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Saturday, February 19, 2022

The Balbal: The Ghoul Of The Philippines

A common trope in popular media these days is the zombie — an unintelligent corpse walking around feasting on any human being unfortunate enough to step into its field of vision. The fear of being cannibalised is prevalent in contemporary society, slowly getting torn apart limb-by-limb is quite an undesirable occurrence, after all. Many individuals, however, are less terrified of the above, then they are of their remains being desecrated by some grave-robber or petty criminal — and this phobia has managed to seep into many of humanity’s myths and folklore. One such facet of this cultural phenomenonis the balbal, corpse-thief and devourer of the dead.

Balbal, Philippine Mythical Creature

“When a death occurs, the relatives of the deceased person set a time for the funeral. At the appointed hour his house is torn down, and his body is carried to the woods and buried in the earth. Dishes and earthen pots belonging to him are broken over his grave to mark it. While a corpse is awaiting burial, the Tagbanuas are in dread of a mythical creature called balbal, which they say comes from the Moro country. It sails through the air like a flying squirrel.

In form it is man-like, with curved nails which it uses to tear up the thatch of houses, and a long tongue with which it reaches down and "licks up" the bodies,” writes D.C. Worcester in a chapter of his book The Philippine Islands and their People in which he details his encounters with the Tagbanuas of Palawan, who he described as “much more interesting than their partly-civilised brethren... very friendly, and much less suspicious than most of the savage tribes which we encountered”.

In contemporary times, the balbal is said to walk in regular a human form, until the light of the full moon shines upon it, in which case it turns into a disturbing husk of a man, with the appearance of a bone-collector. It has superb hearing, which enables it to listen for sounds signifying death from great distances — in fact, if one were to utter its name from afar, it would swiftly proceed to one’s location, through some manner of magic, and eat one’s flesh. In order to hide its heinous actions, it would replace the stolen cadaver with a banana trunk, which “had no fingerprints”.

Balbal, Philippine Mythical Creature
Image: Villains Wiki

Other popular aswang of the same type as the balbal are: the buso of the Bagobos (Eastern Mindanao), who gather at burial patches to discuss potential “meals”, with children playing around them, the ebwa of the Tinguian (Abra), depicted by F.C. Cole as an “evil spirit” who kept watch on recently-deceased people for 9 days, waiting until their respective guardians fell asleep or failed to defend the bodies to swoop in and rob them. The aswang na lakaw (“walking beast”) of Bicol, which could change corpses into swine, is another counterpart of the balbal.

Perhaps the most absurd manifestation of the Filipinos’ fear of desecration following a death is the anduduno, a creature which licks a terminally-ill person until they die. The following are also much similar to the balbal in characteristics, so much in fact that the author is inclined to think that they are merely copies of the same myth, or, as stated earlier, a reflection of a cultural phenomenon: the calag and tic-tic of the Ilonggos, the segben, amalanhig, and busaw of the peoples of the many isles of Visayas, the flying aswang na lipad of Negros, berbalangs of Sulu, the ungo of Zamboanga (who could turn their neighbours into monsters through the consumption of the dead’s flesh), wir-wir of the Cordilleran-based Apayao, and the ghoulish kagkag of Romblon. Some of these beasts ate only the liver, whilst others were more selective, consuming the liver if the victim was young and the guts if they were elderly.

Many have theorised that practices like the great Visayan tradition of larao, which often involved raucous behaviour and the guarding of dead bodies during the mourning period came about from the beliefs listed above of corpse-thieving and the defilement of the dead. J.K. Gaverza has written an excellent piece detailing the 9 day-long process of guarding a corpse against the ebwa, which one may the link to find in the reference list below.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: An amateur historian with an interest in Philippine, East Asian, and European histories, and a knack for cartography.

Twitter: @jadesovereign


Clark, J. 2015. "Ghouls: Corpse Thieves of Philippine Folklore," The Aswang Project, April

Cole, F.C. 1908. "The Tinggian," Philippine Journal of Science, Vol. 3, no. 4 (September): pp. 210.
Gaverza, J.K. 2014. "The Myths of the Philippines," University of the Philippines.
———. n.d. "Ebwa," Philippine Spirits (blog),

Lynch, F. 1949. Ang Mga Aswang: A Bicol Belief. Quezon City: University of the Philippines
Pavon, J.M. 1957 (1839). "Pavon manuscripts of 1838-1839," in The Robertson Translations of the
Pavon Manuscripts of 1838-1839, tr. James A. Robertson. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Ramos, M.D. 1971. The Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology. Quezon City: University of the

Worcester, D.C. 1898. The Philippine Islands and Their People: A Record of Personal Observation and Experience, with a Short Summary of the More Important Facts in the History of the Archipelago. New York: The Macmillan Company.

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