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May 03, 2004


Philippine artifacts are too often seen through the lenses of the foreign ethnographer,  collector or more folklorists, however, are being drawn to the indigenous perspective on artistic expression, relying mainly on oral epics, recorded by various scholars since the early part of this century, to see the same artifacts through the eyes of native poets.

           Philippine indigenous art may be understood by examining a pervasive cultural theme: the belief in magical potency. Ecologically and historically diverse societies such as the Kalinga and the Ilocano of Northern Luzon, the Sulod of Panay in the central Philippines, and the Ilianen-Manobo, the Bukid-non-Manobo, the Bagobo, the Maranao and the Subanun of Mindanao, associate the magic of talismans with heroism and political leadership.

           Indigenous ideas about heroism and magical power may be gleaned from epics and their rich descriptions of the material arts. The dressing and arming scene in epics, for instance, is the quintessential representation of the talismanically endowed hero of heroine.

           William Henry Scott, the late anthropologist, pointed out in The Barangay that much of the culture described in the epics would have been familiar to any 16th century Visayan and that there were marked cultural continuities among highland societies in Northern Luzon and Mindanao. He also gathered from the Spanish chronicles of that period that despite the lowlanders’ collective amnesia, 4,000 year ago, the Visayans and the Tagalogs shared with the highlanders a similar culture-a rich heritage of material and oral arts.

Closely Intertwined

           Most Filipinos are familiar with amulets and talismans, known as Anting-anting in Tagalog, Many still wear them as medals and jewelry to ward off evil, as well as to control the behavior of humans and spirits. The Anting-anting may take the form of crocodile’s teeth, black diamonds or religious scapulars. Peasant rebels during the revolutions first against Spain and then against the united states wore supposedly bullet-proof talismanic shirts inscribed with pseudo-Latin prayers. More recently, the late former president Ferdinand Marcos, who referred to himself as a “warrior of old” attributed his success on the battlefield to a silver wood inserted in his back by a religious leader.

           Talismans, authority and leadership are closely intertwined in insular South East Asian societies where it is personal possession of mystical power, rather than accomplishment in the material world, that is the source of political success. In precolonial Philippines, the village leader possessed magical prowess as warrior (bagani/bayani), chief (datu), or shaman (baylan). Magical power, as well as wealth and social status, was typically acquired by the warrior through headtaking or slave raiding. and by the shaman through journeying to the spirit world. Chiefs were either renowned warrior or shamans, or both.

           The importance of talismanic magic in Philippine political culture derives from pan-South East Asian ideas about magical potency. Talismans are concentrated forms of divine energy absorbed from the cosmos. The more one accumulates, the more powerful one becomes. Since magical potency is ordinarily invisible, men and women of power are known by its signs, the most obvious of which are the quantity and quality of talismans possessed. A wealth of ethnographic literature shows that Southeast Asian chiefs accumulated such potent regalia in their homes as daggers (keris), porcelain trade jars, musical instruments and even extraordinary attendants like albinos and dwarfs. Since music was also believed to be potent, Malay soldiers played the court gamelan (gong ensemble) in the battlefield, just as Subanun epic heroes beat their brass gongs to destroy enemy ships.

           According to Pan-Malay belief systems, the most potent talismans give off light and make their owners appear radiant. Heroes and heroines in Philippine epics shine like the sun, live in golden mansions, wield luminous weapons and wear resplendent clothing and jewelry. Gold is the preeminent material for artisans and the paramount symbol of talismanic power. The dead journey to the spirit world arrayed in gold applique and gold jewelry, their faces covered with gold masks. Gold itself has transformative powers. In the Manobo epic, the gold betel nut which the shamaness feeds her people makes them resplended immortals. Ascending to the skyworld in a magical airboat, the heroes and heroines themselves finally become artifacts of gold.

           The concept of potency is also expressed in such symbols as the flame tree, the red hibiscus, the rooster plumage worn by the Kalinga head hunter,  the Ilongot’s hornbill headdress and earrings, as well as the deep magenta head scarf and clothing of the Bagobo, Mandaya, Bilaan, and Bukidnon. Brilliance is not necessarily the radiance of gold but the glow or fire of the warrior’s prowess.

