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Friday, November 26, 2004

Excerpts from My Soon-to-Be-Finished Work, 'Engkanto: A Bestiary of Philippine Mythical Beings (Book One: Bantay-Katubigan)'

{Note: Most of the terms in this book are my own coinage--like sirena'o, Kabenw'a, and Haámyeda’r}

Bantay-Katubigan: The Stewards of the Water Realms

Like waves they set sail
There among the gentle creatures
Of the waters their sovereignty

Partly fish (or -cetacean or any other aquatic animal) and partly human water-dwelling benigno, bantay-katubigan are the Philippine counterparts of the English merfolk, locathahs, selkies, and other aquatic fairies. They are stewards of all water realms including the living things that dwell in them.

Although they are amphibious—breathing through gills or lungs—bantay-katubigan are unable to leave the water. Even sirena’o who reside in water realms inside forest caves never let their tails and scales dry up. Thus, stories of trident-wielding syokoy strolling on sandy beaches or, worse, sirena whose tails metamorphose into human feet are just figments of human imagination.

Based on physical characteristics, the sirena’o are the bantay-katubigan that have more human than animal attributes while the syokoy are the ones more brute than are human. However, contrary to popular belief—and this may come as a surprise—the sirena’o, not the syokoy, are the ones fond of revealing themselves to humans and playing pranks on them.

Graceful and beautiful beings with human torsos, tails of fishes or of aquatic mammals, long hair, fair complexion, and alluring voices, the sirena’o are the most popular bantay-katubigan. They are idyllic and romantic, usual lovers of traditional and classical music. In fact, sirena’o music is one of the oldest and the most tranquil and graceful among the various genres of fairy music. It is mostly instrumental; and when it is lyrical, they are often odes to water realms and the gentle animals of the seas such as whales, dolphins, whale sharks, and dugongs.

Syokoy are usually green-skinned humanoids that have scaly body coverings, webbed hands and feet (although fishtailed syokoy also exist), and fins on several parts of their bodies. They are mostly clam and oyster farmers—clams for food and oysters for the valuable pearls—and are known to be compulsive travelers, regularly migrating from one region to another depending on the availability of food or on the climatic conditions.

They prefer cold environments as opposed to sirena’o, who favor the warmer regions. In further contrast with the sirena’o, who value systematic learning, syokoy rely mainly on instincts for their survival.

Musical Instruments of the Bantay-Katubigan
Bantula. Made from a drift bamboo tube that is closed at both ends with a slit cut out of the tube, the bantula is used by syokoy mainly as a signaling device and by sirena’o as a musical accompaniment for water dances performed during clan gatherings. It is sounded by striking it with a pair of hard-headed sticks or beaters, called tub’lan.

Kudyapi. Also called boat lute, the the two-stringed lute that has an elongated, boat-shaped body and a long, slender neck. The skilled sireno (male sirena’o) produces high-pitched multitonic melodies from the instrument by plucking or strumming its strings with his fingers or with a plectrum made from shell. Many sireno play the kudyapi very well. In fact, sirena’o clans take pride in their young clan members’ ability to compose intricate tunes from the kudyapi, which, to them, is a symbol of masculinity.

Dayuday. Also called spike fiddle, the dayuday is the one-stringed bowed instrument that has a resonating chamber consisting of half a large bivalve mollusk, which is often covered with eel or ray hide. Its long neck is made of drift bamboo or coral. A high-pitched wobbly sound, characteristic of sirena’o classical music, is produced from the dayuday by stroking an improvised bow, called gla’dyad, on its string, which is usually made of twined dried seaweed or mussel hairs. Regarded as a feminine instrument, the dayuday is especially played by sirena (female sirena’o) maidens.

Kubíng. Usually carved out off driftwood, the kubíng, also known as lip harp, is a mouth-resonated instrument that consists of a flexible “tongue” fixed at one end to a surrounding frame. The player produces the sound from the kubíng by placing it between her lips and then tapping its free end with her fingers.

Language and Writing System of the Bantay-Katubigan
abenw’a is the spoken language of the bantay-katubigan. It is an ultrahigh-pitched tonal language, which many human beings would probably dismiss as a mere babble of shrieks and screeches.

Remarkably though, bantay-katubigan inscribe their shrilly-sounding speech in Filipino using an ancient alphasyllabary, called Kabena’o, that the sirena’o culture was able to preserve.

Sirena’o, in particular, engrave the cursive Kabena’o script on driftwood, shells, or slabs of hardened terracotta (whichever is available) using styli made from corals. Paper, parchment, and ink are practically useless to them. However, bantay-katubigan that reside in fresh-water realms inside caves, behind falls, and near forests write Kabena’o on planks and cave walls with indelible ink made from the saps of select species of toadstools or wild mushrooms.

