Ian is a full-blooded Filipino visual artist who incorporates Pinoy myth and folklore in his work.
I was trading creepy stories with my friends during one boring class in grade school when one of my classmates started recounting a story about a mysterious rich woman from the nearby hills who travels on a beautiful ship down to town to sell her goods. She added that the town bridge by the mountain river is where she can be spotted on board the vessel, especially in late afternoons. The people didn't know much about her except her name: Pacifica. And they believed she was not like us humans, but an engkanto (enchanted ones). It piqued my interest.
Later in life, I learned that my friend was talking about a variation of the tale of Maria Cacao. In reality, she wasn't even from the town where I was, but from the other side of the province in Southern Cebu.
Who is Maria Cacao?
Maria Cacao is allegedly the diwata (goddess) associated with Mount Lantoy—a 1,946 feet mountain located 10 kilometers inland from Argao, Cebu, and was declared a watershed forest reserve in June 1994. Locals there talk about engkantos living in the area, and the legends about Maria Cacao also spread far across to the neighboring islands.
Unlike her Tagalog counterparts, Maria Cacao is described as having magnificently fair skin and a perfect aquiline nose, which is far from the look of a Filipino native. This is telling about her class and race, likening her to a mestizo—a half-native, half-Spanish haciendera (female plantation owner).
Her description goes in line with the engkanto that are believed to be living in a world parallel to our own. They tend to be fairer than average, as pale skin has been associated with the supernatural even during pre-colonial times. Folklore also teaches us that they have a normal human appearance, but are more beautiful and seemingly ageless, save for some distinct characteristics.
These creatures have continuously smooth and supple skin without any wrinkled parts—as in the elbows and knees, and which seemed to glimmer in the sunlight. To distinguish them apart from real humans, one might notice that they lacked the ridge found below the nose called the philtrum. When one looks into their eyes, the reflection they cast appears inverted. Inversion seems to be a popular theme because I've heard stories that these creatures also live their lives like normal people but do it backward, implying that they are unnatural.
The basic form of the folktale is that whenever rains flood the river that comes from Mount Lantoy, or if a bridge is destroyed, this is a sign that Maria Cacao and her husband (her brother in some stories) named Mangao/Mangaw have either traveled down the river or on their way back home after trading cacao together.
The river in the story is the Mananga River, an intermittent stream that connects Argao and Talisay, five towns away from each other. An integral part of the Mananga River is within the territorial boundary of Talisay, so the bridge, therefore, is believed by the locals to be the Mananga footbridge connecting the villages of Tabunok and Lawaan.
Willy Wonka Woman
Maria Cacao is supposed to live in a cave up on the mountain that's surrounded by abundant Cacao trees that are said to be her plantation. The mystical cave in question is the Agta Cave in Argao, known locally as Balay sa Agta (House of the "Agta"—the Visayan equivalent to the Kapre, a mythical tree troll that likes to smoke tobacco and play pranks on people). The pair is said to be well-known traders of cacao that villagers from Argao source from to make into tableya (Spanish for tablet, made out of roasted cacao beans, ground, and formed into unsweetened chocolate tablets). It is a crucial ingredient in Filipino delicacies called sikwate (hot chocolate) and champurrado (a sweet chocolate rice porridge).
When Maria harvests the cacao, she and her husband would ply the Mananga River, setting sail from the mountains of Argao and coming out to Talisay on their galleon ship made entirely out of gold to take their produce to other islands and countries. Some say Maria Cacao even exports these crops to Europe and they would usually leave at dawn when the villagers were still sleeping.
Each time they pass through the river, the mast of the ship hits the wooden bridge and destroys it, causing the water to overflow. In some versions of the tale, many people were killed in the flood and blamed the incident on the couple. Thus, they became reclusive and eventually were never seen again.
