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The Truth About the Nuno sa Punso

Ian is a full-blooded Filipino visual artist who incorporates Pinoy myth and folklore in his work.

Nuno sa Punso by Nick Iluzada.

Nuno sa Punso by Nick Iluzada.

What Is the Myth of the Nuno sa Punso?

According to Filipino folklore, the Nuno sa Punso is a small chthonic spirit that dwells in mysterious lumps of soil (generally assumed to be anthills or termite mounds). This creature is said to resemble a hunched, wrinkled old man with a long tangled grey or white beard. It often wears a traditional conical wide-brimmed hat called a salakot, which is made of rattan reeds. The Nuno sa Punso are known as extremely capricious and territorial creatures that are often invisible unless they choose to reveal themselves on rare occasions. Their skin is believed to be dark or tanned like the soil, and their voices are just as hoarse and scratchy.

Nuno translates to "old man,"and Punso refers to the mound of earth it supposedly lives in. Therefore, Nuno sa Punso simply means "the old man of the mounds." Female Nunos are hardly mentioned in folk stories and they are usually very solitary. The Nuno can be found in myriad places, including backyards, deep forests, riverbanks, and even dark caves. Because of this wide range of potential Nuno homes, trespassing is nearly inevitable.

Cranky Old Man

Because the Nuno sa Punso loves his solitude, he doesn’t like it when people come through, step on, or even get too close to his mound. Even if trespassers just happen to come by accident, the Nuno will not be forgiving. When this happens, a terrible curse is to be expected. Signs of being cursed include a high fever, inconsolable pain, or swelling in the offending body parts.

For example, men who urinate on these mounds may find their genitals swollen days after. If they stomp on the mounds, they might experience aching sores and be unable to walk again as a consequence. Some folks also report growing excessive amounts of hair on their backs. Others experience dizziness that leads to vomiting dark liquid and causes them to be ill and bedridden for days.

The Nuno's spit is also believed to be enchanted. For a Nuno to successfully curse a person, the trespasser must be close enough for the cryptid to spit on them. Some also say that if you suffer a scratch from a Nuno's long, sharp fingernails, your skin will harden until it spreads to the rest of your body and render you paralyzed.

Breaking the Curse

It is a common belief in the Philippines that if modern medicine is unable to cure a particular illness, the ailment may be due to a Nuno's curse. The term we have for people cursed by the Nuno is nanuno or namatanda. This comes from the word "matanda," which in Filipino means "an old person." This also applies to people jested by the spirits when venturing into the jungle.

A victim is brought to an albularyo—a folk healer expert in herb lore—for diagnosis and healing by way of a divination method called ceromancy, which uses dripping candle wax over a basin of water while prayers are being whispered. In the Philippines, this practice is called pagtatawas because its earlier form involves burning a chemical compound called alum (tawas in Tagalog), which forms shapes on the water's surface that is then interpreted by the herbalist.

In most cases, the victim and their family may be asked to provide an offering (e.g., foods, drinks, or valuable objects) to the Nuno in his dwelling place. In some situations, an animal sacrifice (often a white chicken) may also be required to soothe the Nuno's anger. If this doesn't work, it is wise to personally ask the Nuno's forgiveness for the misdeed. This will hopefully prevent permanent possession of the victim by an evil spirit, which could later cause insanity according to local superstitions.

Some people believe that it is possible to capture a Nuno by way of a lure. Legend says that they are attracted to a large or plump woman placed on the side of the road after midnight. Killing the Nuno by crushing its head between a person's fingers or thighs is also said to remove any spell cast by the creature. This method is often ill-advised as it could incur the wrath of its kin.

In Netflix's Trese, the Nuno is summoned by the lead character from a manhole using the signature phrase "tabi-tabi po."

In Netflix's Trese, the Nuno is summoned by the lead character from a manhole using the signature phrase "tabi-tabi po."

Precautionary Measures

To help avoid the ire of the Nuno, most Filipinos are taught to say either the Tagalog phrase "tabi-tabi po", whenever passing these soil formations. This is generally understood as respectfully asking for permission to pass and loosely translates to "please move aside and let me pass by." This gives the Nuno fair notice and keeps humans from accidentally hitting or trampling on these invisible entities. Humans are also cautioned to avoid being noisy at places where the Nuno are believed to dwell.

Some Catholic Filipinos also warn children not to be out at three o'clock in the afternoon. This is based on the misguided belief that evil takes over at this time of day because it is considered to be the exact time that Jesus died on the cross. It is believed that people are more vulnerable to possession by evil spirits at this particular time.

