Ian is a visual artist, lay academic and keeps an open mind about unconventional beliefs. He lives with his two dogs and seven cats.
During one boring class in grade school, I was trading creepy stories with my friends while the teacher was busy with some other work she had to do. Then one of my classmates started recounting a story about a mysterious rich woman from the nearby hills who travels in a beautiful ship down to town to sell her goods.
She said that the bridge by the mountain river is where she can be spotted on board the vessel especially in late afternoons. The people didn't really knew much about her except her name: Pacifica. And they believed she's not really like us humans, but an encanto.
That really peaked my interest. Later in life, I learned that my friend was actually talking about a variation of the tale of Maria (de) Cacao. In reality, she wasn't even from the town where I was, but from the other side of the province in Southern Cebu.
Maria Cacao is allegedly the diwata associated with Mount Lantoy in Argao, Cebu, Philippines. The legends and folktales about her spread far and wide, even across to the neighboring islands in the Visayas region.
Not Among Us
But unlike her Tagalog counterparts, Maria Cacao is described as having magnificently fair skin and 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).
Her description resembles that of the stories of Engkanto (the enchanted ones) 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 teaches us that they have normal human appearance, beautiful and seemingly ageless at that—save for some distinct characteristics.
According to the mythology of these creatures, they have continuously smooth and supple skin without any wrinkled parts (as in the elbows and knees) and which seemed to glimmer in sunlight. To distinguish them apart from real humans, one might notice that they lacked the ridge found below the nose called philtrum. And when one looks in their eyes, the reflection they cast appear inverted.
Inversion seems to be a popular theme because I've heard stories that these creatures live their lives like normal people but do it backwards. I don't know how would that work, but I think these kinds of stories are further implying that they are unnatural.
Down the Stream
Mount Lantoy is a 1,946 feet mountain located 10 kilometres inland from the municipality of Argao and was declared as a watershed forest reserve in June 1994. The initial 7,265-hectare (17,950-acre) protected area was reduced in December 2006, reducing the watershed reserve area coverage to 3,000 hectares. Stories about Engkantos living in the mountain are prevalent in the locale.
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) 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 foot bridge connecting the villages of Tabunok and Lawaan.
Willy Wonka Woman
The locals say that Maria Cacao and her husband were well-known traders who owned a huge plantation of cacao where villagers from Argao source from to make into tablea.
Tablea or Tableya is a Spanish word meaning tablet. It is made out of cacao beans that are roasted, ground and formed into unsweetened chocolate tablets. It's a crucial ingredient in the Filipino delicacies 'sikwate' (hot chocolate) and 'champorado/tsampurado/champurrado' (a sweet chocolate rice porridge).
While the story is obviously mythical in nature, it is cited as evidence of how long the production of tablea has been going on in the area. Argao tableas are known for being delectable and better in quality than it's competitors.
Jordan Clark of aswangproject.com theorized that Maria Cacao couldn’t have gotten her name until sometime in the late 1600s when cacao was first introduced to the Philippines.
When Maria harvests the cacao, she and her husband, Mangao would ply the Mananga River, setting sail from the mountains of Argao 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 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 galleon hits the wooden bridge and destroys it causing the water to overflow. In some versions of the tale, many people were killed so the villagers shunned the couple because of the incident. Thus, they became reclusive and eventually were never seen again.
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, also known locally as 'Balay sa Agta'(house of the Agta). An Agta is the Visayan equivalent to the 'Kapre', a mythical tree troll that likes to smoke tobacco and play pranks on people.
When Maria Cacao and her husband come back from business, they would bring with them items from other places. Clothes, plates, spoons, forks and all of them are made of gold. Maria would lend these items to the villagers, who would simply write whatever item they needed to borrow and leave the list 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 people started returning the items already broken or they never return them at all. Because of this, Maria Cacao stopped letting the villagers borrow from her and did not show herself to the people until they stopped believing in her existence.
In some accounts, they say that if you borrowed money 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 on the mystical vessel with an equally mysterious woman at the helm beckoning them to hitch a ride. Usually these urban legends were formulated right after major catastrophes ravaged the country and a lot were suffering from the tragedy.
Like 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.
Some children and elderly people claim to have seen the big ship of Maria Cacao passing the Mandulog Bridge in the happenings of typhoon Sendong in Iligan City on December 16, 2012. This leads some to speculate that these stories were nothing more than a way for people to cope with their devastated lives.
The motif of soul-harvesting boats is common in pre-colonial Philippine mythology. William Henry Scott, an anthropologist who studied pre-colonial Philippine society, took note that 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, has depicted two figures crossing the afterlife via boat in the jar's lid.
In the photo above, some people were stranded on the roofs of houses because of the flood and a "mysterious boat" has been cited floating nearby. According to one account, eyewitnesses thought rescuers came too early to save them from the raging storm, which they found odd. Only to find later that the ship vanished before their eyes within seconds. A lot of people were dead or dying so it's natural to believe in beings coming to take souls.
The Mangaw Myth
The people of Tiwi, Albay in 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 her husband Mangao already existed way before Maria Cacao was even adopted into the folk story. Like I mentioned above, it probably happened around or after the first cacao crop in the country was recorded in 1670.
So who is Mangao?
His name might have been derived from the Sulodnon mythology of ancient Panay in Western Visayas. Mangganghaw is one of the trio of brothers that determine the death and manner of dying of a person 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). Which probably explains why Mangaw is virtually nonexistent in the Maria Cacao legends, but a silent participant.
But why do they believe he is her husband?
