Visayan Creation Myth, Part 2 - Populating the World
Hello everyone! Kumusta ka? Today, I’m going to finish up my retelling of the Visayan creation myth as well as tying up some odds and ends about the Visayan religion. Well, superficial odds and ends. More in-depth explanations are going to have to come later.
So—for—now, let’s start with the rest of the story.
Maguayan hesitated before she planted the seed. Kaptan had handed it to her so gently and gingerly that the energy of the universe seemed to give pause to mark the occasion. She had not been spared the urge, either. With the weight of the moment crushing her, she could scarcely breathe herself.
This had seemed like such a brilliant idea before, but now, in the silence of the universe and with the bodies of her grandchildren surrounding her, doubt started to creep in.
But they had created so much before, she hurriedly reminded herself, and they had already set the heavens alight and built up the ground below. This was undoubtedly something they could do. Then again, she was not concerned with whether or not it was possible. She worried if it were wise.
In all honesty, it likely was not. And she knew this. Her feet rested on evidence that it was not. Beings such as the ones Kaptan was proposing—beings with freewill and direction—had the potential to turn on them. They bent towards chaos. Or they could, if they lost sight of the true order of things. Just as their grandchild had done. And if they could do that, children of their line and recipients of so much love and care, then all beings could do the same.
Maguayan looked above. Even the delicate balance they had right then could all come apart. The stars, moon, and sun could give up their lights and plunge the world into unexpected darkness on a whim, an ill-advised whim. It was just another thing to be concerned about, a worry to plague their thoughts.
But at the same time, there had been something beautiful about having other beings around, back when it was their children and then their grandchildren. There was a beauty in that life. In having life. Then again, she reminded herself, she and Kaptan could be content alone, but actually… they could never be alone. Not anymore. Being alone was completely impossible, now that the memories of the past had come to be, forever lingering in their minds and hearts. These ghosts of all that had been and could have been would always stay with them, no matter what she chose to do.
The sounds of new life could chase away the creaks of so many ghosts. And so believing that things could only change for the better. Maguayan bent down and planted the seed into one of the islands. And with that, she released the breath she was holding.
It would take some time, but the gods were patient. They were unconcerned with the passing of days or years as they watched the small sprout appear.
Soon enough, a bamboo tree rose up from the spot. That small sprout gradually grew into the mightiest of trees, fueled by the light above and by the careful tutelage of the two deities. It towered over the land beneath it, hearty enough to not sway in the now free-blowing winds. One day, from one of the largest branches, the first man and woman emerged from the tree. The man was named Sikalak, and the woman was called Sikabag. They became the parents of the whole human race.
That would come in time, however. At first, they started with only two children: a son whom they named Libo and a daughter whom they named Saman.
This small family was nothing if not peaceful. They lived happily for many days without incident, minding the order of the world and the wishes of the gods. In time, they had more children. It would be peaceful again, and then they would have more.
They family continued to grow. Slowly at first, but in these early days, time was never a concern. It moved more slowly then. The gods could keep it at bay and keep the people living far longer than anything we could currently imagine. And Kaptan and Maguayan would always do so, if it meant savoring the beauty of the moment.
The family continued to grow. As did the world around them, a world Kaptan and Maguayan continued to populate with more creatures and plants and landscapes or anything else they could imagine. There seemed to be no limit to what could be done once that single seed took root. Rather, there was no need for limits. The world was good. Creation was good and happy, so why not make more of it?
The youngest son of the first man and woman was named Pandaguan. By then, the land his family dwelt upon was full of life. He had many brothers and sisters some of whom had had their own children already. And by then, it was not just people running about. The world was full as well, full of things human beings could see and other things they could not even imagine. He in the center of a large community, amidst benevolent wilderness. He thrived in that excitement. He loved it. Well, he loved most of it.
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Pandaguan had large, inquisitive eyes, and he used them to study every little thing around him. He wanted to make sense of the world. He was desperate to understand. Of course, it helped that he was naturally very smart and clever. His endeavors were always met with great successes. Because of this, he was treasured by his parents and all of his community. They held him in great pride and esteem.
Distracted by their pride, they could not see the air of mischief in his eyes. No one noticed, or if they did, they assumed that twinkle was from something else. What else, they didn’t try to guess, but certainly it was nothing to be worried about.
