Published in The Sunday Times Magazine (Manila Times), September 10, 2016
If the first love chronicles the beginning of romance, mythology tells the beginning of things and how people began making sense of the world. To discuss Filipino mythology is to therefore discuss the history of our ability to think and create.
In Mina Esguerra’s “Interim Goddess of Love” (Bright Girl Books, 2012), Filipino mythological characters speak in contemporary voices as they take the shape of young men and women who live in the millennial world.
The interim goddess
Hannah Maquiling, a freshman scholar from Ford River College, fills in for the Goddess of Love. Quin, God of Sun in human form, excites Hannah because she has fooled herself into believing that he will be her first love. He mentors Hannah in her new role.
Apparently, deities take the shape of the students from Ford River College.
Hannah’s interim role requires her to bring together Kathy and Jake, whose love for each other is hindered by their fears and insecurities. The task requires divine intervention in its most playful form. Jake’s attraction for Kathy is facilitated by a chance encounter that involves Kathy’s list of five things that people don’t know about her, through which Jake catches a glimpse of her soul, drawing him to her.
Hannah’s victory is that she was able to make apparent the hidden love between the two, in the process highlighting that while love might be something orchestrated by the heavens, in order for love to blossom, humans must choose to actively seek it out.
Deities and power struggles
Meanwhile, in Hannah’s universe, the deities of the sun, the sea, and the moon take the form of Quin, Diego, and Vida. Like the elements they represent, Quin is bright, Diego is untamed, and Vida is magnificent.
In this story, we learn that Bathala creates the elements and bestows them with equal power and responsibility.
That these three elements are deified is testament to how the sun, sea, and moon shape the lives of Filipinos. In relation to Hannah however, what is revealed is a power struggle among the original deities where the interim goddess is not their equal.
According to the author, the “Interim Goddess of Love” is a retelling of Maria Makiling’s story. Maria Makiling tells the myth of a nymph who is protector of a mountain, waiting for her love to come. However, in the first book at least, the connection between Hannah and Maria Makiling is yet to be made clear.
The only indication of her connection with the myth of Mariang Makiling is the development of intense feelings for Quin who, as a God of Sun, might never love her back. Instead of being a powerful deity, Hannah is an outsider, a mere interim goddess, the pawn in the power struggle of the three deities.
The three deities represent the qualities that contemporary culture worship. Quin represents the icy charm of intelligence, Diego overindulges in the might of strength, and Vida abuses the power of beauty and fame.
With this kind of portrayal, one wonders if these really are contemporary culture’s versions of deities, of gods, what does that say about us? After all, these are deities defined solely by the excesses of intelligence, strength, wealth, fame, and superficiality.
And if these are versions of the contemporary gods that we worship, what does this narrative say about us, given Hannah, interim goddess and all, who is at the mercy of these gods’ own struggle for power?
These questions speak of how Interim Goddess of Love is a feat in itself, as it introduces Filipino mythology in a heartwarming and enjoyable contemporary romance. One hopes though that it might also dare break stereotypes and class barriers, by expanding its definition of deities and giving them more complex personalities, if not ones that are not about perfection.
For instance, it would be extremely exciting to read about a warm-hearted acne-riddled girl who happens to be the Goddess of Hearth, or a fat funny guy who happens to be the God of War.
Regardless, this novel has gotten me excited enough to want to find out what happens next. Here’s hoping the next book in this trilogy will reveal the Maria Makiling in Hannah Maquiling.
Herbel Santiago holds an AB Literature degree from the Ateneo de Manila University, and is a writer of children’s books and romance novels.