When I was a kid, my mother used to tell me a lot of superstitious beliefs that my grandma used to say to her. I didn’t really given it much thought, but now that I’m old enough, I realized that these kinds of beliefs are really weird and doesn’t make any sense at all. But then, they say that every belief is superstition unless it is proved. There is no country in the world, where there is no superstition. Every tradition and culture is based on superstition.
The Philippines is a country with a long history of colonization, strongly influencing its culture and traditions. This impact extends well beyond language and food and into the many superstitions that locals take to heart. With an Animist, pre-colonial past with, likely Hindu-Buddhist influences, followed by a major conversion into Christianity, the Philippines claims ownership of a very interesting, diverse mix of beliefs.
Owing to its strategic location in Asia, the Philippines has seen many settlers and visitors from other places even before the advent of written history. Naturally, these different peoples would also carry with them their unusual beliefs and custom relating to occurrences that they could not explain at the time. These beliefs would then be passed down to their descendants through oral or written tradition.
Historians generally agree that aside from the original main settlers (the Negritos, the Indonesians, and the Malays), the biggest influences of Filipino superstitions would be the Indians, the Chinese, the Spanish, and the Arabs to a lesser extent. This inter-mixing of different beliefs is the reason why we have so many superstitions in the country even today.
Here are some of the weird superstitious beliefs in the Philippines:
Respect the elementals
Filipino folklore is rich with a variety of elementals, from giants smoking tobacco, to small, grumpy, old men living in anthills. Stories of these creatures fill the childhoods of many Filipino children, inciting both intrigue and fear. Many superstitions still surround the beliefs in such creatures today. When walking in areas that are empty or undisturbed, one should say “Tabi-tabi po” or excuse me. Tabi-tabi po has also be translated as “move to the side, sir”. This is common courtesy to the creatures living in the area. It is believed you may possibly offend a spirit if you spit on the ground, urinate on the ground, walk near a dirt mound, pass under (or near) a balete tree, bathe or cross through (or near) water, step on a rock, or move through tall grass. If you did not pay respect to them the beings may inflict upon you some illness, fever, rash or other malady.
The reason behind this is that 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.
I remember when I was a kid, while we were on our way to one of our relative’s place, I asked my mother if we could stop so I can pee because I can’t hold it any longer. We halted at a place with a lot of trees and my mother said “bari-bari apo” which is an Ilocano (dialect) term for tabi-tabi po.
Be careful when showing fondness over babies
It’s difficult to restrain from playing with cute babies or complimenting their parents on their adorable features, but doing so in the Philippines is believed by some, to be a potential cause of illness. Referred to as either “usog” or “bati”, this superstition says that when a person with strong energy greets a child, the child may soon after suffer from unexplainable discomfort. This is why, especially in the countryside, older people know to say “pwera usog” when showing fondness over children. This is meant to counter any usog that may have happened otherwise. If this isn’t said, and parents attribute certain maladies of their children to usog, they may ask the greeter to smear their saliva on the suffering child’s forehead as a cure. This superstition can be closely related to jinx.
Surprisingly, there was a possible scientific explanation for this. A theory by Kristina Palacio explains usog in terms of child distress that leads to greater susceptibility to illness and diseases. There are observations that a stranger (or a newcomer or even a visiting relative) especially someone with a strong personality (physically big, boisterous, has strong smell, domineering, etc.) may easily distress a child. Thus, the child is said to be “overpowered” or nauusog and thus may feel afraid, develop fever, get sick, etc.
In usog, the child’s distress is the consequence of the child’s failure to adapt to change. It is, in medical terms, the consequence of the disruption of homeostasis through physical or psychological stimuli brought about by the stranger. Technically, the condition results from the child-environment interaction that leads the child to perceive a painful discrepancy, real or imagined, between the demands of a situation on the one hand and their social, biological, or psychological resources on the other. The stressful stimuli to the child may be mental (stranger is perceived as a threat, malevolent or demanding), physiological (loud and/or high-pitched voice of the stranger that is hurting to the child’s eardrum; strong smell of the stranger that irritates the child’s nasal nerves), or physical (stranger has heavy hands or is taking up too much space).
The stranger’s act of gently placing his finger with his saliva to the child’s arm, foot, or any particular part of the child’s body, could make him more familiar to the child, and thus, reduce if not remove the stress. As the stranger keeps gently saying, “Pwera usog… pwera usog…,” the child is made to feel and assured that he means no harm. The usog is said to be counteracted because the child is prevented from succumbing to an illness since the child is no longer in distress. Children or even adults who are shy or have weak personalities are more susceptible to usog in accordance with observations and theory. Some have observed that at times even praising a shy child by a visiting relative caused an usog.
