The Subanen Guinguman (From a Literary Folklorist Point of View)
by Ivie Carbon Esteban, SEASREP Language Training Grantee, Institut Alam dan Tamadun Melayu, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia


This essay draws inspiration from the Subanen guinguman, an epic narrative sung by Apu Jaringilan Sayamba in Maralag, Lapuyan, Zamboanga del Sur in Southern Philippines , and the primary subject of my thesis, “The Subanen Guinguman: Its Ideational Values and Contemporaneity”. When I conducted my fieldwork in Maralag, Lapuyan, Zamboanga del Sur, first in 1992 for the preliminary survey, then in 1993-1994 for the collection of the narrative, transcription and translation, I was in limbo on how to go about it. My angst as a literature student going into folklore and anthropology for a thesis was evident. Maybe it was my persistence on the topic that convinced my mentor I could make sense of what I was doing, or my “romantic” advocacy on the ancestral domain paradigm that pushed me to persevere and put forward the textualization of the guinguman. After I completed my master’s degree in 1996, the recording of the guinguman of 2,992 lines lay dormant for almost a decade. Only when my transcriber and translator, Apu Atitang Imbing Juminis. was battling with an illness, was I reunited to her in October 2001, not in the Imbing’s ancestral house in Lapuyan but in Zamboanga City. That was the last time I saw Apu. After two months, she passed away. I attended her burial in Lapuyan and although I wanted to proceed to Maralag to visit my foster family during my fieldwork, the peace and order condition there was a little unstable. Besides, I had lost contact with the people in the community, and I could not find anyone in Lapuyan to guide me there.

Briefly, the conceptual framework of my thesis was premised on the intrinsic elements of the guinguman as a narrative that has “form” and “content”. Using the formalistic approach, I analyzed the guinguman’s ideational values and linked them with the Subanen quest for ancestral domain using the sociological approach. Thus, the study attempted to bridge the rigors of collecting the guinguman from the field, textualizing it, and interpreting it as a narrative. My literary background has been sufficient, I guess, but in terms of “theoretical connections” with culture and folklore, my thesis needs a new dimension, which will hopefully be materialized under the Southeast Asian Studies Regional Exchange Program (SEASREP) Luisa Mallari Fellowship for Ph.D. Research in Southeast Asian Studies. The tentative title of my research is “The Ethnography of Narration: A Cross-cultural Interpretation of the Syair and the Guinguman”. It will undertake a comparative study of two folk genres: the syair of Malaysia and the Subanen guinguman.

Brief Background on Folk Narratives

Philippine folk literature provides a fragmentary retrospection of the country’s ethnolinguistic groups whose diverse cultural tableau remains a challenge to the humanities and social sciences. With these fragments, the mission of preserving the rich Filipino heritage becomes broader in scope. But even with the valuable collection of folk narratives, folk speeches, and folk songs, the existing gaps between the past and the present seem difficult to bridge if the task is only assigned to folklorists and to some extent, anthropologists. In the midst of technological convergence which gives prominence to mechanical transmission of indigenous knowledge, it is imperative to preserve the oral traditions before their total loss. The creative power of oral transmission may take a new form decades from now, but it is the collective power of the people that gives essence to what can be handed down to the next generations.

Since the 1960s, one promising category of folk literature that has been explored by folklorists is the epic. Their contributions to Philippine Folklore and Mythology are exemplary, and true enough, the collection of Philippine epics, also called ethno-epics or folk epics (Manuel, 1980) soon gained the following of graduate students who followed suit with a collection of a number of Mindanao epics (Resma, 1982; Malagar, 1972; and Ochotorena, 1971). But the grandest collection, which took more than two decades is The Darangen, the Meranao Epic, by Sr. Ma. Delia D. Coronel with her team at the Mamitua Saber Research Center, Mindanao State University, Marawi City. Today, with the increasing concern of social scientists on ethnicity and cultural studies, the folklore paradigm has been now significantly linked with the issues of ancestral domain, indigenous land use and patterns, environmental degradation, sustainable development, and globalization.

