Philippine Pre-Colonial Literature: Its Traditionality and Memorableness

14 Nov

E. Arsenio Manuel, in his book Filipino Myths and Folktales: Treasury of Stories, divides the pre-colonial literature or the oral tradition into three, namely: the Mythological Age, the Heroic Age, and Folk Tales from all ages. Notably, Manuel used two criteria in choosing the stories categorized under each period—the traditionality of the piece and its memorableness (6).

Traditionality means that the stories come from a distant past… for they are known throughout the length and breadth of the archipelago among the different ethnic groups (Manuel, 6).

On the other hand, Manuel gauged the memorableness of the stories through readability, which “create in the reader a compelling urge to read it repeatedly if he had the leisure (Manuel, 7).” Also, these stories must be told in its original, unadorned, and straightforward manner.
Historically, the first period of Philippine literary history is the longest. Since the discovery of the “Tabon Man” in a cave in Palawan in 1962, history allowed us to speak now of a period that goes as far back in time as 50,000 years ago (Lumbera and Lumbera, 1).

What are the eminent literary genres that emerge during the Pre-colonial Period? How did these pieces of literature reflect the Filipino society during those times?

Going back to Manuel’s three periods of literary tradition, the stories could be traced back starting from the Mythological Age, wherein our ancestors came up with tales about the creation of the world and man; the whys and wherefores of natural phenomena; the creation and ordering of human life; the origin of topographical features; deities and spirits; good and evil. Myths were passed on from generation to generation and from one society to another as people moved from one environment to another. Outsiders can pick up a myth and learn to believe in it (Manuel, 8). Furthermore, Manuel believed that,

…this vast age that preceded the invention of settled agriculture and towns and cities can itself be called mythical. People took these sacred accounts on faith and saw imprints of the gods in the world around them (9).

These beliefs seemed apparent in the creation story of the Manuvu, “The Good Godand the Bad God,” the Tinggian myth “Aponibolinayen and the Sun,” and the legends “The Origin of Rice” by the Bontoc/Kankanai tribe and “How the Sky Became High” by the Tinggian,which was also similar and was being told all over the Philippines.

During the dawn of the Heroic Age, the change in character and nature of the stories evolved. While supreme beings and deities rule in every part of the story, ordinary mortals and local heroes became chief actors along with the shift in the locale, from the skyworld to the earthworld. This is well explained through the juxtaposed evolution of the society wherein new skills, such as blacksmithing and weaving, developed. As Lumbera explained in his book Philippine Literature: A History and Anthology,

As literary works created in the setting of a society where the resources for economic subsistence—land, water and forest—where communally owned, the oral literature of the precolonial Filipinos bore the marks of the community. The subject matter was invariably the common experience of the people constituting a village—food gathering, creatures and objects of nature, work in the home, field, forest or sea, caring for children (2).

In this period, epics became the emergent genre. Epics are long narrative verses relating the feats of ancestral heroes against great odds. These are being chanted at important events in the life of a community in order to inspire the people and to remind them of their ideals and values. Examples of these epics are Lam-ang from Ilocos, Tuwaang, a pagan epic of the Manuvus, the Panayanon epic Hinilawod, and the Maranaw epic Bantugan.

Lastly, folktales are prose narratives of incidents that do not belong to a specific place or time. It could be located just as much in the present as in the past or future. It is taken as fiction by its hearers and enjoyed as such. Characters can be either humans, animals or even plants (Basconn and Boggs as cited by Manuel, 146). Examples of folktales are “Bata Mama and Bata Bahi (Bukidnon)”, “Pilandok and Bombola(Maranao),” “The Adventures of the Monkey and the Tortoise,” and “Big Belly and the Bully of the Forest (Manuvu).”
According to Dr. Amorita C. Rabuco, the folktale (as well as other narrative verbal tradition) is a form of expression employed by the people as a respond to their daily rigors of existence. Also, it reflects the rich and vivid imagination of the early Filipinos. Thus,

The creative force of a group of people gives birth to a literary art type, specifically, myths, legends and folktales. Constituting part of the vast spectrum of oral literature, these folk narratives possess a form distinct to their nature (Rabuco, 11).

The rich verbal tradition of the early Filipino somehow refutes the belief that the people were ignorant and barbaric before the Spaniards arrived in our country. As evident in the epics, the myths, the folktales, the riddles, the proverbs, and the songs, Filipinos had a culture that linked them to other Asian countries and cultures. It also proved that literature served as a filtering device for the Western culture that the colonizers brought over from Europe (Lumbera, 6).

Cruz, Isidoro M. Cultural Fictions: Narratives on Philippine Popular Culture, Politics, and Culture. University of San Agustin, Iloilo City: Libro Agustino, 2004.

Delos Santos, Alex C. The Rise of Kinaray-a: History and Anthology of Contemporary Literature. University of San Agustin, Iloilo City: Libro Agustino, 2003.

Lumbera, Bienvenido and Lumbera, Cynthia. Philippine Literature: A History and Anthology. Pasig City: Anvil Publishing, Inc., 2005.

Manuel, E. Arsenio. Filipino Myths and Folktales Treasury Stories. Pasig City: Anvil Publishing, Inc., 2007.

Rabuco, Amorita C. Hiligaynon Mythological Stories and Folktales: Analysis and Translation. Iloilo City: Libro Agustino, University of San Agustin, 2006.


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