The fetus-eaters are aswangs or creatures in Philippine folklore that specialize not only in extracting and devouring a person’s internal organs but also in drawing out or feeding on a yet to be born child from inside a mother’s womb. They are the principal suspects for strange noises or sightings of strange creatures outside an expectant woman’s home. These sounds vary from alleged footsteps on the roof of the house, scratches on the wall and on the roof, grunts of a pig, flapping of large wings, the classic terrifying howl of a dog outside, and other unnatural or animal-like sounds like the famous “tik-tik-tik-tik” said to be made by a bird-like creature.
In most accounts, sightings of an unfamiliar dog, cat, or even livestock especially swine and the presence of abnormally large birds or bats fleeting about outside the house of a pregnant woman prelude the attacks. Other incidents before an attack include visits from unfamiliar faces such as an elderly person asking for water while stealing glances at the pregnant or encountering a stranger who seems to be delighted with the pregnant woman.
Miscarriages and still births were blamed on the fetus-eating aswangs. In the olden days, some victims were said to have been found lifeless in their bedrooms, their bellies either cut open or caved in with the fetus no longer inside the womb. Other cases tell of expectant women giving birth to nothing but masses of blood instead of wailing, cuddly babies.
Foiled attacks are also common and mothers who claim to have experienced an aswang attack describe feeling very warm despite a cold weather or the presence of air conditioning system after being awoken by human-like footsteps or scratches on the roof in the middle of the night or during the wee hours. According to them they felt uncomfortable, their bloated bellies hardening or tightening and the baby inside seemed uneasy and moved frequently. One or two mothers claimed to have woken up only to be terrified by a very long tongue suspended from the roof. Husbands, relatives, and neighbors would sometimes discover a person with skin as black as coal crouched on the roof, under the house, or clinging outside the window while staring hungrily at the intended victim.
Aside from their shared appetite for unborn children, most fetus-eaters have one common physical trait. They could extend their tongues to very long, even thread thin, tubular proboscis. These they use to pierce into the womb through the navel and inject enzymes that dissolve the fetus or organs which are then sucked out. Others use their tongues to penetrate into the womb to drain the baby’s blood. Some use non-physical means to acquire the desired fetus.
The lupad (flying ones)
As the name of their group suggests, these are flying fetus-eating aswangs. Most are known to grow wings or turn into bird-like creatures to fly while others defy the laws of flight and physics by taking to the air without wings. The flyers are notorious for landing on the roof of their intended victim’s house and soften their terrifying shriek into a faint cooing upon nearing the target.
There are two sub-groups of the fetus-eating lupad: the self-segmenters which discard (mostly) their lower halves of the body and those that fly without leaving any part of their body behind.
1. The self-segmenters
Self-segmenters (called tanggal by the ancient Tagalogs) are aswangs that could detach and leave a part of their bodies behind to hunt at night. They could also fly and most grow a pair of wings. All of them could extend their tongues to long, thread-like proboscis which they use to suck a fetus or the innards of a person. In the Province of Aklan in Western Visayas they are known as aswang hubot. Persons who turn into self-segmenters are generally believed to use a special oil or potion which they rub on their entire body or drop in the holes in their deep armpits while reciting a certain incantation. One such incantation goes like this:
“Siri-siri daing Dios kang banggi.
Haplos the daghan, layog sa kaharungan.
Dagos sa talampakan, layog sa kakahuyan.”
After that the person will grow leathery wings, sharp claws, fangs, and his torso starts to separate from the lower body. Some folks from Leyte and Capiz claim that some bend from the waist for about five minutes until the lower body detaches itself. In Catanduanes it is alleged that a self-segmenter stares at the full moon until gooey tears fall from its eyes then its body flies off.
Most self-segmenters separate their torsos from the lower halves but one variant, the Ikki or Iqui (also ike) separates not from the waist but from the knees. The creature was mentioned in a footnote of page four of the book The Aswang Syncrasy in Philippine Folklore. It stated:
“Informants from Atimonan, Quezon reported that the viscera-sucker discards its lower extremities from the knees down before flying out to forage.”
A normal person becomes a self-segmenter if he swallows the black chick-like creature that pops out of the mouth of a dying self-segmenter.
