The Classic Cast of Characters in Philippine Folklore


On November 29, HBO Asia announced that it will have engkantos at war in a miniseries helmed by Mikhail Red. Creatures from Filipino folklore, such as kapre, tikbalang, and tiyanak, will populate the miniseries. Up until the millennial generation, Filipinos have grown up hearing stories from their titas, titos, or kasambahays who swore to death they encountered one of these creatures.

For younger generations who have no idea what these creatures from Filipino folklore are, here is a guide on what they are and which ones to befriend in case you encounter one.


1| Tikbalang

You have probably heard someone say that when it’s raining while the sun is out, a tikbalang wedding is going on. This is just one of the beliefs surrounding this mythical creature. The tikbalang is one of the most prominent creatures in Filipino folklore. It is a humanoid creature with a body of a man, head of a horse, and exceedingly long legs, such that when it squats, its knees stand higher than its head.

According to Philippine folklore, the tikbalang is a malevolent creature that scares people at night and is sometimes responsible for killing livestock. The tikbalang likes to boast of its speed and likes to challenge people to races. If you happen to meet one, you can tame it so it becomes your lifelong servant. To tame one, you would need to ride on its back and hold onto it as it thrashes until it tires. That is when you know you have defeated the tikbalang. Another way to tame it is by plucking the three golden hairs on its mane. If you do this, the tikbalang will become your servant.


Origins of the Tikbalang

Many people assume that the tikbalang originated as folklore brought to the Philippines by Spanish conquistadors and they have good reason to believe so. The Spaniards brought horses to the country, and half-human, half-horse creatures such as the centaur and the minotaur have European origins. However, in 1589, a Spanish friar named Juan de Plasencia documented that there was already a mythical creature called Tigbalaang in the islands. This only means that pre-colonial Filipinos already had a rich concept of the tikbalang long before the Spaniards reinforced it.

According to The Aswang Project, a documentary that traces the roots of Filipino folklore, the tikbalang has Hindu roots. We know that the Philippines was indirectly influenced by India though Indonesia during the precolonial era. Haygriva is an avatar of the god Vishnu. The avatar has the head of a horse and a body of a man.

Indo-Aryan people venerated the horse for its speed and strength more than 2,000 years ago in South Asia. This veneration translated to many different cultures and beliefs, like in Cambodia, the version of Hayagriva was turned into a more malevolent avatar called Vadavamuka, who possesses a horse’s head and a man’s body. This belief could have easily influenced Filipino folklore and given birth to the tikbalang, the local version of Vadavamuka, through regional trade.


2| Duwende

In Filipino folklore, the duwende is a dwarf who possesses powerful magic that can be used to either help or harm humans. They are usually regarded as elementals who protect certain areas of their habitat, be it a mango tree, a mound of earth, or a patch of grass. If a person tramples or damages their protected areas, expect retribution from the duwende in the form of incurable ailments that doctors cannot diagnose and cure.

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The duwende is a social creature that likes to live in groups. We don’t like to make reference to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but there you have it. Filipino duwendes usually cohabit spaces in groups. 

The Friendly and Harmful Duwendes

There are two kinds of duwendes, depending on how friendly they are to humans. Itim na duwende, (black dwarf) as its name suggests, is a notoriously malevolent creature that casts maladies on anyone it encounters. If a person ever disrespects its domicile, it would not only inflict incurable tumors on someone but also kidnap the relatives of the offender.

All other colors of duwende (red, green, brown), may be malevolent but may also be good. Only the puting duwende (white dwarf) is inherently benevolent and would never harm humans.


3| Nuno sa Punso

Tabi, tabi po!” is a phrase repeatedly uttered when walking on a vacant lot or heavily forested area. The phrase, which literally translates to “please step aside,” is meant to make one's presence known so that a certain creature called nuno sa punso can step out of the way as one would blunder through the bushes.

