Bakunawa and Laho: Eclipse and the snake in the sky

September 17, 2009 by  
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By Dante L. Ambrosio, UP Folklorists
(Edited by Juan V. Sarmiento Jr., Talk of the Town)
(Editor’s Note: A penumbral lunar eclipse will be visible in the Philippines tomorrow. It is the second eclipse so far in 2009, which has been declared the International Year of Astronomy to mark the 400th year of Galileo’s first astronomical observation through a telescope.
The third week of February is National Astronomy Week.
On Jan. 26, Filipinos saw a partial solar eclipse. Despite the scientific explanation, the belief that a giant snake swallows the sun or the moon during an eclipse is still prevalent in the country, according to a group of folklorists.)
ANIMALS have, since time immemorial, influenced the way people think and act. One such animal is the snake or the mythical dragon. Among Filipino ethnic groups there are, at least, three snakes in the sky which continue to influence their lives.
They associate them with two astronomical phenomena—an eclipse (solar and lunar) and the Milky Way. They respond to these phenomena according to how they comprehend them in relation to the snake or dragon.
The three snakes are naga of the Maranaos, Maguindanaos and Samas, bakunawa of the Bisayas and Bikolanos, and laho of the Tagalogs.
From what I have gathered, laho is not associated with the Milky Way. So is naga with an eclipse. Only bakunawa is associated with eclipses and our galaxy.
Anxiety, fear
Unlike other phenomena in the sky, which have become more or less regular fixtures to onlookers, an eclipse seems an intrusion for its infrequent occurrence. So rare that ancient Filipinos were most often awed when it happened. It occurs without warning, so the anxiety and fear are magnified.
Its occurrence brings concern and anxiety to people not used to losing their source of light or seeing the moon slowly turn red. They still fear the loss of light even at a time when the occurrence has already been explained and routinely predicted by science.
Modern science
To modern science, a solar eclipse occurs when the moon goes between the sun and the earth and the moon’s shadow falls on the part of the earth where the eclipse is seen.
At other times, it is the earth that goes between the sun and the moon. When the earth’s shadow falls on the moon, a lunar eclipse occurs. Depending on the condition of the earth’s atmosphere, the full moon may become almost invisible as were the cases during the two years after the Mt. Pinatubo eruptions in 1991. Or it may become copper red, leading to a belief that the moon is bleeding.
Since a solar eclipse is rarer than a lunar eclipse, it is the latter that receives so much documentation. The ancient Tagalogs called the eclipse laho. So they say, “naglaho ang araw o buwan (the sun or the moon vanished).”
But the sun or the moon does not just vanish during an eclipse. They are eaten by a snake which, of course, is not an ordinary snake having a sun or a moon for a snack. The Tagalogs, according to Antoon Postma in 1997, say “cqinain nang Laho ang bouan” or “masaquit ang paglamon nang Laho sa bouan.” But when the moon returns to its full glory, they say, “inoloua nang Laho ang bouan.”
The same attribution could be traced back through the past centuries. Fr. Francisco de San Antonio in his Tagalog vocabulary of 1620 said, “Linamon pala ng laho ang bouan kaya nangamarilim.”
Fr. Tomas Ortiz, who died in 1742, reported that the Tagalogs would say, “Linamon laho bouan” when there was a lunar eclipse. It was also written in the Tagalog vocabulary compiled by Fr. Juan de Noceda and Pedro de Sanlucar and republished in 1860 that they said, “Quinain nang laho ang buan: linamon mandin nang laho.”
Hindu-Buddhist elements
One of the Hindu-Buddhist elements that entered the Malay world long, long ago is laho. Aside from the Tagalogs, the Tausugs of Sulu and the Samas of Tawi-tawi call an eclipse lahu and the Pampangos, lauo. The Bataks of Sumatra see läu as the cause of an eclipse though they have quite a different story for this. The solar eclipses that occurred in Asia in 1988 and 1995 were said to have been caused by rahu eating the sun (See Sky & Telescope’s cover.).
But what is laho or rahu? In one version of an Indian myth, Rahu is a demon who chases after the sun and the moon intent on swallowing them. It was the sun and the moon which frustrated Rahu’s attempt at immortality. Vishnu cut off its head and two arms after learning from the sun and the moon that it drank the potion that makes one immortal. Since the drinking was not completed, only the body died while the head and the tail became immortal. Since then, it has chased the sun and the moon to take revenge. When Rahu catches either one, an eclipse occurs.
