Centuries before the first Spanish ship set sail on Philippine shores, the country was already steeped in cultural traditions, folklore, myths and epic stories. Usually in the form of poetry, these pre-colonial Philippine epic stories were tales of adventure, love, heroism, magic and origin passed on through story-telling.
Early Spanish records from historians like Antonio Pigafetta record the existence of the incredibly imaginative, vivid and colorful stories from the natives. In fact, it is said that when Miguel Lopez de Legaspi arrived in Philippine shores in 1565, the natives performed a dramatic play for him.
These Philippine epic stories, which were usually named after the hero of the story, were usually performed on special occasions and events like feasts or rituals. They were usually about the life of a native hero, his relationship with the native gods, battles and victories, feats of bravery and adventures.
A lot of people think that the arrival of the Spaniards and their successful propagation of their faith and culture erased all traces of the epic stories that told so much of pre-colonial culture, beliefs and traditions of the Filipinos. In fact, the common story is that the Spaniards destroyed all old records of the natives in an effort to fully colonize them.
Fortunately, however, this is not fully true. Though perhaps the colonizers did destroy some of the records of the natives upon their arrival, we still have records of Philippine epic stories to give us a glimpse into the lives of our ancestors and how they lived.
The Importance of Philippine Epic Stories
Why must we read the epic stories of our ancestors? What significance can they have in our modern and increasingly global world?
It was Jose Rizal, the Philippine National Hero and one of the nation’s greatest writers who said that the person who is incapable of looking back at his past will never reach his future (“Kung sino ang hindi marunong tumingin sa pinanggagalingan ay hindi makararating sa pinaroroonan.”).
The Philippine epic stories allow us to get to know we came from, what we were like, before the colonizers. In order to understand the Filipino identity, we must look back at the musty pages of the past and see who we were, before we can find out who we are.
And what better way to do so than through literature? Literature for every culture and civilization, first and foremost, is a record of the times, the eras in which the writers lived in. The reason why we pass on stories to each other is so that we can somehow chronicle the culture, society, beliefs, plights and victories of an era – so the future generations can remember and learn from it.
Reading Filipino epic stories enables the reader to discover a lost culture rich in splendor, magnificence, magic and bravery.
Examples of Philippine Epic Stories
Bicol Epic Poetry: The Ibalon – An origin tale, the Ibalon tries to explain how man came to be. Much like the story of Adam and Eve; it follows the tale of the first man and woman in the regions Aslon and Ibalon (now Camarines, Sorsogon, Catanduanes and Albay).
It also narrates the adventures of the heroes of Ibalon and how they fought against monsters before establishing their own village and learning to farm. The Ibalon also has an account reminiscent of the flood story, where rains poured for days and almost destroyed the whole land.
Visayan Epic Poetry: The Maragtas Chronicles of Panay – This epic attempts to explain the origins of the Filipinos and tells the story of 10 Datus or chieftains from Borneo that sail across the oceans to escape the cruel reign of the Sultan Makatunaw. Upon arrival on Panay islands, the datus meet a tribe of natives called the Aetas. The Aetas eventually sell a piece of their land to the datus and they live side by side in harmony.
Old rules of conduct are also sometimes told in epic poetry form. The Haraya, also from the Visayas, is a collection of moral conduct stories told in the form of heroic tales.
Mindanao Epic Poetry – Epic stories from Mindanao were only very recently put into writing. Known locally as “Darangan”, these poems are very much like Greek mythology. The Darangan tells the romantic adventures of noble warriors from Mindanao. A lot of the stories focus on one warrior-prince, Bantugan, who owned magic shield and was protected by divine spirits.
A lot of the stories revolved around war and love, much like Homer’s Trojan War. But what makes the Darangan extra special is that it is sung, instead of just said, in twenty-five beautiful chapters.
Igorot Epic Poetry: Aliguyon – The Aliguyon follows the life of the hero after which the story is named, who is gifted with great powers (he can travel to far places without resting or eating and has never been beaten in a battle). He embarks on a series of fights with his arch-rival, Pumbakhayon, the only warrior with skills that match his.
The duel lasts 3 years without anyone winning. So, in order to end things, Aliguyon decides to marry Pumbakhayon’s sister, thus unifying their tribes.
Ilokano Epic Poetry: Lam-ang – This tale follows the unusual life of a boy who could talk and right after he was born. At nine months old, he embarked on a journey to avenge his father’s death, accompanied by his pets, a rooster and a dog. In one of his adventures, he is eaten by a sea monster but comes back to life.
He then goes on a quest to win the heart of the famed beauty, Ines Kannoyan. When he arrives, Ines’ house is filled with suitors. But with the help of his pet rooster who knocks the whole house down and builds it up again with a flap of his wings, he eventually wins her heart.