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The Diwata and Why They're More than Just Pretty Fairies

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

Diwata by Nicko

Diwata by Nicko

Mistaken Identity

Most Filipino children are familiar with the Diwata—a fascinatingly magical creature that rewards the deserving and punishes those who abuse animals and disrespect the natural environment.

A common theme in the stories about them is they're teaching valuable life lessons by showing how having a good heart goes a long way and that there are consequences for bad behavior.


I can still remember when I first laid eyes on a Diwata.

There she was illustrated on the page of my kindergarten school textbook when I was working on my homework one night.

I was enchanted immediately.

She was beautiful and radiant, wearing a long flowing white gown with large butterfly wings, a crown of colorful flowers on her head, and carrying a magic wand with a glowing end.

She was a fairy godmother that looks like Galadriel from Lord of the Rings.

In Filipino TV shows, movies, comic books, and bedtime stories, the diwata is a side character that assists the protagonists in completing a mission. I can see why she is more so praised than frightened by the Filipinos unlike other mythological creatures in our folklore.


Although there are numerous and varied accounts as to their appearance, a general trend may be observed in that they look like a normal human—usually feminine, but more beautiful and ageless, resembling nymphs and dryads.

When we think of Diwata, only a few names come to mind: Maria Makiling of Mount Makiling in Laguna province, Maria Sinukuan of Mount Arayat in Pampanga province, and Maria Cacao of Mount Lantoy in Argao, Cebu.

They all represented what a Diwata should look like in modern Filipino imagination: beautiful and benevolent.

But that too isn't entirely accurate.

Diwata by totmoartsstudio2

Diwata by totmoartsstudio2

The Name Game

The term Diwata is a Visayan word, sometimes called Umalagad, but referred to as Demwata by the T'boli tribe of Southern Mindanao.

The use of the word Diwata is pervasive in Southern Philippines but synonymous with Anito (Baki in Ifugao) more prevalent in the Northern areas like the Luzon provinces.

It refers to more focused minor deities of a certain domain and element, gender-neutral and not necessarily feminine.

They can be invoked ritually for positive crop growth, health, and fortune in response to human actions; but they may also incur illness or misfortune if not given proper respect.

The word is derived from the Sanskrit Devata or Deveta of India, originating from the Hindu term for deity: Deva.

Similar to the Javanese Djuwata, Rewata of Borneo, and Dewata of Indonesia which means Divine, Divinity or Deity, and some similar beings included in Hinduism and Buddhism.

The diwatas of Encantadia TV series, representing the four classical elements.

The diwatas of Encantadia TV series, representing the four classical elements.

By the time the Spanish came to the Philippines, the most commonly-used meaning of the term had been reduced from goddess to dryad-like spirit.

— Jordan Clark, aswangproject.com

Due to the continuous evolution of the Filipino language and the growing disinterest in old stories and legends of the younger generations, Diwata became synonymous with an elf or fairy and called Encanto by the common people these days.

However, countless retellings through the ages made some people believe that only a male Diwata is called an Engkanto or Encantado and are mostly sea-dwelling; while an Encantada is its female counterpart that resides in large trees such as Acacia or Balete.

Historians explain that it's because the Spanish language is gender-specific while the Visayan and Tagalog languages are neutral. In Spanish, pronouns ending in /o/ are male, and those that end with an /a/ are female (e.g. niño and niña, both denoting a child of a specific gender).

Meanwhile, a malevolent Encanto called Maligno can be used simultaneously and is said to be ugly in appearance.

In these stories, humans are abducted by these creatures either for the purpose of mating, to be used as slaves back to their world, or simply because they are fascinated by us just as we are to them.


In reality, these are just the Hispanicized versions of the term meaning either 'enchanted' or 'malignant' and you can clearly see the Western influence added with Catholic bias.

But I get the confusion because it's like playing a long game of telephone.

This term was borrowed from Visayan in modern times. It is not entered in old Tagalog dictionaries. Its interpretation as a Spanish feminine one because of its final /a/ is typical of 20th-century misunderstandings.

— Jean-Paul G. Potet, Ancient Beliefs and Customs of the Tagalogs

Sidapa and the Tamawo

Sidapa and the Tamawo

Blurred Lines

So how did they all get clumped into a single entity called Engkanto?

To unravel this mess, we must revisit the ancient myths of the Ibalong people of old Bicol region.


