Trese, Netflix‘s new anime, introduces us to Alexandra Trese, a mandirigmang-babaylan—aka a warrior-shaman—who assists the Metro Manila police in solving supernatural crimes. Based on an award-winning Filipino comic by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo, the series combines urban fantasy noir and the bloody horror of Southeast Asia.
For fans from the Philippines and of the Filipino diaspora, the inspiration for the show’s setting and worldbuilding will be familiar and nostalgic. For other viewers, it may be fresh and unique. In fact, for many people, Trese may be the first series they’ve ever watched that’s set in the Philippines and that features elements from the country’s rich folklore.
Speaking of which, if you’re interested in learning more about the Filipino folklore featured in Trese, don’t worry. We got you. But first, let’s go over some basics. The Philippines is an archipelago consisting of over 7,500 islands. As a result, its supernatural folklore is incredibly diverse and varies from region to region. One supernatural monster may look slightly different depending on which island you visit. But while the details may change from place to place, the core of that creature stays the same.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the various denizens of Filipino folklore that appear in Trese.
“Tabi Tabi Po”
If you’ve watched the show, you’ll know this isn’t a supernatural being. This is what Alexandra says when she seeks information from Nuno. In the wider context of Filipino supernatural lore, however, it’s a crucial, life-saving phrase. By saying “tabi tabi po,” you’re essentially saying “excuse me” to whatever spirits may be nearby. This is something you say when you’re traveling through spaces where supernatural beings might live: a field, a mound of dirt, a tree, a riverbank, etc. You do this to avoid pissing off these spirits, some of which are easily offended if they think you’re not respectful or acknowledging their presence. Failing to say “tabi tabi po” may lead to your getting sick, coming down with a fever, and other related maladies. It’s the kind of thing where, even if you’re not a believer, you just say it. Why risk it?
Nuno sa Punso
In Trese, Nuno is Alexandra’s elderly, supernatural informant. He’s based on nuno sa punso, a nature spirit that takes the form of an old man that lives in a mound of dirt. Nuno sa punso are easily angered and vindictive, so this is a prime example where you should follow Alexandra’s lead and say “tabi tabi po.” Otherwise, you might twist your ankle or your foot might swell like a balloon because you encroached on his territory. Nuno from Trese is technically not a nuno sa punso. He’s actually the nuno sa manhole since he lives in the sewer and not a mound of dirt.
While duwende are also earth spirits, they’re not to be confused with nuno sa punso. They’re more akin to capricious little goblins. They can bestow good luck upon you. They can serve you a heaping pile of bad luck. Or they can just steal your things, hide them, and then laugh at you when you try to find them. Seems fitting that in Trese, a duwende would help a woman become a famous actress even if it means sacrificing some things along the way.
Traditionally, laman lupa refers to the family of earth elementals in Filipino folklore. Using this definition, nuno sa punso and duwende would be types of laman lupa. But in Trese, laman lupa refers to the mud elementals that Nuno summons as protection.
The White Lady
The white lady is probably the most familiar of the supernatural denizens featured in Trese. Almost every country in the world has some urban legend about a female ghost who wears a white dress. The White Lady of Balete Drive is the most famous of the white ladies found throughout the Philippines. Her story is familiar to paranormal fans. A woman dies in a car accident on Balete Drive. Years later, she haunts taxi drivers who pick her up in the middle of the night. Other stories say people who drive along the street during the overnight hours may catch a glimpse of her in their rear-view before she vanishes. Many stories claim she has caused several accidents along Balete Drive.
Many stories explain the big fireball that Alexandra summons using her cell phone. The consensus is that santelmo are souls of the deceased with unfinished business. They might be seeking vengeance. Maybe they simply need help. Sometimes they chase you. Other times, they trick you into following them until you’re desperately lost. Think the will-o’-the-wisp from European folklore. If the name sounds suspiciously like St. Elmo’s Fire, you’re right. Santelmo is most likely a supernatural explanation for the real-life weather phenomena of ball lightning and luminous plasma.
According to Filipino folklore, these humanoid horses like to live in remote mountains and forests. Note how Alexandra meets Señor Armanaz in a penthouse that resembles an indoor jungle. They’re infamous for playing tricks on travelers. They like to scare them and lead them astray. In the urban setting of Trese, this takes the form of Maliksi drag racing and causing his challengers to crash.
When Anton, Alexandra’s father, was still alive, he was assisted by a pack of shapechangers. Sigbin, as these creatures are called, are familiars. Depending on the needs of their master, they can take on many different forms, but in some regions, they often look like dogs, which is the version Trese follows.
According to Filipino folklore, tiyanak are vampiric babies. They cry like infants to lure in unsuspecting people. Babies are harmless, after all. They can’t hurt you, right? But when you pick up what appears to be an abandoned infant, the tiyanak will transform and attack you. In some stories, tiyanak come from unborn children whose mothers died before giving birth. In other stories, they’re the spirits of children who died before being baptized. Remember, Spanish colonialization transformed the Philippines into a predominantly Catholic country and as a result, it influenced the native folklore.
The aswang is the Philippines’ most famous monster. It’s less a name for one type of supernatural creature and more a label we give an entire family of monsters. In Trese, we see a group of aswang confront Anton when Alexandra undergoes the ritual trial at the balete tree. But if you look closer, you’ll notice they come in different forms. One is a beautiful woman. Some are flying torsos, which are perhaps the most recognizable aswang, the manananggal. The first type of aswang we encounter in Trese are the ghouls who’ve formed organized gangs throughout Manila and traffic humans.
While diwata don’t explicitly feature in any of Trese‘s six episodes, we catch glimpses of them at the supernatural gatherings that Anton holds. The beautiful woman with the flowing clothes and the magical sigil floating behind her? Definitely a diwata. Some Westerners like to call them the Filipino equivalent of elves. If a comparison must be made, they’re more akin to the traditional Irish concept of the Fae. Think supremely powerful nature spirits.
Like “tabi tabi po,” kulam isn’t a supernatural being. In this case, it’s black magic performed by witches. The key fact to know here is that kulam specifically targets people who’ve committed a wrong. According to traditional lore, kulam doesn’t work on people who are innocent. In case you needed that bit of nuance to the attack on the police station.
Balete trees aren’t monsters either, but these trees occupy an important place in Filipino folklore. We know them as a type of strangler fig. Like other stranger figs, balete encircle host trees and eventually kill them. In Filipino folklore, however, they’re home to all manner of supernatural beings like tikbalang or diwata. They also serve as the site for magical rituals, as we see in Trese. Some balete found in the Philippines are said to be over 1,000 years old and have many chambers inside them. Balete Drive, home to the white lady, is named such because a balete tree used to grow on the street.
Did you spot any other references to and denizens of Filipino folklore? Let us know in the comments.
Trese is currently streaming on Netflix.