From ODDITIES by Rupert Gould 1922,1943.
THE BERBALANGS OF CAGAYAN SULU (now know as Mapun)
It is not generally known (and I do not state it as a fact) that certain American citizens (1) possess the ability to quit their bodies or a short period, and to travel about in the form of fire-flies for the purpose of assaulting their neighbours.
If I asserted my personal belief in this somewhat surprising statement I should not expect to meet with much credence. I have on intention of doing so. I only wish to give a short account of the evidence which will enable someone bolder than myself, if he so desires, to show that it is not quite so devoid of foundation as it nay appear..
The sole evidence is to be found in an article by Mr. Ethelbert Forbes Skertchley, of Hong-Kong, published under the aegis of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. It appeared in their Journal for 1896. The contents of the Society’s Journal exhibit, like the Philosophical Transactions of an even more famous and dignified body, the Royal Society of London, cover a very wide range of subjects and interests. All is fish that comes to its net. The majority of the papers deal with ethnological subjects, but as a whole they embrace almost every branch of human knowledge: mathematics, astronomy, numismatics, biology, philology, anthropology, medicine, et hoc genus omne. They give the impression of composing a formidable body of hard and perfectly sincere spade work done in the cause of scientific truth. A priori, one would not dream of accusing the author of any article which the Society has judged worthy of inclusion in its Journal of relating a mere “traveller’s tale”, or of stooping to perpetrate a hoax-such an occurrence would seem, on the face of it, as improbable as a police raid, in support of our chaotic Licensing Laws, upon the Athenaeum Club. Never before, surely, did so strange a tale as Mr Skertchley’s find so unimpeachable a sponsor.
“Cagayan Suhi, its Customs, Legends, and Superstitions”, by Ehelbert Forbes Skertchiey. ( by the Anthropological Secretary received July 6th, read 4th November, 1896). Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. lxv, Part III, Anthropology and Cognate Subjects. No. I, 1896. Printed in Calcutta, at the Baptist Mission Press, and published by the Asiatic Society, 57 Park Street.
His article begins reasonably enough with a description, rather in the manner of the Admiralty Sailing Directions, of the little island of Cagayan Sulu, It lies at the southern end of the Philippine group, and its inhabitants have in consequence, been quasi-citizens of the United States of America since 1898. They will remain so until the Filipinos both demonstrate their fitness for independence and receive it at the hands of their present overlords (2) separate contingencies, over the first of which there appears to hang, at the time of writing, some shadow of doubt, while the second well, perhaps the less I commit myself about the second, the better.
At the date of Mr. Skertchley’s visit the island was under Spanish rule – with whose blessings, apparently, he was not greatly impressed. The natives, mustering about fifteen hundred fighting men, held even stronger views, which they were at little pains to conceal from the local Spanish garrison, consisting of a captain and four men (chiefly employed guarding a tin flag nailed to a pole).
The middle portion of the article reads much like any other of its kind, and enters into a good deal of rather ordinary ethnological detail. Then, after one or two folk-stories have been related, come three pages in which Mr. Skertchley tells, both from his own experience and from local information, the remarkable story of the Berbalangs:
“In the centre of the island is a small village, the inhabitants of which owe allegiance to neither of the two chiefs. These people are called ‘Berbalangs’ and the Cagayans live in great fear of them.“These Berbalangs are ghouls, and must eat human flesh occasionally or they would die. You can always tell them, because the pupils of their eyes are not round, but just narrow slits like those of a cat.
“They dig open the graves and eat the entrails of the corpses; but in Cagayan the supply is limited, so when they feel the craving for a feed of human flesh they go away into the grass, and, having carefully hidden their bodies, hold their breath and fall into a trance. Their astral bodies are then liberated. They flyaway, and entering a house make their way into the body of one of the occupants and feed on his entrails.
“The Berbalangs may be heard coming, as they make a moaning noise which is loud at a distance and dies away to a feeble moan as they approach. When they are near you the sound of their wings may be heard and the flashing lights of their eyes can be seen like dancing fire-flies in the dark.
“Should you be the happy possessor of a cocoa-nut pearl you are safe, but otherwise the only way to beat them off is to cut at them with a kris, the blade of which has been rubbed with the juice of a lime. If you see the lights and hear the moaning in front of you, wheel suddenly round and make a cut in the opposite direction. Berbalangs always go by contraries and are never where they appear to be,
“The cocoa-nut pearl (3),a stone like an opal- sometimes found in the cocoa- nut, is the only really efficacious charm against their attacks; and it is only of value to the finder, as its magic powers cease when it is given away. When the finder dies the pearl loses its lustre and becomes dead. “The juice of limes sprinkled on a grave will prevent the Berbalangs from entering it, so all the dead are buried either under or near the houses, and the graves are sprinkled daily with fresh lime-juice.”
