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The anthropological signification of the ‘Man with No Breath’ in Visayas and Mindanao epics

This paper explores the long-term endurance of “breath” as a schema of personhood in the Austronesian-speaking world, from a comparative-ethnographic approach to the “Man with No Breath” figure featured in Philippine epics. This is one of two contributions from Myfel D. Paluga and Andrea Malaya M. Ragragio to the South East Asia Research Special Issue Kaagi: Tracing Visayan Identities in Cultural Texts.

Myfel D. Paluga and Andrea Malaya M. Ragragio
01 November 2023
Read the article in the South East Asia Research Special Issue

This article argues that the enigmatic figure of the ‘Man with No Breath’ in the Visayan Labaw Donggon and the Sugidanon epics of Panay is not just a random flair in literary imagery, but works as a cultural pointer to a coherent and durable schema relating to personhood (of a self composed of ‘detachable’ or ‘partible’ parts) as it intersects with a particular ontology (of basic reality from a construal of ‘breathing’). Our ethnographic-comparative approach to this character takes it as an elaborated expression of indigenous reasoning centring on ‘breathing’ and its figurations in socio-symbolic fields. Taking relevant data coming from our Pantaron Manobo ethnography and epics to bear on Visayan epic data, we outline a logical schema – relating ‘breathing’, ‘cutting’ and ‘marking’ (‘breathing is cutting and linking’ and ‘cutting is marking with breath’) – objectified in the figure of the ‘Man with No Breath’. This breathing-cutting-marking thema has broader regional heuristic use: opening possibilities in understanding other than the usual ‘metaphorical’ or ‘animistic’ glossings of South East Asian/Austronesian ‘soul’, ‘spirit’, ‘life force’ or ‘breath’. The anthropological value of this figure is apt since ‘breath’ in this region (with its linguistic and cultural particularities) has long assumed a specific ritual/religious valence.

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