The Hisstory of the Bakunawa
For her national costume in the Miss Universe pageant, Miss Philippines candidate Beatrice Luigi Gomez wore an attire described by its designer Axl Que as a “metaphor for Bea’s growth”. It’s an impressive achievement that truly displays the care, planning, and effort dedicated in its inception. The standout pieces in the costume are the two jutting dragon heads facing opposite directions, and their inclusion in the whole ensemble seem to signify a strong declaration of fierce intent. But since this is a national costume, the dragons must surely be of some relevance to Philippine culture and history, no? Well, indeed, they are significant especially to Visayans, the regional group to which Gomez belongs to. According to Que, the overall design is a “personal, hypothetical envisioning of what the Bakunawa would look like.” Interesting. But what is this Bakunawa that Que speaks of?
In modern popular culture, the Bakunawa is described as some sort of dragon that swallows the moon from time to time, causing lunar eclipses. Since no real graphical representation of the Bakunawa from the ancient past survives, many visual depictions can only hatch from the shell of individual imagination nurtured by the yolk of foreign dragon lores, either western or eastern (or even a hybrid of both). Que’s rendition of the Bakunawa is admittedly a “personal, hypothetical envisioning”, and many other works are of the same vein. No problem there. Art lives when human enterprise breathes new life to imagination.
The realm of imagination is built on the fluctuating foundations of sensory experience, intellectual faculty, and emotional flux. There is no strict hierarchy in this domain where facts take precedence over fantasy, or wild outbursts transcend careful thought. Often, imagination is the spark that urges mind and body into artistic motion, charging the hands to sculpt stories out of stone, weave fantasy on fabrics, assemble wood into maritime monsters. This is a powerful mode of creative activity, and many great works of art are a result of such confluence. But for the historian, to do so deprives a people, culture, idea, belief, etc., of their context, and on its place sit assumptions and conjectures that are slightly misleading or downright wrong. The daily jaunts of Cicero being a nuisance in Visayan markets is a historically scandalous assertion to make, but who’s to stop a literary writer from conceiving such events? Artists are in no way obligated to depict as accurate as possible what history passes down. They operate with different principles in mind than historians, though at times the activities and aims of both overlap. And thus it is no wonder that historical documents that detail what the Bakunawa may have looked like in Visayan mythos, in the absence of physical examples, are seldom consulted, scuritinised especially, in many artistic recreations. As a result, the Bakunawa continues to remain within the genus of dragons, shedding its Visayan scales as it becomes an altogether different species from what it originally was.
So, if the Bakunawa wasn’t really a dragon, what was it? When juxtaposing historical accounts related to the Bakunawa’s real form in ancient Visayan consciousness, what emerges as the most likely candidate is one of the most iconic (and most adorable) reptiles on earth: the snake.1
While the announcement will surely excite those whose hearts flutter at the mere mention of the sublime serpent, enthusiasm must be put on pause because, before we expound on the reasons why the Bakunawa is not a dragon but a snake, we first need to understand how and why the Bakunawa became a dragon. A good place to start the investigation is in the academe where we can find, at the very least, scholarly opinions on the matter.
One of the earliest academic mentions of the Bakunawa is by Fransisco Demetrio, who wrote in 1969 that the Bakunawa is a “big snake” that eats the moon.2 Short and succinct. That’s all that he has to say about it. So far so good for the snake argument. Next we have a more extensive offering from Alfred McCoy, one of the more established authorities in Southeast Asian politics and history. According to McCoy, some elders in Molo, Iloilo said that the “eclipse of the moon or sun were caused by the ‘bakunawa’, or ‘a large snake.’”3 Again, point goes to the snake argument. However, we now find in McCoy the silhouette of the dragon emerging into view when he equates the Filipino Bakunawa with the more mainland Asian naga. He writes:
“The most powerful of all Western Visayan spirits is the bakunawa, the great naga snake who occupies the firmament and the underworld, and controls nature’s more violent disasters – typhoons by blowing through his mouth, eclipses by swallowing the moon, and earthquakes with the shake of his tail.”4
Here we see a Bakunawa that is more than just a ravenous reptile whose hunger can only be sated with a distant satellite. It is now a paramount deity, with the ability to control and cause calamities seemingly at will. Furthermore, the parity of the Bakunawa with the naga pushes the image of the former closer to the phenotype (observable traits or features) of dragons, and perhaps this is what endows the Bakunawa with awesome abilities. In fact, McCoy tells us that this genetic semblance may even be embedded in their etymologies.