The saliva from the stranger, granted that he or she is healthy and consistent with his or her oral hygiene, is relatively clean and contains enough antimicroial compounds such as lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase, and secretory immunoglobulin A which can help clear pathogens from the child and benefit the child against infection. Furthermore, human saliva has opiorphin, a newly researched pain-killing substance. Initial research with mice shows the compound has a painkilling effect of up to six times that of morphine. It works by stopping the normal breakdown of natural pain-killing opioids in the spine, called enkephalins. Opiorphin in human saliva is a relatively simple molecule, and the child’s immune system may trigger a biochemical cascade (complement system) to produce other stress-reducing compounds.
Siblings should not marry within the same year
This superstition is called “sukob” and advises against siblings marrying within the same year as it is said to divide the luck between the two marriages. Another type of sukob advises against marriages within the same year as the death of an immediate family member. Pushing to do so is considered bad luck.
Another wedding-related superstition is that the bride should never try on her dress before the big day. This is said to bring bad luck and cause the cancellation of the union.
It is said that siblings being wed in the same year can cause bad luck to the family. It’ll cause rivalry between those two siblings and bring unwanted bad luck. Waiting a year or two is preferable. This is the superstition which the movie “Sukob” is based of.
Don’t go straight home after attending a wake
This superstition is called “pagpag” (the shaking off of dirt). In the context of a wake, it means going elsewhere after attending the wake before heading home to shake off the spirit of the deceased lest it follows you home. Superstitions surrounding wakes are among the most widely practiced by Filipinos still today. Another is that the family of the deceased should not drop off visitors at the door upon saying goodbye as it symbolizes dropping them off at their own deaths. And, as for serving food at wakes (be it heavy meals or light snacks) at Filipino wakes is customary, visitors should not make the mistake of taking any home with them (be it a small piece of candy), as it signifies inviting misfortune into your home.
During funerals, this is a common practice EVERY Filipino should follow (as warned by countless adults). Pagpag means stopping by someplace before heading straight home after going to a wake. This will prevent death from following you home as it confuses them about your route. There is also a horror movie based on this superstitious belief entitled “Pag-pag siyam na buhay.”
Turn your plate when someone leaves in the middle of a meal
When sitting at the dining table for a meal and someone gets up to leave before the rest of the group finishes, everybody left at the table should turn their plates to ensure safe travels for the person leaving. Another meal superstition (though more loosely believed) is that the table should not start being cleared while people are still eating. If this is done, it is believed that the last person left dining will live a lonely life.
Mealtimes are sacred. They’re central to just about any culture in the world. There is something both intimate and communal about satisfying a basic need alongside other people. Since the shared experience casts a certain bond over all the participants, clearing the dishes before everyone is finished somehow breaks that magic, leaving whoever wasn’t done eating out of the loop, and thus, all by himself/herself permanently.
Furthermore, clearing the table while a diner was still eating was akin to sentencing that person as a “leftover,” someone who was left on the plate while everyone else was picked up, so to speak.
Dropped utensils announce the arrival of a visitor
A fork means it’ll be a man, while a spoon indicates that a woman is coming to see you. No one is really certain as to why fallen utensils are omens for unexpected visitors, but it seems to be a widespread belief in other countries as well. One theory is that dropping utensils during the after-dinner clean-up is supposed to be a visitor’s presence making itself known, and thus asking the family to wait up before they turn in for the day.
Even the meaning behind the specific utensils varies from country to country. Some believe that the direction of the handle indicates the direction from which the visitor is coming from. Forks symbolize the male gender supposedly because of the protrusion between the tines, while the concave bowl shape of the spoon allegedly invokes a woman’s womb.
Do not sweep at night
This is a popular superstition that every household follows. One should not be sweeping at night as to not sweep away the good luck. Aside from good luck, you’ll also be sweeping away the wealth that is bestowed upon the house.
An itchy palm foresees your wealth. When you have the urge to scratch the palm of your hand, it means that money is coming your way. If one’s left palm is itchy, money is coming to him; if his right palm is itchy, money will be spent by him.
This is just a few samples of superstitious beliefs and there are still a lot out there in other countries and even weirder. Some people thrive or live on superstition. I think humans are superstitious because we have fears and because we feel powerless. No one likes the feeling that they have no control over what happens to them. Some people feel less in control than others. It may be their life’s circumstances or because they were raised to believe they can’t change their lives, or even raised to believe there are invisible powers that can work for them and even against them.