Described in Tagalog and Bicolano folklore as a small bald-headed goblin with small horns, sharp teeth, pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, and disproportionate legs (the left leg is shorter while the right one in unusually longer), the tiyanak disguises itself as a baby abandoned in the forest or in the field. It wails loudly to attract a passerby and when picked up it sheds its disguise like a snake shedding its old skin, revealing its true form, and kills the victim by biting and mauling.
Various speculations on how the tiyanak came to be range from babies born dead in the forest to the Catholic-influenced unbaptized stillborn infants, and later extended to vengeful murdered infants and aborted fetuses.
Belief in the tiyanak may have originated from the patianak of the Mandaya tribe in Mindanao, when Islam started to spread north before the arrival of the Spanish. The ancient natives in the south revered the patianak as a lesser nature spirit associated with the soil and rice fields similar to the nuno sa punso of the Tagalogs. With its name meaning “lord child”, offerings during planting and harvesting seasons were made in rice fields in honor of the patianak to ensure the health of the crops and a bountiful harvest. Those who passed by an area believed to be inhabited by the creature whispered excuses for safe passage or risk being assaulted by its diminutive inhabitant.
The image of the tiyanak gradually changed in Luzon. From a semi-benevolent being, the northern version – also known as patianak in some parts of Bicol and Pampanga – was portrayed in most tales as a fiendish blood-sucker and man-eater in the forest. With the arrival of Catholicism, the creature became a demon and tormentor of those who refused the Catholic faith. Later, the tiyanak was believed to be a demon child or the monstrous offspring of a demon and a woman, referred to as impakto or impaktito.
Interestingly, it could also be possible that belief in the tiyanak might have been influenced if not introduced by Spanish missionaries, especially those from Mexico, who were intent on converting the natives into Catholics. The Aztecs of Mexico believed in a small creature called chaneque (sounds familiar, right?). According to stories the chaneque looked like small, wrinkly old men and women who lurked in the jungle. These creatures, both feared and revered, were notorious for stealing the souls of those who strayed into their domain. The only way to recover the soul is for the victim to undergo a specific ritual, otherwise he will fall ill and die. The chaneque were also known to lead people astray, making the victims wander mindless around the jungle for days. When the conquistador Hernan Cortez finally subdued the Aztecs, the belief in the chaneque was modified by the friars to sway the natives into Catholic faith. They speculated that a chaneque was the result of the devil possessing an unbaptized stillborn child, causing it to return as a child demon that preyed on those who wandered into the jungle – a speculation shared by Filipino belief. Later it was believed that in order to escape the chaneque one must wear his shirt inside-out – a practice also popular in Philippine folklore.
With the exception of the tiyanak’s ability to disguise itself as a baby, some striking similarities with the chaneque suggest a possible link between the two creatures.
Aside from the patianak, there are other similar creatures in southern Philippine folklore associated with the tiyanak. The muntianak of the Bagobos, whose name means “small child” is the spirit of a child who died while still in the womb during childbirth. After coming back to life as a hideous little creature, it makes the forest its home and harasses or kills those who pass by.
The Tagakalao tribe of Davao believe in the mantianak, a bearded incarnation of an infant who, together with its mother, died during childbirth in the forest. It makes the forest its home and wails mournfully from time to time. Pregnant women who hear its wails suffer miscarriage. In some parts of Mindanao the mantianak is believed to be the vengeful spirit of a woman who died during the late period of her pregnancy. This wraith retains its female form but has a hole or slit in her belly where her unborn child is tucked in. Blaming men for her untimely demise, she exacts revenge by attacking any man at night, mauling him and ripping off the victim’s penis or testicles. This particular belief probably came from the south in Malaysia where the mantianak is believed to be an avenging ghost of a woman who died while giving birth.
A creature almost similar to the later version of the mantianak is the viscera-eating pontianak of Indonesian folklore. A pontianak is described as the vampiric ghost of a woman who died while pregnant. She disguises herself as a beautiful woman only to kill, mutilate, and even devour the men who approached her. High-pitched cries of a baby along with a fragrance followed by an awful stench indicate her presence.
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