fortunately, there do exist quality compendiums of stories that shine a spotlight on lesser known tales, and the “Treasury of Stories” from Anvil Publishing is both one of the broadest in scope, and one of the most accessible to an English speaking audience. (I also note from the Anvil website that there is a textbook edition–if so, I envy those students.)
The collection, first published in 1997, was put together by E. Arsenio Manuel and Gilda Cordero-Fernando, and illustrated by Carlos Valino Jr. It contains thirty-three myths, legends and folktales from all across the Philippines, distributed amongst three broad categories: The Mythological Age, The Heroic Age, and Folk Tales from All Ages. With the exception of a few of the animal stories such as “The Monkey and the Tortoise”, all of the stories were new to me, even if some of the characters, like Bantugan and (ugh) Juan Tamad, were not; prospective readers leery of buying yet another version of “Si Malakas at Maganda” need not worry. The stories range from light-hearted romance (“Kimod and the Swan Maiden”) to an apocalyptic battle with enough bloodshed and heroics to satisfy a fan of Frank Miller’s “300” (“The Ascension Into Heaven”). Given the age of these narratives however, even the stories that focus on the relationship of a husband and wife are rife with morbid fates and cruel punishments; think Grimm’s Fairy Tales—the original versions.
While it is difficult for modern readers—especially the majority who, like myself, are not as versed as they should be in pre-hispanic Philippine culture—to understand the context of these stories, many of which are snippets from longer works, one of the reasons that the book makes for easy reading is that the creators took great pains to clarify words and concepts that might be unfamiliar, by means of short glossary sections at the end of every story. Each sub-section (say, stories that deal with marriage to celestials/divinities) is preceded by some notes on both the stories and the common story-type. The art of Carlos Valino Jr. also aids in the ease of reading: unlike other illustrated collections—where individual pictures are so tangentially connected to the stories as to be interchangeable with each other—Valino draws either portraits of the main characters (in a style that makes it clear these are Filipino heroes, not Hollywood archetypes) or particular scenes, bringing the stories to an almost tangible life.
The accessibility of the text comes with some necessary trade-offs: many of the original stories were in verse form, but were retold in prose, and none of the tales are in their original language, which can lead to some awkward turns of phrase. Despite the changes, the characteristics which allowed these tales* to survive through the centuries remain intact: like other myths and fairy tales, the larger-than-life characters and stark contrasts of beauty and horror, good and evil, retain the power to transport us to a different time and place. Yet there is a certain added magic to knowing that these stories found their origins somewhere in these 7,107 islands, to knowing that, by virtue of blood or nationality, we can somehow claim ownership of these gods, of these monsters, of these stories. It might not automatically make me a better Filipino to know that Bantugan had fifty wives (poor Mrs. Engkanta!**), that rice was stolen from the skyworld, or that we actually have a legendary hero whose name translates as “Big-Belly”–but it does help me have a better grasp of what it means to say that “I’m a Filipino”, and that’s a win in my book.
As a further service to our dear readers, I’m listing the thirty-three stories here, along with the origin of the tale, if known:
- The Good God and the Bad God (Manuvu)
- Aponibolinayen and the Sun (Tinggian)
- The Choosy Maiden of the Fourth Heaven (Ifugao)
- Kimod and the Swan Maiden (Mansaka/all over)
- Star Wife (Tinggian)
- The Origin of Rice (Bontoc/Kankanai)
- How the Sky Became High (Tinggian/all over the Philippines)
- The Flood (Ifugao)
- The First Giant Step (Ilokano)
- The Teacher God (Bontoc)
- The Ascension into Heaven (Bukidnon)
- Son of Wood (Ifugao)
- The Six-Headed Giant of Adasen (Tinggian)
- The Death of Bantugan (Maranao)
- The Wrath of Malingling (Manuvu)
- Bata Mama and Bata Bahi (Bukidnon)
- The Sweet and Sour Sisters (Manuvu)
- The Dangerous Swing (Ifugao)
- Pilanduk and Bombola (Maranao)
- Walu and His Wife’s Earplug (Manuvu)
- The Monumental Ignorance of Juan (Tagalog)
- The Misadventures of Juan (Tagalog)
- The Adventures of the Monkey and the Tortoise
- Why Mosquitos Hum in Your Ear (Bisaya)
- The Rice Boat (Isneg)
- Who Can Drink More Water (Ilokano)
- The War of the Dragonflies and the Monkeys (Bikol)
- The Rat and the Oriole (Bukidnon)
- Why the Cow’s Skin is Loose (Tagalog)
- Big Belly and the Bully of the Forest (Manuvu)
- The Wonderful Orange Fruit (Bontoc)
- The One Hundred Two Children (Maranao)
* Well, the comedic tales and tales with an overt moral lesson have different sources for their longevity…
** Datimbang’s alias in Arnold Arre’s “The Mythology Class”
Friday Focus segments can be reviews, recommendations or retrospectives of works that could be of interest to readers and writers of Speculative Fiction. If you’d like to volunteer to do one on a book, game, or what-have-you close to your heart, drop me a line at rocketkapre[at]g m a i l.com.