Ian is a full-blooded Filipino visual artist who loves to incorporate Pinoy myth and folklore in his work.
What Is Biringan?
Dubbed as the Wakanda of the Philippines, Biringan City is a mythical place filled with towering spires and cathedral-like buildings that rises from the waters up to the clouds. It is described as a very technologically-advanced metropolis where everything is jet-black, sleek, and ultramodern. Sometimes also referred to as Araw (sun) City—due to its perceived brightness or the never-ending twilight within its borders—it is said to be inhabited by unearthly beautiful and tall white beings. These inhabitants are believed to be engkantos (the enchanted ones) or the souls of the lost and the dead.
Biringan means "a place to find the lost" in the Waray language. The exact location is unknown, but many believe it exists somewhere between Calbayog City and Catarman. Others claim it is around the towns of San Jorge and Pagsanghan in the Northern part of Samar—the third largest island in the Philippines. However, these areas are nothing but dense jungles or wide empty clearings in the middle of nowhere.
According to stories, this enchanted city is cloaked under a powerful spell to make it invisible to the naked eye. It is inaccessible to the common people, except for those who are invited by its otherworldly inhabitants. Allegedly, there are only seven magical portals to Biringan, one of which is an old gigantic tree in the Northwest part of Samar.
Though it's a piece of common knowledge to most Filipinos, Samar natives refuse to even speak about it openly out of fear of attracting the attention of these said elementals who are believed capable of projecting illusions to look like regular people. Their only distinguishing factor is their lack of philtrum and the inverted reflection cast by their eyes.
Motorists would often tell stories about driving in rural areas at night, and then suddenly find themselves surrounded by magnificent skyscrapers, spacious paved roads, and bright lampposts as if being momentarily transported to places like New York or Hong Kong. Some of them swore to have picked up strange passengers offering to pay three times the normal fare, and whose destinations were off the beaten track. Many fishermen also claim to see bright lights coming from a distant megalopolis never before seen on the humble island. These wonderful visions left those who experienced them firsthand scratching their heads thinking they were just hallucinating.
Then there are the curious letters and packages (luxury items, vehicles, constructions materials, and machinery) all fully paid in advance and addressed to Biringan. Most of the time, these cargos also come with specific instructions from the mysterious buyers, that the items be delivered to places with no known residents or left under a large tree. Although confused, this leads couriers to assume that these are nothing but typographic errors, really meant for Borongan City—a very real place on the island situated towards the east side.
There's also a legend circulated from the late '80s to early '90s about a Japanese company that expressed interest in doing rural development work in Western Samar after finding a brightly lit spot the size of a city in their satellite-generated map. They left empty-handed after discovering that the coordinates they were following only lead to a deeply forested area.
Carolina and the Stories of Abduction
There is a common theme when hearing recent stories about Biringan City—that its beguiling residents love to snatch mortals, especially if that person is deemed attractive and perfectly suited to be potential partners. There's even a term for it in Waray: bugkot, which means "spirited away".
When an individual is targeted for the taking, they are noticed acting out of character, as if in a trance for most of the time. That person will then either go mad, get into a strange accident, fall sick with a mysterious illness, go missing or suddenly die. It is said that the lifeless body is nothing but a banana stump or tree log acting as its replacement under some sort of glamour, to look like the exact copy of the victim, while the real person or just their consciousness in some stories is taken to the realm of the engkantos.
Several Samar locals will attest that they were abducted and taken to Biringan, where they were offered riches and peculiar-looking foods were laid in front of them. The usual story goes that eating the food that is colored black (typically rice, because we are Asians) gets you trapped in that world forever. In the advent of the Internet, a few anonymous persons have even claimed to be from Biringan themselves, just looking to correct the many misconceptions we have about them and their mystical land. But one has to take it with a grain of salt because you can never know what people do for attention these days.
