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The Truth About the Nuno sa Punso

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

Nuno sa Punso by Nick Iluzada

Nuno sa Punso by Nick Iluzada

The Myth

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, from backyards to 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 that happens, a terrible curse is to be expected, which includes experiencing 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 cannot be able to walk again as a consequence. Some folks also report growing excessive amounts of hair on their backs while others may experience some dizziness that leads to vomiting some dark liquid, causing them to be ill and bedridden for days.

Their spit is believed to be enchanted as well. For a Nuno to successfully curse a person, the trespasser must be near the cryptid so it can spit on them within range. Some also say that if you suffer a scratch from his long, sharp fingernails, your skin will harden until it spreads to the rest of your body, rendering 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, 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, it is called pagtatawas because its earlier form involves burning a chemical compound called alum (tawas in Tagalog) that 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 to the Nuno in his dwelling places such as foods, drinks, or valuable objects. Another option is an animal sacrifice (often a white chicken) may also be required to soothe the Nuno's anger. If that doesn't work, it is wise to just personally ask the Nuno's forgiveness for the misdeed, to prevent permanent possession of the victim by an evil spirit, which could later cause insanity according to local superstitions.

Some people believed that it is possible to capture a Nuno by way of a lure. Legend says that they are attracted to an obese 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. As dubious as that sounds, 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 the Tagalog phrase "tabi-tabi po" or "pásingtábî pú" in Kapampangan dialect whenever passing these soil formations. It is generally understood as respectfully asking for permission to pass and loosely translates to "please move aside and let me pass by" to give fair notice and keep humans from accidentally hitting or trampling on these invisible entities. They 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 in the misguided belief that since it is considered to be the exact time that Jesus died on the cross, evil takes over during that period, therefore making people more vulnerable to possession by evil spirits.

We are also reminded not to stay too long outside during the dawn, high noon, or instructed to come inside the home before twilight. The reasoning behind it is because spirits exist in a different plane of reality than ours, therefore liminal times (such as the aforementioned) and spaces like crossroads, the base of a mountain, edge of the forest, or shorelines—which acts as transitionary periods between one state to the next—function as bridges between worlds.

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 their backyard’s fruit trees can help appease the Nuno and ensure peace between neighbors. Sometimes, they can even beseech the help of the Nuno nearby with the same offerings, to lend a hand towards the speedy recovery of a sick family member or protect the household.

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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 as a Duwende and might have stemmed from several things they have in common such as their small build, their connection to the earth element, and their magical ability to make someone who hurt or offend them suffer from mysterious maladies that can’t be cured by any medical interventions.

But these creatures hold 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—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 is a wide range of folkloric creatures imported from the Iberian Peninsula, 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 the Spanish so much in that they are all discerned as little people, unlike their classifications in Spain which range from tall beings to tiny tricksters. Several types of duwende in the Philippines are grouped according to their perceived temperaments with corresponding color differences, which is why I don't think the Nuno is a type of dwende because 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 or facial features, hands or feet that greatly resemble the traditional conception of dwarfs, which are human-like and yet portrayed as small and ugly. Emeterio C. Cruz in his 1933 article for the Philippine Magazine, described the duwendes to be 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 which the Nuno sa Punso certainly isn't.

Elves

The Nuno cannot be considered Elves either. Because unlike the modern Christmas elves in pop culture today, they were initially tall and very beautiful creatures, with various associations with the gods of Norse mythology. The word comes from the Old Norse álfar referring to honored ancestors and originally meant 'white being.'

Trolls

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

Goblins

The Nuno is also not classified as a Goblin because they only act in response to various offenses, while the latter is a monstrous, mischievous, or outright malicious and greedy creature from the mindset of Medieval Christian Europe.

Gnomes

While Gnomes are also earth dwellers and usually serve as guardians of different land formations such as 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, 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 as such.

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)
and comes from the word Ninuno which means "ancestor", having the root word Nú —the universal force that permeates everything.

In the ancient Filipino spiritual beliefs, the dead will become an Anito (also called multu in Kapampangan or multo, the Tagalog word for ghosts) in which they retain their personalities, memories, images, and overall characteristics when they were still alive.

When someone passes away, part of their kaladduá (twin souls—a precursor to the modern Tagalog word for the spirit: kaluluwa) separates into two; 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 Nunu 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. 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 the 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.

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" and 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 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 such as weather and the changing seasons, as well as between the geographical features of one’s immediate surroundings like mountains, lakes, and land affect human health and happiness and will bring peace and prosperity not only to oneself but also to one’s descendants.

There are many misconceptions about the Nuno sa Punso, like its depiction as small beings. Same with the case of the Celtic fairies reimagined as tiny humanoids with iridescent wings from the Victorian era onwards, the coming of colonialism and the spread of the monotheistic faiths minimized the validity of pre-Christian, pagan, and animistic beliefs, therefore 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 an earthen mound and other prehistoric tumuli that were once the ancient burial mounds for long-dead ancestors, kings, and rulers, where their spirits are believed to reside and imbued with druids' magic, or seen as entrances to the fairy world. Folk tales associated with fairy forts typically relate a curse or retribution exacted upon those who would disturb or destroy these structures.

So far, only enclosed jar burials and log coffin burials are 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 covered with earth sediments throughout the years. The question aroused when he noticed that only grass can grow on these hills, and no trees. Adding to the intrigue is its conical or pyramidic shapes that 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, 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, self-awareness and 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.

Then some persons are more/other than human. These are the category of spirits or entities that maintain manifestations of power beyond that of humans, 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 dangerous and harmful too..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 become 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, but still show characteristics of having dominion over a specific element, landscape features, 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 are still remembered. But also those who upon death continue to extend their relationships with the community of the living, therefore increasing in power and wisdom, exchanging mutual respect and understanding precisely due to the interactions they maintain.

Most likely when the colonizers began to convert early Filipinos to the new religion, maintaining a relationship with the Nuno didn't seem to matter anymore so they ceased being ancestral spirits.

Why Do They Love to Punish Trespassers?

Animism is highly pragmatic, it 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, leading to creating a familiarity with the spirits and the way they behave towards 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 harm. Even those who are considered benevolent sometimes might have a change in attitude because they are angry, or 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

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 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 and 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.

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