After coming back from their travels, they would bring with them items from other places: clothes, plates, and utensils all made of gold. Maria would lend these items to the villagers, who would simply write or whisper whatever they needed at the entrance to the cave. When the villagers return the next day, these items would be there.
It had always been like that until the people started returning the items already broken or they never return them at all. Because of this, Maria Cacao ceased letting the villagers borrow from her, and that it was one of the reasons she stopped appearing to people until her non-existence became a common belief.
But some accounts also say that if you borrow from Maria Cacao and didn’t pay back, she would take your soul instead. Sightings of a boat floating down rivers and picking up passengers began to circulate, warning people not to get aboard the mystical vessel with an equally mysterious woman at the helm beckoning them to hitch a ride. Many people believe it is the ship of Maria Cacao.
When typhoons "Sendong" (Tropical Storm Washi) and "Yolanda" (Haiyan) destroyed Cagayan de Oro, Iligan City, and Samar, Leyte; a well-lit ship that the victims saw right before the flood is believed to be a representation of Death, taking the souls of those who waved at it. Usually, these urban legends were formulated right after major catastrophes ravaged the country, leading some to speculate that these stories were just a way for people to cope with their devastated lives.
In the picture below, some people were stranded on the roofs of houses during the flood and a mysterious boat has been cited floating nearby. According to one eyewitness account, they thought that rescuers came to save them from the raging storm only to find later that the ship vanished before their eyes.
The motif of soul-harvesting boats is common in pre-colonial Philippine mythology. Ancient Visayans believe that the souls of the departed are delivered to the land of the dead by boat. Even the Manungul Jar—a secondary burial jar excavated from a Neolithic burial site in Palawan, has depicted two figures crossing the afterlife via boat in the jar's lid.
The first name 'Maria' is of Spanish Catholic influence, commonly replacing the names of the original pre-colonial deities to convert the natives to the new religion. While the story is mythical, it is cited as evidence of how long the production of tablea has been going on in the area. Some theorized that Maria Cacao couldn’t have gotten her name until sometime in the late 1600s when cacao was first introduced to the Philippines.
Who is Mangaw?
The people of Tiwi, Albay in the Bicol region of Luzon also reported witnessing a golden ship sailing in the Nagas river, that they believed is owned by a mysterious male figure they call Don Diego. They described him as very handsome and almost Caucasian-looking, and they claim the legend already existed there a long time ago. Although opposite in gender, it sounds suspiciously similar to the Maria Cacao narrative—complete with a flooding river, a destroyed bridge, and him trading abroad.
Some suggest that the story of Maria Cacao's husband Mangao already existed way before Maria Cacao was even adopted into the folk story after the first cacao crop in the country was recorded in 1670. His name might have been derived from the Sulodnon mythology of ancient Panay in Western Visayas where Mangganghaw is one of three brothers that determine a person's manner of death.
Along with his brothers, Manlaegas who makes sure that the child is born alive, and Patag’aes who holds a conversation with the soul of the newborn on how they want to live and die; Mangganghaw watches before the soul is born, and as it is conceived and is usually the first to come to the house of a laboring mother. He doesn't enter the house but merely 'peeps in' (ganghaw as they call it, hence the name). This probably explains why Mangaw is virtually nonexistent in the Maria Cacao legend but is just a silent participant.
How come they believe he is her husband?
It might be a misunderstanding of the word D'mangaw—the practice of measuring a couple's hands during the Mo Ninum feast of marriage renewal by the T'boli people of South Cotabato and performed by their shamans called Tao d'mangaw when he finds a lifetime partner for a T’boli child.
But it could also be because single women during the Spanish colonial period were viewed as something that needed to be controlled by men, in preparation for their true purpose in life as submissive wives and mothers. Therefore, Maria Cacao had to have a husband (or any other male mentor) before she can be viewed as a successful woman.
