The family group stood in the jungle clearing. The rosy dawn was just beginning to filter through the trees. The grandfather and grandmother, their numerous grown children, the wives and husbands and grandchildren old enough to walk with their parents deep into the jungle. They were accompanied by guardian hounds. They stood before a boulder of amazing proportions, half-buried in the clearing. No large trees grew around it, and the ancients who were no longer had told the grandparents the oldest people told that one night, when the ancestors had yet to be born many many generations ago, fire roared in the sky, roared into the forest announced by deafening thunderclaps and a blaze of lightning that lit up the world. The blaze of light swallowed the night and the fire destroyed almost all of the creation sky so that it seemed day had suddenly returned, and a great fire had burned all the growth a hundred strides all around the rock.
A single tree of gigantic size survived because Bathala needed to be able to go down to Earth and sow new beings, animals and food. Almost beside it, however, a single ancient balete tree of immense proportions towered, Linn’s Ficus Indica. The tree was still there, a many centuries-old mythical tree that withstood the cataclysm. In it lived a powerful Nono that had to be venerated because It was the protector of the world. They had to make offerings to It so It would not forget them, because if It did their lives would be snuffed out as the rain smothered live coals during the season of sorrowing heavens. The grandmother, their priestess impo Jaba, began gathering branches, leaves, flowers and fruit. The rest followed suit. Soon the sacred bower had been assembled. With her eldest granddaughter Ate Tabgao, impo Jaba set up an altar, after asking for permission from the Nono, the spirits who resided in the boulder and the forest. When the altar was ready impo Jaba sang a prayer chant joined by ate Tabgao and the rest of the family. Around them, the sounds of the forest had fallen into a hush. No monkeys were to be heard chattering and boisterously rampaging across the trees, no parrots shrieking or birds trilling and flapping in great groups across the cathedral-like canopy. Not the rasping of a giant python stealthily slithering over leaves and brush on the jungle floor. No crocodiles roaring — the river was a morning’s hike away.
This space was sacred and powerfully protected: no hostile spirits came near. Impo Jaba ended her singing prayer before the altar, the family group sat down and from baskets took out colorful cloths, inside which foods were wrapped. Some of the men and the older boys had gone off with their long knives and returned with mangoes, guavas, star apples, and coconuts that were cracked open and drunk from. The group shared their meal and were now talking, sometimes smiling or pronouncing an interjection, laughing, singing. Impo Jaba, Tabgao always beside her, ate with them. The simple worship had been done. They had paid their respects to Bathala and the anitos, given thanks and asked for protection from bad weather, enemies, dangerous animals and insects that destroyed their rice crop, killed their bees, spirits that caused anger, disharmony, illness.
After the meal, they lay down and slept for a time before trekking back to the river. Barely had the river’s singing waters grown audible than some of the men moved ahead with their bows and arrows and baladaos or long knives, and their hounds trained to detect buayas or crocodiles, snakes, warthogs and tamaraos/buffalos. It was the time of day when they knew that few crocodiles would be about when the monsters slept, but long experience with the beasts had made them naturally wary. Crocodiles were divinities and periodic ritual sacrifice was necessary to appease them and gain their benevolence. Periodically also, the men formed hunting parties to kill them, though their numbers never decreased. The family had lost members and animals to the beasts in the past. One could not live too near the river for this reason, and they never went to fetch water or wash clothes alone. When they bathed – they loved the water – they did so inside large cages of strong bamboo stakes. It was always better to go to smaller streams to bathe and wash in. Even when family groups lived by the sea, especially near the river mouths, they had to be careful because there were also crocodiles in the sea. For this reason, too, they built their houses atop tall, sturdy poles even as a safeguard from floods, and performed a ritual to attract a special anito that protected each house.
The river was clear, their large canoes waiting on the bank. The family group climbed in and set off downstream for their hamlet. They arrived quickly and before dark reached their huts. The women began preparing the evening meal, the men fetched water and wood and built a fire. The evening song of the trees, the chorus of mayas, the cries of multicolored parrots, the fragrance of flowers, the cooing doves, croaking frogs, chirping crickets, and a thousand gentle sounds wrapped around them with the cool moist darkness of night. Large groups of bats swooped noiselessly through the air, hunting. The dogs barked occasionally. Warthogs stayed away. The boys and girls had gone to and returned from the rice fields, bringing back the carabaos, and fed the dogs. The girls helped their mothers prepare the meal and serve. Impo Jaba, nono Bitun and the other venerable ancients sat around the fire and tended it, some still weaving on looms in the dimming light, others carving tools out of molave woodor making rope. The younger men lounged nearby, chewing betel nut, smoking aromatic tobacco, drinking coconut wine, talking about hunting, visits to nearby hamlets, their fields and animals, unusual sightings, rumors, jungle beasts, stories of marvels both real and imagined – for them, there was hardly a difference.
