Darius is a former high school literary and feature writer with a BS degree in Information and Communications Technology.
The Tale of Bakunawa
According to the ancient people of the Philippines, Bathala — a supreme being or god — created seven moons that illuminated the earth, with one illuminating each of the dark nights of the week. Every evening was ever so bright and so beautiful because of these moons as the moons brought joy and happiness to the people of the earth. This, however, mesmerized one particular dragon that wished to have them all.
The Bakunawa, a huge serpent-like dragon that coiled around the earth and ruled the oceans, first fell in love with the heavenly magnificence of the "seven sisters" such that he envied the almighty for his creations. But to the people of earth's collective dismay and disappointment, the dragon swallowed the moons one-by-one, each night, as he yearned to possess them all. This growing yearning turned into envy and into greed, so as the Bakunawa arose again and again from the waters to swallow the moons. The towering, ferocious dragon successfully devoured all — but one.
The Bathala became conscious of the sudden disappearances of the moons from the heavens. The people of earth, in turn, learned to arm themselves to protect the last moon from being swallowed by the dragon. Hence, the dragon not only termed as a "Moon-eater" but as a "Man-eater," as well.
One fateful night, deafening collective and ever-growing screams, moans, music, sounds, and banging of drums coming from the people of earth awakened the almighty to witness the Bakunawa in the process of swallowing the last remaining moon, slowly enveloping the whole world in deep, abysmal darkness. The people of earth shouted altogether, and they screamed "Return our Moon!" among many other unpleasant words. The dragon, taken aback from the multitude of resistances coming from the people of earth, hastily retreated to his caverns in the oceans while the deafening the sounds grew louder and louder. The last moon, now returned to the skies above, illuminated the dark skies once more and the people of earth rejoiced as the dragon hastily returned, hiding inside his caves, yet waiting for another right moment to gobble the last remaining moon.
To prevent this from happening again, Bathala planted bamboos that looked like “stains” on the surface of the moon from afar. The bamboo trees can be seen as dark spots in the face of the moon.
The dragon never gave up, as he would attempt to swallow the last remaining moon in the sky from time-to-time. But the people remained on alert if such an incident is to happen again, ready to create thundering noises for the moon's return, guarding it with their own lives. And as long as the bamboo trees are not killed on the moon, the dragon will never succeed in his malicious deed.
The literary origins of this story, a culture and folklore with deep roots, about a moon-eating dragon are mostly traced back to two prolific Filipino writers: Damania Eugenio and Fernando Buyser.
The Roots of the Mythology
Fernando Buyser was a Filipino Visayan poet, writer, and priest. He compiled Cebuano traditional oral poetry and old verse forms, which he published in anthologies that were considered seminal in Cebuano literature. He also wrote over 20 books in various genres, was one of the early authors who wrote short stories, and initiated the study of Visayan folklore.
Damiana Eugenio was a Filipina author and professor and was known as the Mother of Philippine Folklore. Her works are considered valuable resources for those studying in the Philippines and its various folklore. Her book Philippine Folk Literature: The Legends serves as a compendium that promotes "national and international access to Filipino folklore" that gathers from written sources rather than collected oral variants and was intended to foster interest in the subject matter.
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Most of the literary interpretations of the Bakunawa are traced to Eugenio's book of Philippine folk literature, but this is further documented in Buyser's writings. That is to say, Eugenio's rewriting of the legend was interpreted and is rooted to Buyser's, with the former written in English and the latter written in Visayan/Cebuano.
Cultural Impacts and Folklore Variations
The myth of the Bakunawa and the Seven Moons can be interpreted as a real-life phenomenon when the moon moves into the Earth's shadow, also known as a lunar eclipse. While Bathala is deemed as the almighty being in various Filipino folklore, having many and different names, the dragon, as well as the others similarly depicted in other folklore, is also believed to be the god of the underworld.
The original legend serves more religious descriptions than those retold over and over again, but they most likely did not intend to leave the evangelical meanings of the story throughout various interpretations. Ever since the legend's retelling, people have expanded the story by giving each of the moons their names by associating them with various Philippine mythical gods, deities, heroes, and heroines. These mythological characters also paved the way for epic conflicts within the folklore variations and retellings.
The myth itself also found its way to the physical and digital world. Various Bakunawa tattoo designs represent love for the eclipse, misfortune, strength, fortitude, and strong will. The dragon itself is also featured in various games, online or offline. The myth itself is also featured in different art forms, such as painting and drawing, as well as names for groups and songs.
The common assumption is that the belief in Bakunawa is an indigenous legend and has been a part of ancient astronomy and rituals in the Philippines since people first arrived in the region.
Though the above folklore is Visayan in nature, there are other variations of it in different regions of the Philippines, usually depicted and written by Philippine ethnic and indigenous tribes/groups. And though they also swallow the moon, most of them are not serpent-like like the Bakunaw. An example is that there's a giant dragon-like bird that swallows the sun, depicting a solar eclipse. Another example is a giant lion-like monster with forked tails responsible for swallowing both the sun and the moon.
Bakunawa is believed to be originally a compound word meaning "bent snake," from Proto-Western-Malayo-Polynesian ba(ŋ)kuq ("bent," "curved") and sawa ("large snake," "python"). Spelling variants include Vakonawa, Baconaua, or Bakonaua.
Stories of Bakunawa are directly linked to the Hindu demigod Rahu, from India’s Vedic period and was brought to Southeast Asia through trade and the expansion of the Indianized Kingdoms around 200 BCE. And this is not unusual since ancient civilizations from ancient India once traded, in goods, culture, religion, and influence, with the pre-colonial ancestors of modern Filipinos.
Though such stories can be rewritten in a creative and literary aspect, there are some risks in retelling myths. It's always a must to remember that the original publishing is a representation of the people’s beliefs at the time of documentation. The risk is that taking and re-interpreting an original piece, usually an archaic written literature, over and over again by various people on different eras will have tremendous positive and negative effects on the originality, or purity, of the core of any said piece. So, when re-interpreting stories that had been written for hundreds or thousands of years, ample research and carefulness of interpretation is highly needed.
- The Lost and Mysterious City of Biringan
You may have heard of Atlantis, the elusive golden city of El Dorado, and the popularly known Agartha, but have you heard about the hidden Biringan City that is supposed to be somewhere in Samar, Philippines?
- Fernando A. Buyser, Mga Sugilanong Karaan (Sugbo, 1913), pp. 13-14.
- Fernando A. Buyser, Mga Sugilanong Pilinhon, Philippine Church Printing (1926)
- Damiana Eugenio, Philippine Folk Literature: The Legends, UP Press (2001)
- Bakunawa articles from the Aswang Project website.
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.
© 2020 Darius Razzle Paciente