The sirena is a Philippine mythological creature that has captured the interest of Filipinos mostly by the young generation. Such fondness for these enchanting beings may be triggered by the depiction of Filipino TV programs of them having charming qualities that are out of this world.
Influence of the sirena (local name for mermaid) is widespread. Filipino mermaid TV series like “Mutya” (2011) “Aryana” (2012) and “Dyesebel” (2014) aired on local television and local movies about them are greatly enjoyed by families like “My Fairy Tail Love Story” (a romantic comedy/musical film about a spoiled brat cursed to be a mermaid). Even big establishments like Starbucks use mermaid themes in their advertising campaigns like the popular Starbucks mermaid tumbler.
Origin of the Mermaid Myth
Mermaids are an epitome of feminine power since ancient times. In foreign literature, the history of mermaids goes way back to ancient Sumeria and Babylon. The Babylons describe merpeople as sea creatures with a torso of a human and a tail of a fish and are essential pieces in their creation stories.
Ancient god Oannes, perhaps first representation of a merman. Ashton, John. Curious Creatures in Zoology. 1890. (credit:Biodiversity Heritage Library)
The Philippines, as a country of mixed culture and foreign influence, has interwoven foreign myths into its own folk literature. It is believed that the term sirena is of Spanish influence and the stories about these creatures seem to circulate mostly around the Ilocos regions.
Ilocos has rivers with strong currents underneath. In the Spanish era, there were reports about people drowning in these areas. These people who were enjoying the pristine waters were abruptly dragged below the waters and drowned. Some were found in a half-disoriented state after battling a somewhat powerful force beneath them. The early Spaniards did not know the reason behind these incidents, so they told the locals that these unlucky events were caused by vile sea creatures known as sirena (the Spanish term for “mermaid”) (Beyer, 2016a).
What Do Mermaids Really Look Like?
There are varying descriptions of how a sirena looks like. However, in most accounts, a sirena is known to be a female water elemental that inhabits the sea and other bodies of water. Its male counterpart is called “syokoy.” A sirena is said to appear human from the waist up, leaving the body parts from the waist down as fish-like. She has beautiful black hair with a light complexion.
Like that scene from Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides movie where men in boats where stunned to see a beautiful woman at the edge of their vessel. She started to sing and others of her kind joined in to entrance the poor sailors before finally trying to kill them.
A sirena has a special dominion over bodies of water. When someone is said to be “naserena” (taken by a mermaid), people believe that that person was abruptly attacked and pulled under the water until he drowns.
Are There Any Friendly Sirenas?
There are many stories about sirenas. Some of them portray the evil side of a sirena, while others depict her as a helpful friend to humans. There was a legend of a sirena in Ilocos wherein the sirena raised a human boy out of poverty, shared with him her wisdom, and gave him treasures when he went back to his family on land. However, there were stories about sirenas inflicting death upon townfolks because of revenge.
Encounters with a Sirena (Mermaid)
Although mermaids are labelled as mythological creatures, still there are people who believe that these creatures are real because they saw them with their naked eye. Here are some of the many sirena encounters in the Philippines.
Rey Sibayan, a radio broadcaster, narrated his encounter with a golden-haired mermaid in Laguna.
My first encounter with a mermaid happened sometime in 1999 when a group of IMAP members decided to visit my kumare Daisy's place in Laguna. We were sitting on boulders in a river to meditate when Daisy told me she saw a beautiful mermaid swimming beside me. I was amazed with the experience because I could also see the entity as a beautiful lady -- half human half fish with long golden hair. (Rey Sibayan, radio broadcaster)
Another account told by Janna BM, a resident of Aurora, is about a child sirena supposedly caught in Aurora sometime in 2000.
Here in Aurora, there is a story that happened some time in 2000. They say that a mermaid was caught in the town of Baler. It was a mermaid child. The people put the mermaid child in a huge cooler to take it to Manila and sell it. Unfortunately, the mermaid child died because it could not survive the heat inside the container. Then, the whole province of Aurora heard an eerie noise coming from the sea from time to time. They say that it was the sirena mother. (Janna BM, resident of Aurora, Philippines)
Where Can You Find Mermaids in the Philippines?
