Ilocano Origins - Meet Aran and Angalo


(Music starts)

            Hello everyone! Kumusta ka! Welcome to today’s episode. And once again, we are back at it. We are about to dive into the mythology and traditions of the Ilocano people. Or we are starting to. Or we’re at the start of it. We’ll be getting back to the beginning, or what they knew the beginning to be.

            But first, we need to have an introduction of sorts. The Ilocano people are the third largest ethnolinguistic group in the Philippines. And they largely reside within the northwestern seaboard of Luzon. Which is actually reflected in their name. The word Ilokano originates from the community’s word Iloko which would translate into “from the bay” in their language. Aside from that, they are also called Samtoy, a portmanteau of the Ilocano phrase sao mi ditoy or “our language here.”

            Moderately quick aside, that latter one was confusing to me at first. Because the word “here” is typically used to refer to some patch of land, not a patch of people. But after I thought about it, to me, it signals a sense of confidence that I envy. That “here,” refers to the place within themselves or their hearts, and in these places, a language—in the loosest sense of the word—is thriving. In this context, by language, I mean the way in which one relates or communicates, verbally or nonverbally, with the larger world. It’s about tradition, to put it in fewer words. And in identifying themselves this way or referring to themselves with these terms, it’s almost like they are declaring pride not just in the patch of the soil they came from but also in the culture they inherited and the ways they practice it in their daily lives. Which is what I always thought I should be doing.

            But pack to the point. The indigenous Ilocano religion was—not surprisingly—an animistic one. Animism, remember, is the religious belief that all objects, places, and creatures have a distinct spiritual essence or presence. And in this case, these spirits were called anito, a familiar word I know but bear with me. These spirits didn’t have a set nature to them. They could either be good or bad and male or female. Each was an individual with its own characteristics, you might be tempted to say.

But we’ve heard that term before, and it referred to something very different. Same term showing up in a different way. That's so much of what this podcast has become, I hope you've noticed and it's not just me. And I could go on and on about how this is to be expected, that even though we aren't inclined to think about it, long before the West came into the various lands they claimed as colonies, life was happening. Trade happened. Ideas spread. Cultures blended. Sure, if you're talking about a community that didn't depend on written words or on preserving things that were written upon or weren't able to preserve things when colonizers came in, then you're going to have a harder time understanding the exact trajectory of these things, but that doesn't make them any less true.

But that's not the point or a point I haven't brought up multiple times before. So maybe you think that this episode is going to be like so many others. But here's the thing though. This episode is going to go differently than some of the others have in that, I'm not focusing so much on a series of events. Because, you see, the Ilocano don't understand their origins in terms of a series of events that just so happened to have actors. By this, I do mean there are gods and goddesses who make choices as a result of their environments or as a result of the things that others do or think, but they are a part of this larger current. These other origin stories were about the current and the way the actors responded to it. Here’s there’s a bit more agency.

So meet Aran and Angalo. A pair of legendary creation giants of the Ilocano mythology who essentially made the world what it is through their misadventures. Yeah, that's what I meant to say. I mean their children helped, but that statement might not have made things any more clear. For that to make sense to you, I think you need to understand just how "giant" we are talking. Angalo's head scrapped the sky, they say, and think about how high the sky is. When he talks, we feel it and call it thunder. His giant steps create earthquakes. Aran, on the other hand, hung the moon, sun, and stars almost in an interior design type way. Joining them in the Ilocano mythology is Namarsua, the largely genderless creator being: a sort of origin point before the understood and discussed origin point. Namarsua is important, yes, but not in the direct way Aran and Angalo are. These two giants shaped the world, so theirs are the stories I want to tell.

            In a piecemeal fashion of course. The Misadventures of Aran and Angalo if you will and if that’s not flippant. Because I certainly don’t mean it to be. But at times, the effect they and their children had on the world was unintentional and largely the product of being so much larger than the world around them.

            But now (Music cuts) I have a story for you.

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            There was a time before the two of them existed, or so they could reasonably assume. It was hard to know what that time was like. It was obviously something they had no experience with. But as Aran and Angalo lay in the dark, staring up into the empty void above them and with the land pressing against their backs, that unsolvable question was the only thing keeping their mind occupied. It was dark, you see. Too dark to do much of anything else. This—they suspected—was unpleasant. Or so they thought. They didn’t know what else there could possibly be for them to do or for them to be.

            Aran sighed and pressed her hand deeper into the earth. This time, for the first time in fact, the weight of her hand pierced the top layer of the dirt. For some unknown reason, the grass beneath them just seemed to give way. She left her hand fall deeper into the soul until she found something smooth but hot to the touch. It was an unfamiliar feeling. It was unlike anything she had ever known. Confused, Aran pulled it out, and this mysterious orb filled the world with light.

            This is what we would come to know as the sun. Of course, we were not around right then. And neither were our ancestors. The world was still new, and as the golden orb was lifted from the ground, everything was abuzz with excitement. Life was ignited with the warmth the sun could now put forth into the world.