The Real Cacao
The stories surrounding Maria Cacao were based on an earlier pre-colonial deity named Magwayen or Maguayan/Magwayan/Mama Guayen —the primordial goddess of the sea and water. According to the Visayan version of the myth, she is the female aspect of creation made by the supreme god Laon to balance Kaptan—the sky god. In others, she's either Kaptan's wife or rival.
Magwayen is the protector of fishermen, usually described as calm and nurturing but can be tempestuous and violent at times. The duality of her character mirrors that of the abundant and providing sea whose unpredictable terrifying outbursts also create dangerous giant waves and whirlpools.
She is portrayed as a mature, naked woman who carries a budyong (conch shell) and is surrounded by fish, whose waters also flow out into the realm of the spirits. This, of course, led to her evolution as a goddess of the Underworld. In some versions of her myth, the reason for Magwayen's transition from a sea goddess to a dark ferrywoman is caused by the death of her daughter Lidagat, another sea goddess.
Pictured as a woman wearing grieving clothes, her face covered with a dark cloth; she functions as the ferrywoman who carries the souls of the dead along a spiritual river called Lalangban, down to Sulad (purgatory) in her majestic balangay—a large sailboat and the origination of the Filipino term barangay (village).
Upon its arrival, the soul could either be accepted or rejected depending on whether it was decorated with sufficient gold jewelry. (More on this later.) There, the soul must pass a series of tests until deemed worthy to move on to Saad (Promised Land) by Pandaki, the goddess of redemption. If they failed the said tests, they must remain in Sulad unless the living relatives offered enough sacrifices to save the dead.
Magwayen's domain covers all bodies of water—from the subterranean lakes to the mountain rivers; and mountains have long been considered to be the abode of the gods. Like in the case of the Hiligaynon supreme deity Lalahon a.k.a. Laon who dwells in Mount Kanlaon (meaning 'that of which belonged to Laon') in Negros Island.
The Male Aspect
Another version of the Visayan creation myth suggests that Kaptan and Magwayen were both male gods. As mentioned before, Magwayen has a very dualistic persona. She can be level-headed or aggressively impulsive, which leads some folklorists to believe that she can gender-shift like many of the characters in our local mythology.
This is why she is also identified with the boatman named Magyan—one of three brothers in Cebuano mythology, similar to the myth of Mangganghaw. Magyan carries the souls of the dead on his boat called balanday to the lower world called Kasakitan, which he co-ruled with his brother named Sumpoy, who then takes the souls from Magyan and carries them to a place in Kasakitan called Kanitu-nituhan. His other brother named Makaptan (similar in name to the sky-god Kaptan) is the god of sickness and co-ruler of the middle world called Kamaritaan, together with Sidapa—the god of death.
Magyan could be the male aspect of Magwayen because, in pre-colonial times, violence and anger are more attributed to men than to women since war and virility were very much central to the culture of ancient Visayans, as reflected in our strong warriors and mighty male rulers of the past who were known seafarers and raiders. So the idea that the stories of Don Diego in Albay, Maria Cacao, and her husband Mangaw of Cebu are the same people isn't such a stretch in the imagination.
Unlike Makiling and Sinukuan who are guardians of their mountain domains, there is no specific pre-colonial deity associated with Mount Lantoy who could be the precursor to Maria Cacao. If there ever was one, most likely that no written records survived, or that the name was completely forgotten since Cebu was the first place the Spanish gained a foothold. I can only theorize that the ancient native inhabitants in the area probably believed a certain deity on a boat (Magwayen or Magyan) resided in the mountain due to the river that flows from there.
The Brilliant Boat
Gold was abundant in the Philippine islands during the pre-colonial period and used to be part of our ancestors’ daily attire. But it was more so included in the death rites and customs to assure a peaceful passing to the afterlife.
The golden ship of Maria Cacao further symbolizes her abundance because Underworld deities like Magwayen have always been considered to be very wealthy even in other cultures, due to the popular belief that payment is demanded when traveling to the realm of the dead—and a lot of people die each day.
