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The Tiyanak: Comparing Beliefs Acquired in Batangas to those in Bulacan in 1922

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As a little boy growing up in the sixties when Batangas was so much more rural and the nights were a lot quieter, the sound of a baby crying outside used to make my heart pound with fear. Instantly racing through my mind would be thoughts of – please God no! – the tiyanak!

Never mind that it was probably one of the neighbors’ newborn crying. In the quiet of the night, in an era when the sound the cricket made or the croaking of a frog could seem deafening, the sound of a baby crying many houses away could seem like it was just outside one’s window.

I will describe the tiyanak as I understood it then, partly from tales children told each other and partly from those black and white movies I must have watched in my childhood. If one heard a baby crying outdoors, it was said, one must be careful about going outdoors to investigate.

It could, indeed, be just a baby whose parents did not want it and left it in a basket outside somebody’s home in the hope the owners would take pity, take the baby in and bring it up as their own.

Or the angelic face of the baby could suddenly shape-shift into an ugly demonic figure with sharp teeth – the tiyanak showing itself to the hapless human, successful as it was in its desire to terrify people. But what was the tiyanak?

From my understanding, mostly from word-of-mouth tales children told each other, the tiyanak was the spirit of an aborted fetus which for reasons I never discovered became demonic. It did not really harm people beyond, of course, attempting to terrify them. At least, this was from my own understanding.

A 1922 paper entitled “The Tianak and the Matanda1,” written by one Melanio R. Paulino and part of the Henry Otley Beyer Collection at the National Library of the Philippines Digital Collections, offers different insights on the tiyanak that I had not previously heard of. The paper talked about the tiyanak as it was probably understood in Bulacan.

The tianak/tianac, according to Paulino, was a spirit that lived “in trees, bamboo groves and anthills.” This is already new to me. Trees and bamboos, to my mind, were the domains of the tikbalang, the half-beast half-human Filipino folkloric creature. The anthill, meanwhile, was where one found the nuno sa punso, a type of elf.

The tianak, Paulino went on, generally found delight in making people lose their way. Although they were spirits and were generally not visible to humans, sometimes they would manifest themselves “by taking the form of pigs, dogs, cats, ladies and old persons.” In my understanding of Filipino folkloric creatures, leading people around in circles was a favorite prank also of the tikbalang.

Shape-shifting to take the forms or animals, meanwhile, I had always understood to be an ability of the aswang, another Filipino folkloric creature. Note that Paulino did not include among the forms that the tiyanak supposedly took that of a newly-born child.

Perhaps the most fascinating of Paulino’s description of the tiyanak was that it was “a blessed creature” that apart from playing pranks on people could also be put to good use if one could find a way to secure its good will. “Some people believe,” he wrote, “that the tianak may take care of their fields and animals especially the carabaos.”

When an individual had disappeared and was believed to have been gotten lost due to a tiyanak prank, that person’s relatives and friends went to the place where he or she was last spotted and started beating on their drums. The sound of the drums, Paulino wrote, was pleasing to the tiyanak and could coax it into showing the missing individual the way back.

Unless, however, the tiyanak was for some reason displeased with the appearance of the individual or had taken a fancy towards him or her. In these cases, the tiyanak took the individual away and fed it all sorts of mysterious foodstuffs. Now this part, I had always associated with the engkanto, a fairy or some sort of elemental spirit.

It is interesting to note that while Wikipedia describes the tiyanak as I have always understood it, i.e. able “to take the form of a newborn baby,” it also describes it as “a vampiric creature.” This part I have not heard before. The same description, however, agrees with Paulino in that the tiyanak takes “malevolent delight in leading travelers astray…2

What we can take from all these is that folkloric beliefs even about familiar things can vary from one region to another. Wikipedia, for instance, states that in Pampanga, the tiyanak is “nut brown” individual who floats in the air rather than walk on the ground and has a large nose, wide mouth large fierce eyes and a sharp voice.

Even in Batangas, there are likely different beliefs depending on the locality. The same Wikipedia article, albeit not annotated, states that tiyanaks are “regular babies who were lost in the wild. They are believed to be babies who died without a name, aborted or otherwise. It also is said that when the cry of a tiyanak sounds distant, one is actually nearby, and conversely if the cry sounds near, the tiyanak is actually distant.”

Notes and references:
1 “The Tianak and the Matanda,” by Melanio R. Paulino, published 1922, online at the H Otley Beyer Collection of the National Library of the Philippines.
2Tiyanak,” Wikipedia.

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