Philippine epic poetry

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Depiction of Lam-Ang, the protagonist of Biag ni Lam-Ang, an Ilocano epic.

Philippine epic poetry is the body of epic poetry in Philippine literature. Filipino epic poetry is considered to be the highest point of development for Philippine folk literature, encompassing narratives that recount the adventures of tribal heroes. These epics are transmitted through oral tradition using a select group of singers and chanters.[1]:xi

A study revealed that the Philippine folk epics, like those found elsewhere in Asia, are often about a quest for a wife as well as the various ordeals linked to the founding of a family, hamlet, tribe or a kingdom.[2] The narratives would include voyages - on earth, sea, sky, and the underworld - to allow the hero or heroine to overcome the challenges faced. After the ordeal, the protagonists - through an increase or improvement of his or her qualities, becomes the ideal man or woman.[2]

Form and motifs[edit]

E. Arsenio Manuel defines heroic narratives in verse as "folk epics" or "ethnographics" and describes common characteristics to them:[3]:3

  1. Narratives of sustained length
  2. Based on oral tradition
  3. Revolving around supernatural events or heroic deeds
  4. In the form of verse
  5. Which is either chanted or sung, and
  6. With a certain seriousness of purpose, embodying or validating the beliefs, customs, ideals, or life-values of the people.

Within folk epic poems, common themes can be observed.

Epic Singing and Singers[edit]

Epics are generally sung during folk festal and recreational gatherings such as weddings, baptisms, wakes, prestige rites, peace agreements, and the like.[1]:xii They are sung primarily as entertainment, to enjoy hearing of accounts of ancestors performing heroic deeds. The singing also serves as an inspiration to the youth to emulate their heroes, and for would-be singers to become singers themselves. Among some groups, such as the Ifugao people, certain types of Hudhud songs are prescribed for certain occasions, such as during the death of a prominent person, or when ancestral bones are dug out to be blessed, or during harvest. The Hudhud hi Aliguyon is a hudhud of the third type. The Palawan Kudaman is also sung on special occasions - as an offering to the Lord of the chase when they are able to catch a wild boar, or to welcome a guest in their rurungan.[1]:xiii

The epic singer could be male or female and learn their story from older relatives, or from well-known singers in the community. The singing of epics usually takes place in the evening and is dictated by the singer's preference; there is more quiet in the evening and it allows for deeper concentration on the singer, who sometimes sings for two to four hours as a time. Virgilio Resma reports that Perena, a female singer, sang The Tale of Sandayo from 9 PM to 3 AM for seven nights in 1980. Among the Ifugaos, the hudhud may sung during daytime as a harvest song.[1]:xiii

Adventures of the Hero[edit]

Philippine folk epics are essentially the adventures of the hero and can be classified into two groups: epics of romance, in which the main adventures consist in the hero's courting of specific women, or in search of beautiful ladies he can marry; and epics in which the hero undertakes adventures mainly in the service of his family, his country, his people, and for others. Epics which prove the hero's valor and worth as a man also belong to the second group. These two groups are not mutually exclusive, and epics that are predominantly romantic also contain adventures of the other kind and vice-versa.[1]:xiv

Primary examples of epics in the first group are Lam-Ang, the Ulalim, Labaw Donggon, Bantugan, Lumalindaw, and Kudaman. Some of these epics, however, are not exclusively of the first group. For example, Lam-Ang's first adventure was his quest for his father who had gone to fight the Igorots and never came back.

In the second group of epics, examples include the Agyu cycle of epics, The Maiden of the Buhong Sky, Tulalang, the Hudhud hi Aliguyon, the three Subanon epics, Ibalon, Tuwaang Attends a Wedding, Maharadia Lawana, and Tudbulul.[1]:xiv-xv

Characteristics of the Hero[edit]

The Philippine epic hero, like counterparts in other countries, are strong and brave, of great fighting prowess, and possess a restless, adventurous spirit, great determination, and endurance. Philippine epic heroes are also endowed with supernatural or magic powers and possess magic objects and/or animals and even guardians or friendly spirits, sometimes voices, that advise them in moments of need. [1]:xvii

The life of a Philippine epic hero usually follows a pattern,[1]:xvii similar to the Hero's journey:

  1. He is born of unusual circumstances
  2. He undergoes miraculous growth into manhood and is possessed of a restlessness to set out on adventures
  3. He lives a life of action and adventure, in the course of which he displays his heroic qualities
  4. He is victorious in all his adventures, warlike or amorous
  5. If he dies, he is brought back to life and lives happily ever after.