They believed in an elven race of creatures called Tamawo or Tamao that originated in the Visayas region along with the foreign god of death—Sidapa.

They are thought to be mostly male and malevolent in nature but extremely handsome with pale to white skin that sparkles when exposed to the sun, with light colored hair and a set of retractable fangs and golden claws that grow when threatened. (I'm looking at you, Edward Cullen!)

These creatures reside primarily near the sea or any bodies of water. They are described to be clad in gold, wear a turban-like crown called Putong, and a Bahag (loincloth) like the nobles of the ancient Visayas, which tells the social status and achievement of the person wearing them.

They look perfect by human standards of beauty except for some key telltale signs: they are taller than average humans with pointy leaf-shaped ears and the apparent absence of a philtrum (the ridge between the nose and the mouth).

They are known to abduct human women for the sole purpose of procreation because people thought their race only consist of males. While others believed the Tamawo cannot fall in love because the moment they do, their attractive features would fade, their skin darkens, the sharp teeth and claws wither and fall away, and then they would die.

Tamao by Elartwyne Estole

Tamao by Elartwyne Estole

The tales of the Tamawo most likely originated from encounters with ancient Visayan sea-raiders and plunderers which transformed into something supernatural and achieved mythical status.

For a fact, a Timawa is the feudal warrior class, just a rank below and under the commands of the Tumao (noble warlords) in the pre-colonial Visayan social hierarchy.

Tabo by S.A. Tutor, depicting the brothers Da'Ilisan and Pagbuaya who ruled the ancient kingdom of Dapitan (now Dauis and Tagbilaran in Bohol) in pre-colonial Visayas.

Tabo by S.A. Tutor, depicting the brothers Da'Ilisan and Pagbuaya who ruled the ancient kingdom of Dapitan (now Dauis and Tagbilaran in Bohol) in pre-colonial Visayas.

Another humanoid creature of the Ibalong folklore is the Dalaketnon (also spelled Dalakitnon, 'the people from the Dalakit tree').

They dwell in the said tree (called Dakit in Visayan, Balete in Tagalog, and Banyan in English) but in a sense that it acts as a portal or gateway to their realm.

Unlike the Tamawo, they wear silver jewelry, don't sparkle in the sunlight, and known to have females in their ranks but exhibits sexual dimorphism—the men having light-colored skin and very dark hair, and the women having bronzed skin and brown hair.

In all their stories (both Visayan and Ibalong), they were believed to be handsome and beautiful creatures that resemble nobles and monarchs of the pre-Hispanic Philippines.

It is said their good looks are a disguise that their hair and eyes are actually white, and their skin gray; which manifests when they use their powers.

But Dalaketnons are known to be rather beautiful elitists, with powers such as telekinesis and corporeal duplication—meaning they could generate tangible, living copies of themselves indefinitely which they use to confuse or disorient people.

Dalaketnon by Alexander Jusay

Dalaketnon by Alexander Jusay

In their world, they live in magnificent mansions and were the masters of other dark creatures like the Aswang.

The popular belief that whenever a human is abducted by an Encanto, that person is presented with a luxuriant and decadent feast, and offered with mysterious colored rice (of either black or violet); and that if you eat from it, you become their prisoner forever —actually originated from the legends of these beings.

The reasoning behind it is if you accept what they offer you, you are therefore agreeing to their terms.

Further showing that these are non-human creatures after all and have a very different concept of ownership and consent. (I am heavily reminded of the goblins from Harry Potter, which were based on Celtic fairy myths.)

Biraddali by sheenponce

Biraddali by sheenponce

The Tawong Lipod (Wind people) is another race of folkloric figures in Bicolano mythology that they believed came from the heavens, likened to the Christian concept of angels.

They are the court servants and handmaidens of the lunar gods Bulan and Haliya and described as sometimes winged, youthful, and elegant with luminous skin, long hairs darker than midnight, and superb in the art of dancing to better serve and entertain their sovereign masters.

They inhabit the skies and are often depicted in flight, capable of sending strong gusts of wind to wrongdoers.

They were called Biraddali by the Tausug of Sulu, and the androgynous Kinnara in Agusan and Surigao (based on Kinnari from Hindu-Buddhist mythology).

A monster is a god seen through fearful eyes

— Countess Von Marburg, character played by Lucy Lawless from the show Salem

Eventually, the myths of these three creatures merged with folk tales from other ethnic groups and became the accepted unified story of the Encanto, under the strict Spanish colonial teaching that if it isn't Christian, it must be of the Devil; therefore they must be the same.