We are also reminded not to stay too long outside during the dawn, high noon, and are instructed to come inside the home before twilight. The reasoning behind these guidelines is that, because spirits exist in a different plane of reality than ours, these liminal times function as bridges between worlds. Similarly, locations that create a transition from one state to the next (e.g., crossroads, the base of a mountain, the edge of a forest, a shoreline) could be a place where there is a higher risk of disturbing a Nuno.

Benevolent Nuno

Although the Nuno is known as a vengeful being, careful coexistence can still be achieved. In rare cases where a Nuno chooses to live near humans, offerings of small bowls of rice, a bottle of coconut wine called Tubâ, or a small harvest of the human's backyard fruit trees can help appease the Nuno and ensure peace between neighbors. Sometimes, humans can even use offerings to beseech the help of the nearby Nuno to lend a hand towards the speedy recovery of a sick family member or to protect the household.

An overgrown termite mound inside a family's home in Leganes, Iloilo remains undisturbed for fear of incurring the wrath of a Nuno that's believed to reside there.

An overgrown termite mound inside a family's home in Leganes, Iloilo remains undisturbed for fear of incurring the wrath of a Nuno that's believed to reside there.

Comparison to other Earth Elementals

Nuno sa Puso has been compared to other creatures found elsewhere.

Duende

Most Filipinos consider the Nuno to be a Duwende. This belief might have stemmed from several things these creatures have in common. This includes their small build, their connection to the earth element, and their magical ability to make someone who hurt or offended them suffer from mysterious maladies that can’t be cured by any medical interventions.

But these creatures are more than just simple tales to scare and make the young ones behave. Similarly, Duwendes in folklore are also identified as guardians, protectors, and at times, the true owner of the land—particularly fields that are used for planting rice.

In reality, the term Duende (spelled duwende or dwende in Filipino) is of Spanish Celtic heritage. It was originally a contraction of the phrase "dueño de casa" (master of the house), which later evolved into "duen de casa," and then finally to "Duende" in the late 17th century. It encompasses a wide range of folkloric creatures imported from the Iberian Peninsula and brought to the Philippines and other countries that were once Spanish colonies, such as Colombia and Mexico.

But the Filipino conception of duwendes differs from that of the Spanish. For example, in the Philippines they are considered as little people, while in Spain they range from tall beings to tiny tricksters. Several types of duwende in the Philippines are also grouped according to their perceived temperaments with corresponding color differences. This is why I don't think the Nuno is a type of dwende—they were not color-coordinated in their original folklore.

In addition, the Nuno are mostly seen as small but proportional old men, while duwendes are depicted with large heads, facial features, hands, or feet that greatly resemble the traditional conception of dwarfs, which are human-like and yet portrayed as small and ugly. In his 1933 article for the Philippine Magazine, Emeterio C. Cruz described the duwendes as small humanoid beings with one eye in the middle of the forehead and a large nose with a single nostril.

Black Duwende by Brian Valeza.

Black Duwende by Brian Valeza.

Dwarves

A lot of people use the term Dwarf when referring to the Nuno in English. But dwarfs originated from the pre-Christian mythology of the Norse and Germanic people. Although they are mostly described as small but strong beings with beards, they are also known for being skilled metalworkers and craftsmen that cohabitate in groups—things that the Nuno sa Punso certainly isn't known for.

Elves

The Nuno cannot be considered elves either. This is because—though elves are often currently depicted as small Christmas entities—these beings were initially tall and very beautiful creatures, with various associations with the gods of Norse mythology. The word for elves comes from the Old Norse "álfar," which refers to honored ancestors and originally meant "white being."

Trolls

Trolls are big and dangerous (but also stupid) creatures from Norse and Scandinavian myths. They avoid being exposed to sunlight because it will turn them to stone. None of these characteristics apply to the Nuno.

Goblins

The Nuno is also not classified as a goblin because they only act in response to various offenses. This is unlike goblins, which have been described since Medieval Christian Europe as monstrous, mischievous, or outright malicious and greedy

Gnomes

While gnomes are also earth dwellers and usually serve as guardians of different land formations (e.g., mines), they are also known for being hoarders of golds, gems, and other precious stones. They are not accustomed to interacting with humans, and since they are made from earth, they are believed to travel underground with ease. In truth, gnomes are fantastical diminutive spirits that were conceived from Renaissance magic and alchemy, and were first introduced by the Swiss philosopher, mystic, and physician, Paracelsus.

There are other creatures in Filipino folklore similar to gnomes, such as the Sagay of Surigao province, who are believed to dwell in mines and will exchange precious metals for the blood of children. But as far as the Nuno folklore is concerned, they are not known to be hoarders or dispensers of material wealth, so they cannot be considered gnomes.

Historic Roots

So, what is the history behind the Nuno sa Puso?

The Nuno

The actual meaning of the word Nuno is "an elder" (also spelled Nono or Núnú).
This comes from the word Ninuno, which means "ancestor" as it has the root word Nú —the universal force that permeates everything.