           Contemporary West Visayan folk culture illustrates the link between pre-colonial Filipinos and other insular Southeast Asians. The Hiligaynon-Visayan gahum (magical potency) and usbong (aura or chasrisma) have equivalent terms in south Sulawesi and Java. Those with gahum posses superior knowledge and qualities of leadership. Usbong, equivalent to the javanese tedja or a ruler’s divine radiance, is the heat generated in a leader’s body and released through his pulse, fingertips, and especially the eyes. A charismatic leader is a center from which power radiates, and followers are drawn to him as to a light.

           Metaphors about light also permeate the literature and rituals of peasant rebels during the Spanish colonial period. Verses refer to the “binding light” of Christ on Mt. Tabor as the divine promise of release from colonial bondage, and to brilliant angels and saints in dazzling brocade, their faces framed by golden haloes, their compassionate gaze renewing the rebel’s potency. This folk interpretation of the art of the santos (saints) was also manifest during the popular uprising of 1968 which toppled the government of President Marcos and brought Corazon Aquino to power. Religious statues took the place of talismanic shirts to stop the tanks of Marcos’ militia. Throughout  Philippine history, therefore, talismans have symbolized power and underlain crucial themes in the country’s political culture.

Multigenre events

           The chanters of the epic are artists of the spoken word and, as folklorists who recorded the thousands of verses attest, they compose the lines spontaneously. Many of the chanters are women, some of whom are also shamans or trans mediums. Their expertise in ritual language enables them to switch with ease from one genre to another, from ritual chant to epic.

           Epic performances, unlike myth recitations, are generally secular. The Kalinga and the Ifugao, for instance, sing their gasumbi, ullalim, and hudhud while harvesting rice, as well as during such life-passage rituals as weddings and funerals. As in other highland societies of island Southeast Asia, the oral and material arts conjoin in important rituals. These are multigenre events involving most of the arts, including the display of food bowls and textiles.

           Epic heroes and heroines, invariably aristocratic, personify wealth, beauty, strength and divine attributes. They are also artists, as the in the opening lines of the bagobo epic, “Tuwaang”: There was Tuwaang/seated silently squatting/ on a stool of gold…/ unmoving were his eyes/from the spacious floor/ for focused they were/ on braiding his tikos leglets, making umbilical designs on his bangkaling legbands…

           The bagobo epic singer understood that an artist must be poised in quiet concentration, deriving inspiration from the colors of the Kawangkawang sky. Having set aside his finished leglets, Tuwaang incises a ring, and then molds a kamachi chain or neckpiece, consisting of W-shaped pieces held together by a cord or string. The lozenged designs on the leglets are like the eyes of the omen bird; their  colors are like flowers of lightning, “buds of the stars.” The neckpiece is like a singing housefly with colored wings. Bagobo myths also portray heroes as artists. Tuglay, who lived by a white lake, made kamahi necklaces from thin discs of gold, stamped and made brass finger rings.

           The Bagobo are among the most highly ornamented indigenous peoples. The men are smiths and casters of copper and brass, crafting small metal bells to decorate their clothing, weapons, bracelets, and betel boxes. Bagobo women are skilled weavers of reed baskets and hemp cloth. They also sew, embroider, applique and bead all the clothing of the family, and a few of them specialize in tie-dying the kerchiefs of warriors. Their abaca fabrics are so beautiful that a myth-chanter, referring to the Bagobo golden age, was moved to recite: Textiles of gold covered the sharp blades/ of the fresh-growing meadow grass/ like a covering of dry leaves/ and the blades of grass were points of rare embroidery.

           Bagobo personal decorations tend to excess, although Bagobo reciters of myths probably exaggerate slightly when they describe a heroine who puts on nine skirts, one on top of another, and a chain of brass links encircling her waist a thousand times, and who carries on her left shoulder “a small beaded basket decorated with row upon row of little tingkling bells, a million in all, and each bell as round as a pea.” The poets use the magical number 9 in referring to the layers of hemp trousers and beaded jackets worn by their hero. The”Divine man at the source of the waters” epitomizes goodness and purity as an artist, healer, lover and warrior. His gongs and antique jars signify his wealth, as do his fields of hemp and coconut groves. He possesses beads and gold necklaces, hair ornaments of dyed goat’s hair and bird’s down, finger-rings and legbands of twisted wire hung with bells. His ear plugs of pure ivory gleam “like two big moons”.

