Extricating Meanings in the Story of Boi Henwu and the Creation of Lake Sebu

I am quite aware of the power of myths. Growing up with my nanay telling us biblical stories – of Jonah being swallowed by a giant fish, of the Red Sea parting, of food falling from the sky – all kindled in my young mind a desire to read all kinds of mythology and bask in the enchantment of flying horses, magical swords, dragons and wise-men. I remember I used to go to the library of my elementary school and secretly read the stories of the Olympian, Egyptian or the Mayan gods and feel a sense of ‘religious guilt’ as what my young mind only construed as conspiring with demons and cohorting with the devil’s own. But already at that age, I was as hardheaded as I am stubborn now. Bereft of the idea that mythologies are mere ‘sacred narratives explaining how the present world came about’ or as an ‘ideology in narrative form,’ I set aside the notion of religious guilt and embarked on an adventure with Joseph Campbell’s four-volume Masks of God, Robert Graves’ The White Goddess and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough but poring with much appreciation at Campbell’s Transformations of Myths through Time which includes a number of appealing illustrations and discussions on the evolution of myths. Reading myths became something of a nighttime habit for me. Maybe, and I am not venturing into psychoanalysis, it lulls me to sleep better than any other story because of its resemblance to dreams, dream-time, dream-world, and dream-story plots.

I only got an appreciation of reading Philippine myths when I studied the Bikolano Ibalon epic for my undergraduate thesis. From then on, I became intrigued at how strikingly similar yet profoundly different our myths are from the mythos of the European, Hindu, Chinese, American etc. For instance, we read the ‘Great Flood’ theme from the Hebrew story of Noah to the T’boli’s La Kagef and Tamfeles and yet see different underlying motives and symbols in the narratives. The first speaks of an angry deity who was keen in wiping out humanity that has turned sinful, while the T’boli flood myth never spoke of any motive for the flood – it simply was a natural event, and the deity’s only role was to warn two couples to hide inside a bamboo and after the flood, to become the ancestors of the T’boli and other tribes. In the realm of pragmatics, one myth was meant to be a religious lesson to the community, the other was meant to inform the T’boli of their progeny.

We see here the same pattern that Claude Levi-Strauss noted with myths worldwide; that of having similar and general themes/motifs because of the same human needs and aspirations, yet strikingly dissimilar because of the different social and environmental phenomena of a given people. He further remarked about the universal quality of myths, “Whatever our ignorance of the language and the culture of the people where it originated, a myth is still felt as a myth by any reader anywhere in the world. Its substance does not lie in its style, its original music or its syntax, but in the story which it tells.”[1]

Such is the power of myths. They are, in the words of Carl Jung, collective dreams, which also open up to private meanings. They have the power to yoke communities under one mythos yet also has the transformative energy that stirs individuals. Claude Levi-Strauss noted this power yet he was also conscious of another significance of myths in the study of Anthropology and Sociology – that of the underlying social structures that those myths, he thought, contain. He explained his method in an essay The Structural Study of Myth and postulated that “If there is a meaning to be found in mythology, it cannot reside in the isolated elements which enter in to the composition of a myth, but only in the way those elements are combined”[2] and that “the true constituent units of a myth are not the isolated relations but bundles of such relations, and it is only as bundles that these relations can be put to use and combined so as to produce a meaning.”[3]

We come to know some characteristics of myths, of the general patterns of mythic themes and specific roles of myths in different societies. But for this paper, I am not interested in those general patterns so obvious in world mythologies. These general patterns are more in the realm of Psychology in what Carl Jung would include in his discussions of archetypes. As a paper for Anthropology, I am more interested in those combinations of mythic elements that hide in their texts, social structures (kinship, gender relations etc.) and meanings for a given people. One must extricate, not unlike an archeologist, amidst the seemingly non-important rubble of mythic language, all the while avoiding the sins of generalizations and being too subjective in our interpretations.

