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The Enigmatic Philippine Origins of Trese's Santelmo

It is a phenomenon witnessed for hundreds of years.
IMAGE NETFLIX, SHUTTERSTOCK
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In Philippine folklore and mythology, a santelmo is a type of fire spirit that mesmerizes humans. Maximo Ramos describes the santelmo in his book published in 1990, The Creatures of Midnight

“Tagalogs, Visayans, and other Filipinos call it Santelmo," Ramos writes. "It is a ball of fire in fields and swamps. It bounces along and rolls away. It changes into a beast with fire in its mouth. Travelers and fishermen follow it at night. They walk and walk till they are tired out. Then they cannot find their way home. They walk into deep mud and thorny bushes. They get dizzy and become insane. They must reverse their clothes to send it away. Then they can find their way home.”

The word santelmo actually comes from “San Telmo,” a shortened version of “Apoy ni San Telmo,” which refers to St. Elmo Fire. It is a phenomenon that has been witnessed by European sailors for centuries. 

In Antonio Pigefetta’s chronicles of his journey with Ferdinand Magellan, he mentioned St. Elmo’s Fire at least six times, describing it as a “holy body” that appeared on the masts of the ship for several hours:

During those storms, the holy body, that is to say, St. Elmo, appeared to us many times, in light—among other times on an exceedingly dark night, with the brightness of a blazing torch, on the maintop, where he stayed for about two hours or more, to our consolation, for we were weeping,” Pigafetta wrote. 

St. Elmo's Fire Seen on a Plane's Cockpit Window

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St. Elmo’s fire is a mysterious “flame” that often appears atop the masts of ships like streaks of blue light surrounding the pole. On land, the bright blue flame would appear in canopies or above the trees near rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water. Generations of sailors refer to the flame as “St. Elmo’s Fire,” which has been passed to Philippine culture as “Santelmo.”

But there’s a problem: St. Elmo’s Fire looks nothing like the santelmo described in Philippine folklore and depicted in Budgette Tan’s Trese komiks. 

St. Elmo’s Fire is closely associated with thunderstorms. It is usually seen atop poles or trees near bodies of water and looks more like an electric phenomenon. On land, it would appear on bell towers during a storm. On the other hand, the Philippine santelmo has a distinct behavior and appearance—it looks like a floating orb usually seen in swamps and fields. It also occurs above the water’s surface and would lure fishermen to their deaths. 

What people don’t realize is that the bright blue orb known as “santelmo” could have been witnessed by Filipinos for hundreds of years even before the Spaniards ascribed it a name for Filipinos. The Ifugaos call it fanfanilag

Fanfanilag or Santelmo as Orbs of Light

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In Trese’s depiction of the fanfanilag or santelmo, we see that it is far from the Western idea of St. Elmo’s Fire. Santelmo’s character in Trese looks exactly like an orb of fire, just like how Ramos described it in Creatures of Midnight

Although St. Elmo’s Fire can be explained by a specific weather phenomenon related to thunderstorms, there is also a separate possible explanation for the folkloric origins of the Philippine santelmo or fanfanilag

Ignis Fatuus: Atmospheric Ghost Lights

Atmospheric ghost lights or ignis fatuus (Latin for “jumpy flame”) is different from St. Elmo’s Fire and is known by many other names around the world: It has been called friar’s lantern, hobby’s lantern, hinkypunk, jack-o-lantern, will-o-wisp, will-o-the-wisp, and more. 

Just like how Ramos described the santelmo in his book, Marie Trevelyan described the ignis fatuus in her book published in 1909, Folk-Lore and Folk-Stories of Wales, as a wisp that is said to mislead travelers by resembling a flickering lamp or lantern. 

Ignis fatuus has many very old folklore versions around the world. It is known as Naga fireballs in settlements around the Mekong River in Thailand. It is called St. Louis' Light in Saskatchewan, Canada. It is called the Spooklight in Southwestern Missouri, and Marfa Lights in Texas. In Bangladesh, they are called marsh lights. In all of these folklores about ignis fatuus, the lights are attributed to diwatas, spirits or supernatural apparitions. 

But what exactly causes these phenomena?

Fanfanilag or Santelmo: The Science Behind the Folklore

There is a mundane explanation for the glowing orbs of light floating or bouncing just above the swamp or field. It is no coincidence that many of the sightings of santelmo or ignis fatuus occur in marshes and swamps, where there is a toxic mixture of gases bubbling up the ground’s surface. 

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With the right conditions and mixtures of substances, a bubble of gases can produce light. Such natural phenomena called bioluminescence or chemiluminescence are typically caused when oxygen reacts with phosphine (PH3), diphosphane (P2H4), and methane (CH4) produced by decaying materials, such as animal carcasses, or even human bodies. 

That is why it is no coincidence that santelmo or fanfanilag is associated with a dead person’s spirit. A person’s decaying body in a marsh or swamp could have released methane that interacted with the oxygen and other gases in the atmosphere, producing a glowing bubble of light. 

Delving into the origins of Philippine folklore such as santelmo or fanfanilag offers a lot of surprises, especially when you find out it has parallel versions across many cultures around the world. Learning about its scientific explanations does not diminish the richness and magic of local folklore, but affirms that our ancestors did not make up tales for the sake of stories. And now that we know santelmo is a real thing, what wouldn’t you give up for the chance to witness such a mystical phenomenon?

Sources: 

Clark, Jordan. (2016). SANTELMO: Rekindling Philippine Mythology. Retrieved 14 June 2021.

Pigefetta, Antonio. (ca. 1525). Primo Viaggio Intornio Al Mundo. Retrieved 14 June 2021.

Trevelyan, Marie. (1909). Folk-Lore and Folk-Stories of Wales. p. 178. London: Elliot Stock. 

Ramos, Maximo. (1990). The Creatures of Midnight. Manila: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
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