1896: The Berbalangs of Cagayan Sulu

The Legend:

In the middle of the Sulu Sea, on a small and isolated island, it is said that a strange group of creatures live separate from, but predating on, the human population. These beings, known as the Berbalangs, are said to resemble humanoid bats, with wings and slanted eyes.

The Original Story... and Mystery

        Mapun Island, north-east of the coast of Malaysia in the Sulu Sea, measures only about 12 kilometers across by 23 kilometers long. When the island was visited by Ethelbert Forbes Skertchly -- it was still called by its old name, Cagayan Sulu, at the time -- the island had many small villages stretched across it, and was mostly jungle and meadows. Skertchley later wrote an article about the island and its people, published in 1896 in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and this includes the one and only known report of the Berbalangs.

        At the time of Skertchly’s visit, two chiefs were fighting for control of the island, each with about half the villages under their control; but one village, in the center of the island, was claimed by neither... and neither chief wanted it. This was the village of the Berbalangs. The people Skertchley met told him many stories about these Berbalangs.

        The Berbalangs, it was said, look like normal people except for cat-like pupils in their eyes. They occasionally need to eat human flesh, and they normally satisfy themselves by eating the innards of human corpses they dig up; but when there are no available corpses, they hunt for living humans instead. To do this, the Berbalangs hide in the jungle and then release their spirits from their bodies. Each of these takes on the form of a human head with glowing eyes and feet where the ears should be, flapping in place of wings to allow the monster to fly.

        Only two things can protect a victim from attack. A lucky few have a rare gem called a ‘coconut pearl,’ a stone sometimes found inside a coconut. These absolutely repel all attack by the Berbalangs, but are only good for the person who finds one... the stones lose their magic when their owners die, or if the stones are given to another person. The only other defense against the Berbalangs is lime juice. Poured on family graves, it prevents the corpses from being eaten. Sprinkled on knives, it allows the ability to attack the Berbalang spirits; but this is still tricky. As the spirit heads approach there is first heard a loud groan, which becomes quieter as they get closer. Their eyes will be seen as flashing lights; but if these are in front of you, spin around and stab behind you... that is where the Berbalangs really are!

        All of these stories naturally made Skertchley curious about the actual people they were about, so he set out one day to visit the Berbalangs’ village. It took some time to find someone who would guide him; and when a young man agreed to do so, Skertchly and his guide set out immediately, lest the guide change his mind. Because of this, they got started late in the day, around 3 pm. His guide took Skertchly to within a half-mile of the village, but refused to get closer; Skertchley was given a knife and some limes, and warned not to eat any food offered until he drizzled lime juice on it first... it might be human flesh in disguise (which the lime juice would expose), and eating it would doom him to become a Berbalang as well!

        Much to his surprise, Skertchly found the village to be deserted except for some chickens and one goat. Strangely, he found evidence that people had been there very recently -- such as a pot of rice started cooking, but abandoned -- so he called out a few times, and then returned to his guide in frustration. Upon hearing the news, the guide stated he feared the Berbalangs were out hunting, and he insisted the two of them return to their village immediately; but it was late in the day, and soon became dark. In a small valley sometime later, they heard a loud moaning... Skertchly's guide forced him to hide in the tall grass next to the road and sit very still. As the moans quieted, Skertchley heard the sound of wings flapping and saw “a lot of little dancing lights” fly over his head. As these passed, the moaning grew louder. His guide stood up and announced that they could now proceed on to the village. Later, as the two men passed the house of a man named Hassan, the moans became quiet again... clearly, Skertchly's guide pointed out, the Berbalangs were within that house. He was sure that Hassan owned a coconut pearl though, and so insisted that they head to their own huts, and safety, immediately. 

        Being that Hassan was one of Skertchly's friends in the village, he got up early the next morning to go talk to him and see what he might be able to tell him of the events of the previous night. Hassan didn't respond to knocks on his door, or Skertchly's calls; Skertchly became disturbed enough that he forced the door open. Once inside, he found Hassan... lying on the floor of the hut next to his bed, his face contorted by fear, and very, very dead. 

        Skertchley could offer no explanation for these strange events... and he apparently did not attempt to visit the Berbalangs again.

The Evolution of the Berbalangs

So why are the Berbalangs described in many websites and books as being humanoid bats? That will take a moment to explain.

        Many years after Skertchly's account was published in 1896, the story was picked up by a popular writer on strange topics: Rupert T. Gould, for his book Oddities. This book, published in 1928, is the single source most largely responsible for the popular dissemination of Skertchly's report, which would likely have been forgotten if left on its own in the Journal of the Asiatic Society... but Gould did more than just spread the story. In reprinting the account, Gould made one significant change to it: he left out Skertchly's description of the Berbalangs' spirit form of a human head with feet on the ears, instead simply stating that the Berbalangs released their spirits to hunt victims. In the absence of this description, most American and European readers assumed the 'spirit forms' would conform to an American or European idea of a spirit as a humanoid ghost... with glowing eyes, because Gould did describe that feature. Why did Gould leave the description out of his retelling of the account? Possibly because he realized that the fantastic description of the monster would make it far less believable to his target audience.

        Gould's book was so popular that it continued to be printed and reprinted for forty years after it's first release; and the tale of the Berbalangs, as Gould presented it, continued to be repeated in other, newer, books of bizarre and unexplainable events. This all kept the story around just long enough that, in 1989, a particular group of people who were looking for tales of fantastic creatures were likely to pick up on it... and when they did, the next change came to the story of the Berbalangs.

        That group of people were game-masters for the then wildly popular role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. As the game took off, so did the demand for monsters for people to encounter in the game, a demand that was mostly met by adopting a large variety of creatures from history, folklore, and legends into playable monsters for the game. The Berbalangs were first proposed as a monster for Dungeons & Dragons in 1989... and by 1993 had evolved into a standardized monster for the game that no longer resembled the original Berbalangs. I'm not sure exactly when it started, but the Berbalangs in the game came to be described as humanoid bat creatures that would release their spirits to hunt down victims and steal their lives. The bat-like description probably evolved due to a perceived similarity in diet between the game's version of the Berbalangs and American and European beliefs regarding vampires and their association with bats. It is this description of the Berbalangs from the game Dungeons & Dragons that is now often mistakenly believed to be the original and correct idea of these beings.

Additional Notes

       In 1997 in Even More Short & Shivery, a young reader's collection of scary tales by Robert D. San Souci, Skertchly's name was replaced with the name Andrew Simmons. I have no good idea why San Souci did this... but a number of books and website after 1997 have now started to report these events using Simmons' name instead of Skertchly's, which is a good indication of just how deep they didn't research!

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