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How a Person becomes and Aswang; and How to Spot one in a Crowd According to a 1924 Paper

You will probably struggle to find a Filipino who has never heard of the aswang, as indeed stories about it are standard fare to scare children into going to sleep or to admonish them against misbehaving or straying too far from the homestead. In the same breath, you will also likely struggle to find a Filipino who has actually come face to face with an aswang, or at the very least give a very definitive description of what one looks like.

After all, the aswang is among the mythical creatures considered part and parcel of Philippine folklore. A 1924 Anthropology paper1 written by one Vicente M. Perez gives some very definitive answers as to what the aswang is/was. In the paper, Perez wrote a disclaimer limiting the cope of his paper to beliefs on the asuang2 in his hometown of Pototan in Iloilo Province. Batangueños and other cultures, however, will find the information he provided familiar and even enlightening.

First of all, Perez described the asuang as “a man eating person, and as such, he or she has powers, always supernatural, by which he or she performs his or her supernatural acts.” Thus, he proposed, it was probably more correct that the asuang was more the witch in the western context than a mere cannibal.

But how does a person become an asuang in the first place? Perez wrote, “…a man in tasting human flesh for the first time is so excited, so fascinated and so pleased with the experience that he soon feels that excessively burning desire to eat and crave for more food (human flesh).”

A man who married an asuang, Perez went on, was almost certain to become an asuang himself unless “his nature and individuality are so strong that those of his wife cannot overcome them.” He also implicitly warned that people ought to know their friends well and to be careful about sleeping with them. A person who was secretly an asuang could make his friends become like him by spitting into their ears while they slept.

He also warned against receiving food from friends because those who were asuang in secret could give away food laced with human flesh. Eating this food would instantly turn anyone into an asuang. Perez noted that asuangs sometimes resorted to trickery to create other asuangs “because of the desire for the continuation of their art or power, so they always leave heirs before they die.”

The asuang had to feed, i.e. eat human flesh. Sometimes, he “hunted” for an unsuspecting prey. Perez wrote, “He may waylay a person, wrestle with him and if he defeats him, he taps the head of the victim with his palm, thus taking away his consciousness. He then carries the man home and prepare his dinner.”

Alternatively, the asuang can make a likeness or replica of his target from reeds or banana stem, tap its forehead as he would the original person. The latter would gradually weaken and eventually die. Presumably, the asuang would dig up the dead man’s grave and feed on it.

But how do you spot the asuang in a crowd? Perez gave some of its physical descriptions, “any asuang may either be a man or a woman. They often are characterized by oily and slippery hair and body, indomitable strength of will and body and quick darting eyes. They live just ordinary beings do, but it is said that when they lack food their desire to kill their fellow men becomes so strong that they right away seek for their victims, using every means that only asuangs know. Sometimes, their eyes are described as red like those of a drunkard. They do not look at people straight in the eye.”

Headaches and stomach aches were frequently ascribed to the asuang, whereupon relatives of the afflicted would take them to what Perez described as the herbalist, presumably the “albularyo” or “manggagamot” as we know them to be in the Tagalog region.

The herbalist, he wrote, was always “ready to cure by the power of his arts, which they claim no one can acquire or inherit unless a particularly gifted individual is favored by the spirits. The herbalist then performs rituals to rid the afflicted of what he said were the influences of the asuang.

[Footnote: The childhood stories I myself used to hear in Batangas when I was a small boy warned about eating human liver rather than human flesh in a general sense. Perez’s likening of the asuang to a witch is new to me; and indeed, some of the powers he described seemed a lot like those a Tagalog would ascribe to a “mangkukulam.” Perez’s description of the asuang’s physical characteristics are familiar, although Tagalogs will probably also mention its itchiness of skin and frequent scratching. Curiously, Perez made no mention of any shapeshifting abilities, although he did say that asuangs were always attended by or helped by his pets.]

Notes and references:
1The Asuang,” by Vicente M. Perez, published 1924, part of the H. Otley-Beyer Collection of the National Library of the Philippines Digital Collections.
2 A national language commission was not established until 1937, so local language spelling was “Hispanized” before this. Hence, aswang was spelled as asuang.

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