So far, so good. The reader of the article naturally imagines that Mr. Skertchley is merely relating, more or less in the words of the Cagayans, one of their pet beliefs, which bears a close family resemblance to other stories of ghouls in other parts of the world. The “strigoi” of Rumania, for example, is supposed to prey on the dead, and also, when his food is scarce, on the living. Like the berbalangs, he is credited with the power to discard his body and assume other strange shapes at will. Against him, too, various symbolical precautions must be taken.
“The branch of wild rose on his coffin keep him that he move not from it; a sacred bullet fired into the coffin kill him so that he be true dead; and as for the stake through him, we know already of its peace; or the cut-off head that giveth rest.
The best-known novel of the late Bram Stoker. It is a mine of quite accurate information relating to the Rumanian customs and superstitions with regard to their “Un-Dead”-human beings whom they believe to have become vampires
Such are the words of the erudite Doctor van Helsing, a prominent figure in that classic of vampire literature, Dracula. As among the Cagayans, too, the coffins menaced by vampires are also protected by similar methods; devices such as the “mort-houses” and “patent coffins” used in this country during the period of the Resurrection-Men are, apparently, of no avail against any competent vampire.
But the startling finale of Mr. Skertchley’s article, in which he relates his own experience of the Berbalangs, entirely upsets this theory, and leaves it doubtful how far, in the portion already quoted, he is drawing on the native stock of folk-lore and how far he is detailing his own conclusions. “Having heard so much about the Berbalangs, I was naturally anxious to see them, but could get no one to go as a guide, till after two or three days Hadji Mahomet’s eldest son, Matali, volunteered to accompany me. We set out at once.
“We arrived in sight of the village about five o’clock, but Matali would not approach within half a mile, and tried to persuade me not to go nearer. Finding I was determined to go, however, he begged me to take his kris and a few limes and told me to accept no food unless I first sprinkled it with lime-juice, as the Berbalangs were in the habit of setting food before strangers which had the appearance of curried fish but was in reality human flesh, and should I once eat this my soul would be destroyed and I should become a Berbalang. If, however, before eating I sprinkled the food with lime-juice, it would resume its natural shape. “Taking the kris and limes, and leaving Matali praying for my safety, I soon arrived at the village. It consisted of about a dozen houses of the ordinary native type; but with the exception of a few fowls and a solitary goat there was no living thing to be seen. I was surprised at this and entered several of the houses, but all were alike deserted. Everything was in perfect order, and in one house some rice was standing in basins, still quite hot, as though the occupants had been suddenly called away when about to begin their evening meal.
“I returned to Matali, and on telling him of the deserted state of the village he turned pale, and implored me to come back at once, as the Berbalangs were out, and it would be dangerous to return in the dark. “The sun was setting as we started on our homeward way, and before we had covered half the distance it was quite dark. There was not a breath of air stirring, and we were in the middle of an open valley with no trees about when we heard a loud moaning noise like someone in pain. Matali immediately crouched down in the long grass and pulled me down beside him: he said the Berbalangs were coming down the valley, and our only chance was that they might pass us by without seeing us. We lay there while the moaning sound grew fainter, and Matali whispered that they were coming nearer.
‘Presently the sound died away to a faint wail and the sound of wings became audible, while a lot of little dancing lights, like fire-flies, only reddish, passed over us. I could feel Matali’s grip tighten on my arm, and I felt: a nasty creepy sensation about the roots of my hair, but after the lights had passed, the noise of wings ceased, the moaning grew louder, and Matali told me they had gone by, and for the time being we were safe.
“We continued on our way down the valley, and on passing an isolated house at some distance from the path the moaning grew faint again, and Matali said the Berbalangs had certainly gone into the house, and he trusted that Hassan, the owner, had a cocoa-nut pearl to protect him. Now I knew Hassan, to whose house the Berbalangs had gone, and decided to call on him the next day and see what account he had to give of the night’s occurrences.
Accordingly, soon after daybreak, I started off alone, as I could get no one to accompany me, and in due course came to Hassan’s house. There was no sign of anyone about, so I tried the door, but found it fastened. I shouted several times, but no one answered, so, putting my shoulder to the door, I gave a good push and it fell in. I entered the house and looked round, but could see no one, going farther in, I suddenly started back, for huddled up on the bed, with hands clenched, face distorted, and eyes staring as in horror, lay my friend Hassan dead.
“I have stated above the facts just as they occurred, and am quite unable to give any explanation of them.