In the ancient Filipino spiritual beliefs, the dead will become an Anito, which is an entity in which they retain the personalities, memories, images, and overall characteristics they had when they were still alive. Other terms for this phenomenon include multu in Kapampangan, or multo, which is the Tagalog word for ghosts.

When someone passes away, part of their kaladduá (twin souls—a precursor to the modern Tagalog word for the spirit: kaluluwa) separates into two parts: the Nú soul reunites with the universal force Nú, while their Gabun soul (the body) reunites with the earth. It is said that Anitus are capable of hurting or enacting vengeance on their enemies. Forty-nine days after death, the Anitu will become a Nuno or ancestral spirit who will protect and guide their descendants and bloodline.

The Punso

The Punso was originally called Pungsu in the Kapampangan dialect and is not the Nuno's dwelling place, but rather their sacred grave mounds that serve as the gateways to the Nú, resembling the mountain abode of the gods. Therefore, the Nuno sa Punso are the spirits of dead elders that are attached to the places where they were buried.

One farmers' tradition in Pampanga province is to bury their loved ones under a small mound of soil as a grave marker towards the back portion of their farm fields they call Minangun. There they offer flowers, prayers, and food for the departed. Even today, this long-held tradition is still done in some distant rural areas that are far from the local community centers and parishes. But instead of a Pungsu mound, they bury them now in what is called a Pantiun, which is similar to those concrete tombs in cemeteries today.

The popular image of Nuno wearing a conical hat is also a dead giveaway. It is often worn by farmers in the Philippines, as well as in other Asian countries where rice production is important.

Tabi-Tabi Po

This Tagalog phrase originated from the Kapampangan as well. In that dialect, people will reverently say "pásingtábî pú" to ask for favors from the invisible spirits.

The Ansisit of Ilokano folklore is very similar to a Nuno. They prefer farmers to use traditional methods of farming over modern machinery for fear of destroying his mound home. Illustration by Michelle Carlos.

The Ansisit of Ilokano folklore is very similar to a Nuno. They prefer farmers to use traditional methods of farming over modern machinery for fear of destroying his mound home. Illustration by Michelle Carlos.

International Similarity

Pungsu is also the Korean word for geomancy, which means "wind and water." Meanwhile, Pungsu-jiri-seol (“the study of the earthly patterns of wind and water”) is Korea’s version of the Chinese Daoist Feng Shui. This ancient art involves the placing or arranging of buildings or other sites (including tombs) auspiciously, based on topography. The core of this belief is that where an individual positions themselves during life and at death affects human health and happiness. For example, it holds the belief that building one’s home on a good auspicious site, living there for the entirety of one’s life, and being buried in an equally good location in harmony with natural occurrences (e.g., weather and the changing seasons) and the geographical features of one’s immediate surroundings (e.g., mountains and lakes) will bring peace and prosperity not only to oneself but also to one’s descendants.

There are many misconceptions about the Nuno sa Punso, including its depiction as small beings.This is similar to the case of the Celtic fairies who were reimagined as tiny humanoids with iridescent wings from the Victorian era onwards. Essentially, the coming of colonialism and the spread of monotheistic faiths minimized the validity of pre-Christian, pagan, and animistic beliefs. This resulted in changing the people's idea of them into the little spirits we know today when compared to the might of a single omnipotent God.

The early pre-Celtic inhabitants of Ireland (known as the Tuatha Dé Danann and Fir Bolg) came to be seen as mythical and were associated with stories of fairies, also known as the "Good People." Similarly, fairy forts (also called fairy hills) refer to earthen mounds and other prehistoric tumuli that were once the ancient burial mounds for long-dead ancestors, kings, and rulers. This is where their spirits are believed to reside, imbued with druids' magic, or seen as entrances to the fairy world. Folk tales associated with fairy forts typically relate a curse or some form of retribution exacted upon those who would disturb or destroy these structures.

So far, only enclosed jar burials and log coffin burials have been discovered in the Philippines from the pre-colonial era. But one Filipino blogger theorized that the famous Chocolate Hills of Bohol might not be natural hills after all, but ancient tumuli that became covered with earth sediments throughout the years. This hypothesis arose when he noticed that only grass could grow on these hills, while trees could not. Adding to the intrigue of this location is its conical or pyramidal shapes, which are almost all perpendicular in measure. Until proper archeological studies are conducted, we don't know for sure.

Nuno sa Punso by Bien Flores and Carly Sorge.

Nuno sa Punso by Bien Flores and Carly Sorge.

Animistic Worldview

Anitism is the original religion of the pre-conquest Philippines and comes from the word anito, which means "the souls of the ancient ones." It is a subtype of Animism that deals with the belief that the world is populated by "persons" and their relationship with one another.