Later they would all eat together with their hands, on plates of banana leaf and bark, seasoning their food with salt by rubbing two rocks together over it, the adults speaking about domestic concerns such as the beeswax needed for candles, medicinal herbs to be collected for ailments among them, broken earthenware that needed replacing, cotton, dyes and other things needed for weaving, the next trips to villages where the supplies could be bartered for, who was to go, who was to stay. The men addressed their dato, the leader of the family, who was the oldest and strongest son and brother, regarding their need for iron for lance tips and knives, which they obtained from Chinese merchants who periodically visited a larger settlement downriver. The children ate in silence, listening and observing the elders. When the meal was eaten the women cleared and put away while the grandparents formed a circle with the children and told stories about the ancestors and spirits, how the world was made by mythic beings.
The adults listened too, mothers cradling toddlers, nursing infants, men smoking, sharpening spearheads, whittling sticks to make arrows, offering stray remarks or telling stories heard from other family groups, and so on. The children told their own tales of things they had seen and done, things they had dreamed and asked questions. The stories were punctuated by laughter, shouts of fear, squeals of delight, teasing and scolding.
“Impo,” said one of the bigger children, “tell us about the anitos, the tauos.”
“You know children that everything is alive, because inside them live the anitos, that are two in kind: good and bad spirits, and our venerated ancestors. The anitos protect and help us. There is an anito that lives in every house, there is Apo laki, the anito of war, there are anitos of the jungle, the Tauo sa salugo, and the Tauong-damó. There is a spirit that lives on the top of every high mountain, another that lives on the plain. Other spirits live in the branches of the balete tree and at the bottom of the lake. A spirit provokes storms, and another spirit, Damolag, protects the flowering rice in the field when the bagyó, the hurricane, comes. Whenever you walk in the ricefields, you know you must first say, “Pasing tabe sa nono” so you may walk about freely, and when your elders work in the fields, they also have to ask permission from the nono.
“Impo,” said one of the youngest, “Once I did not say pasing tabe sa nono – and I was stung by a bee!” The children and the adults laughed.
As the fire died down they entered their huts and went to sleep.
This is how a modern historian or hack might evoke that world, but it was not really like that at all, except in a few details.
They must have been quiet, peace-loving people, passionately attached to their homes and their land, who spoke little. Words were not their vehicle of communication – they sang much more, or used their gaze, clicked their tongues or whistled. Most of all they communicated knowings through feeling – what is felt by the skin: the breeze, the heat of the sun, the cool of night, the prickly, tight air when spirits rampaged as lightning and wind, the freshness of water, the pain of a gash when one cut oneself accidentally while chopping wood, the burning of fever, the sweet juiciness of a ripe mango, the solid, steady, heaving and swaying of the carabao’s back, the hair rising on the nape and arms as one walked alone through the forest in the dead of night, sensing that the tikbalang, the asuang, or the patianac, a demon thirsty for blood, was following. Feeling expressed in love and protection, sharing and helping. They were intuitives as all indigenous are intuitives. But unlike indigenous of Aztec and Inca civilizations, they had not a culture versed in the rituals and arts of large scale warring, of power over great lands to control and assure access to scarce necessities or rare luxuries – the only power they understood and made use of was that of natural authority which obeyed the imperatives of collective survival of small groups. Gold, silver, mother-of-pearl, raw silk, honey were for trade. Their crafts sustained an elementary level of life that was never devoid of beauty, ease and joy – their beauty, their ease, their joy, that others would later call ugliness, sloth and sin.
Their wealth was time, the peaceful lulling splendor that surrounded them, they lived with their dead, their ancestors who protected and anchored them. They did not starve, the environment was rich, flowing, gentle; the climate relatively mild, not like the barren deserts, the arid high plains swept by icy winds or mantled by eternal snows in lands that did not exist for them. Even sickness was rare but, when it came, there were medicinal plants of great power, and when Death came, It was welcomed with equanimity, the dying prepared for their journey and their memory secured.
They lived in a paradise, a beautiful plentiful land, aware that there were other groups considerable distances away from their own nests. Note that I did not say “they lived in Paradise” – it was a paradise on earth they lived in, indeed, but they had their worries too, and these worries tended to multiply as the centuries passed and the forces active in other worlds began to press down on theirs.
First, spirits and demons. Then pirates. At first rarely, then ever more frequently, invaders. Finally, lying usurpers.
In the future War of Words and Burning Steel, they were destined to be defeated and destroyed. Defeated, because though they knew how to survive in the jungles of beasts and vine-choked trees, in their intimately-known womb of emerald walls and rivers and surging blue seas, they did not know how to track and survive in the jungle of human motives. They had just been born. They would be like a baby thrown into a gambling den. The baby grew up and longed to be free, but when the baby was already a strong young man, he was still a baby in his heart, yet no longer innocent. He had become full of murderous hatred, confused resentment, crippling guilt and shamed longing for the occasional crumbs of love received from his masters — no longer members of his own family group, but greater chiefs arrived in his land from the Great Unknown, now the owners of the gambling houses, opium dens and brothels where his mother and sisters worked, some like fabled courtesans and others as scullery maids.