Political stardom

           The rich material world of indigenous societies is well documented by the chanters who are at least familiar with the material arts, if not artists and craftsmen themselves. But why do they underscore the arts associated with the house and its furnishings and with dress and ornament? Perhaps their selectivity is dedicated by the persuasive emphasis on magical power and political leadership. In the first instance, the hero’s house, as well as its decorations, symbolizes his wealth and thus his political power. Wealth and magical power, as suggested earlier, are conjoined in the defining criteria of political leadership. From the Kalinga and fugao of Mindanao, the so-called “royal” house is emblematic of political stardom.

           The village leader lives in what the Ifugao hudhud singer refers to as “center place of the center.” The wealthy men are recognized by the presence of the lounging bench (hagabi) beneath their houses which are perched on posts. The Kalinga ullalim likewise depicts the hero’s house as a “house of planks” which, as befits the village, stands in the center of the village, amidst a cluster of coconut palms and betel-nut trees. The status symbols of the Kalinga, like those of the indigenous peoples of Mindanao, are typically brass gongs, Chinese trade jars and porcelain plates. Houses in northern Luzon, however, are not depicted in the epic in such rich detail as those in Mindanao.

           The following lyrical passage from the guman epic of the Subanun of the Zamboanga peninsula illustrates the link between beauty, power and social status in the native valuation of material culture. The chanter refers to the Subanun’s status symbols, such as gongs and porcelain jars, to evoke the magical potency of these objects, and ultimately the prestige of the “royal” house: The house of Dliyagn/ has eight chambers/ and a ladder of solid gold/ stairs of gold/ with railing of golden bamboo banisters./ in every chamber/ you can’t walk freely/ because of the hanging hammock of gold/ benches in rows/ benches of gold/ benches and chairs of gold./ layers of much wealth/ and riches are stored there./ in one wiring of the house/ one can’t walk freely/ because of the hanging gongs./ at the far end of the house/ are jars put in line/ jars of different kinds./ jars made of gold/ jars of white gold, others of golden porcelain./ trunks placed one upon another/ up to the palace rafters/ piles of golden trunks/ up to the beams they reach.

           With her hypnotic repetition of parallel lines, the singer evokes the massive wealth of the house with the image of horizontal layering or clustering. Symmetry of straight vertical or horizontal lines and of pair points to a key element in Subanun aesthetics.

           Only chiefs, of course, posses these heirlooms. A headman or timuay may have as many as 40 jars, usually in pairs. The ordinary Subanun, who lives at subsistence level on the produce of his fields, does not posses the treasures idealized in the guman. However, the epic performance allows him to share the singer’s fantasies about magical kingdoms that rise to the clouds, and mansions set in mountains with “geometric sides of gold, belted with flowers.”

           The house and its furnishings as indices of wealth, social status and magical power are further portrayed in the ulahingan of the Ilianen-Manobo, which devotes hundreds of lines to the depiction of the “royal” house and surrounding fort. According to the ulahingan still chanted today, Manobo-speakers like the Ilianen and the Bukidnon fled to an idyllic mountain refuge to escape their oppressors who, depending upon the version of the epict, were slave raiders, Muslim tributary chiefs or American educators. Their epic heroes, Agyu and his brothers, built a large house and fort.

           While the Bagobo aesthetic emphasizes layering and the Subanun symmetry, the Manobo architectural aesthetics is based on largeness and spaciousness. A huge building made from materials from “ten different tributaries” describes the home of Agyu and his brothers. It is aligned with the shoreline, “alongside the wide stretch of peninsula.” It would take eight men to encircle each house post. The strength and massiveness of the wood used allude to the heroic powers of the warrior-brothers.

           The Manobo chanter’s depiction of the ulahingan, especially its reference to carved rafters, points to its affinity with the Maranao house. A torogan is not just the village chief’s house; it is a gathering place for flowers and therefore the physical political focus of a village community or kin groups. The most prominent feature of the Maranao torogan consist of carved protruding beams, known as panolong, a cognate for boat prow. The house-boat is a recurring artistic motif in maritime Southeast Asia, as is the boat coffin or ship of death. Wealthy chiefs of coastal communities were actually buried in boats. In the Manobo epic, the airboat transports the immortalized Agyu and his kin to the skyworld. The association between house-boat and the serpent or naga of the underworld is depicted in the following excerpt about Agyu’s home in paradise: The mansion facing where the sun rises / is shaped like a crocodile. / The extended house purlin / directed toward the east / has been carved like a reptile.

