The Aswang: A Filipino Folk Monster
My family has Filipino ancestry three or four generations back, but at this point the only thing we've really retained of the culture is the food. I love my mom's sotanghong, but as far as anything else Filipino, I really don't know much.
So I was quite surprised when I stumbled upon the aswang, a legendary monster known all across the Philippines—and known prominently enough in pop culture to even have a Funko vinyl figure of it made.
The aswang is a shapeshifting monster that has various characteristics that make it appear to be a combination of several creatures, such as the vampire, witch, or werewolf. The name is derived from "Asura," from the Sanskrit word meaning demon.
Aswangs often masquerade as regular people during the day, but they are often quiet and shy people. At night, they transform into their aswang form, often taking on the forms of other creatures such as bats, birds, bears, cats, or dogs. Thus they are daywalkers and, unlike traditional vampires, are not harmed by sunlight.
Aswangs eat unborn fetuses and small children, and they especially love livers and hearts. Some variations of the aswang have a long proboscis, which they use to suck fetuses out of their mother's womb.
Aswangs will sometimes steal living people. In this case, they will make a replacement for the person using banana tree stalks and grass. This replacement will fall sick and die after a few days.
There are many regional variations, though the aswang is usually depicted as female. One well-known variation is the Tik-Tik, which is named for the noise it makes. The louder the noise is, the farther away the creature is, which is intended to confuse its unfortunate victim.
In their human forms, aswangs will often have jobs relating to meat, such as being a butcher or a sausage maker. Also in these human forms, it is possible to befriend the aswang, and they behave much like humans. They tend not to harm their friends or neighbors.
Identifying an Aswang
The ways to tell an aswang from a human are numerous.
- They will have bloodshot eyes because they are up all night, generally searching around for houses where wakes are being held so that they can steal the body.
- If you look into the eyes of an aswang, your reflection will be upside down.
- You can also trying looking at them while bending upside down to look at them between your legs. The aswang will look different while looking at them from this angle, revealing their true identity.
- Sometimes aswangs are also said not to have philtrums.
- Some variations also say that they will walk with backwards-facing feet and have reversed toenails.
Defending Against an Aswang
There are several ways to counteract an aswang. You can use garlic, salt, or a religious item, like holy water or prayers. Aswangs also cannot step on holy ground. An oil made by an Albularyo—a Tagalog term for a healer—will boil if an aswang is near.
A whip made out of a stingray's tail can also be used against an aswang, and the noise it makes can be used to repel one, as they are scared of it.
And like many living things, decapitating an aswang or destroying its heart will kill it.
A place in the Philippines called Capiz is thought to be the home of the aswang. The reason for this is the large number of cases of X-linked dystonia-parkinsonism (XDP) in the area.
Patients who are afflicted with XDP make involuntary twisting motions that may make them appear as if they were undergoing a transformation. Children and actors imitate these motions when doing impressions of the aswang.
The superstitious belief in the aswang is so widely held in the Philippines that the US government once brutally used it as a tactic against the Hukbalahaps, anti-Japanese rebel forces who attempted to oust the government.
Air Force Brigadier General Edward G. Lansdale, the CIA chief operative in the counterinsurgency campaign in the Philippines, knew of the deeply held belief of the aswang in the region, and he used this knowledge against the Huks. Lansdale later wrote in his memoir about the operation, which involved snatching the last man on a Huk patrol. Of the operation, he said:
They punctured his neck with two holes, vampire-fashion, held the body up by its heels, drained it of its blood, and put the corpse back on the trail.
When the rest of the patrol found the body, they believed an aswang had gotten him, and they left the area for fear of being the next victim.
Why Is It So Pervasive?
In his article "Aswang or Wakwak: A Folk Favourite and a Popular Character in my Childhood Narratives," Nimrod L. Delante says that the aswang legend is used as a disciplinary measure to get children to come in before dark in order to keep them safe. When he asked his father why adults told this story to their children, he responded, "It is tradition. It's what we shared as a community here. It's something that excites us, that keeps us together. And it's something that keeps you guarded."
Delante says of his childhood, which was filled with stories of the aswang, "We would never dare to go out of our house after 6 PM. We would patch every little hole in our roof and bamboo walls with leaves or wood just so the aswang could not find an opportunity to sneak in. The aswang seemed to have been part of our mind, of our existence. The aswang injected fear in us due to the scary, hair-raising, bone-chilling narratives we would normally hear from our parents, grandparents, and uncles and aunts."
The pervasiveness of the aswang legend, combined with the fact that many adults still genuinely believe in its existence, or associate the term with evil of all kinds, suggests that the story has served its purpose. Whether the aswang is a real physical being stalking villages at night or merely a tool to keep children safe, it is certainly an integral part of Filipino folklore.