Saturday, October 10, 2009

Conf. Paper: The Great Scorching (3 of 3)

Another set of myths related to the raising of the sky and the end of the great heat is found among the highland peoples of Mindanao and Luzon in the Philippines. In many mythologies of the Philippines and surrounding regions, the pre-diluvian and/or pre-scorching period was either a golden age or at least a period of normalcy[i]. This supports the idea that the low height of the sky is a post-creation event. There was still a memory of times when the seas were not rising and temperatures were not so warm.

In one Ifugao version in northern Luzon, the golden age is followed by drought that spurs people to dig for springs of water. They finally reach a great underwater fountain, apparently a form of the great navel of the Earth found in other regional myths. Waters gushing from the spring cause the Great Deluge[ii].

Manobo and Bagobo myths tell also of the Great Scorching that endangers all life. People cannot plant, or do not know planting yet, and cannot even reproduce properly to populate the land. After Tuglibong or Mona raises the sky by striking it with her pestle, a golden age ensues, people begin to multiply and crops are planted. Either Tuglibong or her daughter Mebuyan creates a great hole into the Underworld when her spinning rice mortar drills into the Earth. The mortar is placed at the center of the Earth when the rice is pounded, and one version places it on a mound. This imagery could suggest the cosmic mountain, in this case a volcano whose crater is seen reaching into the bowels of the Earth[iii].

The Earth opening created by the mortar, the world spring created by the Ifugao and the widespread motif of the “navel of the sea” found in the Philippines and throughout much of Insular Southeast Asia all appear related[iv]. They are generally linked in some way either with the flood or with control of the flood, or with the ebbing and flowing of the tide.

The navel of the sea drains the waters of the ocean keeping the seas from rising too high. It is also widely seen as responsible for the changing tides. The opening created by Tuglibong or Mebuyan leads to the Black River of the Underworld, which can be seen as related to the underground oceanic waters originating from the cosmic drain. In Pampanga, myths of the battle between the gods of Arayat, on the one hand, and Pinatubo or Sambal gods on the other, are often seen in the light of a great deluge or storm[v]. The battle between the two mountain gods could allegorically represent a volcanic eruption as the two deities hurl rocks at each other.

We also find in this region the common theme of the battle between the Sun and the Moon[vi], something that I submit can be seen as a reference to the cataclysm of fire, and water or steam, that occurs during an eruption. This set of motifs not only occurs widely in the Philippines but also can be found in many parts of Southeast Asia and reaches all the way to India. In many cases, the quarrel starts because of the intense heat caused by the Sun and his progeny. After the battle, we again see the start of a new age when things are more or less stable, and in which the Moon, once the superior or equal to the Sun, takes a subordinate position.

In Eden in the East, Dr. Oppenheimer mentions a legend of the deluge combined with a fiery cataclysm in classical Hindu texts. The theme appears to link with mythologies of various Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burmese, Daic and other peoples in India and Southeast Asia often together with the motif of the Sun-Moon battle. In these myths, we often find a catastrophe of fire-rain or fire-water upon the Earth[vii], along with the motif of excessive heat from the Sun and his children.

We have then three different causes for the Great Scorching: 1) The low height of the sky and thus the Sun, 2) the multiplicity of Suns, or 3) the excess heat of the Sun usually combined together with that of his progeny. In each case, the intense heat threatens the world and is usually solved by violent action such as striking the sky to raise it higher, shooting down the superfluous Suns, or a battle between the Moon and the Sun.

When the problems related to the Sun’s heat are resolved, the other plagues of rising seas, floods, drought and fire-rain finally subside as well although the resolution is in itself usually cataclysmic. Moreover, the final event is often easily interpreted as indicating a volcanic eruption with falling ashes, embers and rocks; even the descriptions of the falling Suns can be seen as large spewed fireballs or fiery ash clouds descending to the Earth. If we study the distribution of these motifs, we find a strong circum-Pacific association.

Therefore, the ancient peoples around Sundaland, I would suggest, sought to explain global climate changes, as they experienced them regionally, through myth. Memories of a previous stable climate were preserved in ideas of an ancient golden age that preceded the great flood or great heat.

These latter events, due to rising temperatures and rising sea levels, were explained in various ways, most commonly through the idea of a low sky and Sun. It may be that Asian brown clouds, the result of more frequent and intense forest fires linked to global warming, helped in the development of the belief of the low height of the sky.

A volcanic eruption centralized along the Nusantao trade routes was, in turn, connected through both coincidental and causative events with positive changes in climate and sea levels. The fireballs of the eruption were visualized as superfluous Suns, and back-linked with the Great Scorching. These Suns, shot down and submerged in the sea, consumed the excess water flows thus controlling sea levels. In other myths, the eruption opened up or cleared the ocean’s great cosmic drain.