            In this “land of the rain,” the warrior ethnic is translated into an art ethos, which in Manobo is rendered as hinukdungi / hinalaudi, or “imitations.” Once fighters, the people of this fortified Paradise now devoted their creative energies to architectural and sculptural designs which the chanters describes in assonanced synonyms: maliluk / mababaluk (very attractive / very beautiful / the colorful patterns / the vivid designs). In the mansion is a pair of golden statues, dressed in bright armor / covered with breast-plate, each holding a shield, spear and javelin. Agyu, the consummate warrior, is a statue holding a spear / charging his lance. By eating the goden betel nut of immortality, Agyu and his brothers have achieved the peak of magical potency as immortals; they are not only artist but have been transformed into objects of art.
Heroic Quest

                Just as the house and its furnishings underscore that the wealth and social status of the chiefs and warriors, clothing, ornament and armament emphasize the magical power of heroes and heroines.

            The dressing and arming scene is a constant theme in epic literature every-where. It highlights the hero’s physical prowess, enhanced by his magical clothing, ornament and armament. This formulaic scene illustrates the following key ideas.

            First, as mentioned earlier, talismanic magic or magical power is intertwined with political leadership, even in the minds of many Christian lowlanders. Filipino ideas of political leadership, until as recently as the Marcos and Aquino regimes, thus derive from the pre-colonial past. The dressing and arming scene highlights the heroic quest for power and therefore also the quest for political leadership.

            Second, magical power underlies artistic expression, both oral and material. The chanter’s striking images are not only beautiful; they are also magical. They are not merely descriptive; they evoke objects that the spoken word makes magically powerful. Example from the various indigenous highland epics, as well as from the Ilocano Biag ni Lam-ang, illustrate this.

            The first example is from the Southern Kalinga. The Kalinga, known as the “peacocks of the mountains” because of their elaborate clothing and ornaments, dress their hero in the beaded G-string and plumed headdress of a renowned headhunter: Lo! Kanu, he put on / his rich apparel / his finest wearings. / All of them he put on: / scales of a crocodile / a tuft of yellow plumes./ How fear-inspiring he now was! / All of them he did tuck in / green feathers of kulasisi-birds / with nacre discs of cicada wings. / How fear-inspiring he now was! / Lo! Kanu, he took / his kumbawa-shield / his finger-cursing spear / his sharpened ax…

            The refrain, “How fear-inspiring he now was!” is meant to terrify the Kalinga’s enemies as well as to impress them with his wealth and social status. Banna, the Kalinga ullalim hero, is “of beauty exquisite” but also “a terrible crocodile” with frightening tattoos all over his chest. In fact, the Kalinga call themselves the Buwaya—the Crocodile People—after the animal that inspires the greatest fear among mountaineers.

            Finery similar to that of mythical northern Luzon heroes is displayed during special feast to honor ancestral spirits. Like the wealthy Ifugao male in real life, the hudhud hero wears a G-string of elaborate design, a hip bag with long tassels, and a sword belt decorated with large shell disks. His gold earrings are kidney-shaped and his necklace is made of glass-encased gold-leaf beads. His head bears the ultimate kadangyansymbol of the wealthy rice-terrace owner: a beaked bird’s skull painted red and set off by a crescent of carabao horn. The wealthy Kalinga women, just like the lady of the ullalim, wears strands of amber beads around her neck and in her hair.

