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Filipino Folklore and Mythology About the Moon

Eric is a science teacher from the Philippines with special interests in astronomy and meteorology.

The Whole World Sees the Moon

What is the brightest object that you see in the sky at night? It's the Moon of course. It is an astronomical body and the only natural satellite orbiting Earth. Around the whole world, the Moon has been associated with superstitions, myths, and legends. Throughout history and across different cultures, there are stories to explain the Moon's phenomena, including its eclipse, phases, and the supermoon. In Hinduism, lunar eclipses are said to be caused by a demon drinking the potion of immortality. In Norse mythology, sky wolves chased the Sun and the Moon, waiting for Ragnarok. There are also lunar deities from different mythologies around the world. For example, the Greek goddess, Selene, the Roman goddess, Luna, the Egyptian god Khonsu, the Celtic goddess, Rhiannon, and the Chinese goddess, Chang'e.

Anitism refers to the mythologies and indigenous religions of the Philippines from the pre-colonial age to the present. It is from the word "anito," which refers to the country's various nature spirits, ancestral spirits, and the divine. There are a lot of folktales, beliefs, stories, and myths from the Philippines involving the Moon, including the ones we explore below.

Bakunawa: The Moon-Eating Monster

The Philippines has lots of moon-eating monsters. One of them is the bakunawa. It is a giant mythological sea creature that had the head, gills, scales, and fins of a fish, the body of a snake, and wings. It was very attracted to the Moon and would rise from the sea to swallow it whole. The sign that the bakunawa was attempting to eat the Moon was what we now call a lunar eclipse. Essentially, the shadow of the Earth on the Moon during an eclipse was thought to be the shadow of the monster attempting to eat it. To ward off the beast, humans would make loud noises by beating drums, tapping pots, and playing musical instruments. These sounds bothered the creature. Aside from lunar eclipses, the bakunawa was also said to be responsible for earthquakes—its movements underground would shake the upper world.

Stories of Bakunawa From the Bicol Region

There are various stories of serpent-like creatures that come from different tribes or regions. In the Bicol region, it was a beautiful goddess who fell in love with the god of the Moon, Bulan (who has a sister, Haliya, the goddess of the moonlight). This goddess did everything to be loved back by Bulan. She told birds and sirens to sing for him, she told flowers to send fragrance for him, she told clouds not to cover him, she told the stars to sparkle and amaze him with their beauty, but Bulan refused her affection. The goddess got angry and transformed into the giant serpent (the Bakunawa), so that she could devour the deities. But, Bulan and Haliya defended themselves. The fight was seen by the supreme god and he became angry at the Bakunawa. As punishment, he cursed the broken-hearted goddess to remain a serpent for eternity. This curse did not quell the goddess's desire to eat and kill the Moon god and his sister, and she still attacks them even to this day. Sometimes Bulan and Haliya hide, so they won't easily be seen by the Bakunawa. According to this myth, it is the hiding of the Moon god and the goddess of moonlight that explains the phases of the Moon.

Bakunawa in Visayan Tales

The Bakunawa also appears in a Visayan folktale. This tale explains that—a long time ago—there were seven moons, and each one illuminated one night of the week. The reason why there is only one Moon today is because the other six were successfully eaten by the bakunawa. The last Moon was saved when people made loud noises to awaken the supreme being. Upon waking, he saw the devilment of the Bakunawa and fought it until it was defeated. Afterwards, he told the people that they should awaken him again with loud noises if ever the monster came again to try and eat the Moon. He would awaken and fight the Bakunawa repeatedly. It is said that the supreme being then put sharp bamboo shoots on the Moon's surface to deter the giant serpent from eating it. The bamboo shoots are the black stains on the celestial body that we see from far away today.