Nuno sa punso literally translates to "ancestor on the ant mound." Nuno is the rootword of ninuno, while punso means ant mound. According to Filipino folklore, the nuno sa punso is a tiny old man who sits on top of a termite mound—his house. Anyone who tramples the mound will suffer incredible illness, ranging from painful growths on different parts of the body (depending on where you injured the nuno when you destroyed his domicile), inflammation, and even boils. Among the common punishment is enlargement of the offending body part (e.g., your hand will be inflamed if you used it to destroy the nuno’s home). Here’s to hoping that you never actually pee on a nuno.



4| Kapre

The kapre is one of the most recognizable creatures from Philippine folklore. He is a type of giant who lives in trees and likes to smoke cigars. In Filipino folklore, trees that are surrounded by fireflies are habitats of kapres and other mythological creatures.

According to The Aswang Project, the word kapre is believed to have come from the Arabic word kafir, which means non-Muslim. As the word traveled from South Asia all the way to Southeast Asia, it took many forms and meanings. When it reached the Philippines in the precolonial era, it came to refer to members of society who misbehaved. Later on, the Spanish would apply the word to an Ilocano mythological creature called pugot that has the same characteristics as the kapre: tall, dark, and smoking tobacco. According to Filipino folklore, the kapre is a terrifying spirit that could also be a guardian of your home. Just like the tikbalang, the kapre is a creature of the night, the time when he is most active.

Kapres are notorious for hounding women they are attracted to. He appears to them at night, seeking to make love. Like other creatures in Filipino folklore, the kapre has a host of powers, including casting a spell on humans so they will get lost or disoriented.


5| Tiyanak

Tiyanak is a type of aswang that pretends to be a baby. It transforms into a human baby and lurks in vacant areas and wails out loud, hoping that someone would take pity and pick it up. Once picked up, it transforms into the vile creature it really is: a monster with sharp teeth and claws. It attacks the human who has picked it up.

The tiyanak was immortalized in pop culture by the film with an eponymous title, Tiyanak, starring Janice de Belen. In the movie, De Belen adopts an abandoned newborn baby found by her sister. When her mother dies of mysterious circumstances, De Belen suspects that the baby is a tiyanak.

The Filipino folklore origin of the tiyanak is the matiyanak from Mindanao. The matiyanak is a vengeful spirit with a slit in her belly, from which you can see her dead unborn child. The matiyanak roams at night, seeking to rip out men’s penises so they can no longer impregnate anyone. She believes that she would have lived a happy life if she did not get pregnant.

The matiyanak story also leads us to believe that the tiyanak is actually the spirit of unborn children or those who were aborted.


6| Diwata

The diwata is a dryad of the forest. She is extremely beautiful. Typically, she is considered as a type of powerful fairy among the Tagalogs and a type of ancestral spirit among the Visayans. She is neutral or benevolent toward humans, whom she sometimes gifts with favors or protection.

The diwata is actually part of regional folklore that originated from India. Indonesian and Malaysian folklore have a similar creature called dewata, which was derived from the Hindu term devata or smaller deities.


Diwata in pop culture

In 2016, the Philippines launched and deployed into orbit the Diwata-1, the first microsatellite of the Philippines. It is also the first satellite designed and built by Filipinos. The Diwata-1 is meant to help Filipino scientists in scanning and mapping disaster-prone areas, and take high-resolution photos of aftermaths of natural disasters.


7| Aswang

The aswang is probably the most feared creature in Philippine folklore because of its aggressive nature and thirst for death. The aswang is a shape-shifting monster who can appear as any animal. For example, in the provinces, it typically appears as a wild boar or baboy-damo, but it can also appear as a dog, cat, large bird, or bat. In its original form, it takes a human form but with red eyes, sharp teeth, and a very long tongue.

There are many types of aswang, all of which are able to transform into various creatures. The typical aswang is a viscera sucker who preys on people by extending its long tongue through the roof of the house until it latches on a person or a pregnant woman’s belly, attempting to eat the baby inside the womb. The manananggal is one type of aswang who transforms itself from human form to monster form by separating its body’s upper half from the lower half, and sprouting wings. Asu-asuhan (literally dog mimicker) is a type of Philippine werewolf.


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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor-at-Large
Mario Alvaro Limos is features editor-at-large at Esquire Philippines, and heads the Lifestyle and Esports content of as its section editor. Email him at [email protected] and [email protected]
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