Narrating Myths of Destruction

June 11, 2020

 

Who will tell the stories of this pandemic a hundred or more years from now?


For all the growth of science, there will be many stories about what we are going through. Science, to paraphrase the great sociologist of knowledge, Peter Berger, is not about certainties but possibilities.


Indeed, day in and day out, and for every scientist speaking, more ideas about this pandemic are being discussed and offered. Truth be told, it is not only the virus that is spreading everyday but the causes and cures for the infection brought by the same.


How will the generations ten times removed from ours narrate how we perished and how we survived this war on human existence?


From the Otley Beyer Ethnographic Collection available in the National Library, one can find memories not of plagues but of destruction. These are papers from students collected by the anthropologist to compose his own ethnography of Bikol. Each paper is classified as a Bikol Paper and tagged with numbers. Note that Beyer uses “K” in his Bikol, and this was years before World War II.


Have you ever heard of a local deity of destruction? Following the Eastern or Asiatic discourse on the divine, there is no dichotomy that exists between good and evil. Even Shiva, for example, who is generally known as the god of destruction must not be seen as a negative force. In fact, his destructive act involves the annihilation of evil or death, which then complements Brahma. Shiva’s name also connotes welfare. 


It is thus a curiosity to find a myth that deals with a god of destruction in the Bikol pantheons of divinities. This is the topic of Bikol Paper No. 67, which should be of particular interest to students of Bikol mythology. Lucita Cachuela, the author of the paper, writes about a Bikol god of destruction named Kalaon. 


The paper locates the belief in the said god in a pre-conquest village of Bantayan, “at the base of Mayon.” As Cachuela writes in a document dated September 3, 1931, this god manifests his presence by the rumblings of the volcano, which signifies the anger of the god. To appease the powerful deity, the village must sacrifice at least two persons.


To employ a cliché, the mists of time have shrouded already details about the rituals. Are these persons killed, mutilated or merely identified? Why two and not three?


The similarities – and differences – with other tales and myths in places far from Albay and even situated outside the Pacific region do not negate the story. The inevitable comparison alerts us about the universality of human experiences. The parallelism among myths may also explain a migration of beliefs, the journey of tales from warriors and sailor, influencing the storytelling in the place where human encounters take place.


Bikol Paper No. 66 engages the readers with its more complex retelling of a legend. It asks the question: Who cut into half Mt. Malinao? That is a very good opening for any essay or reportage.


As narrated by Hilarion Vibal and submitted or written a day earlier than Cachuela’s on Sept. 2, 1931, the tale is about the battle between Gugurang and Asuang. 


Anthropomorphized or given human attributes, Gugurang and Asuang are imperfect personalities with short fuses and ego as huge as mountains. Gugurang is said to live in Mayon while Asuang is in Malinao. Gugurang is aware of the savage beauty of Mayon, his domain, while Gugurang appears to be humbled by the mountain, which serves as his headquarters.


One day, Asuang comes to Gugurang and asks that he be given fire. Gugurang is shocked at the insolence of Asuang. Gugurang feels humans, to whom Asuang promises to share the fire, does not need the fire in the bowels of Mayon. They argue and, as the narrator puts it, Asuang realizes the power of Gugurang. He retreats but soon goes into a plan of action. He steals the fire of Gugurang who does not see Asuang because the latter becomes invisible. As the story goes, the traits of each deity are revealed as if concocted to make the duel of the two more exciting. Even Gugurang finds his power to disappear later in the battle. 


Gugurang runs after Asuang. Gugurang, who is identified as the good god, enlists the services of Linti (Lightning) and Dalogdog (Thunder) in the chase. Eventually, the fire is snatched back. As a punishment, Gugurang cracks Malinao in two. 


This Malinao myth is interesting on many points. The dichotomy of a good vis-à-vis bad/evil god reeks of Western interpretation. But as all critical approaches are, we can also say that, perhaps, there was indeed that distinction between the god of destruction and the god of creation. Another issue is significant: Asuang here is a deity, perhaps egocentric and living beyond his divine means, but still a deity. Asuang is not the miscreant or evil phantasm that more contemporary storytellers generated. If this was the case, was this the reason for the colonizing narrators to demonize Asuang further because, anyway, he had attitude problems? From a god who dares question authority, Asuang is transformed by the Spanish storytellers into a lowly monster. The rest is horror history.

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