An excerpt from MICHAEL GROSBERG's "Hunting the Aswang"
Not surprisingly, like other folk beliefs around the world, the origin of the aswang is rooted in a specific historic moment. History professor Ephraim Areno of West Visayas University in Iloilo City explains that, in an effort to isolate Filipinos who opposed the occupation of the islands, the Spaniards claimed that “holdouts” who were forced to flee to the mountainous interior were in fact witches in disguise.
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When you take into consideration that colonization always first takes place along the coastline, it’s not surprising that rugged, mountainous interiors become actual and metaphorical places of refuge and mystery. Traditional beliefs are more easily preserved as these places are harder to get to and farther from the reaches of modernity and technology.
Another way of understanding the emergence of this sort of belief is in the context of the clash between Christianity and traditional belief systems. During the pre-Spanish period in the Philippines, babaylan, or shaman, fulfilled important roles as political advisers to chieftains and spiritual conduits for the people. They tended to be women. With the arrival of the Spanish and the introduction of an alternative religious and political system, their power base was threatened and lives put at risk. As a result, they were influential in resisting the Spanish and therefore likely targets for a surreptitious campaign of slander and innuendo.
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