Back in the days of our grandparents, oral tradition and folklore held more sway over people’s lifestyles and communities than they do today. The Philippines was a much larger – and mysterious – place, the kind where people lit fires as their sole illumination at night, and modern ideas in fields such as astronomy, microbiology, and zoology had not yet blossomed. Filipinos of ages past believed shooting stars were omens, diseases were caused by mischievous elves or evil spirits, and unexplained noises being the sounds of monsters. On this fertile ground of fear and awe at the natural world, Filipino superstitions arose.
The different cultures that came to our archipelago also shaped our belief in omens, curses, and weird habits. We’ll discuss in broad strokes the superstitions that we loved to be afraid of as kids.
On Life and Death
There is a sign in everything, and little things can affect one’s future fundamentally if our grandparents and their grandparents can be believed. Many Filipino superstitions that we still keep today, on the off chance that they become real, talk about affecting one’s fortune due to certain habits and actions. For instance, sukob is a belief wherein two siblings are getting married in the same year; in which nowadays, some people say it will bring bad luck for their entire marriage. The other sibling must wait until the next year for them to have a harmonious relationship.
According to a custom influenced by Chinese immigrants, pancit noodles should be served on one’s birthday as they portend good luck.
Filipinos have great reverence for the dead, as it is a sign of respect to their departed loved one and to God. Funeral superstitions are widely held and popular as a subject for local films. Such beliefs forbid wearing red – a disrespectful color – during a funeral or wake, discouraging crying as bad luck will come to the person whose tears fall on the casket, forbidding pregnant women from seeing the dead, and of course, the famous pagpag, which requires all funeral patrons to go to a public place or anywhere else before returning home, to prevent wayward souls from following them.
Think twice about showing your baby off to gushing relatives and colleagues. Too much affection is said to cause the child to develop a fever, which can be cured by rubbing the visitor’s saliva on their forehead, which is NOT a good idea in these contagious times.
Some Filipino myths and legends are related to keeping good fortune and avoiding the loss of your good luck. Obsessed with cleaning? Try to catch yourself from sweeping at night, as your grandmother would say, because you would be sweeping all the chance away. Planning your dream home? Count Oro, Plata, Mata with each stair step; make sure the steps don’t stop at Mata, or your house will be cursed. Stopping at Oro is recommended as it means ‘gold’ in Spanish.
Like singing? Zealous parents will scold you for singing while cooking, as you will be fated to be single all your life. Similarly, when people are eating at your home, don’t clean the table while someone is still enjoying their food; you will doom them to a lonely future.
On Otherworldly Beings
The prevalence of kapres, aswangs, santelmos, and many more strange monsters goes to show how deeply ingrained Filipino mythical beings are to our culture. As such, a large portion of Filipino superstitions discuss how to conduct oneself in the presence of these beings, find out when there is one near you, and court their favour.
The cigar-smoking kapre is a giant, hairy man who lives on an old tree and seems pretty relaxed until he feels his territory being disrespected. Kapres play on the mind to disorient travelers in a forest, making them stray from their path and become lost.
Vampiric aswangs can take on the form of animals as a ploy to get nearer to their quarry. In perhaps what was intended as a practical joke by the elderly to the young and gullible, the supposed way to identify whether an animal was an aswang in disguise was to bend forward and see between their legs if the critter was still normal.
Elves in the Philippine mythos are far more sociopathic than in other cultures, responsible for stealing things when they magically go missing. Evil elves would cast sickening spells on people who knock over their anthill-shaped home.
And we’re just barely scratching the surface of all sorts of stories Filipinos of old used to tell one another, creating the rich and detailed world of Filipino superstitions that continues to flavor our modern country’s beliefs and perceptions to this day.