The liver—not the heart—is symbol of love, as ‘aswang’ knows

Pre-hispanic 'hugot': Say 'I love you' —but make it old-fashioned

Valentine’s Day will never be the same without going on dates. These days we do pretty much everything else virtually. Now, we’re dating over Zoom. For a change, why don’t we give a pre-hispanic hugot a try? Trust me, it’s not rocket science—just a bit of Philippine language and history.

As a history buff, I’ve found myself walking aimlessly in the archives section of the library, sifting through maps and century-old documents. It has been my yearly tradition to use the microfilm to read old newspapers from my birthdate, which I missed last year because of the pandemic. The only thing I don’t miss is the dust mites which might already be ancient.

Despite how many times I cough or sneeze after an afternoon stay in the library, I would still return to borrow another copy of a book, say, Nick Jaoquin’s A Question of Heroes.  Or historical fiction novels like Memoirs of a Geisha, The Scarlet Letter, and The Book Thief.  In case of an allergy attack, I make sure to secure a Cetirizine tablet, an antihistamine, from the student clinic.

There are two things I’ve learned from having a strange fascination for history. First, taking cetirizine can make you feel sleepy. I don’t recommend taking it before going to class. Second, tackling the past isn’t always about pain. Sometimes, it means rediscovering our identity and culture as a nation—including the popular notions of love among our ancestors long before the Spaniards came.

In his collection of essays House of Memories,  National Artist for Literature Resil Mojares wrote that Filipinos originally considered the liver as the seat of love, the bodily center of a person’s being, and the source of one’s power, courage, and strength.

“Metaphorically, atay is used to refer to the best of anything, so that the most fertile land is atay ng lupa, and the softest, most ‘feeling’ part of the hand or leg is atay ng paa, or in Cebuano, atay-atay,” Mojares noted.

We learned about Kundiman, a form Filipino love song, in grade school, but we weren’t told that Filipinos originally considered the liver—liver!—not the heart, as the symbol of love. Even the aswang knows what the best body part to aim for, Mojares wrote, and it’s the liver, the bloodiest organ in the body, which is more complex and versatile than the heart.

It’s not at all romantic to talk about the liver, let alone the aswang, on Valentine’s day. But this belief captures the “denser, earthier, more dangerous, and labyrinthine qualities of love”—qualities we’ve been slowly losing to the fast-paced and intricately curated culture today.

In contrast to unrealistic relationship standards we see in social media, I think our ancestors are trying to teach us how to be raw and real instead.

Though we won’t be seeing a liver lanced by a Cupid’s arrow on Valentine cards anytime soon (large, reddish-brown organ, after all, isn’t Instagrammable), a Palawanon verse perhaps could set the mood on your virtual date tonight: The areca tree by the wayside/ I etched a sign:/ My liver hungers for you.

In a country of highly sentimental people, old and young, so much can be said about love.

About author


Winona Sigue, 22, is a fresh graduate. She grew up in Socorro, Oriental Mindoro.

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