It might be speculative to say that this possibly came from the word D'mangaw, the practice of measuring a couple's hands during the feast of marriage renewal called Mo Ninum by the T'boli people of South Cotabato and performed by their shamans (the Tao d'mangaw) when he finds a lifetime partner for a T’boli child.
The Real Cacao
Women in pre-colonial Philippine society had the right to inherit property, engage in trade and industry, and succeed to the chieftainship in the absence of a male heir. So it makes sense to me that it is Maria Cacao rather than a male substitute, who is at the bow of the ship spearheading this folklore today.
The stories surrounding Maria Cacao were originally based from an earlier pre-colonial Visayan deity.
Magwayen or Maguayan (sometimes spelled Magwayan) is the primordial goddess of the sea and water, the female aspect of creation made by the supreme god Kanlaon in order to balance Kaptan, the sky god. In some of her myths, she's either Kaptan's wife or rival.
She's the protector of fishermen and the Visayan counterpart of Aman Sinaya of the Tagalogs. She is 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) 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 of Magwayen's transition from a sea goddess to a dark ferrywoman is caused by the death of her daughter Lidagat, another sea goddess.
But some contested the validity of Lidagat as being part of the original Visayan pantheon because stories about her, along with her husband Lihangin (god of the wind, son of Kaptan) and their children together Licalibutan (the world), Liadlaw (the sun), Libulan (the moon) and Lisuga (the stars) weren't documented until 1904 in the book Philippine Folklore Stories by John Maurice Miller.
Pictured as a woman wearing grieving clothes, her face covered with dark cloth she functions as the ferrywoman who carries the souls along a spiritual river called Lalangban down to Sulad (purgatory) in her majestic balangay (a large sailboat and the origination of the modern term baranggay meaning village/ the smallest unit in a community)
Upon its arrival, the soul could either be accepted or rejected depending on whether he was decorated with sufficient gold jewelry. (This will come into play 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.
They call the Inferno, Solar or Sulad and those who dwell in it solanun
— Father Alonso de Mentrida, 17th century Augustinian priest
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 Visayan supreme deity Lalahon/Laon who dwells in Mount Kanlaon (meaning that of which belonged to Laon) in Negros Island.
Unlike Makiling and Sinukuan, I could not find any 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 the name was completely forgotten.
I can only theorize that the native ancient people in the area probably believed a goddess (Magwayen) resided in the mountain due to the river that flows from there, and then linked the story to a certain agta living in the cave nearby.
Another version of the Visayan creation myth suggest that Kaptan and Magwayen were both male gods. Like 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 and why she is also identified with the boatman Magyan, one of three brothers in Cebuano mythology.
In precolonial times, violence and anger are more attributed to men than of women because 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 are known seafarers and raiders.
So the idea that the stories of Don Diego in Albay and Maria Cacao of Cebu being one and the same, isn't such a stretch in the imagination.
But what of the golden ship?
The legend of how the municipality of Argao got its name can also be traced back to Maria Cacao in that it was the name of her ship according to some old local folks.
The word Argao probably came from Argo, also the name of the ship of the epic hero Jason and the Agonauts from the Greek epic poem Argonautica written by Apollonius of Rhodes.
Weirdly enough, the only golden ship in Philippine mythology that I found is from the Ulaging and the Ulahingan epics of the Manobo people of Bukidnon and North Cotabato. This huge golden ship is owned by a powerful hero named Agyu whose journey is recorded in the poems, as he navigates through the skies in his floating ship called Sarimbar/Salimbal which can accommodate an entire tribe.
Gold was abundant in the islands during the pre-colonial period that it used to be part of our ancestors’ daily attire, and more so included in the death rites and customs to assure peaceful passing to the afterlife.
The golden ship of Maria Cacao further symbolized her abundance because Underworld deities have always been considered to be very wealthy even in other cultures, due to the popular belief that payment is demanded when travelling to the realm of the dead. And a lot of people die each day.
Since before Luzon was even established as the capital region of the Philippines, the islands in the Visayas were the known trading centers. Various local tribes traded with (or sometimes attacked) each other along with our neighboring countries in Asia for many years before being colonized. But goods were not the only things exchanged, they also swapped stories. It's very possible that our ancestors borrowed existing myths they heared, and these stories get remolded and became syncretized by the local community to form new myths over time.
These tales are constantly evolving depending on the needs of the people that believe in them, who in turn incorporated their ways of living and industry to the stories they tell. It's safe to say there isn't a single specific source for the legend of Maria Cacao, but a combination of cultural influences.
The people of southern Cebu where the Maria Cacao legend comes from believe it still holds water, but sadly there is an ongoing issue on the Mananga river about illegal quarrying and waste pollution.
There's even a story told by the villagers recently about some car salesmen from the city coming to the area near the river to make a delivery and asking for directions for the house of a person named Maria, whom they were told is living there. They said she purchased a brand new vehicle from Cebu City and paid in advance. They described her as elegant with almost having Caucasian features and drove a white luxury car. But nobody from the locals knew of a certain Maria fitting by that description.
On rainy seasons, motorists that cross the now modernized Mananga bridge would beep their car horns to signal Maria Cacao and her husband. Some say that on rare occasions they can still see the light at the top of the mast of a passing ship.
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
Philippine History, Pre-colonial Period, aboutphilippines.org
Psychopomps and Death Guides of the Philippines, aswangproject.com
Vintas, Lepas, and Death: The Old Moro Badjao Cemetery of Santa Cruz Island, thehabagatcentral.com
The T'boli Songs, Stories and Society, researchgate.net
Ancient Visayan Deities of Philippine Mythology, filipiknow.net
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!