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Pugutan: The Beheading and Its Role in Filipino Folk Legends


The chilling image of a severed head, its eyes staring blankly into eternity, is a potent symbol in many cultures around the world. In the Philippines, this image takes on a particularly chilling significance in the realm of folklore. “Pugutan,” the Filipino word for beheading, echoes throughout generations of tales, weaving a tapestry of justice, revenge, and the supernatural. Beyond its gruesome imagery, “pugutan” reveals a deeper understanding of Filipino culture, revealing hidden anxieties and societal norms that have shaped the nation’s identity for centuries.

Table of Contents

Historical Context

The practice of beheading, while gruesome, was a prevalent form of punishment during the Spanish colonial era in the Philippines. The Spanish, known for their brutal methods of control, implemented “pugutan” as a means to instill fear and maintain order among the colonized Filipinos. This practice, however, did not emerge solely from Spanish influence. Pre-colonial Filipino societies had their own forms of punishment, though their methods and underlying ideologies may have differed.

The introduction of “pugutan” by the Spanish colonial administration had a profound impact on Filipino culture. It was a stark reminder of the power dynamics and the consequences of defying authority. This fear and its association with the act of beheading became deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness of the Filipino people, eventually finding its way into folklore and storytelling traditions.

“Pugutan” in Filipino Folk Legends

“Pugutan” is woven into the fabric of many popular Filipino folk legends, serving as a central motif and driving force behind the narrative. These stories often explore themes of justice, revenge, and social commentary, with beheading serving as a symbolic act of retribution or punishment.

The Legend of Maria Makiling

One such legend is the tale of “Maria Makiling,” a mythical figure who is said to reside in the forests of Mount Makiling in Laguna, Philippines. The story recounts how Maria Makiling, known for her kindness and protection of the forest, used her magical powers to punish those who exploited the environment or wronged the people. In certain versions of the legend, Maria Makiling utilizes “pugutan” as a form of punishment for those who have committed egregious acts against nature or humanity.

The Legend of the Headless Horseman

Another intriguing legend that features “pugutan” is the tale of the “Headless Horseman,” a chilling figure who roams the countryside at night, seeking revenge for his own beheading. The legend is a stark reminder of the fear and trauma associated with the act of beheading, and it serves as a cautionary tale about the consequences of violence and injustice.

Themes and Motifs

Across various Filipino folk legends, “pugutan” emerges as a symbol with multifaceted meanings. It is often associated with the following themes:

  • Justice and Revenge: Beheading serves as a form of ultimate punishment, often signifying the need for retribution or the restoration of justice.
  • Social Commentary: “Pugutan” can reflect anxieties and injustices within society, highlighting power struggles, class disparities, and the abuse of authority.
  • The Supernatural: The act of beheading often leads to the creation of supernatural beings or creatures. The severed head, sometimes imbued with magical powers, becomes a source of fear and wonder, blurring the lines between the real and the supernatural.

Cultural Interpretations of “Pugutan”

Beyond its role in folklore, “pugutan” holds deep cultural significance for Filipinos. The head, in Filipino beliefs, is seen as the seat of the soul or “kaluluwa.” This belief reinforces the gravity of beheading, as it represents not only the physical death of an individual but also the severing of their spiritual essence.

Furthermore, the act of beheading carries connotations of power and authority. By beheading a leader or someone in a position of power, the act symbolically removes their authority and influence. This understanding of power dynamics contributes to the use of “pugutan” in legends as a method of restoring balance and justice.

The cultural fear surrounding “pugutan” runs deep, stemming from the historical trauma associated with Spanish colonial rule and the taboo surrounding death and the afterlife. This fear contributes to the chilling effect of these legends and their power to shape social norms and behaviors.


“Pugutan,” the act of beheading, has left an indelible mark on Filipino culture. From its historical origins to its profound presence in folklore and storytelling, beheading continues to serve as a potent symbol of justice, revenge, and the supernatural. While the practice of beheading itself has faded from contemporary society, its legacy persists in the cultural anxieties and beliefs that shape the Filipino imagination.


  • Q1: What is the historical origin of “pugutan” in the Philippines?

    • The practice of beheading in the Philippines was primarily introduced by the Spanish colonial regime during their period of rule from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The Spanish used “pugutan” as a form of punishment for crimes such as rebellion, theft, and other offenses.
    • Q2: Are there any real-life instances of beheading in Philippine history?

    • While “pugutan” was a common form of punishment during the Spanish colonial era, there are various documented instances throughout Philippine history. One notable example is the execution of the Filipino revolutionary leader, José Rizal, who was executed by firing squad in 1896. However, his execution was not by beheading, but rather a method used by the Spanish during that time.

    • Q3: What are some examples of Filipino folk legends that feature “pugutan”?

    • “Pugutan” is a recurring motif in many Filipino folk legends. Beyond the “Legend of Maria Makiling” and the “Legend of the Headless Horseman,” other examples include the “Legend of the White Lady,” the “Legend of the Aswang,” and various stories about vengeful spirits.

    • Q4: How does the “pugutan” contribute to the supernatural aspect of Filipino folklore?

    • The act of beheading often plays a key role in creating supernatural beings or creatures in Filipino folklore. The severed head, in many instances, is imbued with magical powers, becoming a source of fear and wonder.

    • Q5: What is the contemporary relevance of “pugutan” in Filipino culture?

    • While “pugutan” as a form of punishment is no longer practiced, its imagery and symbolism continue to resonate in modern Filipino culture. It is often portrayed in art, literature, and popular media, serving as a reminder of the country’s historical past and its enduring cultural anxieties.