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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Meet the BAL-BAL - Corpse Thief of the Philippines

Image Credit: Elartwyne Estole
In the pantheon of Philippine Mythology, it isn’t enough to be terrified by creatures that will cause your death and devour your flesh. Nope, you must also worry about what will happen after your untimely demise. Enter, the BAL-BAL.

Stories say the Bal-Bal is a creature who steals corpses to feed on the rotting flesh – using sharp claws and teeth for tearing through muscle and bone. Once the Bal Bal has fed, it will leave the trunk of a banana tree in the coffin, creating an illusion of the stolen body.

The physical attributes of the Bal-Bal have been adopted into many other tales of flesh eating creatures throughout the Philippines – such as the Visayan version of the Aswang, the Amalanhig, and the Busaw. Modern tales of the Bal-Bal say he walks in regular human form until drenched by the light of the full moon, where he will shape-shift into a disfigured bone collector. Other stories say if you utter his name “Bal-Bal” (I do not recommended trying this at home), he will seek you out and devour your flesh.

I became curious as to how this story could have originated, so I did some research to devise a theory.

In The Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology, Dr. Maximo Ramos credited tales of the Bal-Bal back to the Tagbanua people. The Tagbanua are mainly found in the central and northern regions of Palawan. Research has shown that the Tagbanua are possible descendants of the
Tabon Man; thus, making them one of the original inhabitants of the Philippines – dating back an estimated 40,000 years. The many ceremonial feasts punctuating Tagbanua life are based on a firm belief in a natural interaction between the world of the living the world of the dead.

There didn’t seem to be anything in the Tagbanua’s indigenous practices that linked back to the Bal-Bal. However, according to folk history, the Tagbanua had an early relationship with Brunei and Northern Borneo. Following this lead, I came across
Ivor H. N. Evans 1912 paper on superstitions and ceremonies in that region, where he noted that bodies of the deceased were placed in large jars, or in wooden coffins with sharp bamboo points coming from every direction. This was done to stop wild pigs from discovering and eating the bodies. A small roof and fence were build around the burial site where a human figure, carved from wood, was placed. The Malay word for pig is “babi” (BAH-bee). Is it possible that the early Tagbanua people, through their interactions with Brunei, told stories about these burial rites and mixed in tales of cannibalistic practices from Northern Borneo? Nobody will ever know for sure, but it definitely makes for a interesting tale and is a testament to the incredible and vivid imagination of ancestral Filipinos!

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Center for Paranormal Studies


Jordan Clark is a Canadian documentary director/producer at
High Banks Entertainment Ltd. He made the 2011 feature length documentary The Aswang Phenomenon - an exploration of the aswang myth and its effects on Philippine society. Currently he is in production for The Aswang Project web-series, which will feature 8 mysteries and myths from the Philippines.

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