There are varying accounts on how to turn a self-segmenter into a normal human. One involves tying and hanging a person upside-down and letting him/her breathe thick smoke from a bonfire which results to nausea and vomiting of the black chick. Another method is making the afflicted person take medicine prepared by a witch doctor or herbolario.
Most self-segmenters have a common weakness. Disposing of their discarded halves (e.g.: putting salt, spices, ash on the stump or burning) will kill them. That is why most of them hide their lower halves in banana groves, secluded areas overgrown with reeds, or deep in the woods. Those that hide their discarded parts in their houses usually end up being discovered as proven in various stories.
It remains debatable as to why self-segmenters have to leave their lower halves behind but when I was in high school an old man told me that self-segmenters leave their lower parts behind so they can find their way back, especially that they travel over great distances. How this works was never explained but I assume the discarded half acts like a beacon for their return. However, these creatures’ orientation are impaired when their discarded halves are moved or switched places. They become confused and are unable to reconnect, which usually results to death at sunrise. In one story, a man discovers that his mistress and her two sisters were self-segmenters. One night when the three have gone out, he switched the places of their lower halves. Upon returning home, the three couldn’t reconcile which was which until they cried for the man to help them because sunrise was approaching.
But it seems losing a lower half did not always spell doom to all self-segmenters. In one tale the creature, after failing to find its discarded half (the cause never mentioned), took to the forest, choosing to lurk there, and swung from tree to tree with its arms like monkeys do and preyed on sleeping folks at night. It lost its wings but continued to look for its lower half.
Of all the self-segmenters in the Philippines, the most popular is the Manananggal of the Tagalog region. Its notoriety extends even to the most remote village anywhere in the archipelago. A foreigner interested with the manananggal can ask any local in the country about this creature and he would get a unanimous description: a creature that flies on bat-like wings, separates from the waist and leaves its lower half behind, sucks babies from pregnant women with its long, hollow, straw-like tongue, sharp talons, and attacks lone travelers at night. This image of the manananggal is imbedded into the minds of Filipinos through oral accounts and its portrayals in films and television shows, books, magazines, and comics. From time to time an alleged sighting of the creature made it to the news. Even in the anime movie Blade the manananggal was featured as the titular character’s nemesis.
To some a manananggal’s appearance is so incredible that a professor of mine in college said that the creature is a caricature of the country’s local female shamans or priestesses known as babaylan, cooked up by Spanish missionaries in the latter part of the Sixteenth Century to destroy the image of the local healers among the natives and in order to sway the population to convert to Catholic faith. He said the friars gave the babaylan bat-like wings so they would be associated with the devil who had bat wings. And the act of discarding the lower half of the body, where the female reproductive organ was located is symbolic of the old Catholic belief that the female genitalia is a source of temptation and desire for flesh. They accused the babaylan of stealing and eating infants like the harpies and the Lamia of ancient heathen Greece. He added, it is the reason why they say all manananggals are female.
There are various notions on the origins of the manananggal, the internet is saturated with them. The name manananggal which means “one who detaches” or “one who removes” is derived from the root word “tanggal” meaning “to detach”. The Indonesian viscera-sucker and vampire Penanggal also shares the same root word. The penanggal is somewhat similar in habit with the manananggal, the only difference is that the former detaches its head with its entrails dangling in the air and has no wings but floats. Speaking of penanggal, it seems this creature or its variants actually reached the Philippine archipelago a long time ago, for tales of similar creatures exist in the country. There was the Magtatanggal, mentioned by the Spanish missionary Juan de Plasencia in 1581 when he identified the supposed priests of the Devil in Luzon. In some parts of Eastern Visayas was the tale of the Wuwug or Wowog. As the story goes, a young man and his father went fishing at night. While they were fishing the son talked to his father. When the latter did not reply the son turned to check on him and saw his head floating above him with the entrails dangling and sparkling. The other one, called the Ungga-Ungga, Ungga, or Ongga was allegedly sighted in Negros Island before the Second World War. A certain strange sound is associated with this flying head as it hovers in the night sky with its dangling innards allegedly sparkling like a thousand fireflies.
The Abat is much like the manananggal except that it doesn’t grow wings on its back. Instead, its arms are the ones that transform into bat-like wings. Its eyes are bloodshot and almost bulge out of their sockets.
