Philippine Precolonial Literature

Before the Philippines was colonized, it was already – brimming with a rich tradition of oral literature. Early Filipinos weaved together countless myths and legends to explain certain phenomena in life. They had stories on how the world was created—why there is a sun in the morning and the moon at night, how a mountain was formed, why there are earthquakes, and other life events. However, because paper was not invented yet, many of these tales were not preserved and have vanished from local knowledge. Most of what have been transcribed now are taken from oral literature, which means that these stories have been passed on from one generation to another. Most of that which survived are epics and folklores. Here are their descriptions and other forms of literature that were passed on by the early Filipinos to today’s generation.

  • Proverbs are practical observations and philosophy of everyday life that are written usually in a rhyming scheme. It is obviously meant to entertain while teaching basic skills in surviving local life. In Filipino, these are called salawikain. Here are some examples:
    • Kung ano ang puno, siya ang bunga. (Whatever the tree, so is the fruit.)
    • Kung walang tiyaga, walang nilaga. (If you don’t persevere, you can expect no reward.)
  • Riddles are like proverbs with one main difference: they demand an answer and are used to test the wits of those who are listening to them. Usually, riddles (or, in Filipino, bugtong) are used in a battle of wits, where locals young and old join and/or watch to see who is the smartest. Another characteristic of Filipino riddles is their flippant nature—they seem to be referring to something laughable, but in reality, the answer is more serious than expected. Can you guess the answers to these riddles?
    • Heto na si Kahl. bubuka-hukaka. (Here comes Kaka, walking with an open leg.)
    • Sa araw ay bungbong, so gabi ay dahon. (Roll in the morning, leaf in the afternoon.)
  • Folksongs are beautiful songs that are informal expressions of our ancestors’ experiences in life. These range from courtship (which they sing in a harana or a serenade for a girl), to lullabies, harvests, funerals, and others.
  • Tales are stories of origin for certain places, their names, and their creation. These are also known as myths and legends. They usually are used to explain certain events or phenomena in our ancestors’ lives that cannot be explained by the limited practical kind of science they knew back then. Some examples are the origin of mountains such as Mount Makiling or Mount Arayat, or legends of great heroes like Bernardo Carpio.
  • Epics are long-winded poems about a hero and his adventures and misadventures. 

It usually tells of a male hero who is born with all the pleasing qualities that your ancestors like in a person and who also has superhuman capabilities. This male hero is also paired with a beautiful young maiden, whom he will fall in love with and will usually have to go to battle for. Sometimes, supernatural elements are also introduced to show the strength of the hero and his capabilities. One of the best epics of the Philippines comes from Negros, which is the Hinilawod. Read its rich story in the following activity. 

Although few, the surviving stories of your ancestors prove that the Philippines was a lively nation with a rich indigenous heritage. These tales, such as the Hinilawod, tell more than just stories of brave men and magical creatures; they also illustrate the history of the country and the formation of its values system. You see in the story the values of bravery, brotherhood, friendship, and communal respect among the characters. You see also the way society worked back then, which is important when you think about the society you live in right now. How do these values shape you as a Filipino today? How much has changed from the way Filipinos lived before and the way we live now? The surviving records of your precolonial literature can tell you not only about life in the past, but also in the present.