“While the words for naga in Cambodia (nak) and Thailand (naag) are closely derived from their original Sanskrit term, the Visayan bakunawa is based on the word sawa meaning python (bakun-sawa, ‘bent snake’) found in Tagalog, Cebuano, and Malay languages and probably derived from Sanskrit.”5
Whether as a local corollary or an exact equivalent of the naga, the Bakunawa occupied a prominent place in Visayan consciousness quite close to naga worship in other countries, so much so that McCoy tells us that Visayan farmers observed customs “remarkably similar to that found in Thai and Khmer ritual manuals.”6 For example, in building houses “Visayan peasants still . . . determine the current position of the bakunawa’s back.” The simple failure to follow such instructions, like the correct placement of a staircase, could lead to fatal consequences because “the evil broadcast from his stomach and mouth will come into the house through the door, killing the owner’s wife or children”.7
Resil Mojares, prominent Visayan historian and writer, later reechoed McCoy’s findings, saying that the Bakunawa “is not only associated with eclipses; its invisible rotation provided Visayan house-builders with the time and space coordinates for positioning posts, staircases, and doors.”8 But what species the Bakunawa is, Mojares doesn’t make clear, as he only describes it to be a “mythical sky-serpent”.
The preliminary survey reveals that the Bakunawa is indeed a snake, although McCoy suggests a homologous link with the naga, thereby illustrating its true mythological potentials and powers similar to that of dragons. Unfortunately, its initial moment of transformation is still unclear, but despite not being definitive, the information gathered heretofore have been instructive in the search, and it points away from the academe. Indeed, when we step outside its exclusive halls and move into the wider space of the internet, we find various websites that provide clues on where the Bakunawa most likely had mutated into a dragon. But since the internet can also be a place of misinformation, only select websites that follow certain research standards should be appraised. And one such page is The Aswang Project, perhaps the most comprehensive database for all things Filipino myths.
In its entry for the Bakunawa, which it describes as “The Moon Eating Dragon Of Philippine Mythology”, The Aswang Project claims that “the recent literary interpretations of Bakunawa” making up its popular imagery:
“. . . can be sourced to renowned folklorist Damiana Eugenio’s re-telling of the myth in her collected compilation “Philippine Folk Literature: The Myths”. This, however, was imagined from an earlier documentation by Fernando Buyser, a Philippine poet, publisher, and priest.”
Since “there are no other documented narratives of Bakunawa prior to this time”, it is made explicitly clear that the version passed down by Buyser and Eugenio is questionable as an authentic retelling of Visayan folklore. Historical vigilance is insisted for this reason, and The Aswang Project calls for the “need to sift through volumes of historical information”, as doing so can help produce “an accurate picture of the creative minds who shaped the foundations of ancient societal and cultural beliefs.”
However admirable this call for research is, what follows in The Aswang Project article is the same method applied by McCoy: the fitting of foreign beliefs where local records are absent. Visayan consciousness is abstracted from the Bakunawa, turning it into a canvass of cultures that is redolent of diversity, possibilities, and similarities without much Visayan context. So instead of analysing locally produced and researched “volumes of historical information”, The Aswang Project talks about the relatedness of the Bakunawa with Javanese mythology, same as how McCoy and many others linked the Bakunawa with the mainland naga. And this may very well be the true case of the Bakunawa, that for the longest time, its transformation into a dragon was not from within, but from without: it was the result of people, not necessarily Visayans, adding things to it, modifying its DNA, turning it into a different beast. This is best affirmed by the many forms the Bakunawa has taken and continues to take in the many depictions of it in popular media and on the internet.