If folklore illustrates a rich repository of people’s knowledge and experiences, it is possible to locate through the epics specific human conditions which are common to different races and cultures. Although not all Philippine epics are epic poetry in terms of classical standards, there are astonishing similarities of human behavior among the world’s epic heroes and heroines. According to Fr. Demetrio (1989),

In the history of civilizations, the epic has been a vehicle for defining the historical position of a people of nation. What the Iliad did to the Greeks, the Aeneid to the Romans, the Mahabharata to the Hindus, the Kalevala to the Finns, and the Divina Commedia to the Catholic Europe, the Philippine folk-epics may very well do to the Filipino people.

Knowledge of a nation’s folklore is knowledge of the creative minds of its folks. Folklore then is a key to a nation’s values, a path that leads into the hearts of its people (Coronel, 1968). A folk narrative then can be constructed as projections of the aspirations and fears, thoughts, and actions of a people, who, if they are to understand the meaning of the present, must return to the dim past for clues to their identity.

A Glimpse of the Subanen

The Subanen (also called Subanon, Subanun, or Suban-on/un) are unique with respect to their identity and cultural foundation. While historical accounts on them present a distinct social formation (Irwin, 1993), their folklore has never been exhausted by folklorists and other experts. There have been ethnographic and linguistic studies on the Subanen (Christie, 1909; Finley and Churchill, 1913) to name a few, but in terms of epic narrative as cultural texts, so far a handful can be mentioned (Resma, 1982; Morales, 1976; Malagar, 1972; Ochotorena, 1971; and Esteban, 1996).

The first knowledge of the Subanun comes from Francisco Combe’s Historia de Mindanao, Jolo y sus adjacentes, written in 1630s and published in 1667. As a historical account, it is a narrative on events relating to Spanish attempts at conquest of Mindanao and the adjacent archipelago and their inhabitants. While it is chiefly a historical source, the book is also the first ethnography that mentions the Subanun as indigenous people of the four provinces found in the Zamboanga Peninsula today (Esteban, 1996). Data from a survey conducted by the Tribal Filipino in 1996 reported that “the population of the Subanen was estimated to be 311,090”, (Lumibao, Esteban, and Jarmin, 2002) making them the largest among the non-Muslim indigenous communities in the country. Moreover, a study to document the Tigbao Subanen claim for ancestral domain (Esteban and Lapad, 2000) verified that although they are scattered throughout the peninsula, those who are settled in the peripheries have preserved their indigenous practices on health, marriage, burial, and settling disputes. And in some communities, chanting old stories has been resorted to as a form of entertainment.

The Subanen Guinguman

The epic of Lapuyan is called gingoman or ginguman (Georsua, 1987; Irwin, 1993, and Esteban, 1996). The generic term ginuman, goman, or guman (Malagar, 1972; Morales, 1976; and Sumingit, 1991) is used among Subanen groups to refer to tales regarding the origin and destiny of their people. Through this ancient story, ultimate truths are expressed about the world and its people. It provides the existential understanding of reality, including the nature of the transcendent – the gods and the spirit world (Irwin, 1993, cited by Esteban, 1996). As the story of the Subanen, the guinguman is the oral testimony of their ancestors’ struggle for life and survival in Thubig Dlyagen, an ancient territory ruled by Datu Phunbenuwa and Gbai Selaga. Its epic tradition is depicted through the following episodes: the Subanen Golden Age (as delineated by Thubig Dlyagen); the controversies over Dlyagen’s heirs (an ailing Phunbenuwa against the other datus from the neighboring kingdoms); and the progeny of the warring datus (as traced by the Princesses who mediated in the war) (Esteban, 1996).