I would like now to focus my lenses on the T’boli of Lake Sebu in South Cotabato, Philippines. Famous for their ikat weave called the t’nalak (which is fast gaining world popularity as an ethnic and eco-friendly design) their other art forms are being sidelined and aside from the occasional scholar, forgotten. The T’boli are also master musicians and storytellers. Some still chant (tutul) for days on end the life of the hero Tudbulol and on special gatherings like a ritual moninum, chanters, musical adepts of the seko, gongs, k’lintang, hegelung and s’ludoy would form an ensemble to sing of their myths. The creation stories of Lake Sebu, Lake Seloton, Lake Nungon, Te-ada Island in Lake Sebu, stories of heroes like Boi Henwu, Tudbulul, and Kludan to name a few. What is noteworthy though, is that there is no fixed and static text by from which they will recite, only set series of events. Different storytellers have different styles but they will not deviate from the major events of the story, as Levi-Strauss puts it, the myth consists “of all its versions; or to put it otherwise, a myth remains the same as long as it is felt as such.”

One such topic that is the favorite of the T’boli is the creation myth of Lake Sebu – a mountain-lake that is part of the Allah Valley Watershed in South Cotabato. A major economic source and major geographical formation of the T’boli traditional domain, it is the central topic of many legends or a setting for the many adventures of the T’boli heroes.

My proposed thesis also centers at Lake Sebu and the T’boli people, examining how they perceive the risks of climate change by diagnosing how myths, legends and beliefs inform their risk perceptions. By investigating the structures of risk information and perception in their myths, we may, I believe, better understand how to inform, update and apprise indigenous peoples on the realities of climate change.

I will present here a narration of one Lake Sebu creation myth and try to use the method of Claude Levi-Strauss in trying to unearth underlying structures and categories of thought in the T’boli culture in a structuralist exercise of the study of myth.

This is the story as narrated by Carmel Tandayan, a T’boli of Lake Sebu and as collected and written by Carlo C. Casinto in a graduate thesis[4]:

Mo-en ke S’bu boluyen ni kemo en ni?Tegunay tu keni, be sotu benwutey ini K’daw laendu bang el;

Ominem laendu bang minum

ken tahu.

Sotu K’daw be yo, wen libun,

yo boluy ni libun, go boluy ni

libun ni mon le Boi Henwu, nawahen

na laendu, gono le mewa el.

Timbol tonen tum el tu, Ten

ngelen ne seloni edu, ne – hen

nogen ke tahu.

Wefe-en du tedoken ominem

mamu du be.

Timbol in tey taha wehen

weken ahay se “keding,”

monen talonen du.

Lemikut be tu, be kenwu gomo

le no tu koni be wen tomen

botu.

Timbol tohi se todo tomen el

nefe-en du tedoken ominem

omamu du be.

Timbol tedoka ominem mamu

du be K’dingen.

Tey taha weken, Sol gel

Nebo-on be Lem lebon, tu

weken.

Sol gel Nabo – en be lem lebon

abay.

Se toy taha bud mulek

be gonofe to do tenga kim

duman mo – en ke

befe le Takul.

Olokom, timbol talomera

da, abay se la moyo-en du

el wen bong.

Yo timbol bad metom du tuem

tonen olokom tu kenon-en be

gono-en, el melok bud todol

be gonauyen.

Sobugen kem kobogen

omonen neaviten.

Mulek ebe gomohen mewa du

nim el, mo-en ke deng hefe

weken, suluhen sokug mewa

du nim naugen el.

El todo Sulek suho mogon

edu tum el tu sulek sut

yom sigi bong efet bud gebek

le du sukul.

Lemwot tau se yom yehenen

gu lem koyo ne – igo – en.

Hemoheng lu, ne timben le

gonohen el mak te

ma el.

S’bu mewa el todo sulek

suhu mongon guto len neb

temwot nauyen.

Sulek el bong Kolel kelolel

se yom yehenen neb tu el

tu.

S’bu gota gomong lem neb

lemel to el tu. Be tu tinfu

tu.