The Philippine epic hero is usually depicted as having an impressive physical appearance and is usually described as such. The Subanon hero, Sandayo, is described as:

A handsome datu
Radiant and resplendent
As if he stood not
On earthly ground
Straight as a tree
Like a son of Diwata
Like some rare flower
Beautiful to behold[1]:xix

Philippine epic heroes are also described as having loud voices which make men tremble. Lumalindaw was said to have a voice so strong that when he shouts at a crow, it falls in front of him; when he shouts at a coconut tree, the coconuts fall. They also stand out as acknowledged leaders in their respective communities, such as Tuwaang, or Bantugan, who while not the king of his realm, is described as having no rival among the lords of the kingdom.

Supernatural Powers[edit]

Lastly, one of their most distinctive characteristics are their possession of supernatural powers, or magic animals and/or objects. The Ifugao hero, Aliguyon, is a notable exception to this rule, being the only one with no extraordinary power beyond his natural prowess.[1]:xix-xxi

The range of the hero's supernatural prowess ranges from the mild to the extraordinary. Except for their endurance, the heroes in the Ifugao hudhud are down-to-earth and benign in comparison to other heroes. In contrast, heroes in Central and South Philippine epics cannot continue on without mana, or some supernatural being aiding them, or without the magical properties of the tools that they use.[3]:50


Philippine folk epics have some shared conventions that differ from other classical epics. Philippine folk epics may or may not have formal openings. Lam-Ang, for example, opens with "Listen then while I narrate at length the life of Lam-Ang", while Aliguyon opens without much formality: "Aliguyon, son of Amtalao, who resided in Hannanga one early morning said, 'Where are you, comrades of Aliguyon, do what is done in Hannanga'"

Epics belonging to the Agyu cycle vary in that they have formal openings, called the ke`ppu`unpu`un, which is the introductory part of the entire cycle of epics. Attached to this is the sengedurug, which represents an account of a portion of Agyu's life in Nelendangan, the earth name of his paradise. The Tuwaan cycle also has an introductory part called the tabbayanon, consisting of two parts: the first is subjective and speaks of the singer's love, dreams, and frustrations. The prelude closes with a "tail", which serves to connect it to the main body of the story.[1]:xxiii-xxiv

Philippine epics narrate the adventures of the hero in chronological order, many of them beginning with the hero's birth. None begin in medias res like in the Iliad. The epics narrate the hero's life and adventures and end in happy endings. If the hero dies, he is brought back to life. In at least two epics, the hero brings his people to heaven. Only Lumalindaw diverts from this with a somber ending, where, after giving parting advice to his children, enters the cave where the Voice that has guided his life resides, and is seen no more.[1]:xxv


A common convention is the use of repetition of various kinds: repetition of a scene, repetition of lines, of rituals, and of formulaic passages. In Labaw Donggon, the hero goes courting three times and the same lines he speaks to his mother are repeated.[1]:xxv Some motifs are also repeated in accordance to the significance attached to the number. Subanon epics, for example, hold the numbers 7 and 8 in special significance. In Ag Tobig nog Keboklagan, Taake, when seven months old, cries for seven days and seven nights; sleeps for days and seven nights; goes fishing for seven days and seven nights; catching seven bins of fish; sleeps again for seven days and nights and awakes a young man; travels for seven months before reaching Keboklagan; courts the Lady of Pintawan for seven days before she accepts; the rumor of this marriage spreads for seven days before it reaches the Datus of Keboklagan, who plan to kill him within seven days; Taake and his companions rest in Dibaloy for seven nights; they journey back to Sirangan for seven days; and he holds a buklog for seven days.

