The Milky Way from Philippine Cultures

By Reuel Norman Marigza posted 08-01-2022 04:31

The Philippine archipelago has a very rich diversity of culture with 77 major ethnolinguistic groups (and about 244 subgroups), and foreign influences throughout its history of trading and occupation. This rich cultural diversity has also contributed to a vast scope in Philippine cultural astronomy. In line with our celebration of the Milky Way Star Festival, here are some of the interpretations of the Milky Way based on Philippine ethnoastronomy:

The Milky Way is commonly known today to Filipinos as Ariwanas. The term originated in Cordilleran groups, with some variations like the Ariwanat of the Isneg or the Aggiwanas of the Kankanaey. To the Tagalogs it was known as Balatas. Through the influence of Spanish colonization the Milky Way came to be called a number of things like Pulong bituin, Daang Magatas, and Dinaanan ng Daong ni Apong Noe (path of Noah’s Ark). Many indigenous and ethnic groups have different interpretations of the Milky Way. Similar to many cultures of the world we have depictions like great serpents, and rivers. Some depictions of great serpents or dragons are sometimes related to eclipses as well. The Bakunawa is one of those that shares two variations – one for the eclipse, and one for the Milky Way.

The two variations of the Bakunawa are Naga and Laho (Laho being tied to eclipses). The use of Bakunawa in association to the Milky Way is seen in Bicol, Iloilo, and some parts of the Visayas, and is illustrated in the Kalendariong Bikol, Almanaque Panayanhon, and Signosan. The orientation of the Bakunawa in the sky has corresponding meanings with respect to weather, and building houses.

Naga is mostly known in Tawi-Tawi, particularly to the Samas and Tausugs. This concept was a product of Hindu-Buddhist origin which was first introduced to the Muslim regions in 900-1100 AD. The concept of Naga (and other terms and names of the same origin like Bathala [Bhattara] and Diwata [Devata]) was spread and used across the country long before the Spanish occupation. In its original Sanskrit text Naga translates to a snake enveloping the Earth. One recollection of Naga is recorded in John Ziegler’s A 1992 Collection of Sulu Folktales. Naga is described as an enormous dragon terrorizing the towns near its cave. It was so large that it could fit ten cows in its mouth. Its tongue was forked in 9 sharp and venomous parts. A surviving family climbed the mountain and prayed for salvation as Naga returned to attack their town. And as if their prayer was answered, Naga rose up to the skies along with the fire and smoke it created. To this day Naga can be seen in the sky surrounded by fire and smoke, and is expected to return at the end of days to consume all beings for going against god’s laws.The original Naga myth which is shared in many Asian cultures associate Naga to water, wherein it consumed all the water of the world. Naga was then killed by Indra (an ancient Vedic deity of Hinduism) to let the water flow back into the Earth. The variation in Tawi-Tawi shows Naga to consume the air. As such they use Naga’s orientation in the sky to describe the direction in which the wind is blowing. As the concept of Naga was spread to the rest of the country, other variations were tied to it by different groups. To the Teduray Naga is perceived as a large fish with eight heads. The Maranaos called the Milky Way as Mala a Naga. The Tagalogs had Naga carved into the pamalong (bow) of their boats. In some Tagalog and Bicolano interpretations Naga is perceived as a Narra tree. In Lisboa’s Vocabulario de la Lengua Bicol it is described that the tree sap is considered dragon’s blood.

The Kalinga have a similar serpent called Malaga. While the sound is similar, and the depiction as a serpent is the same, there is no documentation to support a connection. This serpent is described to have been seen during their migration as they crossed the mouth of the Cagayan river. The Kalinga also call the Milky Way as Aguiwanas (similar to the Aggiwanas of the Kankanaey). The orientation of the Milky Way in the sky was used as a reference to know when food will be abundant. If it is seen in a Northward position then food was scarce, and they took it as a warning from Kabunyan to stock up on food.

Many of the Filipino perceptions of the Milky Way are tied to water, like those previously discussed. Much of these are attributed to the geographic nature of the country, with many cultures thriving around the coasts of the Philippine archipelago. The Visayans also called the Milky Way as Binugsay as it resembles the path of bubbles left by the passing of a boat. This reasoning is similar to the Bulang Saguan of the Tagalog’s in Bulacan, and its Christianization by the Spanish to Dinaanan ng Daong ni Apong Noe.

To the Ayta of Zambales this path is left behind in the sand by sea turtles, thus giving it the name Daang Pawikan. Zambales is one of the protected nesting sites in the country. The Badjaos see the Milky Way as a celestial river which they call sowang ma langit (river in the heavens). Sometimes they refer to it as tummuan anso which is described as the widening/increase in water level of a river (probably when the core is visible).

The core of the Milky Way is best situated in the night sky in June. Unfortunately, the wet season in the Philippines takes place from June to November which limits the visible period. The best time for observation in the Philippines is then shifted to the hot dry season from March to May. Note however that this is a generalization based on the major seasons of the Philippines, and that specific areas maybe subjected to different conditions depending on the prevalent weather system and geographic terrain.

Content originally published to Astronomy PH vol. 7 no. 1, and revised for AWB's Milky Way Star Festival.


1 comment



08-02-2022 11:06

Reuel, thank you so much for sharing the story about the creation of the Milky Way. All of the information you posted was a pleasure to read.