With how it has already changed and solidified itself as a dragon in popular imagination, can we recover even a semblance of the Bakunawa’s original snake form from history? Yes, we can. It involves the contextualisation of historical texts by framing available records as part of a greater Visayan natural history. Local biology will step in place where historians left a gulf.
It is unfair not to mention the fact that The Aswang Project did cite from a historical source: Miguel de Loarca’s 1582 Relacion de las Yslas Filipinas. In doing so, it almost comes close to being correct when it quotes Loarca in saying that “[g]iant reptiles were a prominent part of ancient rituals in the Philippines”. The mistake occurs when it ends up highlighting Visayan reverence for crocodiles in Loarca’s account instead. It fails to notice that just before the entry on caymanes, crocodiles, Loarca states that “[a]y en esta tierra culebras grandisimas” (“there are huge snakes in these lands”) that are so large that they “son tan grandes como palmas” (“are as big as palm trees”).9
Loarca’s use of the word culebras for snakes is particularly important because it serves as a guide on what to look for in other historical documents to comprehensively prove that the Bakunawa is a snake. Moreover, the reputed size of native snakes, as observed not just by Loarca but also by the Visayans themselves, is equally significant because it defines local species with the necessary physical quality that enables the Bakunawa to be so fearsome that it can even devour the moon.
There are two 17th century Spanish records that directly link the Bakunawa to eclipses. The first is Antonio de Mentrida’s 1632 Hiligaynon-Español dictionary where Bakunawa (spelled “Bacunaua”) is defined as a “sierpe” that was “tragando la luna” (“swallowing the moon”), and thus causing an eclipse. The local equivalent of “Culebra, sierpe” according to the dictionary is “man-ug”, which is what Hiligaynon-speaking Visayans commonly call snakes. The next is from Fransisco Ignacio Alcina’s writings about Visayan society, culture, ecology, and geography completed in 1668 as Historia de las Islas e Indios de Bisayas. According to Alcina:
“. . . quando hay eclipse de Luna ó de sol, que llaman Bacunaba y decian que una grande culebra se tragaba entonces al sol ór á la Luna.”10
“. . . whenever there is a solar or lunar eclipse, which they call Bacunaba, they said that a large snake swallowed the sun or the moon.”
Like Loarca, Alcina uses the word culebra to mean snake. And in Alcina, the snake is not Bakunawa, but it is what the snake causes, for it is the eclipse that is called Bakunawa. This is further complicated by the fact that there is more to the culebra than just a hiss; it has a deep Spanish history. Aside from being a word for snake, culebra also refers to a creature from Asturian legend that has the body of a snake and has wings. This realisation might add strength to the argument that the Spanish chroniclers knew very well that what they were defining was closer to dragons than to snakes and that they had to borrow from their own lores to describe what had been related to them.
The confusion can be easily cleared when historical records are juxtaposed with the natural history of the Visayas, which, luckily, was also included in such records. When Loarca and Alcina used the word culebra, they only had snakes in mind. If they wanted to explicitly portray the Bakunawa as a dragon, they could have easily done so for at the time Europeans had distinct words for it. The Hunt-Lewis globe, made around the first decade of the 1500s, has the phrase “HC SVNT DRACONES”, which was not a specific marker where dragons can be found, but was a cautionary sign that danger lurked where it was indicated (see image below). Europeans also had a general mental image of what dragons looked like. Dragons flaunted their fierce features in many mediaeval manuscripts. One of the heroes of Christendom, St. George, was famously known to have slayed a dragon, and this act has been depicted in many mediaeval church reliefs in the Mediterranean, the Caucasus, and in Eastern Europe.
So when Alcina heard the story of the Bakunawa, he knew culebra was the right word to specify the culprit creature, and for good reason. Snakes were so ubiquitous in the Visayas that the dangers they posed were ever present. There was hardly any place where one could feel secure from the stealthy serpents.
“Su variedad no tiene fin pues son muchas las especies, que e conozen y cuentan, y finalmente su multitud es tal, que ni en el campo ni en el pueblo, ni en casa, ni en los montes, ni en los rios, ó mares ay seguridad; pues en todas partes se encuentran”.11
“Their variety is endless because there are so many known and counted species, and finally, their abundance is such, that neither in the field nor in the village, nor at home, nor in the mountains, nor in the rivers nor seas is there safety because they are encountered everywhere.”
