Thursday, February 12, 2009

Millenarian aspects of some Philippine Christianized rituals and beliefs

Francisco Demetrio wrote a study back in 1968 linking the great flood myth in the Philippines with the motif of the egg or something similar as a symbol of the rebirth of humanity and nature.

Concepts of rebirth and return are frequently found in Philippine myth and folklore.

At one basic level was the idea that the spirits of the dead, often known as nono or anito, would return as divine guests at a prescribed time. During the tibao festivals, special water jars and tables were prepared for the visit of these nonos.

Often small portable images of the nonos were made. When the Spanish came and Christianized the lowland people, these images became the santos especially the one known as Santo Niño "Holy Child."

The first Santo Niño was given as a gift by Magellan to Hara Amihan, the wife of Rajah Humabon, king of Cebu, to replace her idols or anitos. The Cebuanos eventually disavowed any allegiance with Spain and Christianity and killed Magellan. However, when the Spaniards returned 30 years later they found that the Santo Niño had been converted into an indigenous anito. Historian Zeus Salazar describes "the Christian image in Cebu (1521-1565) as the representation (likha) of an anito (divinity) connected with the sun, the sea and agriculture."


According to the Filipino folklorist Isabelo de los Reyes, the Tagalogs once believed that dead fetuses were reborn as the "Lord Child" or Patianak.

The patianak is mostly described in modern literature as a type of goblin that often is said to devour children. However, the original idea seems to be related more to the concept of children or fetuses that have died prematurely, or to a type of wee folk that inhabits mounds. In many areas, the patianak is still looked upon with a type of reverence. When one approaches an ant-hill, for example, it is a custom in many areas to ask permission of the patianak to pass by. It is also worth noting that in some areas the patianak is known as nono, the name for the deified ancestral spirit! Apparently, afer religious conversion, the patianak was demonized to various extents in different areas of the country.

Another name for the patianak is the muntianak, which means simply "small child." The muntianak, and also sometimes the patianak, are associated also with rice fields and the soil. In Mindanao, for example, offerings were made in rice fields to the muntianak during planting and harvesting seasons.

In other regional millenarian belief systems, we find the idea of a special child as a savior or precursor to the savior. In Papua New Guinea there is the konor, a miraculous child who heralds the coming of Mansren, the messiah of the Golden Age. In medieval China, Qingtong "Azure Lad" was the intermediary of the Daoist savior Li Hong, and actually does most of the salvation work during the final tribulation period.

Aspects of millenarian beliefs also appear linked with the Santo Niño iconography and beliefs. Although orthodox Christianity prevented Santo Niño from becoming the Christ of the second coming, he nonetheless possesses all the necessary significations. For example, Santo Niño images are traditionally garbed with a royal crown and red clothing as a symbol of royal descent. In the left hand is placed a golden orb or globe that symbolizes the world, and thus the Santo Niño is a type of "rex mundi." When clothed in green, Santo Niño represents prosperity and abundance and this can be seen as a link with the golden age or the millenial kingdom.

The Santo Niño's connection with the wee folk might also be indicated by the presence of the Aeta or Ati costume and dance in many Santo Niño festivals, with the Aeta as the possible real model for the mystical "little people."

Other Santos

In Apalit, Pampanga, the fluvial Apung Iru festival features a santo of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. The statue is dressed in the regalia of the Pope, the sovereign of Vatican City, even though the Vatican did not exist in the time assigned to St. Peter.

The festival has all the markings of a royal fluvial procession as found in other parts of Southeast Asia.

Early in the last century, Luther Parker collected local legends of Pampanga that indicated the idea of recurring cosmic battles between the mountain gods. Some of these, of shorter duration, were linked with the courtship of the daughter of god of the Sambal mountains and the son of the god of Mt. Arayat. Others, that occured over periods of centuries and that were said to be signaled by special cloud formations , involved the chief deities themselves.

Apung Sinukuan, the god of Mt. Arayat, and Apung Mallari, the god of Mt. Pinatubo, were viewed respectively as the Sun and Moon, and thus as the rulers of the heavens. In Pampanga, the banua, a term that in other regional hydraulic societies refers to the kingdom associated with a central mountain, means here the sky or heavens, the kingdom of the Sun and Moon.

Pinatubo and Arayat as the mountains homes of the Moon and Sun respectively thus represent the central axis, the link between Heaven and Earth.