Another self-segmenter related to the manananggal could be found in Kapampangan folklore. The Magkukutud had the appearance of your classic manananggal but this one was said to lay eggs. Yes, eggs! It laid eggs in a secluded area and just left them there. Those who found the eggs were shocked to find human body parts inside after cracking them open. The magkukutud has a ghoulish habit. After finding a fresh corpse, it took the body to its home and cooked it. The creature’s name was derived from the Kapampangan word “kutod” which means “to cut”.
In the province of Aklan in Panay Island, Western Visayas the Tanggae looks similar to the manananggal but it has the ability to disguise its discarded lower half as an anthill to avoid getting caught off-guard while its other half was away hunting.
Not all winged self-segmenters possess leathery, bat-like wings and not all look hideous. One account relates that a female cow-herder was attacked by a winged creature with the head of a doll-faced young woman with hair the color of straw. Its wings were avian and created gusts of wind as they flapped in the air. The said creature could be related to the Boroka which is known for its beauty and bird-like wings. There are also first-hand accounts of encounters with self-segmenters akin to manananggals that fly without wings, known as Anananggal in some parts of Visayas.
2. The non-self-segmenters
Those belonging to this subgroup never discard any of their body parts when looking for prey. They could easily sense if a person is terminally ill by just sniffing the air. When in their human form, most are usually disguised as vegetable, fish, or meat vendors or peddlers of other goods, plying their trade in different communities while on the lookout for pregnant women to victimize. That is why in the olden days and even up to now, especially in the rural areas, peddlers who are total strangers in a village are held under suspicion by the locals because they might be up-to-no-good aswangs. They know if an expectant mother is ripe for picking by the scent of the fetus inside the womb, which to them emits a very sweet smell. The smell is so irresistible that some of them couldn’t help but make a remark about the pregnancy or glance frequently at the bloated belly of the victim. It is said this smell is akin to that of ripe jack fruit locally known as langka. When they find a target victim, they remember the location of the house for a late night visit. Before flying off to the victim’s house a non-self-segmenter would anoint its whole body with specially-made oil or ointment and bend over while muttering an incantation or, if it is a moonlit night, chant to the moon with raised arms until the skin turns as black as pitch and as slippery as an eel. Their teeth grow longer, their fingernails turn into claws, and most grow leathery wings like those of bats. Some like the Ekek or Ek-Ek are said to grow beaks lined with sharp teeth. Their toes turn into sharp grasping talons while their arms extend into powerful bird-like wings. During flight the ekek make a shrill sound from which their name is derived. Most don’t attack the victim outright on the first few nights but only observe and savor the smell of the fetus. When they finally attack they usually land on the roof directly above the sleeping victim or cling outside the window should the victim be located in a room in the first floor. This is how the Visayan Wak-Wak attacks pregnant women. The wak-wak is often confused with the manananggal but it is different from the latter. This creature looks very human but could grow bat wings with its arms and never leaves its lower half behind. In some circumstances a wak-wak chooses to walk or run than fly, especially when a victim’s house is considerably near its residence. Those who claim to have come face to face with a wak-wak said the creature sometimes walked backward on all fours with its body bent and the head tucked between the thighs. When not hunting for pregnant women, it ambushes lone travelers at night, straddling their backs with its legs wrapped tightly round the victims’ waist while attempting to strangle them. It makes a successive sound similar to its name during the entire ordeal or when it is on its way to a victim’s location. To deceive or confuse the victim of its presence, it makes a loud sound when far away and softens it into a faint shriek as if it had left when in fact it’s already near the victim. The wak-wak and the ekek penetrate a victim’s womb using their thread-like proboscis. Like the two creatures, the Tiktik, an aswang from the Visayas region with large, leathery but avian-looking wings also feeds in similar manner but it does this inside the victim’s house. The tiktik sneaks into the sleeping victim’s house, crawls on the walls, and upon finding the victim, suspends itself inverted on top of her like a bat and extends its long tongue to pierce the womb. A tiktik also looks more human in terms of facial traits and body shape but generally hideous.
