Darangen: too epic for me

Darangen: in original Maranao verse with English translation, vol. I, Anon. (oral epic), transcribed by Hadji Lawa Cali et al., translated by Ma. Delia Coronel, 1986 (original composition sometime before the 14th century)

  • Philippines, #1
  • Borrowed from San Francisco Public Library (via interlibrary loan)
  • Read October 2017
  • Rating 3/5
  • Recommended for: scholars, princesses in towers, and other people with lots of time on their hands

The Darangen is the ancient oral epic of the Maranao people, a largely Muslim minority from the island of Mindanao in the Southern Philippines. The epic predates the Islamization of the Maranao people in the 14th century, but I was unable to find any further information on the date of its composition. Ancient, anyway.

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Oxford, 2011  **the first person to correctly identify the theme of today’s photos gets an amazing prize

It’s also very long. In the 1980s, Mindanao State University made a great effort to collect and translate the poem, and published their results in an 8-volume edition. I borrowed the first four volumes from the library, which was always going to be overambitious considering that I was restricted to a three-week borrowing period. I didn’t even make it through the first one before I had to return them. It wasn’t bad, or boring, exactly, but I was missing so much context that I was spending much more time reading notes and background material than the poem itself, which made it hard to really immerse myself in the narrative. Also, in the way of oral epic poetry, the story was composed of repeated tropes and linguistic formulae. These make it a lot easier for singers to memorize the work (and, given that it take seven days to recite the entire Darangen, they can probably use all the help they can get), but can make for rather tedious reading. This is why 9th-graders groan about The Odyssey. There’s only so many times you can read about The Gray-Eyed Goddess before you want to say, just call her Athena already and move on, we get it, her eyes are gray. Now I actually really love Greek epic poetry, but I spent a lot of time in high school and college studying classical literature and now have the context to enjoy Homer without having to look up every second line. Coming to a similar work from a culture about which I am completely ignorant just meant it would have taken far more work than I am willing or able to put in right now to really appreciate this classic.

Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to feel the same way. Despite being declared a National Cultural Treasure of the Philippines by the National Museum and a Provincial Treasure by Lanao del Sur Province in 2002, and a masterpiece of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2008, it is being performed less and less often, and few living people can recite the epic in its entirety.

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San Francisco, 2017

There’s such a wealth of information here, both historical and artistic. I barely scratched the surface, but here are a few interesting bits of information and textual excerpts I collected while reading Volume I of the Darangen:

The poem makes use of the sakbá/sakeb, a poetic device of repetition, whereby a theme is first expressed in the sakbá, then repeated in the sakeb, which uses synonyms but must exactly match the length and meter, and must cover all the meanings of all the words in the sakbá—i.e., every meaning of each word (and since classical Maranao is written without punctuation, words can be divided in several different places, making several potential readings of a given line, which makes the sakbá even more difficult to compose…and incidentally probably made this poem almost impossible to translate)

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London, 2013

Formal mourning umbrellas were an important part of funerary rites, and the number of tiers of the umbrella depended on the status of the deceased: five or seven tiers for a great lady, seven or nine tiers for an Ayonan (king), depending on his rank. Obviously there’s something about odd numbers. I was thinking how strange it is that humans across cultures have always assigned emotional significance to certain numbers. Magic 3, lucky 7, unlucky 13; why do we like certain numbers? Why do we find some pleasing and some dangerous? Unlike dietary rules or other superstitions, which can often trace their origins back to some public health issue, or religion, which often serves to answer questions or fears that were/are otherwise unanswerable, there seems to be no good reason for the existence of such beliefs about numbers.

Princesses were kept in towers called “lamins,” which were “constructed on top of a torogan (royal house) to hide the princess and her ladies. Its entrance is always located near the Sultan’s bed and its presence announces to the world that there is a royal lady in the community. The princess has a complete household in her tower and rarely leaves the place. Her time is spent in learning all the arts and graces of a princess. She leaves the tower on the day she is married. The tower in a community is a sign of wealth and honor, hence it is guarded very well lest it be captured by the enemy, a terrible disgrace.”

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New York, 2006

When women do appear in public, their role is to be gracious and pleasant, regardless of personal circumstances. When Princess Bolentay Pangadapen, forced by her brother to marry a new husband after Pasandalan a Morog has been gone for two years, is emotionally blackmailed into coming down out of the lamin to act as his wife (because otherwise her brother is going to attack Morog in Iliyan a Bembaran):

However, having been brought up
Properly and wise in her ways,
She knew how to act correctly
And was careful not to trouble
Others with her grief and thus she
Succeeded in hiding her pain,
Appearing pleasant every time
She had to entertain some guests
Although it was clear that she was
Having some grave problem but she
Appeared to be happy when she
Was in the company of the
Royal datu, her new husband

There is a lot of emphasis on clothing, especially the number of layers. When warriors fight, there is an inevitable description of how many layers of their opponents’ clothing they slice through:

Then he began to slash out fast
With his smooth-flowing kampilan,
Cut Domaramba sa Gani
So quickly right across the waist,
That the sword had not sliced through
The body before the man fell,
His four layers of clothes all split,
So neatly divided in two,
Its cotton threads all unravelled.
They had been so well made for him
By pretty ladies at his place.

(this is a thing that ladies get to do, while they’re locked up in the lamin: make clothes)

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Paris, 2012

Also, this text introduced me to the betel chew ceremony, which was perhaps the most-repeated trope in the short segment of the poem that I read. Every household has its own ornate betel nut tray or box (more information, and some pictures of betel chew boxes, here) to present the betel leaves, areca nut, and lime paste for the ceremony; guests are unfailingly welcomed with an offering of betel. This, incidentally, is another thing ladies get to do to pass the time: present the betel chew to guests.

I wish I had years of my life to devote to consuming and parsing this text. I don’t, however, and so with regret I have to let this one go, knowing that I missed most of its significance, and that I was thus unable to appreciate it as it deserves.

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Disneyland, 2005
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