            Dressing the hero is often the task of his mother or sister. The hero usually requests his female relative to open a chest containing his magical clothes and ornaments as in Biag ni Lam-ang: Dear Mother, Namongan / Please open / the second cabinet / and bring out / my most beautiful clothes… / the stringed pants / And the decorated shirt…./ Mother, kindly open / the third cabinet and bring out / the chains of gold wire, / coiled nine times. /

            Despite the geographical and cultural distance between the Ilocano and Sulod, the dressing scene in the Sulod epic bears a striking similarity to that in Lam-ang– Labaw Donggon addressed Abyang Alunsina, his dear revered mother: Open, please open… / that great wooden chest / with the elaborate cover. / Then from there select / discriminatingly / my treasured possessions / my elegant finery…

            The hero’s clothes and ornaments transform him into a man of prowess, ready for war and adventure:Thus dressed Labaw Donggon. / He was wrapped with silver / covered with gold. / He wore a headband / an embroidered kershief bright / not woven by local hands / but by those from other hands. / Then he picked up / his headdress saramingku / which sang with the wind / in such sweet refrain / for it was tasseled with silver / with fine laces adorned.

            This scene is repeated several times in the Sulod epic with the departure of each hero. The arming of the hero takes place in a subsequent scene where Labaw Donggon’s son asks for: My arrow which is poisoned / which, piercing one man / emerges from seven men. / And my spiral dagger / with very sharp edges…

            Labaw Donggon’s enemies, brandishing spears and krises–“blades with seven curved edges”– are no match for his sons. They are overcome by the Sulod warriors’ charms, “overwhelmed by their magical skills.” For the Sulod warrior is a man of prowess, a busalian–a term still used by West Visayans to mean ” the mightiest of native priest,” who can command the elements, grant protection from weapons, fly through space, and bring water gushing from the heart of a human corpse.

            In Mindanao, the dressing and arming scene appears in several epics. As in the northern and central Philippine epics, the hero’s magical clothes are kept in a golden chest or, among the Bagobo, a basket. In the following example from the Ilianen-Manobo, the hero carefully chooses his garments from a shining chest. He puts on five shirt and five pair of pants, and wraps his turban around his head five times. The turban is red and worn only by warriors who have killed at least ten enemies. Red or burgundy patterns usually signify the hero’s success in the battlefield. Among the Ilianen-Manobo, decorations of pigs’ or squirrels’ tails and small bells also mark the wearer’s heroic prowess. The turban, like all other special clothing of the hero, is embroidered by women; in this case his sister embroidered it “in the pitch darkness of the night” lit only by the radiance of her beauty.

            The Ilianen hero also wears a warrior’s vest and breastplate which radiate light “like the first rays of sunset.” Gathering his balaraw-daggers with serpentine blades, his hourglass-shaped wooden shield and his spear, he then flies like lightning to the land of his enemies.

            All these epic heroes appear resplendent in their talismanic clothing and ornaments. Dressed in a glittering jacket and trousers like Labaw Donggon, the Bagobo hero, Tuwaang, is a “straight-growing tree of old /  like a flower of gold coming from the doorway of the sky.” Like the Ilianen-Manobo hero, Tuwaang possesses a shield, when raised is like “lightning at the edge of the sky.” Light and sound allude to the special powers of the shield:…and when you tried to listen / it seemed like / the sound of a drizzle / falling / from the early morning dew. / So pleasant to hear / the ringing sound / of the small tukaling bells / adorning the shield.

            The light or glow emanating from talismans is the heat or energy of their power. Sound or music, such as the sound of beaten gongs, is also talismanic. The sound of the small bells adoring the shield informs the Bagobo god and goddess of war—Taivisaw (Talabusaw) and Mandaingan (Mandarangan) in the ninth layer of the skyworld—that the hero is about to depart for the land of their enemies, the Maranao.

            The Maranao epic, darangen, is the longest so far recorded. It consist of many cycles of episodes relating to different heroes, foremost among them Bantugan, whose name also alludes to his talismanic voice. Bantugan means renowned one, “one who makes history.” In the darangen, as in other Philippine oral epics, the hero’s foremost adventures have to do with war and marriage. Bantugan, warrior and lover, is the exemplary hero. His prowess is unmatched: “his sharp powerful magic sword,” an heirloom of many generations, with “its colorful tassels glinting / like the flashes of lightning,” its snake handle “releasing a swarm of flashes of rainbows” signifies his extraordinary powers, as does his magic shield which “flew swiftly above the ground / so that it was said that he was like a bolt of lightning that brightened the sky.” These images are reminiscent of the Bagobo epic’s and similar to the metaphors used to portray the Subanun hero, Sandayo.

