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II. Legend as Performance

[This is part of a collection of posts serializing the second chapter of Pasyon, Awit, Legend.]

To understand the significance of the Carpio legend we must do more than establish the meanings of the words and sayings it contained. We must seek the effect of the legend’s performance in its historical social context.

The performance of a legend, when addressed to a community familiar with it, brings to life an entire body of tradition. To grasp the legend’s meaning we need to recreate the lost context of oral tradition which lurks behind the entexted or summarized utterance. Tradition cannot be reduced to intertextuality, it is the entire nexus of ideas and allusions which a culture creates and upon which it thrives.

Oral traditions generally have a great deal of regional variation. For the legend genre in particular it is the geographical referents, the allusions to place, which most commonly vary as the legend spreads. It is striking that the summaries of the Carpio legend preserve the geographic specificity of the caves of San Mateo. Timothy Tangherlini summarized the scholarship on the legend genre in his article, “It happened not too far from here …”

Legend, typically, is a short (mono-) episodic, traditional, highly ecotypified, historicized narrative performed in a conversational mode, reflecting on a psychological level a symbolic representation of folk belief and collective experiences and serving as a reaffirmation of commonly held values of the group to whose tradition it belongs.1

The “high ecotypification” to which Tangherlini refers is geographic, this is why legends “happen not too far from here.” Why then did the Carpio legend resist localization away from San Mateo? The answer is that San Mateo was indispensable to the legend. Oral performance invokes the large and invisible body of tradition through the use of metonym, a part representing the whole. A particular fragment of tradition is insistently repeated in performance. When entexted these awkward repetitions are often smoothed over and erased to match the literary sensibilities of the reading audience. These repeated fragments serve as integers which, to an audience alive to the body of tradition being invoked, convey meanings far larger than the actual words suggest.

This metonymic indexicality allows the performer to communicate in a restricted code, one intelligible to others familiar with the code, but seemingly innocuous or nonsensical to those outside it. Thus, the phrase which we found in Miranda’s work, “paa na lamang ang kulang/only the foot is lacking” would have served, for those familiar with it, to refer to the entire Carpio legend and its broader meanings; to outsiders, however, it would seem to be meaningless or simply an example of the superstitious credulity of the masses. There is thus a rupture in meaning when metonymic references are listened to outside of their intended register. By failing to pay heed to the register of performance and to the indexical role of certain elements in the legend, Ileto and Rizal arrived at the idea that the masses sincerely believed in the existence of an actual king.

Legend is the “reaffirmation of the commonly held values of the group;” the performance of legend is perlocutionary, it enacts community solidarity. This could be done in the presence of the ruling classes without fear of reprisal. The odd phrase “paa na lamang ang kulang/only the foot is lacking,” which Miranda gives us, would have served to invoke the entire Bernardo Carpio legend for those familiar with it, while leaving elite observers mystified.

To those attuned to the register of performance and to its metonymic function, each performance of an element of oral tradition serves not to create new meaning but rather to invoke meaning which was already immanent in the tradition. Around what aspects of tradition did the Bernardo Carpio legend strengthen community solidarity? What are the repeated metonymic elements of the legend? The pervasiveness of the Carpio legend throughout the Tagalog speaking provinces and its strong resistance to synchronic ecotypification at the time of the Philippine revolution both point to the geographic elements of legend being of central metonymic significance. What body of traditions would reference to San Mateo invoke?

To anticipate results which I shall substantiate in detail: the Carpio legend was not a counter-rational messianic means of mobilizing dissent; it was a record of resistance. Through the geographical metonym of San Mateo, the Carpio legend preserved and celebrated the memory of social banditry.


  1. Timothy R. Tangherlini, “‘It Happened Not Too Far from Here …’: A Survey of Legend Theory and Characterization,” Western Folklore 49, no. 4 (1990): 385.
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