Animal Lores: Myths, Disasters, and Animals
The post on monkeys and hurricanes made me think about myths and calamities. So, here’s the continuation of that blog post:
In rural Philippines where I grew up, animals are one of the central conversation topics in any street corner. We would huddle and strain our necks to hear the stories adults tell each other of fantastic creatures that fly in the night or about the mythical sigbin that stole a squash from a neighbor’s garden. The sigbin is said to be kangaroo-like, about a foot long, and eats with its bottom raised up in the air. These creatures only come out at night and move very fast that the only evidence of its presence is a smashed up squash, bits and pieces of its yellow and orange flesh littered all over the garden floor. The sigbin, they say, also prefers the warmth of the hearth and, at times, eats charcoal to sustain itself. In fact, if these adults were to be believed, the sigbin, when caught and tamed, is faster than anything else in the world because it can transport the owner in a blink of an eye. As a kid, it wasn’t much of a stretch to think that Aladdin’s magic carpet was hewn from the fleece of the sigbin.
There were other mythic animals that inhabited our imagination. Going on long treks on the hills of my town, I sometimes find myself lost in the thick of the forest. Of course, there was always a ready explanation as to why the once familiar footpaths were leading nowhere and the gigantic trees, signposts to finding the way back home, were not the same or were just not there anymore. Shouting for help was useless because the only answer that one got was an eerie silence, so eerie that even the cicadas were hushed up. Then, I realized that the supernaturals were playing tricks again, putting roads where there was none, confusing me in the middle of a labyrinthine forest. We call this lamat, a condition of being lost, even in once familiar paths.
For the Tagalogs, the tikbalang, a centaur-like creature, is blamed for the lamat. Unlike a similar character in Western mythology, the Filipino tikbalang is an inversion of the centaur. They are represented as having the head and torso of the horse while its lower body is human–a bipedal bronco. According to Reynaldo Ileto in his seminal work, Pasyon and Revolution, the tikbalang is the “king of the San Mateo mountains…and a brother of Marya of Mount Makiling” (a goddess popular in Filipino folklore).
It is not surprising then that disaster events are often interpreted in mythic terms. Harold Olofson, one of the giants of Visayan anthropology, noted how animals have been incorporated in religious rituals of a small island community in Central Visayas. The animals occupy a central place in the fiesta celebration of St. Vincent Ferrer, the island’s patron saint. To avert disasters, the residents dress cats and dogs as humans. The inversion doesn’t stop there: women and men switch clothes and coconut trees are planted on the sea. It was “sacrilegious” that the designated parish priest once banned the celebration on religious grounds. The island residents however blamed him when disaster struck the island once again, forcing the parish priest to retract the sanction and allow the celebration of the binaliw. Olofson believes that this binaliw ritual exhibits a syncretic fusion of a prehispanic principle or belief in a thunder-god and the Spanish-introduced saint, San Vicente Ferrer.
The belief in the supernatural character of animals is widespread in the Visayas area. According to William Henry Scott‘s retelling of 16th century Visayas, the presence of animals, especially birds, was used to divine the success of a hunt or harvest. Until the present, some rural villagers in Eastern Visayas fear the Philippine coucal because it forewarns them of a bad day. A cryptic and nocturnal bird species, kikik, is also believed to be a harbinger of the witch’s coming.
Further north, the Tinguians of Abra Province put birds in a different light. The Tinguians do not start the planting season unless a particular bird appears before the sky. For modernist economists, stories such as these are dismissed as mere superstition, stumbling block in the road towards progress. Closer inspection however reveals that this bird is migratory, signaling the onset of the monsoon season. Anthropologists remarked that the Tinguian‘s agricultural cycle is more attuned to the nuances of their local environment than modern agricultural practices.
The representation of animals in the local belief systems comes in handy in disaster situations. In the place I grew up in, villagers admonish children to be extra watchful for sudden changes in animal behavior, say for example the early roosting of the chicken or the complete silence of the forest, because these forebode a disastrous event. In other cases, like the 2006 Guinsaugon mudslide and the many earthquakes in the Philippines, eyewitnesses remember the unusual behavior exhibited by the animals before the event. Lita C. Malicdem, in a comment on animals and earthquakes in the Philippines, said that, “I had observed my dogs howling at no cause and the fowls in the poultry cackling and making uneasy noises. I would learn later that there was an earthquake. It was so weak that it wasn’t felt by us humans, but the animals did.”
Anthropologists have also documented similar incidents elsewhere. After noticing unusual behavioral changes in the birds, dolphins and lizards, tribes in the Nicobar and Andaman islands headed to higher ground and were saved from the devastation. Similarly in 1975, Chinese officials, using animal cues, “ordered the evacuation of Haicheng, a city with one million people, just days before a 7.3-magnitude quake. Only a small portion of the population was hurt or killed. If the city had not been evacuated, it is estimated that the number of fatalities and injuries could have exceeded 150,000.” The 2004 tsunami that hit India and Sri Lanka is the oft-cited incident of animals fleeing the disaster before it struck. According to a National Geographic report, before the tsunami hit land, “elephants screamed and ran for higher ground, dogs refused to go outdoors, flamingos abandoned their low-lying breeding areas, and zoo animals rushed into their shelters and could not be enticed to come back out.”
The stories here therefore point at the importance of local environmental knowledges. Disaster stories are part of a complex belief system that elaborates the people’s relationship with their natural world. To end this blogpost, let me quote the World Commission for Environment and Development:
Tribal and indigenous peoples’…lifestyles can offer modern societies many lessons in the management of resources in complex forest, mountain, and dryland ecosystems…These communities are the repositories of vast accumulations of traditional knowledge and experience that link humanity with its ancient origins. Their disappearance is a loss for the larger society, which could learn a great deal from their traditional skills in sustainably managing very complex ecological systems.
Harold Olofson (2002). St. Vincent and the thunder-god: Narratives of play and Apocalypse in relation to a Central Visayan island fiesta Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society
Fikret Berkes (1999). Sacred ecology: traditional ecological knowledge and resource management Nature
William Henry Scott (1994). Barangay: Sixteenth Century Philippine Culture and Society Ateneo de Manila University Press
Reynaldo Clemena Ileto (1982). Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840-1910 Ateneo de Manila University Press