The legend of how the municipality of Argao got its name can also be traced back to Maria Cacao in that, according to some old local folks, it was the name of her ship. The word Argao probably came from Argo—the ship's name sailed by the epic hero Jason and his men called the Argonauts.
Weirdly enough, another golden ship exists in Philippine mythology. From the Ulaging and the Ulahingan epics of the Manobo people of Bukidnon and North Cotabato, this huge ship called Sarimbar/Salimbal is also owned by a mighty hero named Agyu, whose journey is recorded as he navigates through the skies in his flying ship of gold which can accommodate an entire tribe.
There is a discussion regarding ancient traders from the East (with the early inhabitants of the Philippines among them) trading with Mecca, Egypt, the Balkans, Macedonia, and England as early as A.D. 31, but it is still up for debate. What we know for certain is that there is a wide Greek influence in East and Central Asia in antiquity. Countries in these Asian regions have been trading with the Philippine archipelago long before colonization. But goods were not the only things exchanged, they also swapped stories.
Early settlements in the Philippines occurred along rivers and coastal areas because those places were not only vital food resources but also the centers of trade. Our ancestors borrowed existing myths they heard, and these stories got remolded and became syncretized by the local community to form new myths over time. These tales constantly evolve depending on the needs of the people who believe in them, who in turn incorporate their ways of living, trade relations, and industry into their stories.
In Pop Culture
In Netflix's Trese, we see an emissary of Ibu (the goddess of Death and caretaker of souls for the Manobo people) use the MRT (Metro Rail Transit) as a ferry to expedite the transportation of souls because it passes through the many river systems branching out from the Pasig river that flows into the capital, Manila.
In Modern Folklore
The people of Southern Cebu, where the Maria Cacao legend comes from, believe it still holds water. On rainy seasons, motorists that cross the now modernized Mananga bridge would beep their car horns to signal Maria Cacao. Some say that they can still see the light at the top of the mast of a passing phantom ship sailing in the river below on rare occasions. But sadly, there is an ongoing issue on the Mananga river about illegal quarrying and waste pollution.
In addition, a loud foghorn is also heard during the wee hours of the night by many residents of a village near a very polluted river in Cebu City recently. Some even attest that they saw the ghostly ship impossibly sailing the narrow creek which they believe is Maria Cacao's and regard it as an omen of death after several residents have died following the mysterious occurrence.
Women in pre-colonial Philippine society had the right to inherit property, engage in trade and industry, and succeed in the chieftainship in the absence of a male heir. So it makes sense that it is Maria Cacao, rather than a male substitute, who is at the bow of the ship spearheading this folklore today.
- Maria Cacao: Ang Diwata ng Cebu by Rene O. Villanueva
- Rethinking Maria Cacao: Legend-making in the Visayan Context by Koki Seki
- The Mystery Behind the Golden Ship of Don Diego in Albay Revealed, trendszilla.net
- The Legend of Maria Cacao, cubicletrends.net
- Psychopomps and Death Guides of the Philippines, aswangproject.com
- Magwayen, vizayanmyths.blogspot.com
- The T'boli Songs, Stories and Society, researchgate.net
- Ancient Visayan Deities of Philippine Mythology, filipiknow.net
© 2017 Ian Spike
liz villegas on July 18, 2020:
as i heard when the ship is coming ,people in mananga river said ...bantay mo naa na ang barco ni maria cacao...they shouting..
Ian Spike (author) from Cebu, Philippines on April 03, 2017:
Hey Nell, I've never heard about that, I'll look it up. The Philippines has been trading with different countries around the world long before the Spanish came so I guess it's possible. One story I heard even aborigines from Australia were one of those people. Thanks for commenting, its always nice to hear from you.
Nell Rose from England on April 03, 2017:
How interesting! the one thought I had was that when you said she was very pale, I remember the stories of real white men and women who traveled the world thousands of years ago and made their mark in different countries, so many legends of them too. Great story!