Ohio is not known for its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. And since the Westlake Porter Library does such a great job curating the collection with its patrons in mind, we do not exactly have an overabundance of books about Oceanic folklore. Still, after some searching, I was able to gather a nice selection of stories that are rooted in the legends of the Philippines, Hawai’i, and a handful of other island nations.
Disney’s 2016 movie Moana is a fun introduction to general Polynesian culture. The movie’s production team did a lot of research in Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, and Tonga. Native plants and practices can be seen throughout, although they’ve all been blended together.
Having grown up in Hawai’i, many of those elements were familiar to me—from the tapa cloth to the kukui nut torches! Maui himself is a Hawai’ian folk hero, credited with fishing up the Hawai’ian islands and snaring the sun to slow down the day. Unfortunately, it is my opinion that movie-Maui’s arrogant and selfish persona is the most grievous inaccuracy in the film. Traditionally, he is a celebrated hero, someone to look up to. (Do yourself a favor and listen to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s iconic song, Maui Hawaiian Sup’pa Man.) That aside, it’s a fun adventure, rooted in cultures that don’t get much screentime in American media. And the animation is beautiful!
Pele is the Hawai’ian volcano goddess, and shows up in many legends. Contemporarily, she stars in a localized iteration of the vanishing hitchhiker urban legend. There are rumors of drivers picking up an old woman with long white hair, sometimes accompanied by a little dog. She might ask for a cigarette, but in the moment the driver glances away, she disappears.
The acclaimed movie Whale Rider offers a glimpse into Māori tradition. The main character Pai, a 12-year-old girl, forges her own path in modern times while drawing a parallel to her namesake, the legendary Paikea.
WPPL has an interesting graphic short story collection called The Night Marchers & Other Oceanian Stories. I’d heard playground tales of the night marchers, but a lot of these story adaptations were new to me. The book comprises several Hawai’ian and Filipino legends, plus one from Fiji. While I wish it offered a larger variety (there are so many other Oceanic nations!) I enjoyed seeing both traditional and modern art styles applied to the tales.
This brings us to our collection of folklore from the Philippines, which has recently started showing up in fiction for young readers. Earlier tales and retellings like Abadeha (2001) can be found in the nonfiction section, and a few are also included in global story collections like Rapunzel: 3 Beloved Tales. 2022 brought us the lively Doña Esmeralda, who ate everything!
No doubt fueled by the flourishing modern-folklore-adaptation genre, a number Filipino-inspired chapter books have been published recently. Lalani of the Distant Sea and Marikit and the Ocean of Stars feature a brave heroine who must undertake a perilous quest. Lola: a Ghost Story and Freddie Vs. the Family Curse are anchored in the present-day, but introduce supernatural elements. Lola includes a glossary of Filipino creatures–both grand and terrifying! For further reading, check out The Mythology Class (available through SearchOhio), and keep an eye out for The Spirit Glass by Roshani Chokshi, from Rick Riordan Presents. It’s the imprint’s first Filipino fantasy adventure, due to be released this fall.
Any Day with You is also set in the real world, and young Kaia explores and embraces the stories told by Tatang, her great-grandfather. This sweet book is a good reminder that tales are meant to be shared, and, while sometimes fantastical, they play an important role in navigating real emotions.
Soon you’ll be familiar with Bathala, the creator entity; the terrifying horse-headed tikbalang; Maria Makiling, goddess of the mountain; and a whole host of other diwata (spirits and deities)!
Mature readers might enjoy Alternative Alamat (available through SearchOhio). This collection of tales-retold truly embraces the heart of the source material. In the back are interviews, scholarly evaluations, and resource lists. It really drove home a point I had never considered: we may view “Filipino” as one culture, but the nation is actually made up of many smaller ethnic groups. Factors like agriculture, property ownership, and leadership structures reflect and inform the elements that evolve into folklore. Property ownership, for example, puts emphasis on ancestor veneration and family history. Additionally, over the centuries, trade and colonization introduced new elements into regions of contact. Just look at the word engkanto, a common term for spirit in the Philippines. It’s derived from Spanish!
In Alternative Alamat, Professor Fernando N. Zialcita states:
There’s a tendency to project monotheism into the past. I doubt many of our ancestors were monotheistic. Let me go back again to the material base of culture. You would expect monotheism to appear in a place where there is centralized authority, since religion is often related to social and political structures. But the pre-Hispanic was very decentralized, many different polities and many different leaders. So monotheism of the judaic kind would be doubtful, although it is to be expected that some gods would be considered more powerful than others… Many have reverence for spirits of nature, as embodied by objects such as trees that are old and shadowy, like the Balete tree, which is universally revered; unusual rock formations; and the snake, though reverence for the snake is common throughout the world.Fernando N. Zialcita
Learning about the variety of folklore in the Philippines alone has reemphasized how many nations I’m glossing over in this blog post. As publishing becomes more accessible, I expect to see a lot more home-grown folklore collections–both in the traditional scholarly vein and in modern reinterpretations. Indigenous creators from all across the Pacific ocean are proudly sharing their cultures like never before. So poke around on Wikipedia! Go down a few rabbit holes! The cultural wealth of Oceania and the Philippines is as vast as the sea itself.