These explanations were created by the ancients to both explain and record events of a truly cataclysmic nature that had changed their societies.

Now, having offered my hypothesis on the nature and origin of these myths, I would like to turn to something that Prof. Odal-Devora requested of me when she invited me to this prestigious event. That is to explore the ancient flood myths in relation to the modern situation of global warming and rising sea levels.

Myth often contains moral lessons and warnings in the form of prophecy. The recording of natural calamities may have been meant as a warning for future generations. What happened before could, and probably will, happen again. You might be surprised to find out that even some modern geologists have even created a new field of research known as geomythology[viii].

Geomythologists study ancient legends for clues that might indicate potential for natural disaster that has not yet been revealed by scientific research.

Patrick Nunn from Fiji, for example, was contracted by the French government to study Pacific myths for warning clues of natural disasters. Nunn became a believer in the power of geomythology in 2002 when road construction revealed signs of a recent volcanic eruption on the island of Kadavu supporting local legend. Previously he had dismissed such traditional lore because scientific studies showed the last volcanic activity was tens of thousands of years old[ix].

Probably the best recent example of how ancient legends can instruct future generations came during the recent devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The Moken, nomadic sea gypsies living in Thailand, preserve myths that warn of sudden and dramatic receding tides creating ‘man-eating waves, that people should escape by heading for high ground[x].

During the 2004 tsunami, which killed 300,000 people, the Moken heeded this ancient knowledge and survived the terrible disaster.

Moken traditions may serve as one example of how ancient myths can serve a very practical purpose for future generations. We know that in the present many indigenous peoples have a deep reverence for nature.

The Agta people of Cagayan in northern Luzon know that fire could be put to great advantage when used wisely[xi]. Fire could clear land for agriculture, but if the fire were allowed to get out of control, the land would produce no food. Agta use fire to attract animals during hunting, and the smoke from fire aids them on their expeditions for honey and red ant larvae and eggs. They also use smoke to repel insects and snakes, and the ashes from fire to repel parasites. Like the Hanunoo of Mindoro, the Agta realize that fire must not endanger the regeneration of fallow land. The Hanunoo watched over the trees on fallow land to make sure they were not cut down prematurely and they placed firebreaks around all swidden land to protect the fallow[xii].

When used wisely fire could help reduce the forest load actually helping to prevent forest fires. However, the slash-and-burn methods of modern commercial farmers have rejected the old ideas of natural balance.

Lowland slash-and-burn farmers quickly exhaust the land and promote topsoil loss, landslides and flooding[xiii]. The excessive fire and smoke soon disturbs the ecological balance in the region resulting often in loss of both forest and agricultural land.

In the present-day, we have seen how the loss of knowledge of the natural balance may cost humanity and the rest of the world dearly through unnatural processes of global warming. Not that global warming is itself unnatural. The flooding of Sundaland was not the fault of our ancestors.

However, modern humans are causing climate change to occur before its natural cycle. We are bringing on misery at a global scale before its natural time. Like slash-and-burn farmers, modern industry is unwisely dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at an ever-increasing rate, changing global weather patterns.

Moreover, we are beginning to feel nature’s wrath. Although we may not be able to avoid all the consequences of our past actions, we can still come to an accord again with nature, with our parents, the Earth and Sky, and in the process realize the wisdom of our ancestors.

[i] Damiana L. Eugenio. Philippine Folk Literature: The Myths, University of the Philippines Press, 1993, 103-113.

[ii] Otley Beyer. “Origin myths among the mountain peoples of the Philippines,” The Philippine journal of science April 1913. [Vol. 8, no. D], 112.

[iii] Raats, 6, 14, 20-25, 33, 34.

[iv] Manansala, Sailing the Black Current, 5-33; Beyer, 89;

[v] Luther Parker. “Daughters of Sinukuan,” Philippine Magazine 1929, Vol. 26, no. 1, 535, 694, 750.

[vi] Rudolf Rahmann. “Quarrels and Enmity between the Sun and the Moon. A Contribution to the Mythologies of the Philippines, India, and the Malay Peninsula,” Folklore Studies, Vol. 14, 1955 (1955), pp. 202-214.

[vii] Oppenheimer, 268-9.

[viii] Robin McKie. “Ancient legends give an early warning of modern disasters,” The Observer Dec. 4 2005, <>.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] R. F. Ellen, PeterParkes and Alan Bicker. Indigenous Environmental Knowledge and Its Transformations, Routledge, 2000, 183ff.

[xii] Harold C. Conklin. Hanunoo agriculture, University Microfilms, 1972.

[xiii] Cheryl Ann Palm. Slash-and-burn Agriculture: The Search For Alternatives, Columbia University Press, 2005, 3-8.