According to folklore, these creatures were not worshipped by the natives but merely respected to achieve peaceful coexistence.

But that didn't stop the colonizers to think that the respect given by the people was some sort of pagan worship, so they demonized them as a result.


Even to this day, people still believe that children born with albinism are the offspring of humans and Encanto in some rural areas of the Philippines.

Disregarding the explanations given by medical professionals about this congenital condition, they are so strong in their beliefs that these children are treated with reverence—but also fear.

I even remember there was an albino kid in my old school that hated to be called "anak-araw" (meaning 'sun child', because people thought they looked bright as the sun).

But if these legends describe them to be very beautiful, how come we hear stories of Maligno that look more like monsters rather than gods?

Bathala by obrahnisohn

Bathala by obrahnisohn

Defense of the Ancients

In Diwataan tradition—the umbrella term used by Neo-Animist/Anitist movements all united in the common belief of Diwata, in seeking to revive indigenous religious and spiritual practices; the Diwata are gods and goddesses—a role placed upon them in pre-colonial times.

For them, the root word for the term diwata is "diwa" which means essence, consciousness, spirit, or soul. They are classified into five hierarchical types.


  • .Diwatang Langitnon or Kaitaasan (the highest) is simply the supreme creator deities.

Because the Philippines is an archipelago, the myths varied from region to region and every ethnic group has its own creation myths and principal gods that sometimes parallel each other, but most of the time they do not.


Some of the diwatas belonging to this type are Bathala of the Tagalogs, Tigianes of the Gianges people of Cotabato, Magbabaya of Bukidnon, Kabunian/Lumawig of the Ifugao, and Kanlaon of the Hiligaynons.

Kanlaon by Charlo Nocete

Kanlaon by Charlo Nocete

  • Diwatang Ibabawnun or Kaibabawan (the Upperworld gods) are the offspring of the first generation of immortals, they usually govern large to small aspects of the universe like heavenly bodies or forces of nature.

In the mythology of the Taga-ilog (Tagalog, 'the people of the river'), Bathala (whose name originated from Abattara, meaning 'avatar'—the descent of a god on earth in visible form) is the sole creator god.

But there were other first-generation deities along with him like Aman Sinaya, the primordial goddess of the seas, and Amihan—the genderless deity of the North Wind represented by a giant golden bird.

All the other deities (like Mayari, the demigoddess of the moon, Apolaki, the third generation sun god, and many others) from this pantheon apart from Bathala are considered under this type of Diwata because they were not creator gods but merely rule over what has been created.


Even the dreaded Bakunawa—the giant sea serpent dragon that causes an eclipse, is part of this group because according to mythology, he was originally a god that was punished for devouring the moons in the sky.

His name means 'bent snake' from *ba(ŋ)kuq ('bent/curved') and *sawa ('large snake or python'). He's very similar to the Hindu-Buddhist deities Naga and Rahu (called Laho by the Tagalogs).

Apolaki and Mayari by Caleb

Apolaki and Mayari by Caleb

  • Diwatang Kailawman or Kailaliman (the gods of the Underworld) are the creatures of Philippine lower mythology and what most people think of when referring to laman lupa ('the earth-bound entities') like the Duwende (elemental dwarves), Kapre (tree troll), Tikbalang (horse demon), Batibat or Bangungot (nightmare/sleep paralysis demon) among others.

Elementals are considered Diwata because they have dominion over certain natural elements like wood of trees, the water, and so on.

They are believed to be of various races rather than a single entity, and either operate solitarily or in groups with an elected leader.

This is where the Maligno comes in because they are in fact just a diwata in monstrous form.

(Side note: Just because a creature looks ugly or frightening does not make it evil. I am in the belief that they are neutral, both capable of good and bad actions because we have stories about them where they are sometimes even helpful.)

Batibat was featured in Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

Batibat was featured in Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

  • Ninuno or Anito (the Ancestral Spirits)

It's kind of weird to think of ancestors as gods. But in pre-colonial Philippine society, people who lived a meaningful life helping their community get deified in death.

They provided guidance over their living descendants from the afterlife and were represented in sculpted idols that are believed to contain their spirit.

However, not all departed loved ones and family members become ancestors in death. They have to meet certain parameters like the ones I've stated above, similar to the Christian concept of sainthood.