Another hideous-looking fetus-eater is the ghoulish Balbal of Tagbanua folklore. It is described as having long, curved nails, large ears, big bloodshot eyes, and emits a putrid stench from the corpses it devoured. One could tell its presence by its smell alone. When not searching for a corpse, a balbal glides in the night sky like a flying squirrel and clings outside the window of an intended victim. It would then use its tubular tongue to extract the delicious unborn child.
In Cuyo, Palawan the people feared the Mangalok, a flyer described as having the pretty face of a woman. During the day the creature sleeps on the tallest branches, its hair covering its face. After sunset the mangalok awakens and flies off in search of people to prey on. Young individuals and pregnant women are its preferred victims. Upon finding a sleeping pregnant woman, it will enter the house unseen, for it can render itself invisible, and feed on the yet to be born child in the womb using its long hollow tongue through the mother’s navel.
There are other unnamed fetus-sucking non-self-segmenters mentioned in many accounts. They are generally described as persons with coal-black skin and prowl outside the house or perch on the roof of a victim’s house. When caught in the act, they jump in the air and fly off without wings.
No, not those hoard of walking reanimated corpses in The Walking Dead series. The walkers here refer to a group sub-group of fetus-eaters that are unable to fly and belong to the Aswang na Lakad (walking aswang) group. Most appear as normal humans and live very normal lives often mingling with the human populace, making it difficult to tell if they really are aswangs. In the olden days persons with hunched or forward slumping postures were suspected as aswang na lakad because of this kind of aswangs’ habit of prowling under the elevated houses especially in rural areas. But with advances in science, this supposed identifier became unreliable, for people with such conditions were not really creatures of the night but were persons who had bone deficiencies.
Unlike their lupad cousins, not all walkers have proboscis-like tongues. Some have even transcended the need for physical contact in feeding on their victims. One example is the method employed by the ordinary-looking Kantanod. When it catches the scent of a pregnant woman, it follows the victim to her home where it will either sit hidden outside the house or sneak inside and hide in the shadows, sniffing the scent of the yet to be born baby. When it leaves, the baby would also be gone inside the womb, which results to bleeding. It is speculated that the kantanod is actually not physically present in the vicinity and it is in fact its astral body that spirits away the child. Similar to the ghoulish Berbalang of Cagayan Sulu, the kantanod sends out its astral body to the house of the victim after marking her out.
A similar non-physical method is utilized by the psychic vampire Aswang na Gala (wandering aswang) of the Tagalogs. Although it generally preys on severely ill, weary, stressed, or dying persons, it also feeds on the life force of unborn children, which results to still births or miscarriages. Other unnamed walkers who use little to no physical contact with victims have been mentioned in various stories. They would just pass by a pregnant woman, a part of their bodies just grazing the victim’s bloated belly and voila! Goodbye baby.
The Tiyu-an, on the other hand, has retained the use of proboscis. Found in the old folklore in Capiz province, it appears as an ordinary woman. At night it jumps on the roof of a victim, prowls under the elevated floor in the form of a black pig, or enters the house unnoticed. It will then extend its tongue into a very long and thin proboscis and pierce the mother’s belly and suck the blood of the fetus inside. In some cases it will lick and sniff a severely ill person, sucking the life force until the victim dies. The tiyu-an is only female and owns a puppy that never grows old. This puppy is actually the master from whom she got her powers and with whom she shares a part of her quarry. The ageless mutt is passed down from one generation to another like a family heirloom. When the puppy licks the tiyu-an, it means it’s time for her to hunt.
Similar to the tiyu-an’s method is that used by the Mansusopsop. It perches on the roof of an expectant woman’s house and finds a way to introduce its very long tongue inside to feed on the victim. Unlike its other walker counterparts, the mansusopsop looks monstrous with thick eyebrows, big almost bulging eyes, a slender and bony body, and abnormally long arms and legs.
There are some non-aswang creatures in Philippine folklore that display fetus-eating habits. One such example is the Matruculan from Luzon. This monster will rip a pregnant woman’s belly open so it could eat the unborn child within the womb. It is also said that sometimes it would impregnate a virgin just to devour its own spawn later when the victim is about to give birth.
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Ramos, Maximo D. The Creatures of Midnight.
Ramos, Maximo D. The Aswang Syncrasy in Philipine Folklore.
Wilson, Collin. Occult.