Friday Focus: Revisiting Usog, Pasma, Kulam

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On September - 18 - 2009

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


You know that a book has been criminally under-promoted on the web when the only copy of the title page you can find is over at Kinokuniya Japan. That’s a shame, because Micahel Tan‘s “Revisiting Usog, Pasma, Kulam” is one of the most thoroughly researched books I’ve found to date on Philippine folklore and magic.

The irony is that this book was originally aimed at health professionals, not for the curious public (and snoopy writer). As the author states in one of his Inquirer columns, the book is “actually a substantial revision of “Usug, Pasma, Kulam,” which was first published in 1987 by AKAP, a medical NGO working in communities and deals with the everyday concepts Filipinos have about health and illness in general. It tries to systematize these concepts, explaining some of their origins and how they continue to evolve.”

It is in that attempt to order the vast and varied beliefs across the archipelago into a coherent–albeit an always porous and ambivalent one–system that the utility and beauty of this slim volume emerges. Whereas many of the published folklore studies are content to bury a reader under reams of lists and scatter-shot data, Tan’s book maps consistencies and contrasts between the different illness-related belief systems of the pre-hispanic Filipino (and how these have evolved and carried-over to our modern age) which can be a godsend to a writer who is, say, trying to come up with a Philippine-folklore influenced magic system, but who is overwhelmed by the sheer variety of pre-Hispanic beliefs; examples of this are when he analyzes the nature of “contagion” in folk beliefs, and when he clarifies that the pre-Christian understanding of mystical retribution was not rooted in an external, vengeful God, but in the belief that some actions carried disaster as a natural consequence.

I haven’t finished the book myself yet–it’s a dense read and, to the horror of my wife, I’m taking notes–but I’ve read enough that on this Book Fair Weekend-eve, I can heartily recommend it to anyone interested in Philippine folklore, especially writers. I saw copies at the UP Press booth, so if you’ve got the time and the cash, try to grab a copy.

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Rocket Kapre is an imprint of Eight Ray Sun Publishing Inc. (a new Philippine-based publisher), dedicated to bringing the very best of Philippine Speculative Fiction in English to a worldwide audience by means of digital distribution. More info can be found at our About section at the top of the page.