With their great variety came their great many ways of killing. Snake venom was so potent that, Alcina writes, “los casos mui ordinarios de las muertes repentinas en los mordidos de ellas lo atestiguan”12 (“the common cases of sudden death among the bitten attest to this”). How about the species of snakes that didn’t have chemical weapons? No venom, no problem. Alcina reports that the sava (now sawa) or reticulated python “crecer tanto que se engullen. . . un Puerco, venado, ó hombre entero”13 (“grow so large that they swallow. . . a pig, deer, or a man whole”).
The Italian traveler Gemelli Careri also witnessed the great abundance of snakes in the Visayas. When Careri was in the eastern Visayan island of Leyte, he saw snakes “di smisurata grandezza”14 (“of immeasurable greatness”). The biggest of what he saw were the “bobas” (Careri probably meant python, but falsely attributed the boa), that extend to the length of about “20, e 30 palmi”15 (“20 or 30 palms”).
To ancient Visayans, there must’ve been no other creature large enough and with such ferocity to swallow the moon than snakes. And since there was no place safe from them, even the moon was in danger, and so it came to pass that one gigantic snake did gulp the moon, and the snake (or the eclipse it caused) was called Bakunawa thereafter.
This explanation better represents Visayan consciousness than the ones mentioned above which employed the strategy of appropriating foreign dragon lores. It doesn’t replace local thought with much better documented Asian homologues. It also grants ancient Visayans the intellect to appreciate the natural world on their own terms and the creativity to make stories out of their surroundings. Precolonial Visayas was a world full of wonders, beauty, and danger–a perfect conduit for cautionary and explanatory tales. Sure, the Bakunawa may have been a descendant of the naga, but without the imagery of dragons around that their ancestors were probably used to seeing, it’s less likely that the dragon naga retained its form as time passed. Ironically, what happened was probably the reverse: because of the ubiquity of snakes, it was the naga that became a snake.
Snakes shed their scales all throughout their lives in a process called ecdysis. Shedding allows them to grow in size and sheen. The snake Bakunawa may have shed its scales so much that it is now fundamentally distinct from what ancient Visayans imagined it to be. No worries. It is only adapting to the pressures of the modern world. So what it loses in form, it gains back in adaptability. The perfect metaphor for its growth. And the more adaptable Bakunawa is to the demands of popular imaginations, the better able it is to keep on munching the moon.
(DISCLAIMER: All translations into the English are by the author unless otherwise stated.)
The description is obviously biased. The writer was part of a snake venom research group some time ago. ↩︎
Fransisco Demetrio, “Towards a Classification of Bisayan Folk Beliefs and Customs,” Asian Folklore Studies 28, no. 2 (1969): 116. ↩︎
Alfred McCoy, “Baylan: Animist Religion and Philippine Peasant Ideology,” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 10, no. 3 (1982): 146. ↩︎
Ibid., 161. ↩︎
Ibid., 148-149. ↩︎
Ibid., 150. ↩︎
Resil Mojares, “‘Dakbayan’: A Cultural History of Space in a Visayan City,” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 40, no. 3/4 (2012): 177. ↩︎
Miguel de Loarca, “Relacion de las Yslas Filipinas,” in The Philippine Islands: 1493-1898, ed. Emma Blair and James Robertson, vol. 5 (1582-1583) (Cleveland, OH: The Arthur H. Clarke Company, 1903), 166. ↩︎
Fransisco Ignacio Alcina, The Muñoz Text of Alcina’s History of the Bisayan Islands (1668), ed. Victor Baltazar, vol. 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960), 250-251. ↩︎
Fransisco Ignacio Alcina, The Muñoz Text of Alcina’s History of the Bisayan Islands (1668), ed. Victor Baltazar, vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960), 99. ↩︎
Ibid., 100. ↩︎
Gemelli Careri, Giro del Mondo, vol. 5 (Napoli: Giuseppe Roselli, 1700), 157. ↩︎