The Tikbalang goes by many names. A feature of Philippine folklore, this creature is also known as the Tigbalang, Tigbalan, Tikbalan, Tigbolan, and (more prosaically) the Werehorse. It is said to prowl the rainforests and mountains of the Philippines, hidden from the humans.
It is described as a humanoid creature that is both tall and bony, with the head of a horse and hooves. Supposedly it had disproportionately long limbs, so much so that its knees reached above its head when it squatted down. In older rural areas whispers still remain about the Tikbalang, but where did it come from and why is it still remembered?
The Origins of the Tikbalang
Tikbalang can be traced back through Hinduism to 4,000 years ago. This helps to explain how the appearance of Tikbalang as a mysterious half-horse half-man creature came to be.
The ancient peoples of the Philippines believed in animalism. They also believed that the world had a consciousness that spread throughout nature. It traveled through stones, mountains, the sea, the sun, and trees. The moon itself was believed to have a hidden power that was the spirit or the idol. It controlled many aspects of human life, and could be both good and bad.
Some of the earliest written records that exist today come from the 16th century Spanish occupation of the Philippines. Father Juan de Plasencia documented that the Tikbalang was a long-held belief of the indigenous people. He described the situation as follows:
“They greatly fear and reverence the tigbàlang or bibit. This is a ghost, goblin, or devil; and as it knows the cowardice of these Indians, it has been wont to appear to them in the mountains—now in the guise of an old man, telling them that he is their nono; now as a horse; and now as a monster. Consequently, the Indians in their terror make various pacts with it, and trade their rosaries for various articles of superstitious value, such as hairs, grass, stones, and other things, in order to obtain all their intents and free themselves from all the dangers. Thus do they live in delusion until God wills that the evangelical ministers undeceive them, which costs no little [effort], because of the very great fear with which they are filled.”
The Tikbalang and Hinduism
Hinduism spread from India across Southeast Asia around 200 AD, and so to trace the origins of Tikbalang before this time we must leave the Philippines. Indian cultural influence was on the rise throughout the region due to the increase in trade and exploration.
But nothing in the Hindu pantheon quite matches up. There is a potential that Tikbalang may have originated from the Hindu God Hayagriva. Hayagriva was the horse-headed avatar of the God Vishnu. He has a record of being worshiped from around 2,000 BC, making Tikbalang very old indeed.
People began to associate Hinduism and Tikbalang around 1860, with the discovery of a statue in Cambodia dating from the 10th century. It was a statue that displayed the demons of Vadavamuka, a more radical version of Vishnu. On it, an image of something similar to Tikbalang can be seen. The Filipinos likely adopted Tikbalang from their trade and interaction with the Hinduism of Asia.
The idea of Tikbalang as a horse creature cannot be seen until the 16th century. This is because the Philippines did not have horses until the Spanish arrived. The earliest mentions and stories of Tikbalang never refer to a horse or a specific animal shape.
Instead, they are often referred to as ghosts of the forests or phantoms of the wilds. In a historical dictionary produced by San Buenaventura, the word Tigbalang was likened to “tiyanac”, the Philippine vampire baby (and a story for another time) and given aspects associated with other fantastical creatures, such as satyrs, gnomes, or goblins.
The Tikbalangs are associated with scaring travelers and leading them astray so that they can deceive and trick them. In order to stop them, it is recorded that wearing one’s shirt inside out will prevent them from tricking you.
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Or you could ask for permission to pass through the forest, as such spirits are often appeased with courtesy. Some superstitions encourage travelers to be quiet as they pass through the woods or mountains so as not to disturb the Tikbalangs.
Whilst some legends have the Tikbalangs as malevolent figures, others have them as guardians of the natural kingdom. Apparently, they can be found at the foot of a large tree protecting the forest and keeping an eye out for anyone that will try and bestow evil on their territory.
A common saying in the Philippines when there is rain on a clear sky is that “a Tikbalang” is getting married. It is very similar to a Spanish saying about a witch getting married on a similar day. This relates to many cultures around the world in which a trickster gets married when it rains unexpectedly on a sunny day.
The Tikbalang is usually associated with dark and thinly populated areas where the foliage and shrubbery are overgrown. Their habitat is often close to or underneath bridges, in bamboo clumps, or banana groves. Tikbalangs are said to have the ability to transform into a human or to go invisible which helps them to send travelers astray. However, there is also a legend that claims these beasts could be tamed.
The mane of the Tikbalang is meant to be sharp, made of spines but with three important thick ones. If a person could get a hold of one of these spines, then they could use it as a talisman to control the Tikbalang.
In order to obtain these spikes, a person would have to leap onto the Tikbalang with a special cord, holding on until the beast tired. Failing this, the legend also claims that if you look at the mane of the Tikbalang, you should be able to see three golden hairs. If you pluck them then you will be served until you die.
The Tikbalang still features in popular culture today, and many rural communities still believe in this strange creature. With some parts of the Philippines remaining unexplored and uninhabited, who is to say that Tikbalang is not out there, guarding the forests against human incursion?
Top Image: The Tikbalang is a malevolent demon which haunts the forests of the Philippines. Source: William / Adobe Stock.
By Kurt Readman
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