If Mr. Skertchley had read his paper to the Asiatic Society, instead of communicating it, I imagine that such of the members as might have been present would, unless they desired a breach of the peace, have concurred with his concluding remark. The first explanation which at once suggests itself is that the whole story is either pure or adulterated fiction. Those who wish may think so; they have been provided with sufficient material to form their opinion. It is a hypothesis which I do not propose to adopt. I know nothing of Mr. Skertchley, and I should be sorry to accuse any man of deliberate lying merely on the ground that something he had narrated seemed to me to be intrinsically improbable. The utmost that I think myself justified in saying is that the story looks to me to be, in places, a little coloured to be related in a manner which, here and there, tends a little too obviously towards literary effect. It almost reads like one of those haunting Ghost Stories of an Antiquary which it was the late Provost of Eton custom to relate for the delight of his friends, and sometimes (but too infrequently) to publish.
I confess that I cannot dismiss the story as a fable; and yet it seems to defy all explanation. Part of it the account of the customs of the Berbalangs-may be dismissed as mere folk-lore. The death of the villager Hassan, again, might have been due merely to suggestion. Many such cases are on record. The Voodoo-fearing Negro in Haiti who has been cursed by one of the “Papaloi”, or the West African native upon whom a Porroh-man has put a ju-ju, very often pines away and dies at the bidding of his own imagination. Civilized men have done the same. There is a case on record of an Oxford scout who got into the bad books of some of the undergraduates. They held a mock trial, conducted with the utmost solemnity, and sentenced him to be beheaded. He was made to kneel, blindfolded, at a block, and then the “executioner” flipped him lightly on the back of the neck with a wet towel. He was picked up stone-dead.
This occurrence, and many others that might be instanced-such as the old story of the healthy convict who, as an experiment, was told, with appropriately surgical mise-en-scene, that he was being bled to death and succumbed, like the walls of Jericho, to the noise of a tap kept running under the operating-table maybe explained as a simple case of heart failure following shock; but I do not think it has been proved that such is invariably the true explanation. I suggest that it is quite likely that, if the unfortunate Hassan had been brought, in some way, to believe that he was beset by the Berbalangs, he might have died as the direct result of this suggestion.
The questions remain, how was that suggestion effected, and was it in any way connected with the appearances described by Mr. Skertchley? I leave it to entomologists to say whether the “dancing lights, like fire-flies, only reddish” could, actually, have been any known form of luminous insect capable of existing in the Philippines; and whether it is possible to train such insects to make, like bees or pigeons, for some designated spot, The Chinese, it is well known, can do much In the way of insect training, but I do not know whether such feats are within their capacity or anyone else’s.
If such things are possible they provide, I suggest, the groundwork of an explanation. The stage noises could have been provided by the Berbalangs accompanying, under cover of night, their swarm of trainee fire-flies. As for their motives in carrying on this strange deception, it is surely permissible to regard them as a savage Mafia terrorizing a smaller Sicily.
I am not certain whether there is any close parallel to the details of the Berbalang story to be found in other parts of the world. The late Andrew Lang adapted Mr. Skertchley’s account to the purposes of a novel, The Disentanglers, and quoted his authority, adding, in a footnote, (4) “See also Monsieur Henri Junod, in Les Ba-Ronga (Attinger, Neuchitel, 1898). Unlike Mr. Skertchley, M. Junod has not himself seen the creature.”
I have read M. Junod’s book, an ethnological study of an African tribe, with some care, but I have not been fortunate enough to find anything bearing even the remotest analogy to the doings of the Berbalangs. It is a common saying, “out East”, that if you live there long enough you will come to believe anything. Now that American civilization has reached the Philippines, however, we may hope that this reproach will be submerged in a great wave of “uplift”. I trust that the Berbalangs who by all accounts are at least “most unpleasant people-may be led to see the error of their ways; and that at the same time some thing may be done towards a scientific investigation of the powers which they are reputed to possess, and of their physical structure. An anatomical examination of the pupils of their eyes, for example, could not fail to provide confirmation or disproof of one of the many interesting pieces of folk lore collected by Mr. Skertchley.
Dr. M. R. James. I can hear his voice now, reading Mr. Skertchley’s account to my brother and myself, after dinner, in the Provost’s Lodge at King’s thirty years and more ago
(1)When this book was first published, one or two of these, disregarding my preliminary caution, took this statement a little too seriously, and sent me learned disquisitions upon the exact legal status of the Filipinos under American rule
(2) With whom, at the present time (1944) we may safely leave General MacArthur to deal.
(3) It is very similar to the silicious concretion, known by the Hindu name of “tabasheer”, sometimes found in the joints of bamboos
(4) The Disentanglers, Andrew Lang (London, 19O2- p. 242, f.n.).