Let’s talk really quickly about superstitions and other strange and wonderful things.
Filipinos are by far some of the most superstitious people in the entire world. From food to sleeping positions, we have a superstition for everything. Hell, my mom might have even invented a superstition three nights ago when I kept playing with my phone:
“She who sleeps with her phone will have a migraine in the morning.”
Right, mom, right.
Anyway, Filipinos have this quality of being fatalistic, and it’s obviously a toxic quality that needs to be eliminated from our culture. However, certain beliefs come out of that fatalistic attitude. While we want to be in control of our destiny, a part of us hangs on to a certain ideal that there are many facets of life that are beyond our control, or that we have no choice in the matter.
Other times, being fatalistic makes us risk-adverse, thus many Filipinos not taking the leap into being more entrepreneurial, or moving out of toxic relationships, or simply finding better opportunities. These superstitions bring us back to a comfort zone, that there’s a limit to our limitless-ness, and if we go beyond it, we are in the forest of no return.
But does that mean we’re a nation of people who are scared? No. Scarred, yes. Scared, definitely not. For what it’s worth, superstitions are part of our folklore and we should respect them as such. It is our choice to believe in them, but we must use them to our advantage to make the world better and brighter. At the same time, these superstitions should be taken at a positive light: instead of thinking that they are limiting us from reaching our potential, they are actually giving us another way of seeing things, and thus another way of living the good life.
Superstitions are not meant to scare—although they are effective in psychologically traumatizing children into being submissive (it’s really shameful how parents use folklore to scare kids). Superstitions are great teachers, and they are here to remind us that we are capable of holding our lives in our hands and taking all the risks to seek a better life, or respecting the world around us.
Some of these superstitions I’ve written down provide lessons for us, and that’s why they continue to prevail. Ready to dive right into the lovely-crazy world of Philippine superstitions? Let’s go!
Disclaimer: Please note that these are mostly Manila-based, Catholic-based, or Chinese-based superstitions. I am not so educated in other superstitions outside my Tagalog culture. While the Philippines has common beliefs across different regions, some ideas will still be different from family to family, community to community, culture to culture.
The Superstition: When you’re entering a location that supposedly haunted or filled with natural spirits, say tabi-tabi po, or asking permission to pass through or walk around the area without anything bad happening to you.
Why It Prevails: Before the arrival of the Spaniards, and even throughout our colonial history, we have always believed that we coexist with spirits, either human or natural. Until now, even when urinating on a grassy part of the garden, men would utter “tabi-tabi po” unless they want something scary happening to them.
For me, I always use this when I go to haunted places or open areas, forests, and mountains. It’s a simple way of telling the spirits that we acknowledge their presence, that we know they are there, and that we respect their space, and we humbly ask if we can peacefully move through their home.
Lesson: Learn about personal space.
The Superstition: Some buildings in Manila omit the number 4 because of that lingering Chinese belief that the number may also mean death. It’s the same with the number 13: you won’t see any building with a thirteenth floor because we consider it bad luck (lifted from our Catholic/Christian heritage).
Other people who dream of numbers believe that, if these digits were said by a dead loved one, those could make them win the lottery. On the other hand, in regard to money (those are numbers too!), paying your debts at night is considered to be bad luck, or counting money during the midnight of December 24 all the way to January 1 could mean you’ll be financially comfy all year round.
Why it Prevails: (I am just making a wild guess here; don’t quote me) We have been trading with so many cultures before the Spaniards conquered the Philippines, so we obviously picked a few things up from the Chinese and the Indians who bartered with us. This included beliefs about money and relationships, and how numbers play a big role in our fate. Many of us (I included) believe in Feng Shui, so I do take note of my lucky and unlucky numbers of the month. There are many reasons why several of our superstitions are number- or money-related, and many businesses and even celebrities from different disciplines would believe that “third time’s a charm.”
Lesson: It’s really a numbers game after all.
The Superstition: In My Fate According to the Butterfly by Gail Villanueva, our precocious protagonist, Sab, comes face-to-face with the deathly black butterfly. The black butterfly is a symbol of impending death, usually of the person who saw it. But it can mean other things, too, but there is one that is most popular: our dead loved ones manifest themselves as butterflies.
That’s why when you hear a Filipino say “Hey, that’s my lolo (grandfather)!” when they see a butterfly glide through the air, that’s the reason.
Why it Prevails: It goes back to our strong relationship with nature. We share this belief with First Nations that animals are wiser than they appear, and that each animal has a meaning and purpose in this world. The butterfly, no matter how small, is no different. Look at how scared Sab is of this light, fragile thing!
Lesson: We have always been one with nature, but we are steering away from that basic law.
Cutting your nails at night because it’s bad luck
The Superstition: This is a more practical type of superstition. If you cut your nails at night, you’ll go blind. Well, if you turn on the light, you wouldn’t go blind!
Why it Prevails: I just added this for a bit of comic relief, and to let you know that not all superstitions are to be taken seriously. However, it’s still a widely-believed superstition—even my husband still believes in this and won’t allow me to cut my nails at night, even when all the nights in our condo unit are on. *shrugs*
Lesson: Turn on the lights when you need to cut your nails.
Oro Plata Mata
The Superstition: If your house has stairs, count the number and make sure it lands on “Oro” (Gold), or “Plata” (Silver). If it lands on “Mata” (Death), well… consider changing houses.
Why it Prevails: This belief is actually shared between the Tagalog provinces, and I have yet to observe it in other cultures throughout the Philippines. Again, it goes back to the numbers superstition and how our lives tend to depend on numbers. For people who believe in Oro Plata Mata, they go through great lengths to make sure their house is auspicious and lucky, favored by the gods of fate, and blessed by the deities of fortune. It’s stemmed from Feng Shui, and that the house must face a certain direction, have a certain number of fountains in whichever corner of the house, etc.
Lesson: Be very involved in the construction of your home.
Do you believe in superstitions? Are you like Sab from My Fate According to the Butterfly, who believes that an insect can be a harbinger of death or a dead loved one visiting the living? What are some of the superstitions in your family or culture that are prevalent? Let me know in the comments below.