Other Stories From Across the Philippines

In another tale, the bakunawa had a sibling that was a giant sea turtle. Every time the turtle went to the beach to lay eggs, it caused a tsunami, so people slaughtered it. As revenge, the bakunawa attempted to swallow the object that gave people light in the evening. The residents prayed to the Creator to fight against the bakunawa. However, unlike in the Visayan story, he refused to do it. Instead, he told the people to get drums, pans, pots, and musical instruments from their homes and make loud noises to irritate her.

Another moon-eating creature is a giant dragon-like bird named Minakowa. With his large body, Minakowa covered the entire sky whenever he flew, and it was believed that he was responsible for both solar and lunar eclipses. Other moon-eating beasts include Arimaonga, a lion-like dragon, Olimaw, a winged serpent, and Tambanakua, who appears as either a giant crab, scorpion, or tarantula.

Why Is the Sun Brighter Than the Moon?

In Tagalog mythology, there was a Bathala who ruled the world. Among his children were Mayari, the female lunar deity, and Apolaki, the solar god. When their father died, the two siblings quarreled about who would rule the world. Apolaki wanted to rule it by himself, but Mayari wanted it equally. Their disagreement led to divine war. In Tagalog mythology, all of the divine have eyes that emit lights. In the battle between Apolaki and Mayari, the fighting only stopped when Apolaki unintentionally stabbed Mayari in one of her eyes. He apologized and relented to his sibling's desire to share his rule of the world. Apolaki ruled the world in the day and Mayari ruled it in the evening. However, the light in the evening (the Moon) is dimmer than the light in the day (the Sun) because the Mayari the Moon goddess can only use one of her eyes.

Mayari, the lunar goddess in Tagalog mythology, covers her severed eye.

Mayari, the lunar goddess in Tagalog mythology, covers her severed eye.

Why Are There High Tides During a Full Moon?

Once upon a time, only three divine lived in the world—the god of the sea, the sky, and the earth. The sky god had a beautiful daughter, Luna—the Moon. One day, Luna found herself outside her kingdom. She discovered the sea and the earth and was amazed at their beauty. She wandered until she met Mar, the son of the sea god. They became friends and fell in love, even though it was forbidden by the immortal law.

One day, Luna told her secretly jealous cousin about the affair. Her cousin then reported what Luna had shared to the sky god. He got angry and shut Luna in the garden, so she could not get out. The sky god then told the sea god, who also became enraged with his son, imprisoning him in a sea cave.

One day, Luna escaped from the garden and went to the place where she and Mar used to meet. The imprisoned Mar saw her reflection on the sea and wanted to get out to meet her. He tried hard to get out of his cave, causing unrest in the sea, but he couldn't. Luna waited for a long time but he did not come, and she went back home very sad. To this day, every time Luna escapes and goes back to the meeting place, the water level of the sea rises as Mar tries to escape the cave in hopes that they can be reunited.

I've Made My Own Story: The Pointless Buwan

Once upon a time, the Sun (Araw) was the king of the solar system, and he had a daughter, the Moon (Buwan). They shared a home in the skies. Both of them were awake during the day and asleep at night. Because Buwan didn't emit lights, she was invisible to the people. She had a beautiful face that they did not notice. Unlike her father, she had no rays to be used as hands, so she was unable to work. She felt futile, useless, and miserable. One day, she had difficulty sleeping, so she went outside and wandered in the sky. She saw that the earth was very dark and noticed that people have lots of problems at night. They were lost and couldn't see things that they were looking for. The next day, she reported it to her father. The king became worried.

"Buwan, do you want to help them? I have an idea. You'll be the one who will give them light at night," the king said.

"How? I don't illuminate," she replied.

"This is one of my rays, take it to the sky every night." He gave her a ray. "It will give them light at night, however, it will vanish after three weeks," he continued. She took it.

They then wondered why people gathered and looked up at the sky.

"What is that beautiful object in the sky?" people said.

"You've become visible to them!" the king said.

Buwan was happy with their feedback. From now on, she happily displays her beauty and gives light at night. However, whenever the light has vanished, she disappears again.

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© 2020 Eric Caunca