The terrifying Aswang is the most feared creature of Philippine folklore—and with good reason. Stalking its prey in the small, rural towns of the Philippines, this deadly monster nocturnally hunts for a meal of human flesh and blood.
What is an Aswang?
The Aswang (æ·swang) is a flesh-eating, shapeshifting monster. During the day, Aswangs appear as regular townspeople, though they may be observed by others to have reclusive habits or magical abilities. At night, Aswangs shift into eerie predatory forms and go hunting for human prey, preferring to feast on children and pregnant women above all else.
Varying horrible descriptions have been given of the Aswang’s appearance, but some recurrent traits stand out among all the different descriptions. Usually, the Aswang is a woman during the day. At night, however, it may appear as a bird, a pig, or a dog.
No matter which animal form it takes, an Aswang will differ from a regular animal in various disturbing ways. Most Aswangs have long, proboscis-like tongues, and are frequently described as walking with their feet backward. They have also been depicted as being so thin that they can hide behind bamboo posts.
The Aswang’s most fearsome ability is its knack for blending in with its victims. During the day, Aswangs look and act just like regular people. Although they are generally shy and somewhat reclusive, they can have jobs, friends, and even families.
During the night, Aswangs shift into a form that is better suited to hunting. Different regional versions of the creature are said to take different forms. The tik-tik and wak-wak become large birds, while the zegben (sometimes described simply as a companion of the monster) takes on the form of a Tasmanian devil. Aswangs have also been reported shifting into pigs and dogs.
In addition to shapeshifting, Aswangs also have the ability to transform the appearance of other objects. It’s common for an Aswang to transform plant material into a doppelganger of one of its victims, in order to hide the evidence of its feeding habits from locals. These doppelgangers might replace corpses, which Aswangs often consume, or they might replace living people. If the doppelganger replaces a living person, it will return to the person’s home, get sick, and quickly die.
Another tactic Aswangs use to disguise themselves is to use sinister vocal tricks. As the fearsome predator gets closer to its victim, its call gets quieter and quieter, so its victim is tricked into thinking the monster is actually getting further away.
The Aswang’s hunting prowess is almost as frightening as its ability to hide itself in plain sight. Aswangs like to dine on corpses, fetuses, and small children. They often appear at funeral wakes or at the bedside of pregnant women to eat. The Aswang uses its proboscis like tongue to suck blood from its victims or suck a fetus from a pregnant woman’s womb. They also have superhuman strength during the nighttime.
A person transforms into this deadly predator by tying a fertilized chicken egg to his or her stomach. After some time, the chick passes from the egg into the stomach. Once this has happened, the remaining eggshell is buried in a bamboo tube, along with coconut oil and chicken dung. The person now has the powers of an Aswang.
A dying Aswang can also pass its powers along to someone else if it wishes. The Aswang holds its mouth close to a chosen person, and the chick inside the monster’s stomach hops into the mouth of the new person.
The first step towards ridding a town of this deadly assailant is identifying the monster. There are several ways in which you can do this. Aswangs generally have bloodshot eyes, since they have been awake hunting all night. In addition, it is said that if you look directly into an Aswang’s eyes, your reflection will appear upside-down. The most common method of detecting Aswangs, however, involves using albularyos oil, a special oil made of coconuts and holy plants. This oil is said to boil whenever an Aswang is near.
Aswangs are repelled by garlic and religious artifacts and are at their weakest during the day, when they are in human form. They can be killed by decapitation or by being struck with a whip made from a sting ray’s tail.
The Aswang has a lot in common with western vampires, but there is no evidence to show that either creature inspired the creation of the other. Stories of the Filipino monster and of vampires probably evolved separately.
Other monsters in Philippine folklore are more likely to be related to the Aswang.
Both the wak-wak version of the Aswang and the manananggals, a different monster, leave behind half of their human torso when they transform into a predatory form during the night.
Aswangs also have connections to witchcraft in the Philippines, and are generally described as women. They are also sometimes said to have magical powers during the day. While they are generally to be feared, they are sometimes said to provide healing potions or to cast spells for local people.
The Aswang was born out of Philippine folklore, with stories of this terrifying creature dating back to at least the 16th century, when Spanish explorers created the first written record of monster. The explorers noted that of all the monsters in their folklore, the Aswang was the most feared by native people.
The creature’s name comes from the Sanskrit word “asura,” which means demon. This terrifying monster is also sometimes called the tik-tik or the wak-wak. These names come from the sinister sounds the monster is said to make while hunting.
Despite the fact that belief in this terrifying creature has spread throughout the Philippines, there aren’t many well-known individual stories. Instead, the Aswang’s fame is built on a collection of firsthand encounters, and almost everyone who claims to have seen this fabled creature has a slightly different report.
Aswang mythology was formalized in the 1960s, when Maximo Ramos included a description of the monster in a book titled Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology.
Drawings of the Aswang have populated Philippine folk art for centuries. Since its introduction to western culture, the creature has also begun to make appearances in western art.
The Aswang Inquiry, an illustrated book by Gilda Cordero-Fernando, contains many paintings of the Aswang. Stage plays have also brought the mythology surrounding this creature into the spotlight, with Luna: an Aswang Romance and Tiktik: the Aswang Chronicles both showcasing the monster.
Most recently, a documentary called The Aswang Phenomenon explored the evolution of the related mythology and the culture behind the myths.
Explanations of the Myth
As fantastic as stories of the Aswang might seem, they may actually have been inspired by real life events.
One theory is that native wildlife was the inspiration for the legends. The “tik tik” and “wak wak” hunting calls the monster is said to make are probably the calls of nocturnal birds. Bats, Tasmanian devils, and kagwang, an endangered species of flying lemur, have all been killed because they have been suspected of being Aswang in a transformed state.
Another possible explanation of Aswang mythology is the presence of a rare genetic disease called XDP, which almost exclusively affects Filipino men. XDP causes patients to have Parkinsonian and dystonic symptoms; the patient is afflicted with uncontrollable muscle spasms, contortions, and tremors. Images of Aswangs during transformation are strikingly similar to photographs of a patient experiencing XDP symptoms. The highest concentration of XDP occurrences is in the Capiz region, which is rumored to be the original home of the Aswang.
Finally, the Aswang legend may be used to explain away horrendous, unsolved crimes in the Philippines. When a person disappears or is brutally murdered, it may be easier for local people to attribute the crime to a demon rather than to one of their fellow humans. Tabloids often attribute crimes to the Aswang, which adds fuel to the mythology.