In the mythical realm, this kingdom was Thubig Dlyagen which was the most ancient, beautiful, and perfect kingdom ruled by Phunbenuwa and his son, Daugbulawan, both believed to possess supernatural powers and abilities (Georsua, 1987; Malagar, 1972). The same ancient river is also described in Subanen folktales, myths, and legends. As their ancestral territory, Dlyagen was the land base which in the past enabled their ancestors to practice their indigenous culture. Through this territorial component and all features inherent in it, land possession assumed a significant part of their survival and identity as a people.

Folklore and Identity

It has been repeatedly said that the great epics of the world literature have their roots in one way or another, in oral tradition. What became committed to script, why, how and when, are the key questions of textualization, which in the case of long epics seem to be even more problematic than in other genres. This is mainly because their structural frame is too large and complex, that it may seem impossible to command it by composition. The textualization of the Subanen guinguman composed of 2,992 lines may be mediocre in terms of length and poetics, but what makes a folk literature meaningful is,

… not only to hear the singer’s voice behind the written text but more importantly, to understand his vision that is a compilation of art, history, and myth. By encapsulating creation miracles and heroic action into an epic poem, the singer also creates our past and links us to the formation of human community. For each great epic, there must be a community somewhere, which hails the work as a symbol of its identity.

On the level of symbolic culture, Emile Durkheim, though labeled as a conservative thinker, has been recently hailed as a leading authority of structuralism, socio-linguistics, and post modernism (Marshall, 1998; Seale, 1998). In Durkheim’s approach, there is a strong distinction between the sacred and the profane. This dichotomy locates rituals firmly in the sacred, thus creating collective conscience and morality; while the profane expresses the private and the individual life, thereby encouraging fragmentation and the sensual. Since religion is one of the main social fields in which rituals operate, Durkheim reduced ritual to “social structure since he asserted that, through rituals, people correctly represent to themselves the patterns of relations in society.”

Among indigenous peoples, ritual is embedded in their worldview, where the physical and spiritual worlds coexist. Jose (1980) asserted that in studying folklore, the concept of worldview should be integrated in a tribe’s history because it dictates their cultural life as a distinct people and guides their interpretation of the various phenomena around them. Any disturbance in either the physical or spiritual sphere is a process where the spirits are appeased through rituals.

But the forces both physical and spiritual can only be mediated by a gifted member of the tribe. In fact among the Subanen, this medium is called the gbelyan who could predict certain phenomena. The performance of the act (Bauaman, 1977; Hymes, 1974) to appease the spirit world grows in strength and acquires a dominant position in the community. The harmonious relationship brought about by a persistent belief on spirits is regulated in the tribe’s folklore (customs, beliefs, and oral traditions). This act of communicating the voice of the tribe is a form of religion because it follows a system of beliefs made meaningful for the existence of its members. This is collective identity, distinct from the non-members of the tribe.

With ethnography having been subjected to discursive interpretations (Geertz, 1973), folklore studies are now sensitive to use the word “consultant” rather than “informant” to refer to those with whom researchers work in the field. The word consultant also represents a conceptual shift – giving the folk credit and space as performers and partners in understanding and analyzing material. Contexts aid the understanding of particular narratives (Herman, 1999) or other expressive forms (Jakobson, 1960) because folklore embodies a synthesis of the “folk” and the “lore”. Ultimately, all of culture and humanity share these foci of folklore – creativity and society.

The Symbolic Language of the Guinguman

Developments in social theory associated with structuralism and post-structuralism share the common concern with language and representation more broadly which was integral to the symbolic interactionist approach to identity. Structuralism and post-structuralism, however, more assertively emphasize the constitutive or deeply formative role of language and representation and making of identity (Marshall, 1998). Underpinning them are the insights of the Swiss structural linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who emphasized the way meaning in language was produced, not through the intention of the speaking or writing subject, but by the interplay of signs. Language itself was a structured system which produced meaning. In folk literature, although ethnography comes first prior to the text (which will undergo phases of chanting, recording, transcribing, and translating), Saussure also implied “to treat language as a social construct and to denaturalize it”, meaning that language is an active construction of the world rather than a passive reflection of it. Language as a system of differences constructs or produces an idea of the objective world, of referents. So languages do not neutrally reflect or mirror or correspond with the objective world, but rather languages produce a different sense of the world.