In both Taake and Sandayo, special attention is given to the hero's hair. Their hair is oiled, combed, and arranged to eight folds. Sandayo has his hair oiled and combed eight times, and wound eight times. When he sleeps, eight tiers of mosquito nets are placed over him. When he drinks wine, he empties eight wine jars. His robe has eight folds.[1]:xxxi-xxxii

Otherworldly Journeys[edit]

Philippine folk epics sometimes extend to the realm of heavenly regions and the underworld. In Labaw Donggon, the hero courts his wives across three worlds. Similarly, the Gaddang hero Lumalindaw seeks his fourth wife, Caligayan, in the Underworld, in a place called Nadaguingan, guarded by dwarfs. In Tuwaang Attends a Wedding, Tuwaang descends to the Underworld during his fight with the Young Man of Sakadna. In the Tale of Sandayo, Bolak Sonday searches for Sandayo in the Underworld when he dies. When Bolak Sonday dies, Mendepesa is sento to look for her soul. [1]:xxx-xxxi


When Islamic missionaries came to Mindanao and converted the Moros to become Muslims, some changes were adapted for the Mindanaoan epics to conform to this change of faith, thus, there are more epics from mostly Visayas and Mindanao that did survive. In the epic of Maranao, Darangen, for instance, they have made Muslim prophet Muhammad as the forefather of the hero, Bantugen. Today, there are twenty-one epics that survived from Visayas and Mindanao.

Some of the epics however, especially in Luzon, perceived to center on pagan beliefs and rituals, were burned and destroyed by Spanish friars during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines islands in the 16th century. There are only two folk epics that survived from Luzon.

Truly, there were substantial writings by early natives that Jesuit historian Fr. Pedro Chirino noted: "All of the islanders are much given to reading and writing. And there is hardly a man, much less a woman who did not read and write." (Relacion de las isles Filipinas-1604).

Established epic poems of notable quality and length blossomed. And early historians like Padre Colin, Joaquín Martínez de Zúñiga and Antonio Pigafetta have all attested to the existence of these epics. There were even reports of a dramatic play given by natives at the arrival of Don Miguel López de Legazpi in 1565.

Epic poems and songs about the exploits of enchanted folk heroes were performed during festivities and proper occasions. Most often, these epic poems (folk epics or ethno-epics) were titled after the names of the hero involved, except for some which carry traditional titles like the Kalinga Ullalim; the Sulod Hinilawod; the Maranao Darangen; or the Bicol Ibalon.

Stories about folk heroes of long ago were described as "Old Time History" because; they can be used to study the lifestyle and beliefs of the people who produced them. They were also referred to as "Lost", because they were soon forgotten by natives influenced heavily by Spanish and "western" colonization.

The famed orientalist, Chauncey Starkweather, stressed that : "These epic romances are charming poems in the Malayan literature."

Some scholars however dispute the claim that in the early days of Spanish intrusion, priests in their zealous rage against paganism destroyed all existing records, as well as all forms of writing and art works, regarding ancient Philippine folk heroes. These scholars, mostly schooled in Catholic schools and Catholics themselves, hold that the colorful and fascinating literature of pre-Hispanic Filipinos are still here, giving the new generation an overview of a heritage that is unique and deemed as invaluable source of joy and information with regards to the lifestyle, love and aspirations of early Filipinos.

Indeed, it is through these wonderful surviving epics every Filipino may mirror his or her national identity.

It is through these folk epics that every Filipino can feel heroic, truly pulsating with splendor of a magnificent and authentic cultural force. In epic history of the Filipinos comes with epic characters like "biag ni lamang".

