Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Of Fireflies and Forest Fairies (Part 2)


Folk beliefs, like fireflies, are not only getting rare and elusive; the few that by dint of luck have weathered the ravages of time and the corrosive effects of ridicule by nonbelievers are also not “researcher friendly” now.

Let me take you down memory lane, nevertheless, as regards the  types of tree-associated or forest-related folk beliefs that used to be with us or at least within our reach when many of us were still small.

A few words of caution: 

Depending on which side of the forest you stand, some of them may be outright funny. Some ridiculous. Some are naïve, some even seemingly stupid.

And yet, some are also ingenious. Some are products of common sense. Some are very useful.

Some are wise and wonderful.

Such descriptions are, of course, not a helpful way to put a handle to belief systems. So I came up with five categories by which we could get to know them better.

First is belief in the Divine presence. Second is belief in sacred sites. Third is belief in critical hours. Fourth is belief in haunted places. And fifth is belief in unfit or disfavored trees.

Charlz Castro behind two tamarind trees believed to be haunted by residents in Sinagat (near Carolotan), Dupax del Sur, Nueva Vizcaya. [Photo taken in 2008 by Delia F. Castro]


In many forest communities, the Divine is often seen as a pervasive, diffuse spirit present through the cosmos, the earth, and natural phenomena. This belief is common throughout Southeast Asia, particularly among tribal societies that have not yet been significantly “contaminated” by the intrusive teachings of the religious sects. The belief has led many people to view or perceive nature not as a raw material for human consumption to be manipulated in whatever way people choose but as an entity filled with spirit presence and, as such, must be respected.

For example, among the T’boli of Mindanao, McDonagh (1986) reports that “each river, tree or mountain has its own spirit.” Just like the American Indians of yesteryears, much of the T’boli religious ritual is thus geared to pleasing or appeasing such spirits. The people are intent on attracting the blessings of the good spirits and warding off destruction from the evil ones. “Cosmic phenomena like eclipses, and natural destructive phenomena like earthquakes and typhoons, are seen as punishment for encroaching on the domain of the spirits by altering the natural world significantly.” In such cases, even the simple matter of cutting down a tree demands the appropriate rituals to recognize the rights of the spirit world.

In a similar vein, June Prill-Brett (1986) tells that Bontok villagers view their Cordillera land as a gift from the entutong-cho (“the one in the highest”). To them land is the source of all life: “It belongs to no one or to everyone.” Thus they have reverence for it. “The luta (soil) is invoked during oath-swearing rituals (sapata) whenever a person is accused of a crime where there are no witnesses and the spirits of the dead are invoked to witness and punish the wrongdoer.”

Some years back, I happened to join a hiking trip to the second highest mountain of the Philippines, Mount Pulog in Kabayan, Benguet. In one tiny village on the way up, our group of Manila- and Baguio-based mountain enthusiasts (or ecotourists, if you may) was admonished by an elderly Kalanguya who spoke in Ilocano: “Mapankayu ngem pangngaasiyu ta dikayu aglalaaw.” (Go but please don’t make noise.) The mountain, the senior uplander explained, is home to the Igorot god Kabunian and desecrating it may bring untoward incidents to the climbers as well as to the adjoining upland villages.

In her book, Peasants in the Hills, Violeta Lopez-Gonzaga (1983) described why, unlike most migrant damuong (lowlanders) whose land-speculation and cattle ranching have pushed the indigenous people of Mindoro to take refuge in the remote in the remote uplands of the island, Buhid-Mangyan swidden cultivators have not been so keen on exploiting vast areas of Mindoro’s forest lands for their subsistence. According to her, the Buhid consider land as “mostly a free and unlimited good to be extracted from the forest, but they use it with restraint and deference to the complex of spiritual powers that traditionally dominate the Buhid’s universe.”

Among such spiritual forces is one that has human attributes, the afu-daga. This spirit is thought to have direct control of the Buhid world and his acts are manifest in physically observable phenomena such as soil erosion (believed to be the result of the spirit’s own swiddening activities) and earthquakes or floods (believed to be afu-daga’s expression of wrath over man’s failure to uphold the moral order). Though the afu-daga may be infuriated, the Buhid still conceive of him as their turok (literally “support post”), believed to be capable of dispensing good to people and withholding duwat, that is, anything that is bad, wicked, destructive, or upsetting the balance of the Buhid’s physical universe such as starvation, war, sickness, or death.

[NOTE: To align this essay’s inclusion in this Isinay Blogsite, we may add here that we Isinays in Dupax also had our share of belief in divine or spirit presence. For instance, we were wary of climbing old tamarind and starapple trees  if at night we would see them aglow with hundreds of fireflies (kulalanti in Ilocano; i^irung in Isinay) – we believed the trees were home to a banij (ghost) and the fireflies were its playmates.]


This category is similar to the belief in Divine presence except that it refers more to places considered as taboo or considered off-limits to ordinary mortals and casual uses. Which means that the areas in question are utilized for special purposes or occasions only and unwarranted intrusions may invite the ire of lesser but still quite powerful spirits or deities dwelling in them.

June Prill-Brett (1986) says that among the Bontok, specific localities within the village territory are considered sacred. One is the papatayan (“where sacrifices are offered”). This is usually a group of pine trees above the village where rice cultivation rituals are performed on village rest days. The Bontoc elders believe the guardian spirits of the village who live in the papatayan communicate a prognosis on village welfare through the butchering of sacrificial animals and the attendant reading of their bile sacs and gall bladders. Cutting trees or even branches from this site, Prill-Brett says, is punishable by fines and supernatural sanction, the latter usually invoked.

