Beyond Belief

A lot of Filipino superstitions deal with funerals and death. (Photo by moyerphotos)

A lot of Filipino superstitions deal with funerals and death. (Photo by moyerphotos)

I recently found myself preparing for a ceremony that’s mandatory prior to building a house in the Philippines. Our contractor and architect gave me a list of prerequisites—the most propitious day and hour to break ground, a white-feathered native chicken to be slaughtered as a peace-offering, and a shovel for the first ceremonial dig. These were mentioned in the same breath as all of the bureaucratic requirements for a building permit!

Superstitions reveal much of what people revere and hold dear. They help us cope with the unknown, the unexplained and the mysterious. They’re widely-held folk beliefs and customs which are often based on personal experiences. They may be founded on scientific facts, opinions, religions, popular practices or simply inexplicable coincidences. 

Scholars of folklore distinguish between folk beliefs and superstitions. Dr. Damiana Eugenio, who compiled and edited the Philippine Folk Literature Series, avoids using the term "superstition." To her the word is associated with ignorance and beliefs which can’t be scientifically proven. She prefers to call them "folk beliefs"—a neutral term that, according to her, emphasizes their basic harmlessness.

Some superstitions leave you in total bewilderment. Taken together, you can’t take a bath in the afternoons, in the evenings, on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, on first Fridays, Good Friday, New Year's Day, on the feast of St. Lazarus, on the thirteenth day of every month, during a month with only 30 days, before gambling, when hungry, after eating, after going to church, during holidays, when there is a rainbow, as the moon sets and as the sun rises, during full moons, new moons, and even when the moon wanes and disappears. One might ask if there is any time left to bathe without dire consequences.

Whether these superstitions charm or amuse or seem unbelievable today, who among us has the temerity to trifle with luck and tempt fate itself?  Chuckle, if you must. But don't say I didn't warn you about superstitions if you fail to heed them! 

A black butterfly is a sign of a death of a family member. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A black butterfly is a sign of a death of a family member. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here are some examples of superstitions dealing with illness and death:

           • Warts are caused by the urine of frogs.

• Going to bed with wet hair leads to blindness or insanity.

• It's a good idea to change the name of a sickly child. That way, you may be able to fool the spirits who are causing the sickness.

• Before you bathe in a spring or river, you must first ask permission from the engkantos (resident spirits who have the power to spellbind intruders). Otherwise you might catch a disease.

• A lingering black butterfly is a sign that one of your relatives has just died.

• A falling spider that lands on you is an omen that someone close to you will die.

• If you dream that one of your teeth is being pulled out, this means that a family member will die.

• Be careful that your tears don't fall on the dead or on the  coffin. If they do, the dead person will have a difficult  journey to the next world.

• If someone sneezes at a wake, pinch him lest he join the dead.

• During a wake, never see your visitors off at the door of the chapel or funeral parlor.

• Always carry the coffin out of the house head first. This prevents the soul of the dead from coming back.

• During the funeral march, a man whose wife is pregnant should light a cigarette from a fire at the cemetery gate  in  order to shake off the spirits of the dead.

• A widow who caresses her dead husband's face is sure to remarry.

• Digging a hole larger than the coffin will cause an immediate relative to join the deceased in the grave.

• After the coffin has been lowered to the grave, all family members should take a handful of soil, spit on it, and throw it in the grave. Doing so will not only bury the evil left behind by the deceased, but also lessen the burden of grief on the family.

• After the funeral service, don’t go home directly so that the spirit of the dead person won’t follow you to your house.

• Never let a child step over an open grave lest the spirit of the dead visit that child.

• When a tree that was planted at the same time that a child was born dies, the child will also die.

• Don’t sweep the house until after the burial.

• Give away your black dresses after one year of mourning to prevent another death in the family.

First published in Filipinas Magazine, September 1997

Metro Manila-based Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz won the 1993 National Book Award for Children's Literature. This article was excerpted from her book, Don't take a Bath on a Friday; Tahanan Books, P.O. Box 9079, MCS Mailing Center, 1299 Makati City Philippines.