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Musing on Myths

In her essay “Burning Bushes: Why Heaven and Hell went to Planet X” Atwood discusses important questions posed in myth and speculative fiction. Of particular interest to me is this passage: "What are the right relationships between men and women? Judging from the many and varied myths that tell of strenuous relationships between the sexes—huge female monster deities cut to pieces by heroic upstart-gods, women raped by immortals, mortals who are seduced by goddesses and then come to grief, gods killing guardian dragons and taking over female oracles, female demi-deities revenging themselves on faithless men, men losing paradise because women ate the apple—this seems to be uneasy ground. Stories involving gender conflict and/or separate spheres of influence—Artemis-moon by night, Apollo-sun by day—seem to be central to most mythologies."

Atwood is speaking of Western myths—I remember these from the Greek myths in particular. Philippine myths are a little different. I am no myth scholar, but I did read through nearly all of Damiana Eugenio’s compilation of myths when I was seeking a story to adapt for the Alternative Alamat anthology. Female monster deities seem absent in Philippine myth. There are female monsters in folklore, the best known of these the aswang and manananggal, but their prey is not men in particular—in fact the manananggal victimizes unborn fetuses. There are powerful and capricious women deities, like Mariang Makiling, and mortal women too, like Mariang Malindig. They do not often seduce, but they are quick to bring the men who displease them (and not always in a romantic or erotic relationship) to grief.

Most myths deal with star-crossed lovers who die for each other or die together. The Filipino love for melodrama has a long history. Women do not take violent revenge, but they do leave their men when wronged, and most often the men humbly go after them and try to appease them. This happens in many variations of the sun-and-moon myths. The story of the sky-maiden is interesting in being a mirror-image of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Here the woman discovers the man has deceived her and returns to the heavens; it is the man who must seek her out and go through trials to win her back.

In Philippine myths, the woman in a relationship is often betrayed or forgotten, but not often ravaged. More usual is incest. Many myths have brothers and sisters who were permitted by the gods to marry and have children. If not drawn from actual cases, this could be read as an allusion to the Filipino’s strong attachment to family, to the point of having difficulty leaving the birth home to build a separate life. It's illuminating to compare Western and Philippine traditional tales. Seeing which themes are common and uncommon in each can shed light on the distinctiveness of our culture. The princess being sacrificed to a dragon or some other terrible creature and needing to be rescued by a man is also common in Western tales, but absent in the Philippine ones. Another thing I noticed is that people shape-shifting into animals is rare in Philippine myth, though it is ubiquitous in Western tales. One reason, I think has to do with zoology. We have no animals in the Philippines the size of a man. Most often in Western myths the person shape-shifts into a bear, like the king in "East of the Sun, West of the Moon." I also remember a fairy tale about a princess who is cursed by her wicked stepmother to become a bear cub at night. Well, a bear is roughly the size of a person and it is easy to imagine a big hairy man as a bear and even a cuddly young child as a cute bear cub. There are also swan maidens, and I think it is easy to see how one might compare this large graceful bird to a beautiful woman. But we have none of these creatures. There are crocodiles, but it's hard to see them as people. Mind you, crocodiles may be the reason we have no dragons in traditional lore. We have a large reptile that's scary enough!

In Philippine myth, curses and spells are always irreversible. I guess we take our magic seriously. If a way out is given, it is usually an impossible task which the cursed never achieves. A scholar interviewed in Alternative Alamat says that our myths suggest a lack of accountability, and this may be true in some regions but I am not so sure it applies, as he says, to our culture in general. I think it is more that we are afraid to be held accountable because we don't have faith in redemption. It makes psychological sense because in the kind of close-knit families and communities we live in, it is hard for people to forget your past errors. You wrong someone and word spreads around. Next thing you know, a whole clan is against you and they and their friends will judge you by your one mistake forever. So we go for avoidance (of wrong, or if not, the one wronged) and denial.

Of course, a more in-depth analysis needs to be done in the way John Campbell did. There may be exceptions. I'd like to hear of them. I ought to reread traditional tales as well. There is always more to discover.

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So much fascination for myths...


I think that myths might have also served as some sort of catalogue or index for all the possible types of relationships that can occur between men and women. I mean, myths were also taken as tales that will edify or instruct, provide insight and make sense of things in the world. That said, I think the old ones looked at and thought about things more creatively, if not more deeply than us.

Also, I encountered this poem by Rio Alma in (A)lamat at (H)istorya about a carabao and a tikling (crane?) which turned into a man and a maiden. I think that would be interesting to read. I think you mentioned something about swans turning into beautiful maidens. We don't have swans, but we do have cranes, which I think are even more beautiful.

Finally, your mention of the absence of dragons in Philippine myth made me think. And I'm reminded of this Mamelu of the Bagobo mentioned in a book by Maximo D. Ramos. (I'm sorry I can't remember the title right now.) This Mamelu is a flying serpent which at certain times swallows up the moon and causes an eclipse. The book seems obscure and the language, I remember, is pretty basic. But I'm sure Ramos' book and the creature exists in the confines of the UP Main Library-Filipiniana should you wish to seek it.


All the Best,

Zeny :-)

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Interesting comments, Zeny

Thanks for reading my post though it was badly edited (had to rush off to attend to the baby). There is a book of Philippine dragon stories, but I haven't gotten around to reading it. I have always seen dragons as something exotic, whether Western or Chinese.

I recall a legend about a group of people that shape-shifted into crocodiles. I think that they did this with a magical object that was stolen from them by the young hero, who heard their plans to pillage the town and bring them to the river to eat them. So they stayed permanently crocodiles who couldn't get about well enough on land to carry out their plan. Something like that. I don't know where I read that, is the problem.

There'll always be exceptions, I guess. I'm just going by my general impressions from reading a large number of tales, as Atwood was. I'll check out the stories you mentioned when I get the chance. Thanks!

By the way, the tikling is an egret, but that's all I can tell you. I'm never sure of the difference between cranes, egrets, herons, and storks, I'm afraid. But it's true large birds often figure in tales.  Their graceful form and their ability to fly must have made birds seem divine to early peoples everywhere. Feather-winged angels are found in both Christian and Muslim mythology, aren't they?

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Oh yes, angels figure very

Oh yes, angels figure very much. But what little I know about them, I didn't even learn from the convent. I remember this show in History channel saying that in Judeo-Christian mythology they based it off on this type of vulture found in the Middle East. The interpretation was beautiful because the vulture served as a symbol both of humanity's divinity and depravity (vultures are majestic creatures but they eat carcasses).

I have this book Folktales of the Southern Philippines and they have all these far out stories. I remember in particular Lakivot, this civet who turned into a man after this girl who likes to cry a lot shaved off his hair. Haha.

Also, it would be really awesome if you read the Hudhud hi Aliguyon. I encountered it when I took up an Anthro subject on Folklore.

Whenever I read or learn about these strange tales, like that crocodile tale you just told me, I try to understand how they thought about things. I guess everyone who reads does that. 

It's all so cool. I'll never tire of reading and hearing about myths.