Bakunawa: The Moon Thief
Written by: Ava Arnejo | 5 months ago
The Bakunawa is one of the more prominent characters in Filipino folklore. It has even made itself known in pop culture, even worn by Miss Universe Beatrice Gomez during the 70th Miss Universe Pageant. Gomez’s costume depicted it as a golden dragon on a blue night sky, with orbs of light entwined alongside its body.
Source: CDN Digital/Miss Universe Philippines
In Filipino folklore, particularly in the Visayan region, the Bakunawa often resembled a lengthened snake that either resided in the ocean or in the sky. It often has a distinctive looping tail and a single horn on the snout, which was almost accurately depicted in Arnold Arre’s artworks. Other theories also prompted that the Bakunawa resided in the underworld.
Artwork by Arnold Arre via @arnoldarre
Not only the Bakunawa was thought to be the reason for eclipses, but they were also thought to be the reason for wind, rain, and earthquakes. The motions of the Bakunawa were also used by the ancient Filipinos as a geomantic calendar system and in babaylan shamanic ceremonies.
Photo by: Lyra Auce via @lyraauce.photography
One of the very first printed mentions of the legendary Bakunawa was accounted for by a Cebuano priest named Fernando Buyser. Though his account of the Bakunawa has already been diluted with Christian imagery and has already forgotten the actual names of the original Visayan sky deities, Buyser was otherwise very substantive in providing insight into our ancestor’s beliefs. Buyser even accounted for the act of “basal”, the act of clanging pots and making loud noise during a lunar eclipse in hopes that the Bakunawa would spit out the moon.
The origins of the Bakunawa can be traced back to Rahu, a Hindu demi-god from the Vedic period of India (c. 1500–c. 500 BCE), who was introduced to Southeast Asia through commerce and the emergence of the Indianized Kingdoms around the year 200 BCE. Similarities of the Bakunawa can also be identified in Mindanao’s Minokawa (a birdlike creature that subsequently, like the Bakunawa, also eats the moon) and Luzon’s Lahu (a sky deity that swallows the moon). These similarities could be attributed to the migration of pre-colonial Filipinos long before the Spanish came to our shores.
Even though in present times we now actually know what causes eclipses, and we know that it has nothing to do with a sky or sea serpent, the Bakunawa is a hallmark of our culture. Not only is it a hallmark of our collective identity as Filipinos, but it is also a reminder that a long time ago, our ancestors already looked up at the night sky, and just like us…they wondered.