But there is another snake that swallows the sun or the moon during an eclipse. To the ancient Bisayas, according to Fr. Alonso de Mentrida in 1637, the large animal that swallowed the sun and the moon was Bacunaua. This was the “serpent that swallows the moon…, binacunauahan ang bulan.”
As with laho, so it was with bakunawa—the attribution continued through time. To Fr. Ignacio Alcina who wrote in 1668, the Bisayas called the eclipse of the sun and the moon bacunawa because a big snake by this name swallowed the moon. In Fr. Juan Felix de Encarnacion’s Cebuano dictionary of 1885, the eclipse of the sun and moon was called bakunawa. In his 1935 Bisaya dictionary, John Kaufmann defined bakunawa as a serpent or dragon that eats the moon and is exactly the term for the eclipse of the sun and the moon.
Google name
Alfred McCoy took note of the continuing belief in bakunawa in southern Panay as a snake that causes the eclipse based on Mentrida and Kaufmann’s explanation that spanned almost 300 years. Bakunawa is a common enough name among the Bisayas. Google it and a number of persons bearing the name appears.
And yet McCoy found no explanation to account for the name. It seems that the term laho jumped over central Philippines to find a niche among the Tagalogs and the Pampangos and none among the Bisayas.
Readers’ help
He thought that, perhaps, the name came from the manner the snake was depicted in the drawings of the 20th century. It is a bent snake, a bakun-sawa and, thus, bakunawa. Perhaps, readers may illuminate us on this matter.
In the lunar eclipse seen in Cebu on July 26, 1934, an old man said bakonaoa was swallowing the moon: “It is a crocodile with seven heads; no, it looks more of a python than a crocodile. It is a very large monster, so large it only takes one bite to swallow the moon.”
The Bikolanos, according to Fr. Marcos de Lisboa in his 1865 Bicol vocabulary, also calls the animal that swallow the moon Baconaua. It is a rather strange dragon that swallows the moon during an eclipse, according to Malcolm Mintz in 1971.
I do not have a picture of the Tagalog laho, but I have photos of the Bisaya and Bikolano bakunawa. According to Jose Calleja Reyes, he got his from an old notebook of Bikol rituals. But this is the very picture that is annually published by the “Kalendaryong Bikol” and the “Almanaque Panayanhon,” and was also depicted in the Mansueto Porras’ “Signosan” in 1919.
“Signosan” used a different picture of bakunawa in its presentation of the four changes in its orientation during the year. Bakunawa lies straight, not bent, in two of the pictures while its tail is coiled in two different ways in the other two. The pictures are also different in the number of fins in its body, a characteristic not seen in the pictures in “Kalendario” and “Almanaque.” Aside from this, the bakunawa in Signosan are in boxes numbered from 1 to 16. In all the pictures, bakunawa has a crown with a cross added later on its head.
While I am talking here of the bakunawas of the “Almanaque,” “Kalendario” and “Signosan” and relating these to the discussion on eclipse, the three documents did not mention the relation of their bakunawas to an eclipse. From the description of the rotation throughout the year and the practical use of their bakunawas, one may surmise that these have more in common with the snake/dragon naga and the Milky Way.
Other causes
Laho and bakunawa are the snakes of our myths. There are times when some say it is a dragon or a crocodile. But the snake, the crocodile and the dragon are not too far removed from each other by how they are regarded and depicted by the ancients.
To other groups, none of the three is the cause of the eclipse. To some Kalingas, it is the evil spirit ambayya-uson, which is the closest rival of the sun that takes revenge on the moon and causes a lunar eclipse. To other Kalingas, the demon dumanig possesses the moon which in turn eats its husband, the sun, and causes an eclipse.
A giant crab called tambanokawa is, to some Bagobos, the one responsible for swallowing the moon. To other Bagobos, the giant bird Minokawa is the culprit. It is as big as Negros or Bohol and has a steel beak and claws. To the Manobos, a big tarantula (tambanakaua) eats the moon.
The Maranaos call an eclipse garahana. It is the result of arimaonga (a big lion) swallowing the sun or the moon. There is already an element of Islam in Abdullah Madale’s account of the cause of eclipses for the Maranaos. He said the big lion swallowed the girl moon and the angels.
Make noise
What do these groups do when there is an eclipse? They usually create a lot of noise to scare away the snake into letting go of either the sun or the moon.
