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Old legends never die: Philippine mythology in modern times

Bathala’s supremacy as the creator of everything, a ​sigbin​’s blood-sucking malevolence, Dalikamata​’s clairvoyant abilities and thousand eyes, a ​kapre’s enchanted stones and wish-granting promises.

Ancient ideas can be reimagined with the aid of technology. Advanced graphics and design software or talented makeup and costume artists can help convert what used to be mere verbal descriptions into riveting and terrifying visual depictions of these beings.

Philippine mythology has been gaining traction in modern media. Stuff from legends are being adapted into books, movies, and other forms like the 2014 film Kubot featuring shape-shifting vampires called “aswang” or “manananggal”. Clashing with more prominent religious systems and progressivist Western ideologies, what used to be widely-accepted folk beliefs are now likely  relegated to little more than fictional tales crafted for entertainment purposes.

But stories are never just stories; they have the capacity to shape an individual and define a nation. By exploring fictional realms, our exposure to both relatable and unfamiliar scenes help us build empathy for lives caught in situations much different from our own.

 

 

The strange, the novel, and the fantastic

Mythological creatures, much like any other fantastic being emerging from the realm of modern speculative fiction, signify a merging of the foreign and the familiar. Their stories are set in worlds configured differently from the contemporary realities we are used to. Just as fantasy and supernatural genres push the boundaries of possibility, mythical tales ask for a suspension of judgment—to disregard the rules of the physical, natural world in favor of elements that are more magical, more spontaneous, and more liberated.

Myths stir up excitement when dealing with the unknown and the otherworldly, but they also call attention back to ourselves and invite us to look at who we are as humans. A critical lens is directed at human nature when mythology narrates interactions between these supernatural beings and mere mortals, and even more so when distinctly human traits are reflected in their divine characters, from jealousy and rage to love and courage.

Perhaps it is in this commonality that we derive validation and find security in the experiences and perspectives of those who went before us. Folk stories remind us to listen to and converse with voices from the past; these narratives invite us to become united with fellow Filipinos and deepen our understanding of things much larger than the self.

 

Bridges and roots

Our collective consciousness is inextricably linked with ancient communities, no matter how modernized or progressive we become as a people. It is no surprise that many Filipinos still believe in higher order powers—be it destiny or fate or an all-powerful being—since gods and deities have always been mainstay elements in native folklore.

Mythical stories were not only explanations for the natural phenomena observed in their surroundings, but they also gave our ancestors a sense of direction and meaningful reasons for existence. From the coming of harvest to the setting of the sun, they believed in great beings presiding over their daily plights. It brought order to their lives and encouraged them to act kindly toward nature and their neighbors.

Newer stories presented through various media forms remain littered with such concepts, including those in highly realistic and non-fantasy contexts, showing how traces of these ancient beliefs still pervade the modern Filipino psyche. Even the present-day persistence of quack-doctors can be tied to mythical lore on witch-healers or mangkukulam.

 

Footholds in modernity

It would be a terrible blow to Philippine history and culture if the rich diversity of our myths were to be lost to the swift-moving hands of time, neglected amidst the oversaturation of stories emerging from various sources. Especially with how quickly things can become viral and reach many people in split seconds, new media can dictate what makes ripples in society versus what never makes it beyond the bubble of the original source.

Providing these ancient myths exposure in the present—whether by preserving them in their original form or adapting them to contemporary settings and narratives—poses a challenge for modern media to play a greater role in the survival and propagation of local folklore. To allow these mythical tales to live on is to pass on the insights stemming from centuries-long generational chains, and to fulfill a responsibility toward shaping society.

Apolaki, the Filipino counterpart of Mars, the Roman god of war, supposedly reprimanded the natives of an early Pangasinan for having white-toothed foreigners in their land. Blackened teeth were the societal beauty standard of the time—a stark contrast to advertisements for whitening products in today’s media. When tales from the past are allowed to perpetuate modern settings, we often find that native ideals run into colonial and imperial mindsets. It is in these confrontations that the individual and the collective learn to reassess the beliefs and values they carry.

 

Staying power

Through the test of time, mythology has embedded itself as one of the foundations of our cultural and social identity. Even with the religious takeover by the Spanish and the cultural domination by the Americans, our native myths have survived to this day. With ample public interest and appreciation, Philippine mythology may soon experience a renaissance as its stories continue to capture the fascination of contemporary writers, filmmakers, and their audience.

In doing so, Philippine myths can wield an influential and formational power, with or without the intervention of a god or goddess.

 

By Anakin Loewes Garcia

By Erinne Ong

By William Ong

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