Philippine epic poems[edit]

Carl Rehang -Author

There are two epic poems coming from among Christian Filipinos in Luzon. They are Biag ni Lam-ang or The Life of Lam-ang and the Ibalon, from the Bicol region. The epics coming from the non-Christian Filipinos in Luzon meanwhile are The Hudhud and the Alim of the Ifugaos, The Ulalim of the Kalingas and The Epic of Lumalindaw of the Gaddangs. The epics from the Visayas are The Hinilawod of the Sulod people of Central Panay Island and The Kudaman of Palawan, while the epics from Mindanao are The Maiden of the Buhong Sky, the Tuwaang Attends A Wedding, Agyu, The Tulelangan of the Ilianon Manoboc, The Darangen of the Maranaos, Guman of Dumalinao, Ag Tubig Nog Keboklagan (The Kingdom of Keboklagan), Keg Sumba Neg Sandayo (The Tale of Sandayo) and The Tudbulul of the T'boli of South Cotabato.

From the Bicol Region comes the Ibalong. The Ibalong relates the mystical origins of the first man and the first woman of Aslon and Ibalong, which are current provinces of Camarines, Albay, Sorsogon, Catanduanes and Masbate. Handiong, one of the heroes of Ibalong (The others are Baltog and Bantong ) was a great leader of warriors. He won over the seductive serpent Oriol before starting a village. His Village prospered and soon, other friends of Handiong went to help him in leading the village. The system of writing was introduced by Surat. Dinahong Pandak taught them how to make jars, utensils in cooking, plough, harrow and other farming implements. Weaving cloth was known with the help of Hablon. Lastly, Ginantong taught them to make boats, blades, knives and things used in a house. Events in this epic also had a flood story similar to that of the Biblical Genesis. This epic has the story in how the Mayon Volcano was made.

The Darangen tells of the sentimental and romantic adventures of noble warriors, one of them, is about a warrior-prince called Bantugan. Prince Bantugen was the brother of the chieftain of a village called Bumbaran. Bantugen owned a magic shield, was protected by divine spirits called "Tonongs" and was capable of rising from the dead. Once his enemies attacked Bumbaran, thinking he was dead. In the nick of time, Bantugan's soul was recovered and he saved the village. There is also an episode, where Prince Bantugen was on a quest and fought his enemies with his magic Kampilan(Native sword). Soon, he got tired and fell onto the water. A crocodile delivered him to his enemies, but he regained his strength, escaped his captors, and commands an oar less ship and won the battle.

There were also "Darangen epic poetries that relates stories of wars about abducted princesses. Just like the chronicles of the Trojan War.

The Darangen is one of the oldest and longest Philippine epic poetries. Several nights were needed to recite the twenty five beautiful chapters. The Darangen, sung in its original, possessed a sustained beauty and dignity, it might be studied for its esthetic values alone.

There were Philippine epic poems written and published much later. The Ibong Adarna, whose author is unknown, was written in Tagalog and published in the 18th century, while Florante at Laura, also in Tagalog, authored by Francisco Balagtas, was published in the 19th century. In 1961, Ricaredo Demetillo published Barter in Panay, claimed to be the first literary epic of the Philippines. It was written in English. Other contemporary epics were authored by Dr. Cirilo Bautista, whose epic was written in three decades and placed at 9,872 lines in length, The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus, comprises The Archipelago (1970), The Telex Moon (1975) and Sunlight On Broken Stones (1999) and Edwin Cordevilla's Ten Thousand Lines Project For World Peace (2013), which as the title suggests, is 10,000 lines long. Both epics were written in English. [4][5][6]


There are multiple epic texts that can be found in the Philippines, owing to its diverse cultural background. To date, over twenty have been collected, transcribed, and published by academic scholars.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Eugenio, Damiana L. Philippine folk literature. The epics. University of the Philippines Press. ISBN 9789715422949.
  2. ^ a b Revel, Nicole (2005). Literature of Voice: Epics in the Philippines. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press. pp. 13–14. ISBN 9719229675.
  3. ^ a b Manuel, E. Arsenio (1963). "A Survey of Filipino Folk Epics". Asian Folklore Studies. 22: 1–76. doi:10.2307/1177562.
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  • Eugenio, Damiana (2004). Philippine Folk Literature: The Epics. University of the Philippines Press. ISBN 971-542-294-2.

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