They could be the pillars of their community when they were alive or was a popular political or spiritual leader or tribal elder.

This belief in anito is called Anitism (Aniteria in Spanish). Not to be confused with Animism which is the belief that all things, both living and inanimate, have a soul or spirit within.

For this reason, the terms Diwata (in the Visayas) and Anito (in the Northern Philippines) were used synonymously.

Anito-Kristo sculpture by Ronald Ventura, combining the native Bulul idols and the figure of Jesus Christ on a cross.

Anito-Kristo sculpture by Ronald Ventura, combining the native Bulul idols and the figure of Jesus Christ on a cross.

  • Lastly, Diwata ng Lupa (the Earthly gods) are the living people who have supernatural skills; whether that's healing the sick, precognition, fortune-telling, or communicating with spirits as the shamans do and the various other names for the Babaylan in many parts of the country.

They are considered to be Diwata by the Diwataan practitioners because they are gifted with some special ability beyond any ordinary humans could possess.

For example, the babaylan for the Kapampangans are also called Mamaluyan which literally means 'the vessels of the diwata'.

And because the Diwata is considered neutral depending on the actions of people, so too the ninuno and the babaylan can use their abilities for benevolent or malevolent purposes as well.

Diwata Warriors by prismplume

Diwata Warriors by prismplume

Legacy

Ancient Filipinos were much more environmentally conscious and treated nature with respect because we believed that spirits were everywhere.

We shared this world with them, therefore we acted accordingly.

But sadly right now, believing in such things is considered nonsense child's play.

Oftentimes when the Diwata is a subject of stories, it is relegated to the genre of horror. But even I can't blame the ones recounting their true scary experiences with a supposed Diwata because it can really be quite frightening to be in the presence of something divine.


It’s worth noting that some indigenous tribes in the Philippines still hold communion with diwata spirits before undertaking any tasks or events.

Even modernized Filipinos living in urban areas and cities still believe in the common practice of offering livestock before cutting down large trees, as a way to avoid angering the nature spirits.

Before building foundations for architectural structures, it is mostly required to bleed a poor animal (chicken or goat) and mix the blood in the cement to gain permission and favors from the pre-existing land spirits.

It is also customary for Filipino fishermen to offer meat and other delicacies to the Encanto by throwing them into the sea after a day's bountiful catch, which is further proof that we still have surviving Animistic practices today.

They were all Diwata in Netflix's Trese (subtitle reads: "There was a time when magic in the world was a natural part of life.")

They were all Diwata in Netflix's Trese (subtitle reads: "There was a time when magic in the world was a natural part of life.")

I came across a fellow Filipino named Deo Balbuena (who renamed himself 'Diwata') on the news, shown still smiling and strutting down as if on a runway inside a police precinct.

He was all bloody and covered in cuts and bruises after being beaten during an altercation that happened when he confronted some of his friends who were using illegal drugs in his home.

He was very entertaining to watch and he became a sort of meme after that.

Not only was it already remarkable that he managed to make fun of the whole situation, but he also works as a plumbing construction worker by day and joins gay beauty pageants on the side hoping to earn what little money he can.

To me, that inspires not just bravery and resourcefulness but also proves that being transgender (or anyone belonging to the LGBT for that matter) does not mean that person is weak.


In stories, the Diwata often disguises herself as a helpless beggar to gauge a person's moral compass, therefore teaching the children not to judge a book by its cover.

The mythology and legends of the Diwata demonstrate that physical beauty is not the true measurement of a person's character, and how a lowly, poor but hardworking individual might earn his well-deserved rewards in the end.

It is a testament to Filipino perseverance and positivity despite our humble roots.


As recently as October 2018, two of our Diwata are now in space helping to monitor the Earth's climate changes.

Diwata 1 and 2 are the first Philippine-owned microsatellites that were engineered by young Filipino scientists, first launched on March 23, 2016.

I guess we can still depend on our Diwata watching over us from above.

Deo Balbuena a.k.a. Diwata

Deo Balbuena a.k.a. Diwata

Sources

The Diwata of Philippine Mythology: Forest Spirits and Goddesses, aswangproject.com

Diwata - Tribmaka, tribmaka.weebly.com

Bicolano Myths: Engkanto, bicolanomythsofgodsandmonsters.blogspot.com

Filipino Historian Kirby Araullo, youtube.com/user/TheKirbyNoodle


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