Even when he was young, Pandaguan dreamed of achieving grand things and shaping the world. He wanted glory and success above all things. Or so he thought when he was very young. As he grew, he saw what this want of his really was. He wanted to be a master of some sort. Certainly of his own fate, at the very least. It would be good, he thought as he lay on the ground beneath the moon and the stars, to direct his own life without thought or regard to others not as clever or capable as he. He didn’t like taking the orders of his parents or oldest siblings. He didn’t believe he should have to or that such formalities were necessary. Everyone told him that they, but he did not believe them. Pandaguan did not believe in the things he was told about the order of the world, about the gods, or about the land he stood on.
These were just stories, he thought. One person had come up with them, told them lightheartedly, but had lost control of his creation. And now it had all gotten out of hand.
Now the days of their birth from the bamboo tree had long since passed, making it seem less than a memory. Even Kaptan and Maguayan were being scarcer as of late. The world was full, and they believed there was nothing more they could do. And—of course—after so much time, exhaustion fueled by grief was setting in. They too gradually became shadows of days gone by.
The stories they left in their absence did not amuse Pandaguan. He did not listen to them and lived his life as he wished.
One day, Pandaguan decided that he no longer wished to catch fish by hand as he had done for most of his life. But this had always been his responsibility, and he found his seniors unsympathetic to his pleas of boredom. And truly, that was all that had bothered him about the work. He did not mind the sun or the heat. He did not mind the hard physical labor of lifting the fish from the water and carrying them back to the sprawling village. What he did not like was the waiting: waiting for the fish to come out and take the bait or waiting for enough fish to justify his return.
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And so, Pandaguan invented a large trap that could do all the work for him. To any fish, it would look like an innocent crevice to investigate, one with a small treat in the middle for the quick to snatch up. Many would fall for it, he believed, and he could then amuse themselves in other ways while his invention did the work for him.
Setting it up only took a couple moments of him kneeling down, elbow deep into the water. He had designed it in such a way that it could latch into place in a moment at the spot where Pandaguan normally did his fishing. It was the best spot around. It was the spot around which all the fish gathered. Of course, he knew this.
When he lifted his hands, the trap was set in place. He smiled and thought about all the things he could do with his newfound time. But before he could even step away from the site, Pandaguan heard the trap snap shut. It was a loud crash, louder than he had intended. The water rippled. Birds scattered overhead. But Pandaguan did not give it much notice. It was a small matter. He could think about it some other time.
Smiling, he started to pull the trap from the water, but it was far harder to do than he had anticipated. The trap was just too heavy. But it hadn’t been before, he reminded himself. After all, he certainly wouldn’t have made something so large that he could not lift it, and he had just lifted it. Now, the only additional weight would have been the fish, and certainly that would not be too much for him. Something had gone wrong. Something he had not accounted for.
It took time, but eventually, Pandaguan lifted the trap from the ocean and saw just what the problem was.
Before him, a giant shark lay in his trap, ensnared in the branches of the wooden web the young man had weaved. It was the largest being he had ever seen, spanning the length of his body three times over from nose to tail. Its many white teeth glistened in the sunlight, even against the pale skin of the underbelly marred by long dark red scars across the center portion: the scars of a thousand battles the beast had won.
Pandaguan’s breath caught in throat. (Music cuts) Certainly this was a god.
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Pandaguan brought his catch back to the people. It was difficult, certainly, but he let no difficulty discourage him. Not after what he had just done.
When he entered the village with his catch being dragged on a makeshift wagon behind him, he announced to the town what he was bringing with him. A true god, he said. One far greater than anything they had heard in their stories.
This was a true god, he said. Forget the stories you have been told. Forget the rumors, he demanded. This was the truth. It was a truth each man and woman could see with their own eyes.
“The truth,” he said. “That I have brought you.”
He brought the shark to the center of the village, and though a crowd briefly gathered around, it soon dispersed. They were intrigued, sure, but little more. (Music fades out) Some left and gave the spectacle no second thoughts. Many left with only feelings of annoyance and dismay for the once promising young man. How could he be so foolish? How could he forget all that he had been taught? It was absurd, they whispered.
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But this was not everyone. Some stayed. In awe of the sight before them, they did as the young man commanded. They disregarded the old ways and took on the new, bowing before the idol placed before them.
It was a small crowd, but it was enough to draw the attention of Maguayan and Kaptan. Neither slept as deeply as they did before. Neither slept much at all, fearing the very thing that was happening before them.
