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Friday, February 4, 2022

Tiyanak: The Infant Demons of the Philippines

Legends say that the tiyanak is the spirit of a new-born whose mother died whilst pregnant, therefore causing it to be "born in the ground" — in this we find a clear condemnation of any deliberate termination of pregnancy and the importance of a safe delivery in pre-colonial Philippine society.

Tiyanak: The Infant Demons of the Philippines
Image Credits: ABS-CBN News

The shamans of old, residing in the Philippine Isles, seem to also have had a stand on the affair, as can be seen in one of the myriad of myths they propagated — the tianac. After the Christianisation of the Philippine Isles, the tianac became seen as babies who did not undergo baptism. The roots of the tianac may be found in the Malayan peninsula, where a creature with a similar name, the pontianac or mati-anak, also existed in the folk-lore of the natives.

In Malaya, however, the pontianac was seen as a jin, or genie, and is embodied by the stillborn child’s mother, instead of the other way around. A common charm used to "repel" these creatures was, "O Pontianac the Stillborn, may you be struck dead by the soil from the grave-mound. Thus (we) cut the bamboo joints, the long and the short, to cook therein the liver of the Jin Pontianac. By the Grace of ‘there is no god but God’ (part of the Shahadah, an Islamic creed).

The description of the tianac differs from one ethnic group to another, though generally it is said to first take the form of an infant, when held, it reverts to its actual self, an old dwarf with a wrinkled face and mustache, flat nose, coin-sized eyes, and a leg shorter than the other, which narrows its mode of movement to just crawling and leaping around. The Mandayas of south-eastern Mindanao and the Bagobos of Davao del Sur believed in a creature with the same characteristics as mentioned above, though with different names, the patianac for the former, and muntianac for the latter.

Tiyanak: The Infant Demons of the Philippines
Image Credits: Taliesin Blog/Regal Films

In Central Luzon, it is framed as a small, brown-colored creature with a large nose, wide mouth, fierce-looking eyes, and sharp voice, which floats on the air instead of walking on the ground. There is also a legend in Mindoro where it is mentioned as having transformed into a black bird. The European accounts are rather vague in their description of what they call the patianac or pontianac — the Frenchman Jean Mallat wrote, "The pontianac was a bad genie who prevented women in labour from delivering...". Seen in Fr. Martinez de Zuniga’s is the following account, "They have many other superstitions, as that of the patianac, a spirit or ideal being, whose employment or amusement consists in preventing, by certain means peculiar to itself, the delivery of a woman in labor."

On the prevention of such an occurrence as above, Mallat noted, "...even at present, to exorcise it when a woman starts feeling pains, her husband cleans the front door of his house and builds a big fire before it; then, completely naked on the ground floor, he waves a sword in the air, cutting and thrusting to prevent the demon from approaching until his wife has delivered." Also, as the tianac took delight in misleading travellers, the elders of the many villages dotting the Philippines thought of a way to circumvent this — turning one’s clothes inside out. Other possible methods of defending oneself from a tianac are: extremely loud noises (more of a preventative measure), the use of garlic and the rosary, the bestowment of a name to the tianac, and the benefaction of a white candle for use in its journey to the afterlife.

There are also several depictions of tiyanak in Philippine pop culture, the most notable and famous depiction would be the eponymous 1988 classic Tiyanak, directed by Peque Gallaga and from that point on, the Tiyanak has been featured on several anthologies and TV shows in the Philippines. You can watch the video below about a short radio play about the Tiyanak.


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Submitted by: G.M Baretto, An amateur historian with an interest in East Asian and European histories, and a knack for cartography.

Visit my Website: https://­historiaphil.wordpres­

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