‘Tabi tabi po!’ Creatures from Philippine Mythology
It is an old Filipino tradition to excuse oneself when in someone else’s home, even those of the supernatural.
Roughly translating to “excuse me,” saying “tabi tabi po” is a polite way to request spirits to move to the side. In doing so, we pay respect by acknowledging their existence, avoiding accidents or infringing on their territory.
It is believed if a person does get on their bad side, unexplainable mishaps or illnesses may follow them until they take steps to pacify the offended beings.
Where did “tabi tabi po” come from?
It’s hard to say when or where “tabi tabi po” definitively originated. According to an academic study by Paolo Vicerra and Jem Javier, Filipino societies (perhaps, more so in the pre-colonial period) treated spirits and supernatural beings as their equal or of even greater rank because of their power over people and communities.
“The relationship between humans and spirits is governed by explicit rules, primarily regarding land use. Humans must first ask their permission before cutting down, their tree-abodes, burning their mountains, or destroying their anthills. In order to plant or build on their territory, or even to pass through it, one has to recite a formula or perform a ritual. According to native theory, failure to observe these rules will result in physiological illness, insanity, or death,” Maximo Ramos wrote in his book, The Aswangsyncrasy in Philippine Folklore, with Illustrative Accounts in Vernacular Texts and Translations.
As the population grew along with colonisation, urbanisation and modernisation, this deep sense of respect is still reflected in our latent belief that particular spaces in nature are abodes and territories of unseen spirits. It also signifies how we Filipinos consider ourselves as simple co-denizens of a place, together with the environment and supernatural creatures.
“Respect is projected by performing a ritual in which the natural environment is central,” Vicerra and Javier assert.
That’s how the “tabi-tabi po” came about and persisted.
The tradition of “tabi-tabi po,” despite being rooted in the idea of respecting nature and its governing forces, comes with the undertone of fear: for the consequences you may suffer and the creatures themselves. Our mythology is full of spirits and beings that can be frightening, to say the least.
Here are some of them:
A human by day, a ravenous animal or misshapen beast by night craving for human flesh, blood, and organs. They are said to live amongst people, aloof and isolated. They are also said to be usually attractive in their daylight form. There are many kinds of aswang, and it can take an avian, porcine, feline, canine or humanoid form.
This dark-skinned giant is well-known in the Philippines as a cigar-smoking tree dweller. Usually docile, the kapre can shapeshift into animals, all in big sizes and has a penchant for watching people. They’re rarely known to be malicious, but occasionally, they enjoy shocking humans by growing larger then shrinking, in front of them.
A self-segmenting viscera sucker, the manananggal can separate its torso from its lower limbs, usually at the waist, whenever night falls and it’s a full moon. It also grows fangs, bat-like wings, and talon-sharp nails and flies to the roof of its intended victim’s house. Its lower half is left stationary and hidden, usually near a banana tree since its legs and feet looks similar to the tree.
Using its long tongue, it can suck the blood of an unborn child from a mother’s womb. It also preys on bachelors, marrying them to get closer to them and moving away after killing them.
A vengeful witch, the mangkukulam can inflict harm on those who hurt him or her, whether it’s intentional or not. Portrayed as malicious, even those who just looks at them the wrong way can incur the wrath of the mangkukulam. They curse their victims using “kulam” or Filipino folk magic, often employing fire, earth, spices, herbs, candles, charms, spells, potions, among others.
They usually live in abandoned houses and cannot look people in the eye to help hide their cat-like or reptilian-like eyes—more noticeable when sunlight hits them.
Essentially a horse demon, this hairy half-human, half horse creature also lives in trees, but it isn’t as docile as the kapre. It deceives innocent travellers by taking the form of a close relative or friend and leads them astray. Taking on a familiar human image is necessary for causing trouble; its true form (extremely long hind legs, horse head with exposed teeth and harsh bloodshot eyes) can drive people insane.
When a rainshower happens while it’s sunny, Filipinos say that a tikbalang is getting married.
The dwende is a dwarf-like creature that resides under a small mound of soil. It is also called “nuno sa punso,” which literally means ancestor in the anthill. Oftentimes, they are depicted as tiny, old men with long beards — and more grumpy than mischievous.
Generally friendly to good humans, they play music, give information and warnings, and even offer gifts to those who have their favour. Anyone that angers them, hurts their kind or disturbs their dwelling place, even unwittingly—“tabi tabi po” especially applies to them—will mysteriously face an illness that can only be cured after a ritual to appease the dwende is performed.
If you hear a baby crying in the forest where it shouldn’t be, then you better ignore it, wear your shirt inside out and carry on. The cries may be coming from the tiyanak pretending to be an abandoned baby to lure and mislead travellers—who are subsequently attacked and eaten. According to folklore, the demon-child’s malicious laughter could be heard in the forest at night.
While the term can encompass all supernatural beings dwelling in nature (meaning that could include some of the creatures mentioned earlier), the engkanto and engkantada are usually good nature spirits that help humans. Literally meaning “enchanted,” these spirits are not inclined towards malice or trickery. These diwata, as they’re also called, serve as the guardians of land and water and often help other living creatures, including humans.
Their blessing and friendship will mean a well-off life while making them an adversary will bring you misfortune and bad luck.
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While some of these spirits and creatures are evil, there are many that are neutral or even good and only retaliate when they are disrespected or aggravated in some way. A tradition like “tabi tabi po” teaches more than belief in the mystical but the basic tenets of kindness and respect, both so deeply embedded in the Filipino culture.
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Where can I learn more?
The Aswang Project has a growing comprehensive content on our vast Philippine mythology, from ancient deities to mythical creatures and folklores from thousands of our islands. “The Lost Journal of Alejandro Pardo: Creatures & Beasts of Philippine Folklore” and “101 Kagila-Gilalas na Nilalang” are also full of interesting information and illustrations on our ancient beings and creatures.