            Unlike the societies mentioned above, however, the Maranao was a sultanate with a royal court. The darangen is replete with descriptions  of a material culture richer than the northern societies’. The dressing scene in which Bantugan prepares for war is much more elaborate than the northern epic’s, although the clothing, such as the embroidered coat and the heirloom magic belt, is similar.

            The wedding scene of the Maranao princess is strikingly similar to the dressing and arming scene of the hero. Elite Maranao women were once kept in special chambers or lamin prior to marriage and royally presented at their weddings. Just as the hero’s clothing and ornament magically increases his physical prowess, the heroine’s dress and jewerly likewise magnifies her beauty, nobility and, therefore, marketability as a bride.

            “Paramata Gandingan’s Wedding” describes the dressing scene: A pair of short trousers lavishly / embroidered, made of rich thin silk / which sparkled as sunbeams were caught / on the gold-embroidered designs… / It seemed to shine as purest gold / sparkling glints of light flashed from the / gold threads in the embroidery… / exquisite blending  / of all the colors and designs / expressed in the various patterns / caught in the shades of blue-violet. / Bright clusters of precious jewels / rich golden bracelets… / Hanging one on top of the other / on each slim ankle while on her / blouse were four golden discs to match the / golden button found in front. / Indeed she had no equal, for one could match her grace or her / virtues, being a true princess.

            If Bantugan is renowned for his physical feats in war as well as for his success with women, the royal princess is prized for her virtue. By contrast, the Kalinga, Bukidnon and Subanun female warriors are the equals of their heroic brothers. The following dressing and arming scene from an epic of the Subanun of Sindagan Bay underscores the symmetrical roles of hero and heroine: She opened her trunk / her clothes she changed / into tight-fitting ones… / her beauty increased… / her hunting knife she took / took her sun-like umbrella / like the sun-rays… / on her monsala (scarf) she rode… / Like lightning flash / the glitter of his teeth was… / and then she took her hunting knife / and ran it across her palm. / Blood flowed out like golden water.

            The scene featuring the war preparations of the warrior maiden is repeated, using the same formula for the Subanun hero, Sandayo. Although the singer’s description of Sandayo’s prepatory rituals is more elaborate, the woman warrior’s clothing is just as magically charged as Sandayo’s “robes of gold, robes of eight folds” Sex-typed dress, ornament and armament signify gender complementarity, not inequality.

            The lines “straight as a tree / a rare flower / brighter than the sun / so radiant to behold” which recur throughout the epic describe both the hero and the female warrior. Images of light, lightning and the sun are associated with the hero: “handsome and radiant / like the rising sun / at break of day.” Some lines refer to the art of decorating the teeth: a maiden whose smile is “like lightning flash…like dazzling light from her lips.” Both Sandayo and the warrior maiden possess the talismans like rings, scarves and flying shields. When eight landslides destroy their mountain kingdom, the warrior maiden simply waves her monsala or scarf to restore it. Both hero and heroine are so powerful that their passing glance alone burns the kingdoms of their enemies.


            These images of the hero and heroine as vessels of talismanic power recur throughout Philippine epic poetry. The similarities are especially striking among the neighboring Maranao, the Manobo and the Subanun and can be attributed to trade and war among them.

            What, however, explains the similarities between the Ilocano Lam-ang of the far north and the Sulod Labaw Donggon of the deep south? The answer may lie in the fact that dressing and arming scene in the Philippine epics appears to be related to the Indian-derived Malay epic in which the talismanic powers of Sri Rama are similarly presented. The Malay version describes the hero’s “trousers of ancient fabric,” thousands of spangles around the waist and feet, a waist-band which changes form purple to gold, “a velvet coat of glowing crimson,” a kerchief “full of love-charms and enchantments” woven by his mother in her girlhood, and a “seven-waved kris burnished with scented water.”

            The link between talismanic magic and political power was forged by demography and economy. Although early communities had unlimited access to forested mountains and teeming seas, they were underpopulated. They needed subject peoples to exploit these resources, so that wars were fought to increase the number of people under their command, and not to expand territory. The possessor of magical powers, in the words of epic, was endowed with fire or light that attracted followers: he had charisma. Today, allegiance to a charismatic leader remains at the core of Filipino political culture, upland and lowland.