THE MYTH is that in universities, God is dead. While it is true that Karl Marx’s recent 200th birthday was celebrated by some zealots as if it were the Second Coming, the pews in our usually empty church found a number of bench warmers.
Though a seat of learning, the university’s end-of-term final exams and requirements always put a spike on “permutations” of the spirit.
I see more of us at church, remorseful for denying deadlines or seeking at least a postponement.
Certainly, God is not dead. He is just rubbing elbows with lesser gods.
Towering above my university quarters is an ancient mango tree. On certain nights, while a classmate and I go over our theory papers, a mango fruit falls nearby, exploding the quiet of our street.
T. and I immediately stop talking. She continues her walk home and I pass through the gate. Mangoes fall all the time. Yet, I am not willing to disregard a fruit aimed and hurled by a spirit like the “mangmangkik,” perhaps driven to irritation by so much foreign-influenced theorizing.
The tree-worshipping ancient Ilocanos sought permission from the “mangmangkik,” the “anito (secondary god)” residing in trees, by chanting “Bari-bari, don’t be disturbed, my friend”.
The “katatao-an” or “sangkabagi” is the “anito” of space. Living in trees, the invisible “katatao-an” travel at night on huge boats called barangays that “fly through air like aerostatic globes,” according to Isabelo Florentino de los Reyes, writer of the Propaganda Movement.
In 1890, the acknowledged Father of Philippine Folklore Studies included a chapter on Ilocano myths in his writing of the prehistory of Ilocos.
According to the English translation by Maria Elinora Peralta-Imson of “History of Ilocos” (UP Press, 2014), de los Reyes, by recording local mythology, rescued its effacement at the hands of Spanish missionaries who dismissed native religion as the “superstition” of the unlettered Indio.
The Ilocano’s “bari-bari” has no equivalent in Spanish or English. But it resonates in the Cebuano expression of “tabi, tabi” I mutter when walking in the dark and anxious not to trespass on the space of unseen others. I heed the explosive sound of a fruit suddenly falling nearby and go inside the dwelling, not waiting to hear something hiss in the dark, “sst-sst” or “kwek-kwek”.
I shutter the windows when reading late or studying at dawn. I don’t want to attract a wandering “sangkabagi,” who “appear at midnight at the windows or the holes of the houses of their chosen few from where they awaken them with a barely perceptible voice,” wrote de Los Reyes.
Writing 128 years ago, de los Reyes helps me understand my Filipino soul, once deciphered only through the foreign and the alien.
* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 13, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”