Thus the language of the guinguman is culturally meaningful to the place where it was collected. The theme, characters, setting can only be significant in folklore studies if they are analyzed as symbols of Subanen identity. In short, the world around them, and their place in it, is given meaning –made meaningful – within representation, or what Durkheim calls “collective representation”, which is also cultural. Its ancient explanation of the world as perceived by the Subanen falls within the domain of mythology. Eliade (1960) defined myth as “an extremely complex cultural reality, which can be approached and interpreted from the various contemporary viewpoints”. Despite debates on whether a myth is “true” or “false”, he insisted on saying that,

Myth is living and supplies models for human behavior and, by the very fact, gives meaning and value to life. To understand the structure and function of myths in these traditional societies not only serves to clarify a stage in the history of human thought but also helps us to understand a category of our contemporaries.

Furthermore, Campbell (1949) argued that it is the viewpoint of the analysts that matters. For when scrutinized not of what it is but how it functions, of how it has served mankind in the past, of how it may serve today, mythology shows itself of an individual, the race, and age. The meaning of the guinguman as a myth can be traced through its symbolism. But the symbolic representation of any phenomenon in a specific cultural setting does not exist in isolation from the other activities of the members of a tribal group. A symbol is significant to the characters themselves, or to the group as a whole. As emphasized by Campbell (1949),

Hence the totality of the fullness of man is not in the separate member, but in the body of the society as a whole… From his group, he has derived his techniques of life, the language in which he thrives… If he presumes to cut himself off, either in deed or in thought and feeling, he only breaks the connection with the sources of his existence.

The hero then as one of the narrative’s characters becomes the legitimate representation of the groups’ story in a given time.


Culture is bound to change (Haviland, 1987) through the process of assimilation where an outsider, immigrant, or subordinate group becomes indistinguishably integrated into the dominant host society (Marshall, 1998). This is very true among the indigenous peoples not only in the Philippines, but also all over the world. In the case of the Subanen, although ranked as the highest in population among the IPs, there can be no doubt that majority have already undergone the process of integrating themselves with the dominant group. Does the process of assimilation affect the group’s identity?

A main insight from anthropological research showed that assimilation is just a result of the processes of modernization. Instead of eroding the group’s identity, it encourages more cohesion among members of the subordinate group to maintain ethnic organization and preserve identity. For instance, in epic narratives, symbols of preservation do exist. Although viewed from the perspective of mythology, Claude Levi-Strauss believed it was possible to identify general principles or structures which determined the surface appearances of the particular myths current in a culture. His analyses of myths seemed to demonstrate that the elements and relationships within individual myths made sense of oppositions, inversions, transformations, and other metamorphoses within a system. Thus, in relation to Saussure’s idea of structuralism, it was Levi-Strauss who bridged mythology, through its symbolic meaning, and with anthropology in terms of cultural meanings of texts.

The guinguman narrates a common origin, a sacred story of Subanen ancestors. It offers role models with which to identify and set goal orientations. As the story builds up, it also encapsulates and demonstrates the virtues necessary in attaining such goals. As Jansen (1963) emphasized, the classic theme is that success is due to those who remain virtuous in the face of trials and tribulations. Since modes of existence are conventionalized in tradition through societal symbolisms that permeate a culture, the virtuous will be those who can work within that tradition. Therefore, the fact that the Subanen still exist today proves that the perpetration of their tribe is their sense of belongingness, their ethnicity, their identity, and their cultural persistence.

I hope that my future research plan will enrich the cultural meanings of the Subanen guinguman within the context of Southeast Asian Folk Literatures.


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