Ian is a visual artist, lay academic and keeps an open mind about unconventional beliefs. He lives with his two dogs and seven cats.
Most Filipino children are familiar with the Diwata, a fascinating magical creature that rewards the deserving and punish those who abuse animals and disrespect the natural environment. A common theme in the stories about them is that they teach valuable life lessons by showing how having a good heart goes a long way and that there are consequences for bad behavior. We would often find them in TV shows and movies, comic books and bedtime stories as side characters to assist the protagonist in completing a mission.
I can still remember when I first laid eyes on a Diwata. One night when my mom was helping me with my homework, there she was illustrated on the page of my kindergarten school textbook. I was enchanted immediately. She was beautiful and radiant, wearing a long flowing white robe with large butterfly wings, a crown of colorful flowers on her head and carrying a magic wand with a glowing star on its end.
No doubt a fairy godmother character but looks more like Galadriel from Lord of the Rings fame with extra bonus. I can see why the Diwata is more so praised than frightened by the Filipino people 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 few names come to mind: Maria Makiling, guardian of Mount Makiling in Laguna province, Maria Sinukuan, guardian of Mount Arayat in Pampanga province, and Maria Cacao, guardian of Mount Lantoy in Argao, Cebu.
They all represented what a Diwata should be like in modern Filipino imagination. But that too isn't entirely accurate.
The Name Game
The term "Diwata" has taken on various levels of meaning since its concept's assimilation into the mythology of the pre-colonial Filipinos. It is a Visayan word sometimes called Umalagad, but referred to as Demwata by the T'boli tribe of Southern Mindanao. The uses of the word Diwata is pervasive in Southern Philippines but synonymous to "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.
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 it's female counterpart that reside in large trees such as Acacia or Balete. Historians propose that it's because the Spanish language is gender specific while the Visayan and Tagalog languages are neutral.
Meanwhile a malevolent encanto called Maligno can be used simultaneously and are usually 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 nothing but 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
So how do they all get clumped into a single entity? To unravel this mess, we must revisit the 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!
They reside primarily near the sea or any bodies of water. They are described to be clad in gold, wears a crown called Putong that looks more like a turban and a Bahag (loincloth similar to a G-string) like the nobles of 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 like a goblin and doesn't have a philtrum (the ridge between the nose and the mouth).
They are known to abduct human women for the sole purpose of procreation because some people think that 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.
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. Despite the explanations given by medical professionals regarding this congenital condition, they are so strong in their beliefs in that these children are treated differently than others. Sometimes of 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 probably because people thought they looked bright as the sun.
The tales of the Tamawo most likely originated from encounters with ancient Visayan raiders and plunderers which transformed into something supernatural and achieved mythical status. A Timawa is the feudal warrior class, just under the commands of the Tumao (noble lords) in the pre-colonial Visayan social hierarchy.
Another creature of the Ibalong folklore is the Dalaketnon (also spelled Dalakitnon) or the people from the Dalakit tree (Dakit in Visayan, Balete in Tagalog, Banyan in English). They dwell in the said tree but in a sense that it acts as a portal or gateway to their realm. But unlike the Tamawo, they wear silver jewelry, don't sparkle in 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.
The popular belief that whenever a person is abducted by an encanto, that person is presented with a luxuriant and decadent feast and offered with a 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 in Celtic fairy myths.
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, called Biraddali by the Tausug of Sulu.
Eventually the myths of these three creatures merged together with different myths 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 one and the same.
According to folklore these creatures were not worshipped by the natives, but merely respected in order to achieve a peaceful coexistence. But that didn't stop the colonizers to think that the respect given by the people were some sort of pagan worship, so they demonized them as a result.
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?
A monster is a god seen through fearful eyes
— Countess Von Marburg, character played by Lucy Lawless from the show Salem
Defense of the Ancients
In Diwataan tradition (the umbrella term used by Neo-Animist/Anitist movements all united in the common belief of Diwata, seeking to revive native pre-colonial 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 and that they are classified into five hierarchical types.
- .Diwatang Langitnon or Kaitaasan (the most high) are simply the supreme creator deities.
Because the Philippines is an archipelago, the myths varied from region to region and every ethnic group has it's 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.
- Diwatang Ibabawnun or Kaibabawan (the upper gods) are the offspring of the first generation gods and usually govern large to small aspects of the universe like heavenly bodies or forces of nature.
As an example, let me use the Tagalog mythology (or Taga-ilog, the people of the river) because it's the pantheon most Filipinos are familiar with.
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 who was replaced by Amanikable, previously the god of hunters and became the ill-tempered god of the raging oceans. All the other deities 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.
Among them is Mayari, the goddess of the moon and daughter of Bathala with a mortal woman, Apolaki the third generation sun god and the child of Anagolay (the goddess of lost things) and Dumakulem (god of mountains) and many others more.
Even the dreaded Bakunawa (giant sea serpent dragon that causes 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 Proto-Western-Malayo-Polynesian *ba(ŋ)kuq ("bent", "curved") and *sawa ("large snake", "python") and is very similar to the Hindu-Buddhist deities Naga and Rahu (called Laho by the Tagalogs).
- Diwatang Kailawman or Kailaliman (the lower gods) are the creatures of Philippine lower mythology and what most people think when referring to "laman lupa" or the earth-bound entities like the Duwende (dwarves/gnomes), Kapre (tree troll), Tikbalang (horse demon), Batibat/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 like the Bakunawa. 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.
- 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.
Not all departed loved ones and family members become ancestors in death however. 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 and Anito were used synonymously.
- Lastly Diwata ng Lupa (the earthly gods) are the living people who are gifted with supernatural abilities. Whether that's healing the sick, precognition, fortunetelling and divination, or communicating with spirits like the Shamans do and the various other names of the Babaylan in many parts of the country.
They are considered to be diwata by the Diwataan practicioners because they possessed something special beyond no ordinary humans could have. And because the Diwata are considered neutral depending on the actions of people, the Ninuno and the Shamans too can use their abilities for benevolent or malevolent purposes as well.
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 must act accordingly. But sadly right now, believing in such things are considered nonsense child's play.
Oftentimes the Diwata as a subject of stories is relegated to the genre of horror today. 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. It is also customary for Filipino fishermen to offer meat and other delicacies to the enkanto by throwing them into the sea after a day's bountiful catch, which is further proof that we still have surviving Animistic practices today.
I came across a fellow Filipino named Deo Balbuena on the news, who renamed himself 'Diwata', shown still smiling and strutting down as if in a runway inside a police precinct --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 situation, 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 a transgender (or anyone belonging to the LGBT for that matter) does not mean that person is weak.
In bedtime stories, the Diwata often disguise 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 demonstrates 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 of the 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.
The Diwata of Philippine Mythology: Forest Spirits and Goddesses, aswangproject.com
Diwata - Tribmaka, tribmaka.weebly.com
Bicolano Myths: Engkanto, bicolanomythsofgodsandmonsters.blogspot.com