Growing up in the Philippines, we never lacked for horror stories.
Philippine folklore is filled with mythical and mysterious beings. It also never lacked for scary monsters that gave us many sleepless nights.
Sigbin, wolf-like dogs with tails for heads that transform into seductresses. Kapre, dark giant beings that lived in old trees. Dwende, small elves the size of your thumb who punish you with ailments if you so much as step on their tiny homes in the forest.
But nothing is as hair-raising as the stories about the aswang – a shape-shifting evil entity that’s part vampire, part witch, part werewolf wrapped in one terrifying package.
If you’re not easily scared, read ahead. Otherwise, be warned. You might have trouble sleeping tonight.
Here’s everything you need to know about the scariest creature in Filipino folklore.
1. “Aswang” is an umbrella term for a variety of creatures.
According to Wikipedia:
“The term ‘aswang’ can be thought of as an aggregate term for a multitude of Filipino supernatural creatures. These creatures can be organized into five categories that parallel creatures from Western traditions. These categories are the vampire, the self-segmenting viscera sucker, the weredog, the witch, and the ghoul.”
The Philippines is an archipelago, which results in variation in language, cultures, and folklore. This is likely the reason why there are so many kinds of aswangs in many stories.
One thing is consistent, though:
Aswangs are thought to inflict fear and pain at night.
2. The different kinds of aswang.
There are different types of aswang throughout Filipino folklore:
- Tik-tik and Wak-wak – Named after the sounds they make while hunting, these types of aswangs shapeshift into large birds.
- Sigbin/Zigbin – Turns into something like a Tasmanian devil.
- Manananggal – A man-eating woman who severs its upper torso, splits itself in half, and can fly with bat-like wings.
Aswangs can also turn into pigs, goats, or even dogs.
3. They look like regular people during the day.
Unlike vampires, the aswang is not bothered by daylight. In fact, it’s a daywalker.
One of its powerful abilities is to appear like a normal person by day.
The aswang can walk amongst townspeople. Unbeknownst to anyone, it’s already hunting for its next kill.
According to Mythology.net:
“During the day, Aswangs look and act just like regular people. Although they are generally shy and somewhat reclusive, they can have jobs, friends, and even families.”
There’s a catch, however. Aswangs are least powerful during the day, so they’re unlikely to harm you. Come night-time, they’re ready to terrify.
4. They have superhuman strength.
The aswang’s superpowers are on full-force only at night. Once the sun goes down, their terrifying abilities are unstoppable.
Here are some of their abilities:
- Superhuman strength
- Ability to trick people with their vocal cords
- Ability to transform the appearance of other objects (they can turn a plant into a doppelganger of their victim so as not to get caught)
5. Hunting habits
Perhaps the most frightening thing about the aswang is that because of its superpowers, its hunting skills are so efficient and almost undetectable.
According to Mythology.net:
“The Aswang’s hunting prowess is almost as frightening as its ability to hide itself in plain sight. They often appear at funeral wakes or at the bedside of pregnant women to eat.”
The aswang has all the capabilities of a lethal and effective killer – it can shapeshift into different creatures and objects, appear like your average person by day, and has the super strength to overpower its victims.
It is no wonder it’s the most feared monster in Philippine mythology.
6. Their prey.
Aswangs have bloodlust, but their eating preference is much more specific. They prey on the helpless.
Aswang prefers sick people and pregnant women. But its favorite prey is children and fetuses.
According to Paranormal Fact Fandom:
“It favors children and unborn fetuses. Their favorite organs to eat are the liver and heart. The Aswang has even been said to suck out the viscera of their victims.”
7. Physical forms
In Philippine folklore, aswangs usually take the female form when they appear as humans. In some cases, they are even described as beautiful, with long black hair and angelic faces.
However, you can tell they are aswangs from their bloodshot eyes. If you can see below their long dresses, they walk with their feet backward.
They appear in a variety of unpredictable forms, including as animals.
According to Mythology.net:
“No matter which animal form it takes, an Aswang will differ from a regular animal in various disturbing ways. Most Aswangs have long, proboscis-like tongues, and are frequently described as walking with their feet backward. They have also been depicted as being so thin that they can hide behind bamboo posts.”
8. Determining their true identity.
An aswang may be hard to detect, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to tell their real identity.
Here are several signs:
- bloodshot eyes
- your reflection in their eyes is upside-down
- weakness for bright light
- disdain for noise
- Dogs, cats, and pigs with no tails are said to be aswang in animal form
- scratching noises heard from roofs and walls usually signal an aswang nearby.
For centuries, Filipinos have come up with countless countermeasures to protect themselves from the aswang.
Different countermeasures are practiced by different cultures, each depending on cultural, religious, and symbolic significance.
People use a special “anti-aswang” oil that is said to boil whenever an aswang is near. The oils are made from indigenous ingredients in the Philippines like coconut, vinegar, local spices – and even urine.
One way to prevent an aswang from entering the house is to reverse the ladder leading up to it.
Because aswangs are known to feast on fetuses and cause miscarriages for women, there are various countermeasures carried out to protect the wife and unborn child. The man of the house should walk naked around the house waving a bolo or a traditional Filipino sword. Additional bolos should also be interested between the spaces of the bamboo floors so the aswang’s tongue cannot penetrate from below the house.
10. Killing an aswang.
There are various ways you can kill an aswang:
- Fire – Manananggals, in particular, can be killed by fire.
- Knife wound – but nor just any knife wound. An aswang’s most vulnerable spot is in the middle of its back. Any other area can be healed by itself using its long tongue. A bolo is preferred and it must be buried in the ground after killing an aswang.