One name often pops up in tales about Biringan: Carolina. In one version of this urban legend, she was a beautiful girl from Manila vacationing to Samar who never returned. Once her family began to worry, they received a letter from Carolina. In her letter, she expressed happiness and contentment in the place where she was and urged them not to look for her. The return address on her note was labeled Biringan City. In other accounts, she was a Samar native studying college in Manila. One summer break, she invited her school friends to come with her back home to Biringan because there was a feast. Her friends—being city girls—had never heard about the place at all. They went with her and subsequently went missing.
There have been several iterations to the Carolina from Biringan story. It even branches into speculation that she is now the princess of the majestic invisible city, even though she functions more like an agent looking to lure potential hostages in other stories. Another version also claims that she traverses the river connecting the towns of Gandara and Pagsanghan, where folks who pass through are advised to be quiet.
The river engkanto narrative and the fully-paid deliveries are very similar to Maria Cacao. A lot of it also sounds like the myth of the Tamawo and Dalaketnon of Ibalong folklore or the foreign stories about the fae. How people came up with the name Carolina is still up for debate, but since engkantos are described as almost Caucasian-looking and stories about Biringan boomed during a time when there was a strong "Americanization" in the Philippines, Western influence could be the likely origins of the myth.
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Theories of Origin
Tales about Biringan are fairly new, the earliest ones appearing around the 1960s. But the many versions and theories about it get more and more ridiculously absurd in each retelling. Some believe it is a lost ancient civilization that received its technology from aliens, to the point of even renaming it Atlantis or Agartha. Others try to link it to the biblical Ophir and liken it to the mythical city of gold, El Dorado.
But is there a sliver of truth to these claims?
Also known as the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, a wormhole is a hypothetical "bridge" that connects two different points in the space-time continuum, theoretically creating a shortcut that could reduce travel time and distance. The description of Biringan being very futuristic and highly advanced is believed by many to be glimpses of a distant future slipping through the cracks of time.
But one argument against this origin theory questions why an advanced civilization such as Biringan would purchase various construction supplies from the present when the future is considered far more technologically superior? The answer is: maybe it is not from a different timeline—but from somewhere else.
Since wormholes do not only link two points in time but also between spaces more commonly known as teleportation, the wormhole theory also supports its possible connection to other mythical cities found elsewhere.
Aliens and Parallel Worlds
The most popular theory about the ethereal city has a lot to do with earlier Filipino spiritual beliefs. Pre-conquest inhabitants of the country believed in a multi-layered cosmos: the sky-world which is the realm of the gods, the middle world of mortals and men, and the netherworld full of dark monstrous creatures and the spirits of the dead. On rare occasions, these worlds would cross, which makes up most of what is now considered traditional folklore and myths.
On another note, highly-advanced mechanizations and abductions suggest extraterrestrial involvement, slightly resembling many of the known claims of alien abductions throughout the planet.
But another variant of this conjecture states that an ancient civilization existed alongside humans, choosing to remain hidden from view for fear of invasion from outside, to take their highly evolved knowledge and exploit their resources.
Multiverses and interdimensional travels are very popular themes in sci-fi nowadays. It is a very old idea, just now gaining traction in the scientific community. Imagine the multiverse as a stack of paper, each layer is a single reality and a new one is created from an infinite number of alternative possible outcomes of another.
Approaching this theory from that perspective, the strange imposing grandeur of Biringan wouldn't be understood as a place from the future, nor inhabited by supernatural spirit entities or beings from outer space, but rather from an entirely separate universe or reality. At present, our technology isn't advanced enough to allow us to communicate with alternate universes and finally prove their existence. But it is highly possible in a different reality.
Say these encounters have been going on for centuries! Not with extraterrestrials, but with Ultra-terrestrials!"
— Sam Winchester, Supernatural Season 6, Episode 9: Clap if you Believe
Bringing these theories back to the mundane, the brilliant tall buildings seen in the distance by those who claimed to have witnessed Biringan are explained as nothing more than a mirage.
