Sunday, July 15, 2012

[Buan Faiths] RL Inspirations


Filipinos are a deeply spiritual, if not religious, lot. This is seen by the prevalence of Christianity or Islam throughout the archipelago, as well as with the devout nature of the people in general. Interestingly, this also translates to a ready acceptance of the supernatural, which may have descended from the country's various indigenous beliefs.

In this part of, Buan Faiths, I will explore the motifs of these beliefs as they existed in precolonial times as best as I can deliver them through my own personal lens. This means that my approach will not be academic: The ideas here have been shaped by papers and essays that I have read, but it will also be sprinkled with my own opinions here and there. So if you will derive from this work, do so at your own risk.


Nature Spirits

The balete tree was believed to house a number of powerful spirits.
Who needs weirwood trees when you have these? Source

The people of the archipelago in precolonial times revered the spirits of nature. The names of spirits of the land pass through their lips for safe voyage through their domain, and sacrifices were made to spirits of wind and air for favorable weather. The celestial bodies were also accorded respect, in fear of the sun burning everything and in anticipation of the fertility represented by the moon.

In this regard, it can be said that precolonial beliefs were primarily animist in nature. Humanity is grossly outnumbered by the spirits of everything else, from the lowliest rock to the brightest star above. The life of these people were thus seen as an everyday struggle to find their place amongst these great powers. They feared to incur their wrath just as they strive to make their place as honored spirits on their own.

Such spirits of nature were accorded fear and respect, but they were not the focal point of a typical person's life. The greatest attention was instead given to one's ancestors.

Ancestral Spirits

Just as all things were believed to possess spirits, so too did the people of the archipelago believe that the spirits of the dead remained to protect their descendants and to see their worldly goals fulfilled. Oftentimes, recently departed close relations such as parents or grandparents received the most dedicated attention, being the recipient of daily prayers and offerings. A person who can trace his lineage to a person of some renown from long ago, on the other hand, also call on them for daily aid.

So deep was this devotion to one's forebears that their place at the supper table was left unfilled. Some families carve statuettes resembling their departed loved ones and place them in their preferred locations at the dinner table. A few would even be carved with mouths wide enough to physically receive spoonfuls of food. In some regions, the most intriguing aspect of this reverence for one's ancestors is the tradition of keeping the remains of the departed within one's own home. Secondary burials were also common, with the bones cleaned out and placed on ornate baul.

Totemism (or the Lack Thereof)

In many cultures, the belief in spirit beings permeating around the world comes hand-in-hand with a totemic motif. It would then be common for one to see a man associating himself with the endurance of a bear or the splendor of an eagle. Some would even go as far as to dress themselves in the furs of their chosen totem, or ink their skin to make their physical appearance resemble a specific creature. This was done, among other things, to evoke the spirit of their chosen aspect and to imbue themselves with their characteristics.

As a general rule, such physical and psychological motifs did not exist in the precolonial archipelago. The people armored themselves in the tough hides of animals as a matter of convenience and not as a result of finding a spiritual connection with the beast. Similarly,

Similarly, the tattoos of the Visayas region rarely represented totem animals, preferring the abstract designs of angular lines and waves instead. When images of animals are used in the tattoos, they usually do not match. An elite painted warrior may have an eagle's beak tattooed on its face while the image of a snake slithers up its arm, each representing different events in the individual's life. (I will tackle tattoos in more detail in a much later post. It will take awhile, but I'll get to it.)

Battle of Mactan. Please comment if you know image source.
Regional Distinctions

Separated by rivers, seas, and other bodies of water, the beliefs of each town/barangay in the archipelago differed slightly from its neighbors. Nevertheless, enough similarities existed between the barangays in each of the major regions that the distinctions can be grouped into each of them.
  • The animist beliefs described above are most strongly felt in the Visayas region. Visayan warriors tattooed themselves according to their prowess in battle, which is also linked to their belief that they are guided and protected by their ancestors. Different islands had slightly different beliefs, but all-in-all the animist beliefs were kept and maintained by the priestesses known as the babaylan. Even those that might be deemed gods were still, for the most part, powerful nature spirits.
  • Mindanao, in contrast, had a very strong Muslim presence. This isn't to say that the people at large were Muslim - in this period of time, the common folk still believed in spirits much like their Visayan counterparts. But the sultanate was most definitely a Muslim court, and its influences on the people's daily lives were clearly visible.
  • The tagalogs of Luzon, similarly, were already in the process of adapting Muslim beliefs at around this time. However, it had not been as well-rooted in their system as it had with the people of Mindanao. As such, the belief structure was closer to the Visayans. However, there is also a solid pantheon of deities headed by a creator god, perhaps as a result of the influence of rising modern religions in surrounding areas.
  • It is notable that in the more northern parts of Luzon, the beliefs of the people were also animist in nature. The culture evolved differently, however, as they have been protected from colonialism by their geography.