Split bamboo: dance of the perfect man and woman

The familiar story of the Tagalog creation story “Si Malakas at si Maganda” (The strong one, and the beautiful one); the first man and first woman emerging from the equal halves of a single piece of bamboo, is well known to most Filipinos. Maximo D. Ramos explains in his 1990 book Philippine myths, legends and folk tales – “The first striking motif of many Philippine creation myths is their attribution of the origin of mankind to a reed.” 

Parallels can be seen in the imagery of the creation myths of each Philippine tribe¹ , and to a greater extent the South – East Asia Pacific region where the central element is some kind of rod:

Aeta, Batak, Mamanwa, Itneg                                                reeds

Japan                                                                                          reed shoots

Manama                                                                                     blades of grass

Tagalog, Visayan, Maguindanao, Tausug, Bukidnon, T’boli            bamboo

Yami (Taiwan)                                                                          staff

Solomon Islands                                                                       stalk of sugar cane

Tiruray, Panay, Manobo                                                         engraved posts

Mansaka                                                                                    kasili and bangay wood

Bisaya                                                                                        coconut tree

Mandaya                                                                                   egg

The split bamboo is sometimes also interpreted as the ying-yang. With the ying principle embodied in the woman,  and the yang principle embodied in the man. In ancient Philippine societies the status of the woman is at least equal to that of the man. Maganda, the archetypal woman (and sometimes transvestite man as babaylan) were the spiritual leaders, keepers of culture, and healers of the tribe. Malakas, the archetypal male , as warrior were hunters, traders, and builders.

Elements of the creation story can easily be found in the imagery of the legend of a certain Dayang Gandingan in the Maranao epic Darangen (which is roughly based on the Hindu epic Ramayana) and the royal dance Singkil. While walking the forest chasing butterflies, diwatas (forest dieties) caused an earthquake that shook the trees and the rocks; the princess , with amazing agility, was able to skip nimbly from one place to another place so that her feet did not touch the fallen trees and rocks. The king worried about his daughter then sent his most courageous and strong warrior to rescue the princess.

The dance animates the story with the clashing bamboo like the turbulent waves of the sea god, the fans symbolizing the winds, and the mythical sarimanok bird perched on top of the crown ready to knock on the primordial reed.

¹ Only the Bagobo cornmeal dough (probably from Mayan corn mythology introduced via the Galleon trade with Mexico), and the Bilaan dirt /dead skin (probably from Arab or Christian missionaries), seems to have been taken from a general foreign influence. Source: Mabel Cook Cole, Philippine Folk Tales (Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Company, 1916)

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