Mo-en benolug abay se yom

logi ke S’bu yom Benwu

Boi Henwu.

How did Lake Sebu get its name?Long time ago, this placewas very hot;

There was no water around

and so the people had nothing

to drink.

Then one day a woman named

Boi Henwu, named for she did

not know of a place where she

could get water.

She explored the area until she

saw something the size of a

cogon grass.

To her surprise, water sprung

from this.

She went close to the water and

She wet her “keding”, her

hair that was hanging down.

Because she had long hair, she

carried her hair inside a

basket.

She then went home but when

she arrived there, everybody

was surprised of her wet hair.

She did not tell anybody how

she got her hair wet.

When she came home, her

husband, S’bu, was not yet

around.

He was still in the forest

hunting.

The next day she went

back to the water which

she covered with the

leaf of a Takul tree.

When she arrived in the area,

she was surprised because the

water had become bigger.

So she took a bath, filled

her bamboo container with

water, covered the water

and proceeded home.

Upon her arrival, her neighbors

were again surprised.

They started to wonder

where the woman got the water

and how her hair got wet, how she was

able to bring home water.

After this incident, she

decided to go back but this

time she didn’t know that

Somebody was following her.

This person reported to the

community what he saw.

As a result, the people

all went there to fetch water.

S’bu the husband,

who had come home also

followed her.

The water became so big

that she could no longer cover

it  and she was also carried

by it.

S’bu tried to save Boi

Henwu but he got drowned

in the process.

That is why the place is

called S’bu to honor the husband

of Boi Henwu.

The structure of the narrative itself, as handed out to us by Cansito, already follows what Levi-Strauss notes in his Structural Study of Myth, of “breaking down [the] story into the shortest possible sentences”.  We then take note of the possible themes that can be culled out of the story, namely: gender relations, appropriation of resources, hygiene, husband-wife roles, politics of the haves and the have-nots and attitude towards environment.

As I mentioned earlier, there are other versions intimately tied-up to this story and, although my focus is the story above, they can be used to compare and to complement it.

In the story of Boi Henwu, Lemugut Mangay and Kludan[5], we see a different dimension of the creation of Lake Sebu. This is the story as written by Manolete Mora:

It begun when Boi Henwu and Lemugut Mangay (celestial messenger or angel) began courting. This earth (tonok) was still being created and the sky and heavens were still very close. After D’wata (the Supreme deity) created the earth and the sea and he made Boi Henwu and Kludan, the first man and woman. Lake Sebu had not yet been created.

At that time Boi Henwu and Kludan were traveling together. Kludan, who was still a youth served as her helper (nga nemuhen). Although they were not married he hunted and killed four or five pigs for her at a time.

Boi Henwu and Kludan together as they were, lived in different houses for sixteen halay (one rice harvest season, thus eight years). During this time Boi Henwu frequently desired to bathe.

One day Kludan told Boi Henwu that he would go hunting and asked her to wait until he returned. He returned at noon with eight pigs and water that he had supposedly obtained from the el luos  (a type of rattan that contains water).

This delighted Boi Henwu. Upon seeing the water she immediately began to bathe, exclaiming, “How pleasant it is to bathe, I have washed away all the dust.”

She looked radiant and beautiful with her hair worn in the tuko-en style. She wore anklets (singkil) up to her knees, bracelets covering her forearms and eight gold necklaces (lieg kemagi) .

Kludan had actually found another source of water while he was away but at first kept it a secret. Finally he told her what he had seen. She asked him excitedly about where he saw the water: “if you’ve seen water,” she urged him, “tell me so that I can bathe there.”

I cannot show you because of your big taboo (bong lii) against men,” said Kludan.

“Pardon me,” said Boi Henwu, “but you are like my child and I am like your mother.”

So Kludan desired Boi Henwu. Yet he knew that Lemugot Mangay had been sent by D’wata to bring her to heaven.

“It is better,” said Boi Henwu, “that you show me the water or our relationship will no longer be the same.”