Personhood is defined as having rights and responsibilities, agency, and self-awareness, which can include—but not be limited to—human nature. Apart from the human persons is the non-human, which includes the flora and fauna, natural, geological, and geographical features and phenomena like animals, trees, plants, rocks, the wind, hills, rivers, and so on.

In this worldview, some persons are more/other than human. These are the category of spirits or entities that maintain manifestations of power beyond that of humans and with whom we can interact and create a beneficial relationship. They are what we often understand to be deities, elementals, trickster spirits, and ancestors that are sometimes also dangerous and harmful—whether intentionally or unintentionally.

In this belief system, death isn't understood as the end of existence, but rather the shift of realities and transformation. The human life force or soul has a multitude of choices and diverse existences after death. The soul survives, undergoes a process of transformation, and turns into either a spirit of place residing in a hill, river, or mountain, or an entity of a specific rock, whose existence is often marginalized as either mythological or folkloric.

Mound dwellers like the Nuno sa Punso fall under this category. It places them somewhere between "the more than human" and "the non-human" because they are not animals or plants. However, they still show characteristics of having dominion over a specific element, landscape feature, or natural phenomena.

Is the Nuno Still Considered an Ancestral Spirit?

They might have begun as ancestors from a time immemorial. But in the advent of colonialism—which aimed to eradicate earlier spiritual beliefs—the Nuno probably have been reduced to a minor earth spirit, or even a demon.

By technical definition, an ancestor cares about the daily life and affairs of the living and aids at a time of need. Not every deceased human person is accepted by the living family, community, tribe, or society as an ancestor. The ancestors are those who are powerful in life, and whose actions gave great benefit to the community. They must be known by name, and their deeds in life must still be remembered. But ancestors are also those who, upon death, continue to extend their relationships with the community of the living, therefore increasing in power and wisdom.

It is likely that when the colonizers began to convert early Filipinos to the new religion, maintaining a relationship with the Nuno didn't seem to matter anymore. At this time, they ceased being ancestral spirits.

Why Do They Love to Punish Trespassers?

Animism is highly pragmatic and relies on experience. It's about trying to avoid inviting those who would rather not be bothered and interact with those who want interaction. So we get to know them, we gain experience and knowledge, which leads to a familiarity with the spirits and the way they react to specific actions.

There is such a diversity of entities, behaviors, and habits that the social reciprocal actions also vary quite a lot. They act towards humans and other persons in many different ways, and most of the time it is unpredictable.

The breaking of taboos, such as desecrating burial mounds and other places of rest can also cause the spirit to be hostile. Some spirits can cause illnesses, and others can heal. Some would provide something beneficial (like helping in the growing and development of food resources and providing sustenance), while others instead induce harm. Even those who are considered benevolent sometimes might have a change in attitude because they are angry, or because a certain action caused disrespect.

So it is up to the animistic human person to choose which entities are worth interacting with, which ones have to be avoided, and what sort of actions might provoke positive or negative responses from them.

Modern depiction of a Nuno sa Punso by GunshipRevolution.

Modern depiction of a Nuno sa Punso by GunshipRevolution.

Impact of the Nuno sa Punso

Medically speaking, what is believed to be the Nuno's curses can be explained by science as nothing more than inflammation caused by insect bites, or as allergic reactions from certain plants near the area where these mounds are located. Especially if people thought that the Nuno resides in termite mounds or anthills.

Most Filipinos still believe in this entity and will abide by the many unwritten rules, despite the lack of clear explanation. But others will, for a variety of reasons, actively seek to disrespect or offend them due to its perceived diminutive stature. Driven by arrogance and twisted anthropocentric thinking, many still underestimate the Nuno and dare to challenge him in his territory just to display dominance over the mound dweller or demonstrate its nonexistence. Destroying smaller ecosystems such as ant colonies just to prove a point only causes harm to the environment. In the long run, that will affect us in return.

Though invisible, the myth of the Nuno sa Punso, along with the precautionary phrase "tabi-tabi po," is simply a way to remind everyone that the spirit world exists. At the very least, acknowledging the things unseen is a good exercise of politeness, humility, and learning to coexist. Surviving animistic traditions such as these might sound primitive nonsense to some, but growing up listening to these stories shaped the way we see the natural world. They are reminders to show gratitude for the environment on which we are very much dependent.

Sources

  • Filipino Historians, Kirby Araullo and Michael Raymon Pangilinan
  • Animism: Ancestors and the Others by Archeologist Arith Härger on Youtube
  • Nuno sa Punso:Duwende Lore in the Philippines, aswangproject.com
  • The Curse of the Nuno Sa Punso by Napoleon Martinez

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.