Also located above the village, according to Prill-Brett, is a sacred grove called peray specifically intended for weather ceremonies. “Whenever storms hit the village with winds strong enough to damage rice crops, a ceremony is performed at this site by the village hereditary priest (pumapatay). This ceremony is believed to stop the strong winds and calm the storm.”

Prill-Brett adds that a third sacred grove is located above the entrance of the village, and this is for feast of merit and fertility (chuno), provided to the village by upper-ranking Bontoc families.

A similar belief in village guardian spirits exists in certain parts of Northeastern Thailand. Rathakette et al. (1985) wrote of the Thais’ belief in the existence of the phi pu ta, spirits that dwell in certain wooded areas. “It is considered taboo,” they say, “to exploit, modify, or remove anything from such sacred groves.”

Not even a leaf litter could be taken away and neither grazing nor hunting is permitted in forest areas with phi pu ta, Rathakette et al. say. “Ignoring the taboo invites supernatural punishment by ghosts and other nefarious deities, and disaster is believed to ensue. Unintentional breaking of the prohibition requires the guilty to expiate the moral crime by requesting a diviner to conduct special prayers and offerings to the spirit ancestors.”

Rathakette’s group says that prohibiting the exploitation of spirit-owned areas resulted in the preservation and protection of many undisturbed  patches  of forest vegetation in various parts of Northeastern Thailand.

In Mindoro, not only certain forest groves but also unusual tree formations and burial sites, frequently in the densest part of the forest, are rigorously  avoided both for swiddening and settlement by the Buhid Mangyan (Lopez-Gonzaga, 1983). Members of this indigenous cultural community believe that human encroachment on these areas would unleash the maleficent forces.

I once had the privilege in 1995 of conversing with Yaom Sumbad, one of the key actors in Violeta Lopez-Gonzaga’s book Peasants in the Hills. He confirmed that such practice of leaving burial sites and certain groves untouched  indeed exists not only among the Buhid but also among the other Mangyan groups in Mindoro.

Ang libingang Mangyan ay sari-sari,” Yaom said in perfect Tagalog. “Merong ilalagay sa puno na di abot ng hayop at hinahayaang maagnas. Meron ding binabakuran. Sa mga Hanunoo, ililibing at pagkatapos ng anim na buwan ay huhukayin at dadalhin sa kuweba.” (Mangyan burial sites vary. There are those placed on trees that could not be reached by animals, and allowed to rot. Some are fenced. The Hanunoo bury their dead then dig them up after six months then transfer them in caves.)

The Buhid leader also revealed that sacred sites are not confined to forests. Forest spirits also dwell in springs, he said. “Ang paniniwala namin na taong-gubat, yung mga di nakikita nandun din sa bukal. Ang sabi ay huwag umihi o tumae sa bukal. At magpasintabi ka sa kanila. Tabi-tabi! Makikiraan….” (We forest dwellers believe that unseen beings also dwell in springs. They prohibit us from urinating or defecating on springs. If you go near, you have to ask their permission.  Say excuse me! Ask permission to pass.)

And what would happen if you show disrespect to such sacred sites? Yaom said: “Kung iihian o taehan mo ang mga ito, babalikan ka nila. Magkakasakit ang ari mo.” (If you pee or defecate on springs, the spirit guards will retaliate. Your sexual organ will get sick.) (Yaom Sumbad, personal communication, 1995)
Apart from wooded areas and springs, other sites are considered by indigenous people to have sacred or ethnically vital associations and are therefore left unmolested. These include mountain peaks, tribal hunting grounds,  places of worship, tribal land boundaries, and sites where sacrificial food and drink are offered to ancestor spirits.

In Barlig, Mountain Province, terrace farmers consider it bad practice to convert kaka-iw (ancestral woodlot) and family hunting grounds into payyu (terraced ricefields) no matter how fertile and suitable these areas are for growing rice (Delia Fiadchongan-Castro, pers. comm., 1995). This respect is the same as that accorded to family burial sites which are often located in steep slopes. This tradition of forest upkeep probably explains why until today this town on the slopes of Mount Amuyao is still the most forest-rich among all the towns of Mountain Province.

In Abra, the Banao, Gubang, and Mabaka tribal people practice an off-season for hunting, fishing and tree cutting in areas they call lapat. I was able to interview two Abrenian natives about this in 1995, Bernard Balansi and Jeremias Tiggangay. The lapat, they say, is part of the grieving ceremonies of the bereaved family of a village leader. During the burial, the family of the deceased will declare a portion of a forest or creek or river or hunting ground off-limits to users and  nobody would be allowed to cut timber, catch fish, gather food items, hunt wildlife.

Balansi and Tiggangay (pers. comm., 1995) said the lapat is an age-old tradition in Abra as well as in the adjoining province of Apayao meant to limit irresponsible use of forests and other natural resources. I failed to verify this, but I had the inkling that the more influential or popular the dead person is, the bigger the area to be declared as lapat would be, and the longer the prohibition would stay. (A more detailed description of this practice is found in Appendix 1.)

[NOTE: For this post, I hasten to add that when I was growing up, we outdoor-loving kids avoided certain patches of forest remnants, no matter how irresistible the calls of the birds in their branches were, and no matter how inviting were the ripe fruits of their anonas trees and sapang groves, if stories went around that tiny footprints – believed to be that of the malevolent lampong (dwarf) --  were seen in the area, or that a guy once became sick and crazy (nambilaw) when he didn’t listen to the warnings and went to gather firewood in the sacred site.]

(NEXT: Belief in Critical Hours; Belief in Haunted Places. FORTHCOMING: Belief in Unfit or Disfavored Trees; What’s Next for Folk Beliefs?; Appendix: Isnegs Declare Lapat to Conserve Natural Resources)

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