MANILA, Philippines - Halloween schmalloween, my more nationalistic friends complain, why are we celebrating this western concoction? Yet, Filipinos do enjoy Halloween and I suspect that amid all those western-based witches and goblins, we do see, from our own culture, the aswang.
The aswang has been reincarnated many times over. Ask a Metro Manila kid from the slums from which many modern-day sightings of the aswang have been reported, and they?ll answer ?bampira,? linking the Filipino aswang to Transylvania. Others, still taking off from western horror stories and Halloween, will associate the aswang sightings with cats, preferably black, roaming the night and changing shapes.
But the urban aswang does retain many elements of traditional folklore, the descriptions of this mutated creature sounding like a hybrid of Dracula and a local preternatural creature, the manananggal, which flies around with half a body (thus the name). These urban aswang are said to have a culinary preference for pregnant women and young children, again similar to the ?original? aswang, which was said to feast on the liver and body fluids of the sick and the newly deceased. The modern aswang are described as flying around and landing on roofs, from which they lash out their long tongues to suck on the livers or other parts of their victims.
My take on these urban sightings is that they usually happen after a maternal or child death that occurs suddenly. It is always difficult to accept such deaths and an aswang is a convenient scapegoat.
In rural areas, people will identify certain individuals, households or even an entire barangay, as aswang. The people identified as aswang are, well, people, but are in effect shunned by others because they are suspected of being strange or too different.
?Different? takes many forms. Raul Pertierra, a sociologist, once wrote that the aswang belief is absent among the Ilokano. I?ve been able to ask my students from that region about this and they tend to agree, sometimes joking that it?s because Ilokanos grow so much bawang or garlic, which the aswang are said to fear. Once, one of my Ilokano students revealed that they had an aswang in their town, but she was ?Bisaya.?
Pertierra?s theory is that the aswang label is usually applied to women perceived to be ?stronger? (read more assertive) than society allows. The parallels with a western witch are clear. European and American witch-hunts often victimized, even burning at stake, women who were ?too? strong, maybe even encroaching into male roles.
Understanding the missing Ilokano aswang means looking at the Ilokano?s environment, which is a harsh one, making life difficult. Under such circumstances, a strong woman is actually appreciated since she increases the likelihood of the family surviving through the most adverse of circumstances.
Elsewhere in the Philippines, a more demure Maria Clara is preferred and anyone who dares be different could be labeled an aswang.
But it?s not just strong women who are vulnerable to being labeled an aswang. In the Philippines, pakikisama, maintaining good interpersonal relations, is of paramount importance. So a person who is not quite as sociable, or has difficulty with social relationships, can also end up being called an aswang.
I have a hunch that some of our aswang might be people with Asperger?s syndrome. Asperger people have difficulty reading people?s emotions, and therefore come through as too brusque and insensitive. Because they keep getting into trouble with others, they end up as loners, and marry other people similarly afflicted with Asperger?s. In effect, they create an aswang family.
The syndrome was first described in psychiatry only in the 1950s but it has probably been around since time immemorial, and given labels like aswang. In modern society, a person with Asperger will find a niche in environments where differences are tolerated, even celebrated. A person with Asperger?s in such an environment will most likely be shrugged off as being a character or dismissed merely as a nerd.
In a small village though, life may be harder for someone with Asperger?s. Gossip spreads quickly about people who are socially awkward, who can?t look you straight in the eye. People with Asperger?s may also have certain physical mannerisms, and an awkward posture or gait, which fuels suspicions of them being an aswang.
Eventually, we might learn to be more accepting of people who are different, who do not want to be sociable, and the aswang will disappear, or take new forms. Even now, many Filipinos are unaware of the aswang origins of our standard greeting when we visit someone. Many Filipinos call out ?Tao po!? as a question, to ask if anyone?s home but this was originally a statement to assure the person you are visiting: ?Tao po!?, ?I am human,? with the implicit message, ?Hindi ako aswang,? I am not an aswang; come, open the door.
This Halloween, when someone calls out ?Tao po,? do make sure. . .