Son of Wood, An Ifugao Tale

This story is primarily a story of a father's love for his son and a son for his father. But, even so, it also describes the love of a woman for her beloved, the faithfulness of a wife, and it is a reflection of idealized relationships in this culture.

This story was taken from the book Treasury of Stories - Filipino Myths and Folktales by E. Arsenio Manuel and edited by Gilda Cordero Fernando. The book was illustrated by Carlos Valino, Jr. In his foreword, Manuel describes this book as "a collection of thirty-three Philippine-Asian traditions that have come down from the remote past. It was written in the hope that a new generation...may discover the charm, the depth, and the variety of these ancestral narratives."

From the chapter introduction, the story, itself, is discussed by Manuel as follows:

"An adaptation of an Ifugao epic song and part of an epic cycle...Son of Wood is a prose rendition of a hudhud... It is outstanding and unique in the primitive literature of Northern Luzon....More touching, perhaps, is the human feeling and deep emotion evoked by the story in the same large way Pinocchio has affected humanity everywhere. Ifugao's wooden boy...was not known outside the area until it was publicized in 1975. Still, I am almost certain that [it] antedates by many hundreds of years the Italian Pinocchio, now a recognized children's classic... The artistic sensitivity in the tale must have taken years of singing to achieve. Only a highly gifted bard could have composed such a song. Nowhere is primitive fatherly love shown in such a memorable manner, for the old man to breathe half of his little remaining life in order to make his song of wood live. The son reciprocates with equal intensity and the conflicting emotions inside him can almost be felt."
Note that epic cycles are part of oral tradition, a series of epics that are sung together and retold as a series. As the stories are retold, they are "distilled" or purified, removing elements, adding details, and slowly creating a story that emphasizes what its culture holds important, true, and moral. This story can be related to Amador Daguio's Wedding Dance, as the two stories are from the same region and display the same cultural norms.


The old man, Amtalaw, whose fame was still on the lips of every villager, sat on his hagabi[1] bench, feeling very lonely. For weeks now, he had looked stolidly at the skulls decorating the beams of his house, mementos of the old days when fighting was the law of the mountains [2]. He looked in the distance at the rice terraces and at the shoulders of ridges where other villages perched. Beyond the mountains, Amtalaw could glimpse communities that he had raided in his youth and villages where he had courted girls in their ulog[3] dormitories. Every spot for kilometers around was familiar to the old man--every waterfall, rivulet and pond, thicket and mountain path.

Without a word, Amtalaw sat, brooding. He had lost his two sons in battle and now there was no one to inherit the rice paddies, the house of hard wood, and his past glories. His wife, Gumigid, ever faithful and industrious, was too old to give him another child. The granary was full, the chickens were multiplying, the ducks filled every water hold and their eggs were scattered all over the yard. But there was no son to talk to, no one to listen to his stories of heroism and to pass on all that wealth.

Sensing Awiyao's sadness, and having listened to all his tales of girls in dormitories in other villages, his wife, Gumigid said, "Maybe you have an offspring with someone in some village that you do not remember."

"Maybe," was all Amtalaw could say.

Sometimes, Amtalaw would recont to his wife his lineage. "I am probably in the line of descent of the great god Kabunyian. One of our ancestors somewhere down the line, I am sure, must have found himself in a similar predicament. And it is not unlikely that he could have created for himself a successor out of wood. Or clay. And was able to breathe life into it."

The next morning, after a breakfast of glutinous rice and duck, Amtalaw decided to go up to the mountains. He did not heed his wife's precautions to take his spear and shield. He merely belted on his bolo, put betelnut-chew in his hip bag, several chisels, a hammer, and a small knife.

Once up in the mountain, he walked around the thicket, scrutinizing the big trees. Amtalaw spotted a very tall tree. He climbed up its thick trunk and, after cutting many small branches, he worked his way up to the top. At that dizzying height, he began to carve the end of the highest branch into the figure of the little boy he so desired.