So Kludan relented and together with Boi Henwu they searched for eight day and eight nights until they found the source of water. This was named (Lake) Sebu afer the man who first saw it in its entirety.

When they arrived there, Kludan instructed Boi Henwu to stand under the large nabul tree on the sunny side. From where she stood the tree looked like a crawling python. She then gazed up into the branches of the tree and her vision weakened as though she had become giddy.

“This is the nabul tree (Ficus religiosa),” said Kludan. “Now that you’ve seen it, it’s for you to find the water.”

When she turned over the takul  leaf at the bottom of the tree, the water of Sebu spurted forth thin as the thread of the needle (mesut el; which also signifies ejaculation).

“Ah,” exclaimed Boi Henwu, “this is the water.”

At the source of the spouting water sat a frog, which she picked up. It was as wide as three fingers, and had nails, fingers and feet the color of gold. It had a beautiful face and was white all over. The frog jumped into the pouch of her tube skirt (kelofoy; a pocket tied at the front of the tube skirt for carrying small items, such as betel nut, money, etc.) and said: “I’ve been hoping and waiting for you; this water is yours.”

Boi Henwu’s hair was beautiful and abundant. It would have taken four women to hold, style and carry it. As she stood by the water of Sebu she wished for the companionship of a woman. Four suddenly appeared and they carried her hair until they reached her house.

Boi Henwu then suddenly turned to Kludan and said, “Now I will leave you and this place. D’wata has finished creating heaven and earth.”

She then said, “And I will beat the wooden percussion beam (k’lutang) before I ascend.” She played it until Lemugot Mangay came for her. As she ascended with Lemugot Mangay she threw down the two mallets and they transformed into barbets, a male and a female. In times past, the barbet was the wooden percussion beam mallet of Boi Henwu.

The barbets then said to Lemugot Mangay: “But now that you are leaving us in this world, how shall we survive?”

Lemugot Mangay and Boi Henwu replied to the barbets: “We shall provide you with food and you will continue to live.”

Boi Henwu had now found her partner. She had had no man before, only Kludan (the first man but who was also her ‘child helper’). When Boi Henwu ascended with Lemugot Mangay, Kludan returned to Lake Sebu, threw himself in and entered the navel of the sea.

Another version of this creation myth of Lake Sebu tells of a local princess who had a dream of coming to the mountain land of Sebu. The princess saw a big leaf. When she opened it up a white frog leaped out along with the gush of water that flooded the land and became the lake. From the heavens she threw pythons to the earth, which formed the islands at the lake. And in order for the princess to pass by the lake, her brother parted the island. The name “Sebu”, according to this version, came from the T’boli word for lake or leaf.

One version of the Lake Sebu creation myth, as narrated by Jenita Batol Eko, tells of a long spell of drought in a village. The only available water were the droplets of water left on the leaves after the morning mist. In this story, a village woman was always seen by the other villages freshly bathe and with wet hair, as if she bathed in a spring. One day the villagers followed her to her secret bathing place and to their disbelief, a small spring was indeed bubbling from a small crack in the earth. Angry that they were tricked by the woman and keeping the source of water to herself, they tried to mob the woman but not until a white frog was startled and started to jump from one place to another, and from where it jumped, water came gushing forth until the place was flooded. Everyone perished from this flood and a lake was formed. It was named S’bu after the woman who discovered the spring.

I will now attempt to extricate meanings and search for Levi-Straussian structures in the story of Carmel Tandayan. We first have to list down the characters in the story. They are: Boi Henwu, the community and S’bu. Boi Henwu is the wife of S’bu, the latter showing up later in the narrative. In this version, we can deduce the roles of wives in the T’boli community, as exemplified by Boi Henwu, that of being domestic, maintaining the household and taking care of the children and the home. She ‘fetches the water’ which may also be translated as providing for the family, water being a necessity in cooking, nourishment, making crafts, making healing salves etc.