And they were destroyed. Their resplendent emerald jungles clear cut and paved over. Their names, stories, divinities ceased to be passed on and venerated. As though their world had never been. The children of their greatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgrandchildren only heard the echo of their names and their voices calling out to them, for the very first time, at the instant the mudslides entombed them.
Indeed, the strong young man was not alone…there were others like him who survived after being abandoned in the doorway of the house of sin. But so many brothers were killed, whether by their own hand or by those of their enemies – among whom were their own fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbors, teachers, priests, servants, and so on. There were many different kinds of houses at whose doorstep the babies were left by mothers who tried to save them. In some cases, the mothers were gamblers or courtesans or opium merchants themselves, and they watched their children grow up from a distance. They provided them with a roof, clothing, even schooling – especially in humiliation or effective servility – and believed this was the right way, that their children would finally grow up to be acceptable citizens. These mothers amassed fortunes, not on their backs or by planting the poppies, or running the gambling saloons – no, for there were now many ways to become rich, and they were mostly small-timers. They worked for the big sharks. The biggest Shark was the conqueror, who not only controlled the small, damaged country our characters were the so-called nation of, but many, many more. Once the shark had swallowed everything in sight, it would start on its own tail.
In the meantime, the baby in its belly, who did not know about the mother shark, did not even know about business, much less why people have a need to gamble, smoke opium or frequent whores, and why other people need to amass wealth (to feel the self-satisfaction of no longer being poor and humiliated, safely watching from afar the spectacle of others’ poverty and others’ humiliation, in the comfort and solace of perfect safety from those horrible tragedies, thanks to their competence and genius – in other words, their superiority), the baby and the others like him, who now were in appearance strong, virile young men and handsome, astute young women – set to building their dreams within millions of rooms; some large, some smaller, but all decently-appointed, even quite modern and tasteful, within the establishments they were born to. Definitively, they lived in a society of sinners who appeared to be holy. But… something was wrong, even when they felt self-satisfied and possessed “everything a self-made man could want.” A void, a dread gnawed away somewhere deep inside the gut. They thought the problem was they still had to get to the top of the casino industry, or finally become the kingpin of the drug production and distribution networks, or the nation’s First Lady, or even – why not? – Madame President.
In the still of the humid, clammy night, the air heavy with silence now only broken by strange shouts and distant explosions, in the cities patrolled by engines speaking in hard, guttural machine dialect, crawling along streets lined by endless dreary gray walls of cement blocks crowned with thorns, concealing the opulent mausoleums from the eyes of the resentful and hungry. No longer any singing frogs, praying crickets, hooting owls, swooping, chittering bats, all buildings and houses locked shut and dark. Something very wrong. Everyone knowing it. And the one who was to blame – Satan, the Anti-Christ, Marx, Mohammed, Che Guevara – who could it be? The one to blame was faceless, invisible, yet omnipresent, ubiquitous.
So they did what their ancestors did, the only thing they could do when they felt surrounded by evil, by demons, by bloodthirsty spirits or vampires: they drew out their bolos, their long knives, and attacked the enemy, no matter if he had wooden ships, arquebuses, crossbows, steel lances and cannon or Remington rifles, gattling guns and armored destroyers. In imitation of their brave ancestors, the great datus, they hired assassins, professional thugs, mercenaries, informers, to weed out their enemies, those who (of course) were the ones who were sowing strife, creating discontent among the masses who could not enter the gambling saloons, buy the whores or dream the languorous Arabian Nights fantasies of addicts. Surely it was those malcontents who were the One to Blame.
Thus the jungles of fearsome creatures, centuries-old trees and impenetrable underbrush of our ancestors gave way to the jungles of asphalt, cars spewing exhaust, abnormal heat, the atmosphere of impending calamity, resolute denial and mass escape from the land, once a paradise, now a paradise of thieves, ruffians, slave owners and traders, rapists, whores and murderers.
But it was always there, from the beginning. The seeds of it. Our fall and expulsion from Paradise. It’s just that…we cannot seem to stop. Hell seems to have eternal concentric circles, spiraling down, down, down….and there is never any bottom.
After Paradise Lost, the eternal collective Nightmare.
Bathala, in Philippine mythology, the highest-ranking god of the ancient Tagalog people, the creator of all things — sea, sky, earth, and all the plants. He dwelt in the highest realm of the sky.
The “nono” are the spirits of the elderly.
“Pasing tabe sa nono”: Tagalog phrase for the ceremony calling on the gods of the field and anitos to allow them to walk in those fields and cultivate them.
Anitos are ancestral spirits worshiped as a protecting household deity.
Tikbalang is a bipedal horse creature of Philippine folklore said to lurk around the mountains and forests of the Philippines.
Asuangs are various shape-shifting evil creatures in Filipino folklore– such as vampires, ghouls, witches, viscera suckers, and werebeasts (usually dogs, cats, pigs). … Spanish colonists noted that the Asuang was the most feared among the mythical creatures of the Philippines.
Datu is the title for chiefs, sovereign princes, and monarchs in the Philippine islands of Visayas and Mindanao.