The Mysterious Maria Cacao and Her Golden Ghost Ship(Mountain Goddesses of the Philippines Part 3)
During one of my vacant classes in grade school, I was trading creepy stories with my friends. Everyone boasted about their own experiences with ghosts, aswangs and the paranormal. Then one of them started recounting this story of a mysterious rich woman from the nearby mountains who travels in a beautiful ship down to town. I was immediately fascinated. I was told her name was Pacifica, and the bridge by the mountain river is where she can be spotted on board the vessel especially in late afternoons.
As I got older, I learned my classmate was actually talking about a variation of the tale of Maria (de) Cacao. To my dismay, her story was not original from my hometown, but from the other side of the province.
Maria Cacao is the diwata (fairy) or mountain goddess associated with Mount Lantoy in Argao, Cebu, Philippines. Her legends spread far and wide, even across to the neighboring islands in the Visayas region.
Not Among Us
But unlike her Tagalog counterparts, Maria Cacao is described as having magnificently fair skin and perfect aquiline nose, which is far from the look of a Filipino native. This tells something about her class and race, likening her to a mestizo(half native, half Spanish) haciendera.
It also resembles the stories of Engkantados(the fair folk) believed to be living in a world parallel to our own. They tend to be fairer than average, as pale skin has been associated with the supernatural even during pre-colonial times. Folklore teaches us that they have normal human appearance, beautiful and seemingly ageless at that—save for some distinct characteristics.
- These enchanted creatures have continuously smooth and supple skin without any wrinkled parts (as in the elbows and knees) and which seemed to glimmer in sunlight. (think Edward Cullen)
- Lacking a philtrum (the ridge found below the nose) on their otherworldly faces.
- When one looks in their eyes, the reflection they cast appear inverted.
From the Mountain to the River
Mount Lantoy is a 1,946 feet mountain located 10 kilometres inland from the municipality of Argao and was declared as a watershed forest reserve in June 1994. The initial 7,265-hectare (17,950-acre) protected area was reduced in December 2006, reducing the watershed reserve area coverage to 3,000 hectares. Stories about Engkantos living in the mountain are prevalent in the locale.
The basic form of the folktale is that whenever rains flood the river that comes from Mount Lantoy, or a bridge is broken, this is a sign that Maria Cacao and her husband Mangao/Mangaw have either traveled down the river or on their way home back from business.
This river is the Mananga River, an intermittent stream that connects Argao and Talisay, five towns away from each other. An integral part of the Mananga River is within the territorial boundary of Talisay, so the bridge in the story is believed by the locals to be the Mananga bridge connecting the Baranggays Tabunok and Lawaan.
Willy Wonka Woman
Maria Cacao and her husband were well-known traders who lived in the mountains of southern Cebu and owned a huge plantation of cacao where villagers from Argao source from to make into tablea.
Tablea or Tableya is a Spanish word meaning tablet. It is made out of cacao beans that are roasted, ground and formed into unsweetened chocolate tablets. Its a crucial ingredient in the Filipino delicacies 'sikwate' (hot chocolate) and 'champorado/tsampurado/champurrado in spanish' (a sweet chocolate rice porridge).
While the story is obviously mythical in nature, it is cited as evidence of how long the production of tablea has been going on in the area.
When Maria harvests the cacao, she and her husband, Mangao would ply the Mananga River, setting sail from the mountains of Argao coming out to Talisay on their galleon ship made entirely out of gold to take their produce to other islands and countries. Some say Maria Cacao exports these crops to Europe and they would usually leave at dawn when the villagers were still sleeping.
Each time they pass through the river, the mast of the galleon hits the wooden bridge and destroys it causing the water to overflow. In some versions of the tale, many people were killed so the villagers shunned the couple because of the incident. Thus, they became reclusive and eventually never seen again.
Fairies From The Cave
Maria Cacao is supposed to live inside a cave in the mountain and the Cacao trees outside it are said to be her plantation. The mystical cave in question is the Agta Cave in Argao, also known locally as 'Balay sa Agta'(house of the Agta). An Agta is the Visayan equivalent to the 'Kapre', a mythical tree troll that likes to smoke tobacco and prank people.
When Maria Cacao and her husband comes back from their business trips, they would bring with them items from other places. Maria would lend these items to the villagers, who would simply write whatever item they want to borrow and leave the list at the entrance of the cave. When the villagers return the next day, these items would be there.
Similar to Makiling, Maria lent different items to the people of the village. From clothes, spoons, forks, plates and other utensils, all of which were made of gold.
The people started to return the items already broken or they would never return them at all. Because of this, Maria Cacao did not let the villagers borrow from her anymore. She also did not show herself to the people until they stopped believing in her existence.
The legend, it seems, has evolved into accounts that if you borrowed money from Maria Cacao and didn’t pay back, it would lead to dire consequences.
Taker of Souls
Such superstitions include Maria Cacao's boat coming to take souls to the next world, merging with another common Filipino mythological motif - that of soul-harvesting boats. A psychopomp very much alike to the Flying Dutchman.
Sightings of a boat floating down rivers and picking up passengers began to circulate, warning people not to get aboard on the mystical vessel with an equally mysterious woman at the helm beckoning them to hitch a ride.
Usually these stories were formulated right after major catastrophes ravaged the country and a lot were suffering from the tragedy like when typhoons "Sendong"(Tropical Storm Washi) and "Yolanda"(Haiyan) destroyed Cagayan de Oro and Samar, Leyte, leading some people to speculate that these stories were nothing more than a way for people to cope up with their devastated lives.
According to one account, eyewitnesses thought rescuers came too early to save them from the raging storm, which was odd..only to find seconds later that the ship vanished before their eyes in seconds. A lot of people were dead or dying during those times so it's natural to believe in beings coming to take souls.
The people of southern Cebu where the Maria Cacao legend comes from believe it still holds water, but sadly there is an ongoing issue on the Mananga river at present about illegal quarrying and waste pollution.
There's even a story told by the villagers recently about some Car Salesmen from the city, coming to the area near the river asking for directions for the house of a person named Maria for a delivery, whom they were told is living there. They said she purchased a brand new vehicle from Cebu City and looking elegant with almost having Caucasian features driving a white luxury car. But nobody from the locals knew a certain Maria fitting by that description.
On rainy seasons, motorists that cross the now modernized Mananga bridge would beep their car horns to signal Maria Cacao and her husband. Some say that on rare occasions they can still see the light at the top of the mast of a passing galleon.
Maria Cacao: Ang Diwata ng Cebu (Maria Cacao: The Fairy of Cebu) by Rene O. Villanueva
Rethinking Maria Cacao: Legend-making in the Visayan Context by Koki Seki
Do You Believe in Mountain Goddesses?
Aside from their first names, these so-called goddesses of the mountains share certain similarities that makes me stop and think if they are one and the same person. They are the "Tres Marias" of Filipino folklore, also associated with the three stars in the Orion Belt.
Meanwhile, they also contradict each other to some degree which makes it all more interesting and unique. This just goes to show how richly imaginative the previous generations are. But one thing is clear to me, these stories handed down by the ancestors offer a link to the past and their simpler ways of life.
It's trying to impart lessons and knowledge that no longer seem to matter to most people of today: to value our environment, to be kind to one another and to never cease in believing the wonders of magic.
Maybe the reason why these mystical ladies all seem to disappear is because we can no longer recognize them in ourselves. Just a thought.