To Alcina, the Bisayas scare away bacunawa by striking at their lusong and floors. Ortiz said, the Indios came out of their houses and sounded their chimes and panastanes to save the moon from the dragon or crocodile.
The Augustinians remarked that the natives became sad during an eclipse. The dragon might carry away the sun or the moon and they would lose all their light. For this not to happen, they made noises and shouted at the dragon and tried to slay it with their bows and arrows. They thought the dragon was afraid of the noise. Fr. Pablo Cavalleria reported in 1886 that the same was true for the Moros of Pasanjan, Basilan who produced noise with their culintingan.
To the Manobos when the big tarantula eats the moon, the men come out of their houses and shoot it with their arrows, hit at the trees with their hatchets, sound their drums and gongs, and create noises with their cans and horns. They dance and shout at the monster: “Release our moon or you will be hit by our arrows.”
The women, on the other hand, stick pins or pointed sticks on the walls of their houses in the direction of the monster. If the moon is not released, they believed the sun will not shine and then bad spirits will reign in darkness and their clothes will turn into snakes.
A.C. Abear described the reaction of the people of Argao, Cebu when news spread that there will be a lunar eclipse in 1934. He said: “I noticed some of them preparing for the event. They took out their old tambulis, picked from the garbage rusted oil and petroleum tin cans, cut bamboo which they cut at one end to make a pamalakpak and gathered other things that they can create sound with.”
When the eclipse occurred, “the sound of the tambuli which was long and deafening overwhelmed the noise created by the banging of tin cans and the palakpak of the bamboos. Shrill is the cry of an old woman: ‘I-uli ang among bulan! I-uli ang among bulan!’ (Return our moon! Return our moon!)”
But as the snake swallowed the moon, the latter underwent changes. An old man said: “See, the moon is getting redder. It is bathing in its own blood … but the bakonaoa is letting go of it!”
This belief—that laho and bakunawa swallow the sun and the moon—and this reaction—making a lot of noise—is still prevalent to this day not only in the Philippines but also in the rest of Asia.
Pregnant women
The belief that fetuses are affected by eclipses is widespread. Among the Tagalogs and Ilokanos, pregnant women are not allowed to look at the sun or the moon or go down the house during an eclipse, otherwise the child would lose its mind or have mental illness.
They will also develop black spots on their skin while still in the womb during an eclipse, according to the Yakans, Tausugs and Samas of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi. To avoid this, the Yakans perform the ritual pandibulan (paygu’ bulan to the Tausugs and Samas or moon bathing). The imam seats the woman on a lusong as he bathes her. A frying pan with the soiled side is held over her head as he prays. Instead of sticking to the fetus, the black spots from the moon will then stick to the bottom of the pan, which is already black with use.
In the Tawi-tawi solar eclipse of October 1995, various beliefs and fears were observed and heard by this writer other than the ritual bathing of pregnant women.
Some said the sun would be swallowed by a snake or dragon or be eaten by the giant bird Sumayang Garula. Others said the air needed for breathing would be sucked up and people would die; others still believed that the water would rise 12 feet and drown and destroy the houses, while the lower sections of the islands would be flooded. So the better thing to do was to make noises, the best of which was the sound produced by rubbing the fingernails. Or, solemnly pray so things would pass and no harm or injury would befall anyone.
Some weeks before the Tawi-tawi eclipse, billboards were set up on posts and coconut trees by teachers and Muslim women. The women stressed what the Koran says—that the eclipse is a natural phenomenon and, thus, a creation of Allah. The teachers, on the other hand, propagated its scientific explanation. Still, the traditional belief and fear about the eclipse linger.
(Dante L. Ambrosio is a professor at the Department of History of the University of the Philippines-Diliman)

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:34:00 02/08/2009

Filed Under: Culture (general), Science (general)



One Comment on "Bakunawa and Laho: Eclipse and the snake in the sky"

  1. Thordnel on Mon, 12th Mar 2012 4:17 PM 

    Thank you.

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