Saturday, June 22, 2013

Pre-colonial literature, Philippine myths, and the development of culture

I was going through my files when I turned up this take-home exam from when I was enrolled in the Master of Arts in Literature program of Ateneo de Davao. Lest it disappear again amongst the archives again, I present it here for your amusement. Students, no copying, please.

1. How does pre-colonial literature help shape the history of a nation?
Literature of pre-colonial Philippines as a vehicle for the transmission of values of the common people. Being primarily oral in nature, this literature persists in the tales passed from generation to generation, and shapes the psyches of the listeners. The values and themes of contained in this literature continues to influence Filipinos today.

Much of the body of recorded pre-colonial literature codifies the rules of accepted behavior between people. Chief among these: generosity, humility, obedience to elders and leaders, and the good of the community. These values do not stand by themselves, but intertwine deeply with the native spirituality as expressed first, in the concept of the loob, and second, in relation to the gods and spirits.

Loob pertains to the soul of the self, the innermost core of a person, whose value comes from being shared with others. Loob recurs quite frequently in the metaphors of the Filipino languages. Gods and spirits, or anitos, on the other hand, become agents of reward and retribution for complying with or violating the proscriptions.

Pre-colonial folk literature then tends to promote a mindset that looks inwards, implicitly trusts others, and resigned to the vagaries of the gods. As such, they do not provide suitable means of expression for resistance and independence, thus leaving the society vulnerable to external colonizing forces. Likewise, Christian themes could easily supplant the native gods and spirits in their function.

Nevertheless, pre-colonial literature also served to insulate the society from total sublimation into foreign culture. Though missionaries attempted to adapt the forms for their purpose, they did not succeed completely. The values, though not incompatible, remained distinct in their focus. This uniqueness led to recognition of differences and possibly the yearning for independence. Even if pre-colonial literature could not completely preserve local culture, it at least led to the evolution of a colonial culture distinct from the mother country.

2. Comment on the extent myths are used as subjects or allusions to Philippine literature, politics, history, arts, philosophy, etc.
Philippine myths persist in many aspects of modern Filipino life, but primarily in the mode of subconscious allusions. Comparing between high mythology -- those involving gods and heroes -- and low mythology -- those involving beliefs and creatures -- we see that the latter lives on more vibrantly in the Filipino psyche.

Nowhere does this become more evident than when we consider the aswang, the dwende, the manananggal, and other denizens of lower Philippine mythology. In popular entertainment, they continue to bedevil modern heroes and hapless everymen, viz. the annual atrocities of the Metro Manila Film Festival. Neither do they live entirely in the realm of the fictional: from time to time, the tabloids will report on sightings and visitations. In the rural provinces, people still ascribe illneses to the malice of such beings.

High Philippine mythology, on the other hand, remains exclusive and forbidden territory to common folk. They might live on in origin stories told in school or the names of special places -- for example, Makiling and Sandawa -- but whether out of reverence, forgetfulness, or ignorance, people do not normally refer to them in any obvious and meaningful way. In recent memory, only one politician ventured to incorporate high Filipino mythological themes into his own image: Ferdinand Marcos infamously had a portrait of himself as Malakas and his wife Imelda as Maganda, the first man and woman emerging from the bamboo.

In contrast, other foreign myths seem to have taken the place of high Philippine mythology in modern usage. Biblical figures, for example, feature prominently (e.g., solomonic decisions), as do elements from recent Hollywood mythos (e.g., Rambo).

3. What are the commonalities present in oral lore that string together the traditions of Filipinos?
Two characteristics stand out in Filipino oral lore: first, the concreteness of imagery, and second, the communal nature of the art form. Both of these highlight a culture that strongly emphasizes the shared experience of community.

Filipino oral lore used concrete imagery taken from everyday life. They involved scenes from planting, harvesting, housework, or images of nature or other people. They exist in both the riddles and the proverbs. In order to partake in the pleasures of these forms, one must have a strong sense of observation, and that only becomes possible when one takes part in the community.

In transmission, the Filipino oral lore also had a strong communal element. Proverbs and riddles, because they are spoken, do not exist as impersonal and anonymous entities; they must be spoken and heard, and therefore, quite personal. And if short-form proverbs and riddles form part of the community bonds, moreso for the longer chanted epic narratives, played out during special community events.

Other characteristics: Filipino oral lore followed rhythmic patterns, often organized into fixed polysyllabic meters. They also employed rhyme schemes and alliteration. These may have served as mnemonic devices for the public performances.

4. How would you make use of their oral traditions in order to highlight the people?
Oral tradition as it exists today, particularly with the epics, cannot be separated from its nature as communal performance. Epic narratives form part of the cultural heritage of a people, and becomes a point of pride and distinction for the group. When talking about the customs and practices of a tribe, oral tradition naturally comes into the discussion.

Oral tradition also preserves the linguistic aspects of a tribe more faithfully, and keeps them free of foreign influences. By looking the oral traditions, we can examine the similarities and differences between one tribe and another.

Finally, because of the relative purity maintained by oral lore, we can trace the spread of a people over a geographic area by following the narratives.