‘Tao po! Hindi aswang!’
Nobody seems to know why Filipinos declare “Tao po!” when they knock on a door or gate. It dates back to pre-Spanish times. Doors then had no peekholes as we have today, so before opening the door to let the “knocker” in, one had to make sure it was not a wild animal, which couldn’t speak and identify itself as “tao” (human).
Our ancestors also believed that many dangers lurked outside the safety of their homes, so doors were not opened to “aswang,” elementals and evil spirits that, like animals, could not say “Tao po!” to trick the household into letting them in.
Early Spanish friar chronicles of the customs of Filipinos make for engaging reading, because we see how different life was like in the 16th century. And yet some things remain the same, although we understand them differently.
Take a wake, for example: A “lamay” today is a time for the dead to lie in public view, so creditors and the ill-mannered can peek into the coffin to make sure the person is dead.
Lamay is a vigil that goes on day and night to accompany the dead before burial, to help the bereaved and mourners cope with their loss, and for well-wishers to express their condolences.
Masses are held, as well as a nine-day cycle of prayers for the dead; food and drink is served all day, and at night the place is lit up and parlor games or games of chance are allowed to keep people awake.
Underneath all this lowland Christian custom is the pre-Spanish lamay that was also a vigil, but one that was meant to guard the corpse against the aswang that supposedly fed on them. A bonfire was lit to illuminate the place, and people stayed awake to keep the aswang from taking the corpse of the loved one.
“Pagpag” is another custom that dates back to pre-Spanish times. One is warned not to go home directly from a wake, but to take a circuitous route or stop along the way to shrug off (pagpag) death and the dead that might have followed one from the lamay.
I suspect this custom has been encouraged by 24/7 convenience stores, so that people returning home from a wake or lamay will stop for a snack and leave death in a gas station 7-Eleven or Ministop.
Other customs are quite recent: Do not bring home food or drink from a wake. Do not be sent out by the bereaved, lest death follow you home. Do not use the toilet in the funeral parlor, because that is leaving something of yourself behind — a scent that death can pursue. Do not sign the guestbook, because God will go through the list like a lottery, and choose the next lucky victim.
The standard primary source for the listing and classification of aswang is the Franciscan Juan de Plasencia’s 1589 “Customs of the Tagalogs,” which I have used before.
Another one that I came across while browsing the 55-volume compilation of documents that historians refer to as “Blair and Robertson” is “Superstitions and Beliefs of the Filipinos” by the Augustinian Fray Tomas Ortiz, who arrived in Manila in 1695, did mission work in China, and returned to serve as Provincial of the Order. He died in Manila in 1742.
Ortiz’s original manuscript is preserved in the Colegio de Agustinos Filipinos in Valladolid, and the text in Blair and Robertson is translated from the original Spanish, published as extracts and notes in W. E. Retana’s edition of Zuñiga’s “Estadismo de las Islas Filipinas.”
Ortiz advised the missionaries to root out superstition and pre-Christian customs and beliefs in the Philippines. His first example of bad “ugales” was the belief in the “nono,” a term that referred to grandfathers and was used as a term of respect for old men — and genii!
As a city boy let loose in a rural setting during the summer, I was told to watch out for snakes in rice fields and avoid anthills that were the home of the “nuno sa punso,” who could make you ill if you got on his bad side. Ortiz mentioned the deference Pinoys had for the nono: asking permission to cut trees, to harvest, or even to walk around. They made offerings to the nono, a practice that Ortiz considered idolatry.
Then there was the “patianac,” which was kept at bay by bearing arms while stark-naked and making violent motions in the air. Patianac led travelers astray, and to get your bearings then, you didn’t use Waze or Google; you stripped and exposed your privates to the air.
History engages us when the past becomes relevant to the present, and when we look back to understand why we are the way we are.
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