A very real atmospheric optical phenomenon called light pillars is caused when celestial light from the sun or moon, or another powerful light source (such as from a town or city below) reflects off the surfaces of millions of suspended ice crystals in the atmosphere associated with thin, high-level clouds like the cirrostratus, and produce vertical halos of light. To the untrained eye, it looks like a floating city in the sky or lights coming from a UFO.
It has been witnessed in many parts of the Philippines already, particularly in Sulu, Masbate, Isabela, and Cebu. Typically, pillar light sightings automatically become viral because people tend to associate them with alien spacecraft right away. But weirdly enough, pillar lights spotted in Samar are never heard of.
In a relatively recent theory of how the legend of Biringan came to be, few have pointed out the connection between mythmaking in the Philippines and the presence of foreigners in Samar island's history.
In the years 1949-1951, over 5,800 White Russian refugees resettled temporarily on the island of Tubabao, Eastern Samar after evading the Communist regime in China under Mao-Tse Tung and the Bolshevic revolution back in Russia before that. During those two years in the Philippines, they grew to be a thriving "little Russian city" by utilizing their various professional skills comprised of teachers, doctors, architects, ex-military officers, lawyers, artists, and performers. They danced ballet and taught locals piano lessons. They had an open-air cinema, church, hospital, and theater company among other amenities. To achieve a sense of normalcy on the island, they also had their power supply even when the majority of Samar did not have access to electricity until 1977.
Without the convenience of contemporary communications, people vastly relied on word of mouth for news back then. This theory proposes that clueless locals would have associated encounters with fair-skinned foreigners with tales about argent spirits or entities of the mountains kidnapping humans that had been passed down as oral tradition for many generations. Or that music and lights coming from their settlements shining bright like a beacon on peaceful rural evenings in Samar would be confused for a supernatural city.
Confuting this hypothesis is the fact that this isn't the indigenous population's first contact with Caucasians. Just before the arrival of the Russian refugees, American troops already established bases there while fighting the Japanese in World War II. In the 16th century, a group of Sephardi Jews fleeing the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition also settled in the Philippines, particularly, in Northern Samar. The archipelago was still in the early years of Spanish colonization during that time, so encounters with "white people" must be quite frightening, but not surprising.
But then again, the very core of the belief in engkanto is xenophobia because they are those who are not like us, whether in appearance or culture. What might have further contributed to this fear of the "others" was the Balangiga massacre that happened on the island during the Philippine-American War.
The Ongoing Appeal of the Story of Biringan
Many artists and creatives have become so inspired by the city of the lost. One such masterpiece is the 2009 horror film titled T2. It was written and directed by Chito Roño—a Calbayog City native who loosely based it on the many stories he heard from his province.
Biringan's fame consistently grows, and everyone is eager to express their take on it. But new additions and changes to the basic premise can get pretty crazy sometimes, like when the fallen victims of the MV Doña Paz tragedy—still considered as the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster in history—are rumored to be taken to Biringan. While it's only natural to provide explanations (no matter how outlandish) for unknown things, ignoring logic in favor of over-sensationalized portrayals and twisting historical facts just to fit biased opinions can sound very insensitive.
Despite its natural beauty, Samar still ranks high among the poorest provinces in the country. Not to mention, the island endured some of the most devastating typhoons ever to hit the Philippines. As one Filipino anthropologist wisely points out, myths about utopian societies reflect the people's yearning for progress, their frustrations of living a better life, as well as the struggles of keeping nature as pristine as possible.
To find that perfect world, getting lost seems to be the only way to get there. After all, the word utopia was coined from the Greek "ou topos" which simply means "nowhere or a place nonexistent". If lost, just remember one local superstition: turn your clothes inside out. This action subconsciously reboots the brain, calming oneself enough to be able to trace the way back without panicking. Disregarding this risks one of being spirited away to a phantom place for good.
- City of the Lost, gridmagazine.ph
- The Wakanda of Samar: The mythical city of Biringan, rappler.com
- When the Philippines welcomed Russian refugees, Russia Beyond
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.