- Magical prayer – An aswang can be reduced to its weakest state by magical prayer. Once it’s at its most vulnerable, it must be cut to pieces, with each piece thrown away as far apart as possible.
- Sprikling salt on its lower body part – This applies to a manananggal, who leaves its lower body behind when it is hunting. If you’re lucky enough to find its lower half (which is really tricky, because they are good at hiding it), all you have to do is sprinke salt on it and watch the manananggal fall from the sky.
Like its stories, the history of the word aswang also varies depending on which area of the Philippines.
In the Filipino language, the term ‘aswang’ may have been derived from ‘aso-wang,’ meaning dog, because aswangs usually take the form of a dog.
In the region of Cebu, the term wak-wak is associated with the aswang. The term comes from the cry of a night bird wuk-wuk-wuk. The wakwak is the version of aswang that takes the form of a bird at night.
12. Historical Background
Stories of the mythical aswang date back as far as the 16th century, when the first Spanish conquerors recorded stories in writing.
Due to the Philippines’ archipelagic state, stories of the origin of the aswang vary from island to island. Here are some of the most notable ones:
Gugurang and Aswang
One particularly famous origin story comes from the Bicol region. It tells of the story of the gods Gugurang and Aswang. The tale is in the usual good-vs-evil narrative.
According to Wikipedia:
“The explorers noted that of all the monsters in their folklore, the Aswang was the most feared by native people. One of the most famous origins of the term aswang came from the aswang tradition in the Bicol region during the sixteenth century.
“The Bicolanos believed in the God named Gugurang, who was the good God that acted as the beneficent of their region, the defender and guardian of their homes, and their protector against the evil of the God Asuang.
“The God Asuang, however, was the evil God and rival, who attempted to always cause harm to Gugurang and found pleasure in doing so. Gugurang was always praised by the Bicolanos, and Asuang shunned and cursed.”
The Malaysian Penanggal
According to Filipino historian Professor Anthony Lim, the legend of the aswang have a scientific and sociological background.
When the Malay people migrated to the Philippines in the 13th century, they brought with them their own set of culture and supernatural beliefs.
In Malaysian folklore, the Penanggal holds many similiraties to the aswang.
According to the Paranormal Guide:
“During the day the Penanggalan will appear as a normal woman, but when darkness falls her head will detach from the body, trailing her internal organs behind her, as she hunts for food.
The Penanggalan will seek the homes of pregnant women, waiting for their child to come into the world, then she will strike with a long, invisible tongue, to feed on the blood of the newborn and the mother.”
Avid historians believe that the tales of Aswang were simply twisted pre-colonial proaganda by Philippines’ Spanish colonizers.
The Spaniards who came to Philippines were intent on spreading their Christian faith and values and tried they hardest to squash any beliefs or local practices that was “un-Christian-like.”
A babaylan was a female spiritual leader in the pre-colonial Filipino community. She was an important figure who was responsible for healing the sick and communicating with the spirits.
When the Spaniards came, they spread propaganda attaching the stories of aswang to the babaylan’s practices.
Bryan Argos, the curator of the Roxas Museum, adds:
“The people would go to the babaylan for treatment of diseases. So the Spaniards, in order to get clients for their modern medicine, attached evil to the babaylan.”
The Spanish also used the myth of the aswang to suppress political dissent.
The town of Capiz was particularly unwelcoming to the Spaniards, that even women led protests against them.
“Lots of upheavals happened in the town of Capiz.
“Women led these attacks, usually at night, because they had no modern weapons. The Spaniards then told the natives that the women were evil, that they performed magical acts, and that these women were aswang. The natives avoided these women, and now they had no one to join their upheavals.”
13. Why is the aswang always female?
Why is it that the aswang is always seen as a female figure?
According to psychologist Leo Deux Fis dela Cruz, it’s because Filipino culture always maintained women to be dainty and quiet. Strong women are deemed unnatural. They are also a threat to the Spanish religious authority.
“In human behavior, when people perceive that you act differently or strangely, they often think there’s something wrong with you.
“This is the reason why people are often perceived as aswang.”
Clifford Sorita adds:
“Our image of a woman is that she’s collected. So when we see strength from a woman, it’s not seen as ordinary in Filipino culture, that’s why they’re labeled as aswangs.”
The Aswang Today
Today, the stories of the aswang no longer inflict as much fear as it used to.
However, in the most rural parts of the Philippines, many Filipinos are still convinced of its existence. And they still perform rituals or carry defenses against the aswang.
There are specific areas in the Philippines that are infamously associated with the aswang.
Capiz, located in the Western Visayas region has been dubbed as the “hometown” of the aswang.
The town has been linked to the aswang for a long time, with its long history against the Spaniards playing a huge part. It has been the center of national and international interest. People would even go there to “look” for aswangs.
Origins – Cultural Significance
If truly unpacked, the origins of aswang, however, may be a bit closer to home.
For some scholars, the Aswang may simply be a representation of the opposite values Filipinos hold dear.
According to Wikipedia:
“Aswangs are traditionally described as one-dimensional monsters and inherently evil by nature with no explicable motives beyond harming and devouring other creatures. Their overtly evil behaviour may be described as an inversion of traditional Filipino values.
“Traditional aswangs have no bias when selecting their prey and will not hesitate to target their own kin: an inversion of the traditional Filipino value of strong kinship and family closeness. Aswangs are described to be unclean and favor raw human meat to contrast the value of cleanliness and the cooked, spiced, and flavourful food found in traditional Filipino culture.”
Perhaps this is why the stories of aswang are so ingrained in Filipino children’s childhoods. It’s a way of teaching young children of the values the country prides itself in. And the reason why, even to this day, it continues to be an integral albeit taken-for-granted part of the Filipino way of life.