Maguayan arose from the water, and Kaptan parted the skies. The two gods revealed themselves and called out to the young man in a loud, unified voice. They demanded that Pandaguan renounce his words and return the shark back to the ocean. He and his followers would go without for the night; their hunger would be their penance.
The universe trembled before the two angry deities, almost as if it remembered the destruction that came in the past, whenever lesser beings acted callously. It feared what would transpire again. The sun, moon, and stars instinctively trembled too as the storms of the gods’ wrath fell upon the land. The rest of creation was afraid. All people and all beings were afraid.
Except for Pandaguan. He stared upon the faces of the gods whose existence he had spent his whole life doubting, but even when confronted with their anger, he was not moved. He could not be swayed. He stood tall and faced Kaptan head on. He grew bold. No, he had always been bold. But now, he had become reckless. For he had ensnared a being that could revival the gods, or so he believed.
He told them as much. He screamed this out to them, vowing that he would never bow to them. He had taken on a god and won, he reminded them. The sight was there. The evidence lay out before them. He pointed to the shark. The wind and rain blew against his outstretched arm, but the forces could not bend him.
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At first, Kaptan and Maguayan said nothing. For a moment, a false sense of calm fell across the land. The gods’ anger subsided for a moment, stepping aside for an untamed melancholy. For what stood before them was a being with Likalibutan’s nature. Such was clear in his eyes.
And this distressed them.
With his defiance, the gods knew that creation would not be what they had dreamed off. Perhaps it could have been. Somehow. But it had been tainted. Exactly how, they were not sure. But with Likalibutan’s body being the foundation of all life, it seemed likely that this arrogance was sowed into creation. It would always return. It would always arise from the soil. It would always haunt them.
With a heavy heart, Kaptan struck the young man with a small lightning bolt. Having learned his lesson, he acted with great restraint. The bolt did not kill him but dropped him to the ground where he lay for thirty days with the sun beating down on him and darkening his skin.
As for the others, Kaptan and Maguayan thought it best to separate the people who had followed Pandaguan from everyone else. These peoples would make up small colonies all across the world where they would live out all their lives the best they could. It was with a heavy heart that the two deities did this, but those with defiant hearts could not be left with the good and innocent. If they were not taken away, they would corrupt the good. It had happened before, and Kaptan and Maguayan could never let it happen again.
These peoples were flung to the farthest corners of the world, from north to south and east to west, no matter how inhospitable the land. Some places were so inhospitable that the people who had the misfortune of being settled there were forced to eat clay. Others were left in the freezing cold or the burning heat. The only solace they had came from the company of those who had been banished with them.
This was the mercy the gods had granted them.
And this was how the corners of the world became populated. This is how the world came to be as we know it.
Between the last episode and this one, many of the major hallmarks of this religion have already been covered. By “major hallmarks,” I mean that which will give you something to either peak your interest for your own research or hold you over until I can circle back around. Neither is great, sure. Not going to mince words on that front. But I had envisioned this unit to be a series of beginning as a way of easing into this podcast. So this is what you get. What I get? …. What we get?
Anyway, I only have a few more points to bring up as a way of tying this small introductory gift together.
The main characteristic of the Visayan religion, as I explained in the last episode, is its animistic nature, or a nature characterized by the belief that all things have a spiritual energy to them. And while there’s many other things I could mention, it’s worth emphasizing this point, because it’s not just a belief but a current directing this religion. After all, if everything has a spirit, then you have an obligation to—well—everything. It then becomes a way of relating to the world and a rule subconsciously referred to when going about your daily life. Whether or not you are consciously aware of it, your belief in the diwata (the term that collectively refers to the spirits who dwell within nature) influences your day to day life.
And—in some ways—this changes your relationship with your religion, I imagine. It makes it a more immersive relationship than what many people in the modern era would experience. Contemporary religious experiences portray religion as doctrine alone, but animistic religions invite us to imagine this alternative religious experience, one in which religion is not just believed but thoroughly lived. Spirituality then can be thought of as the backbone of all life rather than something you can pick or chose to act upon when convenient.
The diwata as a concept stand opposite the umalagad, or spirits of past people—ancestors, past leaders, or community heroes—who still exist within the framework of a spiritual world. The dead are still incorporated into the community. And in many ways, this eases the parting blow of loss while maintaining a connection between past and present. The present moment isn’t just being built up upon the past but in conjunction with a past that never left.
