CW/TW: aswang, community demons, trauma, abuse, oppression
(If you have questions about this article, join me during my livestream chat in the Kinaban Discord Server on Saturday, May 30th, 1pm EST.)
This article is divided into the following sections:
- What are the demons of community, and how are they different from the demons of oppression and colonization?
- What do community demons tell us about what we value in our communities?
- How do community demons manifest and interact with activist communities who are focused on fighting the demons of oppression and colonization?
- What are some rituals and suggestions for transforming and healing a community’s demons?
This article is based on an online teaching I gave for the Center for Babaylan Studies’ Ginhawa: Elements of Care series, specifically, on the aswang, as well as an online conversation in a Facebook group where I was asked about social justice communities and their own “demons”, similar to the aswang. I had been having dreams of and divination instructions for writing this article, and then when I was asked to do the workshop and asked the question on Facebook, it all began to connect for me.
Note on the word “demon”: I’m using the word here as an extension of my use of it in the article on “personal demons”. I am not referring to the inspiration Greek spirit daimon, but a type of antagonistic spirit that wants to harm human beings, either by preying on someone’s personal memories of trauma or their soul wounds (like personal demons), preying on a whole community of people with shared values and practices (like community demons), or preying on whole groups of communities and trying to assimilate them into a way of life that inherently makes them inferior or disadvantaged (like oppression demons). I characterize these patterns as “spirits” or “beings” because the pattern they have in common, besides harm done to human beings, is that they “fight back” in some kind of sentient way for their survival to their food source (human energy, especially human suffering), and they can “possess” a human into believing their way of doing things is the “right way” or that the human came up with it themselves (even when it’s a clear pattern they’ve witnessed in others).
To get deeper into understanding what community demons are, I’ll need to explain a bit what the aswang is, in a very quick, abridged way. I’ll be using the aswang as the main example of an ancient community demon, and contrast it with some new forms of community demons.
The word “aswang” is used among many of the islands known as the Philippines that describes a spirit (or person possessed by a spirit) that usually seems like a regular community member but secretly wants to eat human flesh and drain life force, particularly fetuses, children, and corpses. They have one or more of the following powers: shapeshifting (usually into animals), flight, illusion, separating the upper half of their body from their lower half without being harmed, and having a tongue like a proboscis or thread that can stretch long distances and pierce skin.
An aswang is created if there is an ever-hungry “creature” put inside a human, usually seen as a baby chicken that can be kept unnaturally alive inside a human body. The creature can be put inside a human using the following ways: willingly, through force from an aswang, tricked by an aswang into eating human flesh (the creature then grows or appears inside them), or inherited from parents or family members.
Humans are attacked by aswang through the specialized tongue, or using their shapeshifting powers. Usually aswang will try to pierce the womb of a pregnant person to eat the fetus, or pierce the skin of a fresh corpse and suck out its blood and insides. Sometimes, they will steal sleeping people or corpses to chop them up and eat them, or they can curse with a look or touch so that a person will sicken and die, and then they’ll collect the corpse later. Not all attacks are making humans into meals– sometimes an aswang will want to make more aswang, and so they’ll try to trick a human into eating other humans through illusion (e.g. magically making human fingers look like fish in a stew).
Aswang is part of a class of spirits or “demons” found all over the world, even if there are specific regional differences and names. This group is what I call “community demons”, and they all have different names and characteristics because their attributes are specifically tailored to or evolved from the communities they target.
What are the demons of community, and how are they different from the demons of oppression and colonization?
Demons of community are spirits that specifically show what a community is not about, while also embodying its fears of infiltration and co-optation. Community demons are not quite like the type of monsters or aliens that represent xenophobia and our fear of obvious difference from ourselves. Instead, community demons bring up the danger of when someone that was part of our community at some point, or from the beginning, actually was only there to hurt others and not about sustaining the community and helping it thrive. The community, instead of their home and sanctuary, is just their feeding ground.
Community demons are also not like demons of oppression and colonization, though they definitely are related. Oppression demons and community demons are both about using communities as feeding grounds through acts of violence, and turning community members against each other so that it’s easier for the demons to gain power and control over humans. But oppression demons try to turn every community they infiltrate into a specific pattern of violence, so once people recognize the pattern, it’s a lot easier to undo the work of internalized oppression or oppression demons from one community to another (more on these demons in a later article). Community demons are more insidious– they know how to look like they’re part of the community, and only those in the community who really work to embody the community’s values and understand its ancient connections can find the pattern of a community demon and the way to protect others from it.
What do community demons tell us about what we value in our communities?
Let’s return to the example of the aswang, and how some of its characteristics, and the ways community members can protect themselves from or heal the aswang, are all indicators of general Filipino community values, what I like to call “kapwa”. By using “kapwa”, I am also referencing the use of this Tagalog word in Virgilio Enriquez’s theories on the personality of Filipinos, called Sikolohiyang Pilipino (Filipino Psychology). Enriquez cited that Spanish dictionaries recorded the term as meaning “one and the other” and “both”, an inclusive other. Katrin de Guia, author of Kapwa: The Self In The Other, wrote in Babaylan: Filipinos and the Call of the Indigenous, that kapwa “is widely used when addressing another with the intention of establishing a connection”, and is also translated as “fellow being”. My understanding of community, even with people I have not met yet and non-human beings, aligns with how this Tagalog word is used and understood.
So, If kapwa is about having a solid connection to our own identity/personhood so that we can connect to others, then the aswang do not have that, as they are ruled by the creature inside of them, and shapeshift, and/or are literally severed in half, unable to have a solid or stable sense of identity and personhood.