Bantay-katubigan scribes show reverence to their language and alphabet by uttering a simple prayer to the Supreme Deity Haámyeda’r prior to every writing activity. They believe Haámyeda’r – creator of the race and patron of learning – as the deity who gifted them with language and writing system as well as the ability to use them, a faculty which they believe distinguishes them from the rest of the creation.

However, many modern thinkers dismiss such deities as no more than symbolic figures of their race’s mythology—created by imaginative ancestors to explain things they could not fathom. Regardless, belief in these deities remains to be a potent source of hope and inspiration especially for the oppressed and the depressed or in times when life becomes harsh and unbearable.

Bantay-Katubigan Mythology
Like many mythologies, Bantay-Katubigan mythology is animated by deities whose characteristics usually derive from superior and exaggerated qualities of the people who believe and venerate them. This is the reason many sirena’o philosophers doubt—some even deny—the existence of such deities. They dismiss these never-seen superbeings as mere personifications of abstract concepts and unsatisfiable desires, like peace, beauty, wisdom, and immortality.

One influential forerunner of this belief (or disbelief, for that matter) was the sirena philosopher Niyaryan, who, in her controversial treatise Ode to the Deities of Each of Our Own Mythologies, expounded the disbelief in deities:

"The existence of these ‘omnipotent’ yet invisible idols and icons, which continue to pose a great influence on our psyches and behaviors, simply reflects the weakness of our race. It reveals our inability to uphold goodness on its own merits—a shameful display of our race’s incapacity to initiate or sustain fellowship and compassion without the need for some unseen entities, the dogmas of the belief in whose can be reduced to a pathetic choice between the fear of punishment and the promise of reward.

…for an ultimately good individual does good not because she fears the punishment for failing to be good or expects a reward for doing good; but because, for her, to do good is the only right thing to do.”

Despite the popularity of this and other similar radical yet convincing theistic views of well-respected scholars, the majority of bantay-katubigan—regardless of economic status or social standing—still live their lives faithfully under the guidance of and belief in deities.

In final analysis,” another philosopher argued, “faiths and beliefs and all those diverse spiritual orientations no longer matter in the end so long as the individual lives his life in harmony with his fellow creatures and the environment, sincerely trying every day—through little to large deeds—to become a better and worthy member of the society where he belongs.

Ultimately,” he concluded, “the key to peace and harmony is diversity, understanding, and acceptance; not singularity, indifference, and discrimination.”

Diet of the Bantay-Katubigan
Elegant and refined as their taste, sirena’o will never dine on fish or cetacean meat, for they regard fishes and cetaceans as too much like themselves; and this likeness, and the mere thought of tasting even a slice of such flesh, nauseates them. Hence, sirena’o are generally herbivorous, preferring seaweed and phytoplankton for food. Although some will occasionally eat small invertebrates like sea anemones, sea cucumbers, and shellfishes except oysters, which the entire bantay-katubigan revere as “the natural jewelers of the sea, beloved of the water deities” because of the pearls such species of mollusks produce and protect.

Syokoy, on the other finned hand, are the carnivorous lot—their bulky physiques and active lifestyles demand a heavier diet, which consists mainly of cartilaginous fishes and common crustaceans.

Manner of Clothing of the Bantay-Katubigan
Bantay-katubigan are simple about their manner of clothing, not that they have a poor sense of fashion but because of the sense of freedom and of vastness the waters had long effected on their psychic evolution. They prefer that their skins or hides or scales be “more in touch” with their surrounding. In fact, a wreath made of seaweed is all the most fashionable syokoy would wear in a clan gathering—which will reason that they, anyway, have thick scales that protect their bodies and fins that adorn them. (Syokoy regard their cephalic fins—and nothing else—their kindred’s crowning glory.) In this same seemingly fashionless sense would a chaste sirena express comfort and contentment in ornamenting her bosom with only a pair of smoothly polished, gorgeous-colored scallop shells.

Sports and Games of the Bantay-Katubigan
The best picture conjured by the word game is, probably, that of children running on fields of grass and flowers, laughing and chanting senseless rhymes on a cloudless summer afternoon. Many believe this to be the best depiction of a game; or in its precise definition: a spontaneous, call-of-the-moment pursuit of nothing at all that completely lacks rules and benefits other than fun.

As it is with children of the various human races, bantay-katubigan children initially play the same games until such time when their elders or cultures dictate what games or, to be accurate, sports they think are appropriate for their kind.

[These are only random excerpts from the said book I hope to publish in the near future. In the book you will discover so much more about bantay-katubigan, the merpeople of the Philippines.--the author]

Copyright ©2004 by aLfie vera mella
All rights reserved


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