He worked intently, without stopping. After several hours, the face and limbs emerged, and soon enough its other features. He continued carving. Soon, the headdress and the little loincloth emerged. It was a proper Ifugao boy! Amtalaw looked lovingly at his handiwork. Then, he lopped the figure swiftly off the branch. With the wooden boy tucked under his arm, Amtalaw slid down the tree.

When Amtalaw touched earth, he placed the wooden figure in front of him. He looked up at the sky and prayed to the gods. Then, he inhaled deeply. He put his mouth to the nostrils of the little wooden boy. And, as he prayed, he breathed half his remaining life into the figure.

Reeling from the effort, Amtalaw fell back. Soon, the wooden form on the grass began to show signs of life. First, the two eyebrows twitched. Then, the eyelids began to quiver and the two eyes flew open. The wooden boy's shoulders moved, he bent his elbow, he flexed his fingers. Then, the wooden boy sprang up on his own two feet. Soon the new son was frisking about on the grass and on the rocks and all around Amtalaw. The old man wept with joy.

The son of wood was an active boy. "Let us go down to the village," said Amtalaw, carrying the little boy. After only a short distance, the old man felt the boy getting heavier and heavier.

"Let me walk," said the child.

Holding on to his father's hand, the little boy walked. His pudgy legs could hardly reach the stepping stones. As they walked on, however, Amtalaw was amazed to notice that the boy's strides were getting longer and longer. Soon, the wooden boy's steps were matching Amtalaw's own. The boy was growing up before his eyes! Going up and down the rice terraces, father and son cut through one village after another, so much in a hurry was Amtalaw to reach his home.

"I told you, you must have a son somewhere," said his wife Gumigid over supper of boiled chicken. "What shall we call him?"

"Aliguyon," replied the beaming father.

The following day, Amtalaw was up early, eager to teach his son Aliguyon the mountain boys' favorite sport--spinning a top. He showed the wooden boy how to carve his own top, which would shine and spin the longest. He also taught how Aliguyon could twist twine into string for the top.

The following day, father and son were wrestling, the old man showing the young one the art of balance and proper use of strength. At the end of the day the father said, "Aliguyon, I know that you are now stronger than I, why didn't you throw me to the ground?"

"No one would do that to a father one loves," said Aliguyon.

Everyday, Amtalaw passed on a new experience to the son of wood. The old man taught him the sport of arm bending, the thigh slapping[4] game, spear throwing, and many others. Aliguyon mastered all of them.

In less than a year, Aliguyon had also become interested in visiting the other villages. His mother made him a fitting loincloth, a smart headpiece, and a hipbag[5]. Aliguyon was now fully a young man and Amtalaw proudly watched him disappear into the distance.

In the neighboring villages, Aliguyon engaged the young men in the traditional games of skill. No one could beat him. The young women cast longing glances at him, coveting Aliguyon for a mate and offering him betel-chew[6]. In the evening, he would go to an ulog dormitory and charm the girls into letting him in for the night.

It came to pass that Aliguyon fell in love with a young girl named Bugan[7]. Aliguyon took her necklace from her basket and put it in hid hipbag. Bugan did ot object. It meant that she was accepting his proposal. Aliguyon told the girl Bugan that they would soon have a wedding. During the day, Aliguyon helped Bugan's family in the rice terraces and the family looked upon Aliguyon as a good acquisition.

One day, while working in the field, Aliguyon felt himself gasping for breath. Quickly, he explained to his betrothed that he had to go home at once. Besides, he would have to inform his parents that he was going to marry. "I will be back soon," he said.

On the way home, he felt weaker and weaker, and Aliguyon knew the reason. The half-of-his-life that Amtalaw had bequeathed him was coming to an end. Near a stream, Aliguyon rested wearily on the stone. He washed his feet in the running water and an eel surfaced. The eel asked Aliguyon what was wrong, and the young man told the eel how his half-a-life was almost gone, that he was dying. "Why don't you just ask Amtalaw for the remainder of his life? Surely he would not mind sacrificing it for you," said the eel.