S’bu, on the other hand was ‘out hunting’ at the beginning of the narrative and typifies that the T’boli, at least in this mythic past, is a hunter-gatherer society. She has to ‘explore’ the forest to look for water, probably even going as far out as the limits of the village boundaries. Boi Henwu (woman) fetches water and along the way gathers whatever she picks out in the forest – herbs, wood for the fire, rootcrops, etc. This is not to say that Boi Henwu does the gathering alone. T’boli women were fiercely protected and will always be accompanied by relatives – male or female[6]. We may see this in the reaction of the community when they noticed that she ‘explores’ the forest alone – they grew suspicious and begun tailing her.

In the beginning of the story, her husband Sbu was hunting, presumably with a band of village men since hunting is a group activity. Men would travel extensively in the forests and would be away from their families for days – we note the absence of S’bu in the narrative yet we also notice that Boi Henwu was never dependent on S’bu. She took matters on her own, going to the forests to look for water, to take care of the family (presumably together with co-wives) until the return of his husband from a hunt. T’boli women work independently and productively at home, doing crafts such as weaving, embroidery, basketry and jewelry making, which they now sell to lowlanders. As a T’boli woman narrated this story in the early 2000, we can already see the shift in the consciousness of women, as they gain more economic power over men because of their crafts. Boi Henwu, the archetypal T’boli woman never sat down and waited for the rain – she looked for water.

S’bu, on the end of the spectrum, was out in the unknown and deep forests, hence his absence from the mythical narration, outside the realm of the mythical landscape, he typifies the T’boli man who must be constantly away from his family to “look for new locations for the cultivation of dry rice and other food, to engender or maintain the network of affiliations, to retrieve a debt, to sell, barter or to use their labor to repay a debt, or to hunt and gather in the forest.”[7] The clear demarcation of the different roles of men and women as exemplified in the story, marks a “division of labor” or the assigning of roles and tasks to men and women on the basis of perceived gender characteristics and attributes, instead of ability and skills.

The present transformation in women’s status in T’boli society can be recognized if we compare the central roles of women in the four stories of Lake Sebu – women are in the center and not in the periphery of the myth. The “Ascension of Boi Henwu” even elevates her to the realm of the divine, while the version where she was led by a white frog to the spring suggests her connections with the spirit world; an enduring notion in the t’nalak weaving where inspirations for their designs are given to them in dreams by Lemugut Mangay, the celestial messenger and wife of Boi Henwu (as in the version of Mora). This may allude to all weavers and artists being Boi Henwu themselves, frequently visited by D’wata’s messenger.

The title “Boi” also needs to be analyzed. In present usage, it means princess or a favorite wife or daughter of a datu, or a wealthy person. It carries with it attributes of “beauty, intelligence, wealth, hospitality and amiability, good bartering skills, a mild disposition, the ability to command respect from others, the capability to manage an orderly household that includes ruling over co-wives and women, and expertise in one or more of the highly valued T’boli skills, especially weaving, brass casting, embroidery, hat making, and fine beadwork.”[8] We may deduce that Boi Henwu in Tadayan’s story, is a favorite wife (although there are no other wives mentioned in the story), or a daughter of a datu, either way she exhibits beauty with “long hair carried in a basket”. T’boli women are usually very vain with an ensemble of ornamental combs, jewelries, colorful tubular skirts and in early days, would tattoo their faces.

The last version shows this vanity of the woman even more, when she would use the droplets of water collected in leaves just to wash her hair. This has an allusion to what Mary Douglas states as dirt “[being] essentially disorder… it exists in the eye of the beholder… In chasing dirt, in papering, decorating, tidying, we are not governed by anxiety to escape disease, but are positively re-ordering our environment, making it conform to an idea.” Boi Henwu, exemplifying T’boli attitude towards dirt, elevates to the highest level the importance of cleanliness and the delineation of the clean and the unclean. This can be attested by the story of Boi Henwu’s ascension where she took a bath before being received by Lemugut Mangay in heaven, pointing to the opposition of earth – dirty, heaven – clean. Many things can be said about this, even a whole thesis, but as a practice in the structural study of myths, forgive me if I say that this may suffice.