The terrestrial "king of the mountain" is thus the lord of all under heaven -- the terrestrial copy of the heavenly banua -- a concept commonly found in other Southeast Asian royal systems.

Batalla Festival

Robby Tantingco of Holy Angel University has investigated the festivals of southern Pampanga were he found the little-known Batalla celebration still practiced.

A santo is involved in these festivities although it can vary from place to place. The timing is also linked to the local annual floods, which varies depending on location in Lower Pampanga. The event that Tantingco witnessed took place when the area was covered with flood water during high tide.

In Masantol, the Batalla fest takes place in honor of San Miguel, the patron saint of the town. San Miguel, or St. Michael, is the Prince of the Heavenly Host who leads the angels in the final battle of Heaven.

Now, "batalla" is the Spanish word for "battle." According to one analysis, the festival commemorates the battle between local Moros and the Spanish Christians. However, it could also represent the battle in Heaven involving San Miguel and the angels, or for that matter, the indigenous battle of Apung Mallari and Apung Sinukuan.

As a fiesta that takes place in the remote rural areas, it is not surprising that the Batalla fest is apparently not documented. However, Tantingco reports that the oldest people in the area report that the Batalla was practiced by the oldest people that they knew while growing up. The festival is recorded as taking place in most of the districts of Macabebe and also in the towns of Masantol and San Simon.

Celebration of the Batalla involves rowdy men transporting a palaquin carrying a santo along a specific path to the local church. Noteworthy is the fact that young children follow in the train of the procession.

During the march, the santo is rocked back and forth often violently while everyone begins dancing and the men shove and push each other, while yelling "Oy! Oy! Oy! Oy!"

Upon reaching the church, the men begin to run around wildly and a ritual tug-of-war ensues at the conclusion of which everyone calms down and the santo is brought into the church.

Sta Rita Overhead
Santo before it is carried into church from Karlo Samson.

Japanese echoes

The Batalla festival resembles quite closely the matsuri festivals of Japan in a number of ways.

During the masturi, a kami -- a deity or spirit -- is carried in a palaquin known as mikoshi. The mikoshi is taken along a zigzag path and pushed up and down -- a practice said to amuse the kami. There is no actual idol present in this case, the kami is present in spirit only.

In many cases, upon reaching the destination the mikoshi is then taken on a procession at sea. Again, in many areas a ritual tug-of-war takes place. Generally the teams involved in the tug-of-war represent polar opposites. For example, at the Agata Matsuri, one team represents the sea, while the other represents land. At Lake Hiruga, the tug-of-war takes place in waist-deep water. When Tantingco witnessed the Batalla fest, the water was said to be "knee-deep." Indeed in many areas of Japan the mikoshi procession involves the men either plunging into the sea or getting splashed with water. In Japan too, the event is characterized by much yelling and shouting.

Matsuri festivals are also linked with the "divine visitors" known as Marebito who are said to come in spirit from across the sea. The Marebito would be the Japanese type resembling the anito or nono of the Philippines. In this sense, we can note that the santos in the Philippines are also often immersed in water or the sea during festival time.

Millenarian aspects of the matsuri are also found in the Miroko dances honoring the savior deity who shall come one day with a ship of cargo to usher in the Golden Age.

Now, one could possible explain all these similarities by coincidence but that probably would not be the best choice. Most likely there is a connection but it would be difficult to say more on how the link occurred at this time.

"Battle" aspects of matsuri are found in the kenka-matsuri or "fighting matsuri." These involve not only the tug-of-war but also sumo matches and other competition. The sumo wrestling might link up with the pushing and shoving that accompanies the Batalla in southern Pampanga. In some areas, mikoshi teams engage in duels by smashing the palanquins together. (

Without much reservation, it can be suggested here that the "battle" represented in both the Japanese and Kapampangan rituals would likely represent the conflict and decay that almost invariably precedes the start of a new age of prosperity and abundance.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Demetrio, Francisco. "The Flood Motif and the Symbolism of Rebirth in Filipino Mythology", in Dundes, Alan (ed.) The Flood Myth, University of California Press, Berkeley and London, 1988.

Heiter, Celeste. Hadaka Matsuri: Getting Naked...In Japan...In January,

Plutschow, Herbert E. and Patrick Geoffrey O'Neill. Matsuri: The Festivals of Japan, Routledge, 1996.

Tantingco, Robby. Tantingco: The batalla of Macabebe,