Unlike the mermaids in Greece and Babylon literature, the sirenas of the Philippines live not only in seas but also in other bodies of water like rivers, lakes, and gulfs.
Perhaps the most famous location believed to have a strong claim on an encounter with this enchanting being is the municipality of Atimonan in Quezon Province. Because the people claimed to have seen a sirena who frequents the rocky part of the shore, they decided to erect a sirena statue there.
The story of the Atimonan mermaid goes like this:
A long time ago, a deadly storm suddenly struck a small fishing village at night. Because it was so unexpected, the fishermen who were doing their routine night fishing were caught in the middle of the storm. Everyone in the village was worried. Then, a miracle happened. The fishermen came back home safely, except for one. They couldn’t find him and so the family grieved deeply.
After a week, the villagers were surprised to see the man alive and well. The man talked about how he was saved by a sirena on that terrible night. Of course, the villagers did not believe him. But the man kept on telling the same story over and over. He would often go to a rocky part of the shore to meet the sirena whom is believed to be his lover whom. The man claimed that the sirena gave him a golden comb in order to call her by dipping the comb into the sea.
Then, another tragedy struck the village. Moro pirates came and attacked the fishing village. Since then, no one knew what happened to the man. Some say he died during the attack; others say he fled to another village and found a new love.
Years later, the locals claimed to have seen a beautiful woman sitting on top of a huge boulder on the shore. She seemed to be staring at the mountains of Atimonan. However, whenever someone would approach her, she would jump into the sea and disappear.
The people then were convinced that the woman who often goes to the same rocky shore was the sirena that the man was talking about. The boulder where the sirena was frequently seen is the same boulder where the sirena statue has been erected.
Here is a map going to the mermaid statue.
How Can You Defend Yourself from a Sirena?
A sirena is said to be afraid of steel, silver, or gold. Some say salt is a lethal weapon as well. Any weapon infused with these materials can cause a serious blow to the creature. If perhaps by some miracle you find yourself captured by a sirena and taken to her underwater lair, do not eat anything that she gives you because doing so will kill you in an instant. If you refuse the offer of food, some say you could be rewarded with lavish treasures.
Fact Versus Fiction
Although many Filipinos, as superstitious as they can be, believed in the existence of mermaids or sirenas, others firmly believe that these mythical beings are just pure fiction.
According to National Geographics (a world leader in in-depth explorations), the dugong (a cousin of the manatee) is said to be the inspiration of famous mermaid tales of long ago. Fitting to this statement, the Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) also reported that all the islands of the Philippines once served as habitats for dugongs until the 1970s (Viray-Mendoza, 2016). Because there were many dugongs in our seas long ago, people who spotted them have come to believe that the widespread legends and myths were true. Even the order to which dugong belongs to ("Sirenia") closely resembles "sirena" the local term for mermaid.
Whatever the truth is, the fact remains that the mermaid tales are deeply infused in our roots and that the belief in these magical beings proves how rich our folk literature is.
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Beyer-Bagatsing, C. (2016, January 9). Sirena stories, the mythical mermaid of the Philippines. Retrieved from https://www.aswangproject.com/sirena-mermaid-philippines/
Beyer-Bagatsing C. (2016b, February 4). A glossary of mythical Philippine creatures & beings. Retrieved from https://www.aswangproject.com/glossary-mythical-philippine-creatures-beings/
Clark, J. (2018, June 17). The merfolk of Philippine folklore. Retrieved from https://www.aswangproject.com/the-merfolk-of-philippine-folklore/
Kaprobinsya ng Quezon. (2013, June 8). Mermaids in Atimonan. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/morefuninquezonprovince/photos/a.395119543845071/641785819178441/?type=3&theater
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Sherman, J. (Ed.)(2008). Storytelling: An encyclopedia of mythology and folklore. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.
Tan, B. and Hontiveros D. (2016). The lost journal of Alejandro Pardo. Mandaluyong City: Summit Publishing Co., Inc.
Viray-Mendoza, V. (2016, November 11). The disappearing dugong. Retrieved from http://maritimereview.ph/2016/11/01/the-disappearing-dugong/