            Aran and Angalo were intrigued. At first by the orb and then by the wonders revealed. Aran raised it higher until all the land around them was bathed in light. With the sun’s warmth, the entire world seemed to come involve as all creation, all creation that was there thus far, took a breath. She raised the sun a bit higher until the water’s edge was also revealed to them. The surface of the still ocean twinkled in this new light.

            It was unlike anything they could have imagined. The world was so much more beautiful than they could have dreamed. The site was awe-inspiring and intoxicating. And they found they could not bear to give it up.

            So Aran took the orb and hung it in the sky where it could always light the world before she turned towards the ground and started digging anew.

            Meanwhile, with this new light to work beneath, Angalo walked over to a different patch of earth and knelt down. He took large chunks of it in his hands and began to work with it. The cool earth felt right in his hands as he gazed into it and saw many possibilities lurking within. He was an artist of sorts, and this was his clay. And so, he sculpted the mountains and hills that we can look upon today. Carefully, of course, and with a great eye for detail.

            Meanwhile, Aran had uncovered more of these mysterious orbs. None shined as brightly as the first one she had found, but they were still beautiful in their own ways. So she hung them up as well, and they would be called the moon and stars. Some day.

            With the sun in the sky and the earth refreshed by Angalo’s work, life slowly took hold. The plants grew and from them sprung the smallest of creatures. They would grow, in time.

            But the time moves slowly, as we all know. And the two giants found themselves impatient. They wanted this world to be full of more things. They wanted more life beneath their feet, in the mountains and in the trees. They wanted new growth and new possibilities. As if to speed it along, Angalo took things into his own hands. He spat onto the earth, and from that spot, the first man and woman gradually emerged.

            As they came to be, Angalo looked around and realized that perhaps he had been too hasty. This part of the world was too desolate and windswept for these new beings who needed space to grow their families and build their own worlds. They would be creative too, as he had once been. Or they wanted to be, and Angalo wanted to give them that. So he placed them in a bamboo tube and sent them on their way across the ocean to the Ilocos region, and from these two first people, the Ilocano people would come to be.

            And that’s where the sun, moon and stars came from. And the mountains that grace our islands. And the Ilocano people as well.

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            The world continued on from that day. Aran and Angalo continued about their days, aware that their movements were shaping the world. Aran tried to be careful, but multiple times, Angalo had walked with a heavy step and left small valleys in his wake. And once or twice when Angalo knelt down to drink water from the waterfalls, he was not careful where he lay his weight and found the ground beneath him too soft. It collapsed and never rose again.

            We do not know if Aran chided him for this carelessness or if she saw that this created beautiful sights for smaller beings to enjoy. Or perhaps, it just did not matter to her at all. By then, Aran and Angalo had three daughters of their own. And life became more complicated. With more beings who needed their immediate care, there were more things to do and more things to think about.

            And so their lives went on as did the lives of the beings around them.

            One day, the family found they had run out of salt, a resource that was not so common where they had set up their home. They could go looking for it, certainly, in and around the caves they were currently residing in, but Angalo did not want to invest any time or effort into an endeavor that could likely yield nothing. So instead, he decided the family should go to a distant land and bring large blocks of salt back with them. He did not need to make a strong argument. His wife and daughters were inclined to agree. After all, trip would be no more difficult than digging for salt but it would come without the possibility of failure.

            And so the family of five made their way across the world, a trek that would be impossible for any of us but for them took a matter of moments. They stepped into the deepest sea, and still the waters could not swallow them up beyond their shoulders. It would have drowned any normal man, but for them, it was a pleasant dip, one would think, though one could not know. They walked in a single file line, Aran lead the way and paved a path for her children and partner to follow until they reached the sandy shores of a distant land.

It was only a few steps, some would say. A dozen some would say, but no one can know.

The salt reserve itself was not so far away from the shore. Well, not far away for this family. Three steps, some may say. But these were steps taken with great measure and care. They left no footprints. They left no trace. It may be truly hard to understand where and how many there were. It may be hard to truly understand what they were.

As he had done so many times before, Angalo cut large blocks of salt out of the ground and handed one to each member of his family. He saved the largest block for himself, and once everyone had their piece, hoisted it up onto his shoulders.

            Before they could start home, there was one matter left to deal with. Their daughter wanted to lead the way home. The youngest, she was. And the most eager to prove herself at any available opportunity. She was giddy at the thought of leading the group home. That much was very clear. Excitement oozed from her, but her parents had to be more cautious. They considered it for a moment. Her request was hardly unreasonable, they had to admit. She was getting older now. She was hardly a head smaller than everyone else and had made the journey with ease before.

            And so, after she begged, they permitted it. Aran gestured for her to take the lead, and she slowly lowered herself into water with her block of salt raised high above her head. Her sisters followed. And then Aran and Angalo.

            They trusted that the path would be easy to walk. The sea floor was mostly smooth and level. It was largely untouched by the giants and any other force that sought to change it.

            But it was not perfect by any means. There were rises and falls laid throughout, though no one in this small family had noticed yet. Not until the youngest daughter’s foot caught against a ledge and sent her stumbling forward. The block of salt she was holding fell into the water.

            And that’s how the sea became salted.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

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