The young man would not hear of it. He loved his father, who had given him everything, even the life in his body. It would be cruel to ask the old man for anything more.

Aliguyon continued walking. After awhile, he had to sit again on a log to regain his strength. A frog leaped in front of him and advised the young man, "Amtalaw has led a full life. He should give you what is left of it. Besides, he needs a successor."

Aliguyon shook his head. His pulse was growing fainted and fainter, but Aliguyon continued on his journey. He walked with a heavy heart, for now he knew that he would turn into wood once more. What would happen to poor Bugan?

Back home, Amtalaw and his wife Gumigid never wondered at the wooden son's length absence. They thought he was still trying the ulog of the different villages just like his father used to do in his younger days.

Weakly, Aliguyon made his way to the place where he often sat with Bugan and loitered there for a while. Gasping painfully, he climbed the selfsame mountain where his father had carved him from a tree. He found the top of the tree lopped off. Aliguyon removed his belt and bolo and let them drop to the ground. With supreme effort, he climbed the great tree from whence he had come. With his last gasp, he rejoined the cut branch and became a part of the tree once more.

When many days passed and Aliguyon had not returned to her, his sweetheart Bugan became worried. She asked permission from her parents to look for him. She walked the path that Aliguyon had taken and rested on the very stone and the very log that Aliguyon had sat on. The eel and the frog told Bugan not to waste time, to hurry on, for something tragic could have overtaken her sweetheart. And they gave her directions to the mountains.

Bugan reached the mountain. It was a steep climb. She struggled up the slope and soon found herself in the woods. She saw many colorful birds flitting about in the forest. Below the giant tree, Bugan found Aliguyon's belt and bolo. Her heart was pounding. "He must have climbed the tree," thought Bugan. The tree was so high that just looking at it made her feel dizzy. She knew she would never be able to climb it.

Bugan called on all the colorful birds in the forest for help. They alighted at her feet. Bugan begged them for feathers to cover herself. The birds wanted to know why she wanted to cover her beauty and plucked off their colorful feathers for the girl, and Bugan was transformed into the most beautiful bird of all[8].

Immediately, Bugan flew to the top of the tallest tree where Aliguyon was. She immediately recognized Aliguyon, although he had become a part of the tree, because his hipbag bulged. Her necklace in the bag had not yet completely turned to wood. The bird Bugan alighted on top of the tree, clinging firmly to what would have been Aliguyon's head. And she never moved from her perch.

The villagers gathering firewood in the forest soon noticed the beautiful bird perched motionless on the top of the tree. Everyone wanted to own it. One after another, they climbed the tree in order to lure the bird. But it stayed fast. It could not be detached from its position.

For days, people gathered around the tree pointing out the bird. A rich man even made a canyao, sacrificing a chicken on the mountain. But when he climbed the tree, the beautiful bird could not be pried loose. Determined to own the bird, the rich man returned with a pig and offered it, again without success. Challenged, he continued sacrificing until he had but a few animals left. And still, the beautiful bird would not be coaxed to come down.

The beautiful colored bird on the tree was soon known far and wide. One day, even Amtalaw and his wife went up to the mountain to view the famous bird. The old man immediately saw that it was the same tree from which he had carved his son. The old man, who by now had become very worried about Aliguyon's disappearance, thought his son might be up on the tree top. But he knew that he was now too old to climb the tree.

When Amtalaw and his wife Gumigid reached home, the found a stranger waiting for them. It was a young man who resembled Aliguyon so much that people had to take a second look. The young man said that he was passing through the village. He was from Banawe. He had stopped by only on a chance that he would meet his father whom he had never seen. How often his mother had described Amtalaw to him and how exactly the old man fitted the description! The young man, who looked like Aliguyon, gave Amtalaw the name of his mother and Amtalaw recognized the boy as his son.