If kapwa is about respect and connection to community members, especially through rituals of birth and death, then the aswang disrespect that by devouring humans, especially fetuses and corpses. Further to that, the reflection of others in an aswang’s eyes are upside down or inverted, because an aswang cannot see humans as part of their community, as people. Aswang do not respect the hospitality values of kapwa in offering shelter and food, help and comfort, to community members. Instead, the aswang only offers shelter and food so they can make the human into a meal, or turn them into another aswang through trickery. The aswang rarely offers help and comfort, as they can cause sickness by looking and touching. The creature inside of an aswang is also an inversion of a traditional offering of a chicken to the spirits– it is alive when it should be dead, and a chick when it should be fully grown. The creature is a mockery of the gratitude and spiritual practices of kapwa.
Furthermore, kapwa involves connection to mineral, plant, and animal spirits and medicines, so that is why ways to ward off or reveal the true nature of an aswang involves using salt, kalamansi/lemon, garlic, coconut, or stingrays (powerful salty water beings). Kapwa also involves human tools and activities, symbols of communal protection and care, which then also become more items of protection against aswang, like the bolo/machete, the walis ting-ting/broom, ash from a fire, or fire itself.
The rituals for transforming aswang back to humans also reveal more about kapwa. These rituals involve a human willing to support the process, symbolizing the human relationships that are part of kapwa. These rituals also involve the non-human relations that are very important to kapwa, such as kalamansi/lemon or the smoke of coconut husk. Sometimes the ritual involves a “beating” that signifies the remorse/guilt and empathy the kapwa connection gives when you harm another community member. Lastly, the ritual ends and the aswang is transformed back into a human when the hungry creature leaves the body, and is returned to the cycles of life and death, usually by being destroyed.
What I’m trying to get at with this example, is that even if a community demon still looks and acts like community members, there are tell-tale signs that they are a community demon or a person who is being possessed by a community demon and needs support and transformation. These signs are rooted in community values that have always led to the community’s sustainability and thriving. Community demons, as much as they can cleverly look like they’re being part of a community, have difficulty in supporting a community’s growth because of their patterns of destruction or targeting community members, and are eventually found out by those that embody the community’s values.
[This section was taken out for this excerpt.]
What are some rituals and suggestions for transforming and healing a community’s demons?
Before I begin outlining some ritual steps, I want to note that folks who are suffering from soul wounds and personal demons are also more likely to be influenced and possessed by community demons– or targeted by them! Please check out my article Soul Wounds & Personal Demons for some spiritual healing practices regarding that.
The following guidelines are for working with what you suspect may be a community demon growing inside of you, especially if you are exhibiting behaviour where you are harming community members for your own power and gain. I write it this way because it’s important to understand that a community can’t “make” an individual community member be accountable– it requires a level of self-awareness from the individual’s part, and a voluntary, active, readiness to transform. Otherwise, what needs to occur is communal boundary-setting, where the aim is to prevent more harm to the community, not to completely destroy and give up on the person who is possessed by the community demon.
- Gather the human, spirit, and non-human community to you. In a circle, have representations of Creator and Creation, trusted and loving human community members, mineral/plant/animal medicines, and healed ancestors with you, to show yourself and the community demon about the power of the community. Never do this ritual by yourself, as that is exactly what the community demon wants, to make you feel isolated.
- Out loud, call out the community demon, and say that you know they are there.
- Describe the harm that the community demon has been doing, and the effects it is having on the community. Use the medicines while this is done. If this was an aswang transformation ritual, then this part is the equivalent of the “beating”, the pain of empathy. Allow yourself to feel that remorse. If you can feel remorse, it also means that you can still feel empathy and connection. Remorse is the emotion and signal that you want to repair a connection that has been harmed. In the circle, there may be others who have been harmed by you that also want to describe the harm that you have done.
- The community demon may flee at this point, or it may be transformed. You’ll know it has left because there is no longer hunger to hurt yourself or others. If there is a transformation, then the hungry creature is exposed, which may be a physical object that you vomit out or it may look like a spiritual confession of a wound that led to this desire to do harm. If the community demon wasn’t transformed and only fled, it may come back and you may need to do this ritual again until it is transformed.
- If a transformation took place, the hunger that has been exposed needs to be dissolved into the cycle of life and death. This can look like destroying the object through water or fire. It may look or sound like forgiveness. It may also look like community members asking for amends to repair the harm that was done, so that the transformation occurs in the whole community, and not just within you. Sometimes, there is also a discussion between yourself and the community members about what the repercussions and boundaries are if the community demon returns and harms others again, and how to keep community members safe.
- End the ceremony by thanking all the beings that were invited to help with the protection and transformation, and, if appropriate, have a feast. The feast should have a spirit plate set aside for the non-humans, and the food should be prayed over and thanked for its gifts.
Like I wrote in the previous section, these are all guidelines and suggestions from many other practices and rituals that have worked to various degrees. Ultimately, however, my lone voice is not the be-all-end-all of this discussion, and it should never, ever be. I have my own biases, my privileges, my soul wounds, my susceptibility to community demons as well, and it’s only through an intergenerational community discussion within the communities I serve (including activist communities), that solid ceremonial healing and transformational practices can be implemented.
Want to read the full article? Become a patron on Patreon for as little as $1/month to support my Elders and healing work among my communities. $5/month, and you can chat with me about this article during my livestream chat on Saturday, May 30th, 1pm EST in the Kinaban Discord Server.