Merfolk in Philippine Mythology
by Anne Vecin
Living in a country surrounded by water, it’s but a matter of course that tales of mysterious beings borne of the sea and rivers inhabit our local mythology. We grew up with stories of the beautiful sirena shyly watching us play on the beach, or of siokoys lurking behind craggy rocks by the sea. From movies made about our very own Little Mermaid, Dyesebel, to beauty and talent contests on television, mermaids are enmeshed in our culture.
We have many names for our mermaids and mermen, the most popular of which are catao (Cebuano, Hiligaynon); sirena (Iloko, Tagalog, etc.); and ugkoy (Waray). They generally take the form of beautiful long-haired maidens above the waist with a fish’s body below the torso, though on occasion, particularly those who live in inland waterfalls, mermaids appear to be completely human in shape. The give away is their distinctive trait – a strong fish smell.
They are said to live in the sea, in rivers and at the basins of waterfalls. The ugkoy, or mermen are said to “live in fresh water and are usually seen in rivers during floods.” The undersea domain of merfolk is said to be fashioned from gold and precious stones; it seems they have a penchant for these precious items.
They appear to long for human company: mermaids marry the men and make wards of the boys. They lure a man through sweet songs or wails of distress, and when he comes close enough to the water, they make the water rise and envelop him.
But their habit of enticing humans seems to come more from their desire to have human consorts rather than from a desire to kill, although many deaths have been ascribed to them.
In Philippine folk traditions, mermaids often accost their prospective male victims by walking at the tail end of religious processions and asking them to go to the water with them. Like a crocodile, the Samar ugkoy is said to “drag down victims by the feet into the bottom.” Iloko peasants however have a way of escaping from a mermaid, that is, by stabbing the water with a bolo, since merfolk are said to be afraid of bladed weapons made of steel.
Horrifying as some of their activities may sound, mermaids are also known for their generous spirit. One such mermaid resides in Botocan Falls. A story goes that once, a peasant girl went near the falls at twilight when she heard her name called. She looked up and saw the elusive mermaid, and upon following the mermaid into the cave, received “a great sum of money, bracelets, necklaces, rings, and earrings,” but was admonished to tell no one where she obtained them. Since mermaids are elusive, they seek those they help or choose to bring with them to their mysterious realm. They do not appear when they are the ones being sought.
Photo caption: The Mambucal waterfalls in Negros Occidental and its lush surroundings inspire the imaginative Filipino to see other worlds and beings like mermaids. (Photo taken in 1971. Filipinas Heritage Library).
Source: Ramos, Maximo D. Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology. U.P. Press, 1971.