If you can remember back, the Tagalogs had a similar concept, too. However, their anitos were messengers between the living and the highest levels of heaven, but from what I could gather from my research, the umalagad have a more direct role in influencing the world. They had the will to act, and thus could receive gifts of their own. The idols that represented them were often persuaded if not outright bribed through gifts of food, drinks, clothing, gifts of other values, or even… sacrificial animals. The latter was usually offered sparingly and only for important purposes like protecting life or property, that either ensured or was an extension of life.
The idea of sacrifice in an animistic culture seems… well, counterintuitive. And that’s something I struggled to make sense of too. If the spiritual energies of all beings are meant to be managed, the needless death of one being should be avoided, right? Well, right. But you aren’t going to like my answer to that.
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In short, it wasn’t seen as needless, as far as I can tell. And even today, there are traditions in Filipino culture that seem to be remnants of this system, even in other parts of the Philippines. If you move into a new house, for example, it used to be that before any furniture was brought in, you’d sacrifice a chicken in the doorway. Or if it were someone’s birthday, you would kill a chicken and smear the blood in the sign of the cross on that person’s forehead. Variations of this exist in other circumstances as well. Always with chickens. Poor chickens.
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The more modern justification, as far as I can tell, is that the chicken takes on whatever misfortune lay imminent in that person’s future, that the chicken is offered as a stand-in for the human being in case of malicious forces. This isn’t to say that the chicken’s life is seen as anything objectively less, but this tradition started in a time of great uncertainty when the ultimate concern was that of survival.
With survival being so important and not guaranteed, you have to place your concerns for your family above all things, including a chicken. You need to think about your own before you think about anyone else. It’s a larger belief that you can trace in a lot of Asian cultures, one that makes philanthropy less common but makes familial safety networks that much stronger and consistent.
Subtle callout to a mysterious project Miscellany Media Studios isn’t able to start yet.
One last point that I want to bring up that is somewhat, tangentially related is that these rituals did have some sort of regulation or moderating force. They truly didn’t happen as needlessly as we may think.
All rituals involving spirits were mediated by the babaylan, the equivalent of shamans in many respects. The babaylan studied and understood not just the “how” to these rituals but the “why” and the “when is appropriate.” It was only through their influence that these things could happen at all. This was because they were seen as conduits or mediums between the physical or easily observable world and the spiritual one. So if you needed to direct the spirits who resided in a place or owned a thing, you needed this figurative translator to be involved or else the parties were just not going to be able to communicate.
And, interestingly enough, most of these babaylan were women. The role was seen as an explicitly feminine one, likely because the emphasis was on spiritual guidance, nurture, and caregiving, which—you know—when you cast the gendered dice typically land in the women’s camp. But I can’t be sure.
From what I can tell, this was actually a pretty good system. Most aspiring babaylan were young women apprenticed, voluntarily, to older relatives or other well-meaning women.
For others, some babaylan assumed the role after having what some circles call a “shamanic madness” or a “shamanistic initiatory crisis,” which aren’t terms specific to this context, by the way but you still know what I mean. And if you are in any way familiar with the old mystic ways or the occult, you may know where this is going…. Yep, mental illness. Depression, manic episodes, bouts of insanity, these were all seen as these crises or initiatory moments. But this crisis like this could be a near-death experience, strange dreams or a non-descript serious or chronic illness. Basically, anything that didn’t have a clear explanation.
But there was always this sense of the proverbial “answering a calling” or choosing the path that you were being called to undertake regardless of how. I’m not familiar enough to say it was a “call to serve,” which is what came to mind as a sort of modern equivalent. But undoubtedly, the human will still remained an important component in this tradition. You had to be willing to commune between two words and couldn’t be forced to.
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And I think you can guess what happened when the Spanish came. Yep, accusations of witchcraft. What were you expecting? Christian traditions do have (to varying degrees of orthodoxy) a divide between the physical and the divine, and when they wanted to convert the populace, this needed to be enforced. They also probably didn’t like that it was a “power” yielded by women, but then again, they probably just didn’t like anything that was found there. Because, you know, hating other cultures makes forced conversions a little easier to do and made it a lot easier to sleep at night.
But this is just one tradition. I’ll have another story for you next time. Until then.
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