Another intriguing case to study is the reaction of the community towards Boi Henwu’s actions of hiding the source of water. They perceived it only as a selfish act, deceitful and cunning. As a community, it points to a lesson that resources must be shared, that resources are communally owned. According to that version, Boi Henwu should have shared the source of the water. Yet the other version teaches of restraint. It is indeed human nature that the villagers became angry at how the spring was kept hidden to them, but it was also the same anger that led to the destruction of the village. If they waited for the woman to tell them of the spring, would the destruction of the village be averted? Was woman or the frog-god preparing the villagers to the final ablution? Nikos Kazantzakis writes in the Last Temptation of Christ, “Only when we reach the brink of the abyss, do we grow wings.” If only the villagers restrained their anger and approached the issue with cool heads, they would not have been erased from earth. Should this also be the approach in the present problem of global warming and climate change? Is this what the T’boli are doing now?

The white frog is particularly absent in the story of Carmel Tadayan although it features constantly in other Lake Sebu creation story. The frog is of course amphibious, living half of its life on water and half on land. If the snake is the chthonic animal, living in caves and the underworld, the symbol of the keeper of the unknown and hidden wisdom, then the frog is the symbol of water and the mysteries of its depth. It is also the symbol of life and fertility for some culture, because they quickly reproduce during the rainy season. This sexual connotation can be read, somewhat of an allusion in the Tadayan version, but is very much explicit in the story of Kludan and Boi Henwu, which tells of a white frog jumping into the pouch of Boi Henwu’s tube skirt and saying “this water is yours”; an allusion to sexual intercourse. The frog is indeed a symbol of fertility because it signifies rain, or sometimes thought to bring rain. In some Mindanao indigenous groups, frogs are used in rituals to bring rain[9] and bring back the fertility of the earth.

The life-death attribute of water, so vividly positioned in the opposite ends of the story shows the value given by the T’boli to water; the longing for water at the start and the terrifying flood that takes Boi Henwu’s and S’bu’s life at the end of the story marks this opposition. At once beneficent and destructive, water is construed as life giver and also life-taker. Kludan diving to the navel of the water to become the god of the underworld, suggests this connection of water to death. We can only dip our toes in the spring of Boi Henwu, but never fully immerse in it.

The T’boli of South Cotabato in the Southern Philippines, are indeed a mysterious people. These meanings we have extricated provide a view of the T’boli as if in a gossamer veil. We can see their outlines, but never fully see their faces – a beauty that is never really revealing in the sense of the really real.

I have to admit that there are still so many layers of meaning to extricate in this single story. As an exercise in the structuralist study of myth, I tried to treat the myth as an orchestra score[10] upon which one can uncover those bundles of relations covertly present in mythic language. Through this exercise, I felt the same desire I had way back in my elementary school for the mystery that myths offered me. No longer hiding my books, for fear of divine wrath, in order to read them, but now shining a torch in the deep crevices of myths. In Anthropology, in our search for the multi-faceted truth, myths offer us a pathway where mystery, revelation and reason could be held in tandem.


[1] Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology 1 (New York: Penguin Books 1963), 210.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 211.

[4] Carlo C. Casinto, The T’boli of Lake Sebu: their Life and Literature (MA Thesis, Ateneo de Davao University 2001), 43-45.

[5] Manolete Mora, Myth, Mimesis and Magic in the Music of the T’boli, Philippines (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Press 2005), 29-32.

[6] Ibid., 39.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 36.

[9] Agnes N. Miclat-Cacayan, Babaylan: She Dances in Wholeness (Keynote Address for the Babaylan Symposium, St. Scholastica’s College Manila, July 22, 2005),  3.

[10] Levi-Strauss, 213.

One thought on “Extricating Meanings in the Story of Boi Henwu and the Creation of Lake Sebu

  1. Pingback: Pagpapakabuluhang Ekolohikal sa Talinghaga ng Lemlunay | Being Here, Now.

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