"What is your name?" asked the old man, and the young man's startling answer was:


Gumigid, his wife, could hardly take her eyes off the new Aliguyon, so much like their own son of wood was he.

Amtalaw had a scheme. If the second Aliguyon's appearance could fool them, then surely, others too would take him for the first Aliguyon. And so, the following morning, they brought the young man to the mountains to view the colored bird. As usual, the people form many neighboring villages were milling below the tree, wondering about the beautiful bird that refused to be brought down. Amtalaw asked the second Aliguyon if he would like to climb the tree and try his luck.

The young man consented. With great ease, he climbed the tall tree, and soon he was on the highest branch. For the first time, the bird turned its head at the sight of the second Aliguyon. The young man stretched out a hand, and the bird, dazzled by what she mistook to be her sweetheart, willingly perched on his shoulder. The young man saw the wooden carving of a boy at the end of the branch, and thinking it to be such beautiful work, cut it off at the feet. The second Aliguyon, with the son of wood under his arm and the bird clinging tamely to his shoulder, slowly descended.

The watching crowd applauded. As soon as he reached the ground, the young man put the bird on his outstretched arm and begn to dance with it. The people made a space for him, beating in time with their clapping. The bird fully believed that he was her sweetheart and transformed into Bugan, the woman. Bugan looked at the young man intently. "You are not my sweetheart, Aliguyon," she told him, although she continued dancing.

"My name is Aliguyon," said the young man, "but I am not your sweetheart."

The people who were watching them dance were urging Bugan to take the new Aliguyon. "Would you rather have a sweetheart made of wood than one of flesh and blood?" they asked. But Bugan said it was the man of wood that she loved.

Amtalaw, by the time, had picked up the wooden figure that was his creation. Gathering all his strength, he exhaled his remaining life into the nostrils of his beloved son. Immediately, the first Aliguyon sprang up to life and tearfully embraced his father. The faithful Bugan recognized him immediately and joined them.

A wedding feast was held immediately. During the festivities, the old man was gasping heavily, he could hardly breathe. He thanked the second Aliguyon who had made the reunion possible. The young man was glad to have met his father at last. But he had to be on his way to the next village. He left with everybody's blessings.

Amtalaw died on the third day of the wedding feast of Aliguyon, the son of wood whom he loved so much.


Notes: Some of these notes were taken from the book, others are from my high school classes. Please send me an email or comment on the story if you find any errors in any of the stories.

[1] hagabi - The long Ifugao couch carved of a single tree trunk. Only rich families can possess a hagabi as it is costly to make.

[2] In those days, the Ifugao had rival tribes, and headhunting was common practice. The skulls of the enemies defeated were kept as trophies and often displayed as signs of valor and skill in battle.

[3] ulog - the girl's dormitory in Bontok and neighboring communities where marriageable and pre-pubescent girls sleep at night.

[4] thigh-slapping - a savage game to test the strength and endurance of the men. Common only amount the mountain peoples of Northern Luzon.

[5] hip bag - complimentary article to the Igorot cap. Indispensible for carrying small articles.

[6] betelnut/betel chew - a combination of the areca nut and betel leaves, it has anticeptic properties and may have served as a breath freshener of the time. It figures prominently in Malayan/Southeast Asian cultures. Offering to and chewing betel-chew with another person is a sign of acceptance and friendship.

[7] Bugan is a common name in the north. Many stories feature a woman named Bugan, because Bugan is often characterized as the embodiment of the ideal woman. Beneficial female dieties are called Bugan.

[8] Animals helping heroes and heroines are a common theme in Philippine folk stories. Birds, in particular, are often shown helping women in trouble or in need. It is not uncommon to find stories wherein birds lend their feathers to women or to find women who can transform themselves into birds.

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