Popular folkloric character Mariang Makiling of Mount Makiling in Laguna. / Illustration by Faith Yangyang
In campaigns to make more people aware of the importance of greening the environment, storytelling is a most effective way, it seems, alongside the creation and enactment of ordinances or laws.
The moral lessons of stories and our adherence to gaba (divine retribution) should have more impact on people. Though in the realm of fantasy, the Horatian “to delight and to teach” aspects can linger in the mind and have a subliminal effect after a dramatized “wonder moment” of storytelling on the respect for the environment.
Cases in point are the stories of the tres (three) Marias or diwatas, the mountain goddesses or deities of mountains as referred to in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature (1932 to 1936, revised and expanded 1955 to 1958). These fair maidens were said to have protected the mountain forests, and such legends spiced up, once upon a time, community life.
Why a woman becomes the protector is in keeping with her being symbolic of Mother Nature but anthropologist Arnold Molina Azurin said this is “a matriarchal hyperbole,” as quoted by Erlinda Kintanar Alburo in her paper, “Gender in Philippine Folklore Matters: A Review.”
Women heroines in Mindanao epics
Apart from these Marias, there are heroines in our folk epics, such as Bai Lekumbing (in Ulahingan), Tabagka (in Agyu), Arkat a Lawanen (in Darangen) and Bolak Sonday (in Ag Tobig nog Keboklagan and other fragments of epics), who take over men’s roles to protect their respective communities in the absence of men or legitimate leaders, and as bearers of traditions and as instruments of peace and order.
Today, these Marias have become part of lore for they no longer appear to humans due to men’s faults, that is, his insatiable greed, ungratefulness, downright cruelty to animals and the denudation of forests that causes floods. The stories that revolve around these three Marias are similar: all are dazzlingly beautiful with Hispanic features, kind and generous and immortal. They are Maria Sinukuan of Mount Arayat in Pampanga, Maria or Mariang Makiling of Mount Makiling in Laguna and Maria Cacao and her golden ship of Argao, Cebu.
The diwata Maria Sinukuan of Mount Arayat in Pampanga. / Illustration by Faith Yangyang
The name Maria is Spanish, and most of the stories occur either during the Spanish and American periods. These stories may have earlier origins and were made more popular during the colonial periods to support vested interests that came on the heels of demonizing another woman spiritual leader, the babaylan, sometimes dubbed yawa (devil), viscera-eating monster and so on.
A fourth Maria?
It is tempting to add a fourth Maria, Maria Cristina, after which the famous falls of Iligan City was said to be named. But this writer has yet to encounter that variant of the Maria Cristina legend, and to determine whether she is one person or one of two or twins, who helps people and is known to live in a cave beneath the falls. But there is no argument that the presence of the falls has indeed made the surrounding environment cooler and the forest lusher, greener, brightened by wild orchids, with more birds, monkeys and other creatures seen by Iliganons.
But we see it as a tale for the hopelessly romantic for it suggests a certain era when women drown their sorrows if they are lovelorn. In the Maria Cristina legend, the twin sisters fling themselves into the raging Agus River because they want to escape a Rajah’s lust, or a Spanish officer’s desire to marry them both. A woman drowning is a facile way of ending a tale, ridiculous in these times.
There are other examples in world literatures in which a frustrated or lovelorn woman either stays in the attic, so deranged in her longing for her lover, or so frustrated and confused, she jumps off a cliff, into a river or from a ship to end herstory.
In the tales where the other Marias live, material goods are kept in caves, goods given or loaned to people in need especially during feast days and other special days of merriment.
During the floods brought about by the typhoon “Sendong” in Iligan, on the other hand, people talked about a huge, lighted boat that stopped for the dead. As the story went, those who said they saw this boat meant to say that a goddess, a diwata or a Maria, possibly Maria Cacao, came to fetch people for the journey to the beyond.
What is a diwata?
Internet sources tell us that Maria Makiling, for instance, is a diwata or lambana (fairy). The diwata is said to be a dryad and the term comes from the Sanskrit devata or “god” or “deity.” The three Marias look beautiful and Hispanic, but they are far from being the Tinker Bell kind. Not so, too, in a few Mindanao epics which this writer is gathering more data on.
‘Maria Cacao and her golden ship of Argao, Cebu.’ / Illustration by Faith Yangyang
True or not, the late ethnomusicologist Joy Viernes Enriquez shared with this writer how she received the “blessing” of a diwata to go ahead and record the war epic of the Subanen, the Gambatoto, for her dissertation at the Indiana University. This recorded war epic, unfortunately, has not been transcribed and the tapes not only became moldy but were lost to the flood during “Sendong.” Anyway, Joy said that she, with other Subanen elders, met a dark-skinned, male diwata, whose face could only be described as maot (ugly) but whose voice was gentle and kind.
In the Livunganen-Arumanen Manobo epic Ulahingan, the diwatas are gendered. Some are quite tall and muscular, wearing sheer clothing and having yellow hair. They belong to a hierarchy, and some are good, others malevolent. The guardian diwatas help people, in contrast to some with evil intentions. These are immortals who can also change shapes and can use the name and impersonate a human. These are the telebusew or inggaibs, the lowest of all diwatas. This may partly explain the use of a mortal’s and immortal’s many names in the epic.
Aside from this, Diwata, with the capital D, refers to the highest or supreme god but diwata, with the lowercase ‘d’, refers to Diwata’s assistants in his work in keeping peace and order in the earthly and heavenly kingdoms of mortals and immortals.
Another folklorist, the late Carmen Ching Unabia, listed several diwatas and their domains or functions in her book, Bukidnon Myths and Rituals (2000).
In the Meranaw epic Darangen, diwatas are also spirits and/or twin spirits of major characters, often referred to as tonongs. The male diwatas may become leaders in the mortal kingdom.
For instance, the patriarch and first king of the Gibonens in the Darangen, Diwata Ndaw Gibon (spirit sun-man), is son of a union between Aya Diwata Mokom sa Kaadiyong a Lopa, half-spirit and half-man, and Daromoyod a Olan, half-human and half-jinn, beings created from fire and having super-human powers.
The Hispanized Maria Sinukuan, Maria Makiling and Maria Cacao gift the people with produce from the forests. In the case of Maria Cacao, who owns a cacao plantation besides, hence her name, she likewise offers gifts from her travels in America. These diwatas kept at it until the people abuse these generosities.
In the case of Maria Sinukuan, she turns the men into swine, reminiscent of how Homer’s Circe who turns Odysseus’s men into swine, although this part is in a different context and the events happen on the mythic island Aiaoi.
These are only a few from the rich trove of stories in different circumstances with specific materials and objects the three Marias made available to people whose abusive behavior can be translated to thieving and corruption. How our storytellers can continue to use these yarns can become positive reminders to help keep the greening of our environment.
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