Diving DeepeR (Or Trying To) Into Tagalog Origins


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Hello everyone! Kumusta ka? Welcome to today’s episode. This is an unexpected part two of our little, mini-dive into the Tagalog origin myths. Unexpected from your end because it’s something I didn’t make obvious in the last episode. I mean, maybe you guessed that there was more to be said, some clarifications to be offered, but maybe you just go with the flow. But while it might not have been wise, it wasn’t entirely without purpose. It was an artistic choice that I probably shouldn’t have made, but that’s a conversation for another time.

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I wanted to replicate the feeling I had when diving into this material, one that maybe is a universal thing, but one that has certainly colored by experience. There’s something almost disjointed about older mythologies, those of bygone and almost entirely forgotten eras of humanity. Or, at least, this is true for the ones that haven’t seeped into the popular consciousness like the Greek pantheon of gods. I swear that one is being held together by the fibers of modern lust for unfamiliar but perceivably (in quotes) safe stories of the past. The Tagalog mythology certain doesn’t have that. So I’m dealing with the less than ideal. For one, there’s a clear separation between the time these stories were relevant, revered, or frequently told a group of people now long gone and the current moment. In this way, even if we are using our own words—words fresh from the still living and very much present mind and mouth—it can still feel like we’re handling relics from the past—shards of what had once been a whole jug or pot but but which one we can’t sure—piece by piece through the artificial texture of thick plastic gloves.

It seems more obvious in this case, given what happened in the slightly more recent past.

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In case you didn’t know, because maybe you didn’t have the greatest history class in high school or just didn’t pay attention, the Spanish came to the Philippines in 1521 where they came into power and stayed in a position of direct control and influence until 1898. In other words, from 1521 to 1898, the Philippines underwent what is known as the Spanish colonial period, which is a pretty self-explanatory title. When the time comes for a more tangible history, I’ll go into more detail about it. But even that simple fact in and of itself may have come as a surprise to some of you because with the Philippines being in Asia, this seems…. A little bit out of the sphere of influence the Spanish threw down onto the planet, and it’s outside of what we typically think of as their colonial territory. But you’ve got to give them credit where it is owed; they did get around. If only to make money. Probably to make money.

The Spanish colonial period isn’t—in my opinion—just defined by what it was or what it had or did. I think it’s useful to approach this subject not based on materializations alone but by aspirations as well, by what it wanted to be or what it presented itself as. In editing this script, that terminology seems suspect, so let me put it this way, the Spanish it wanted their rule to be or thought it indeed was the Philippines’ true beginning. It’s that old narrative of (quote) “we came on this land and because these native peoples don’t have a culture that looks like ours, they must not have any culture at all, so let’s drop one on them” (end quote). So in looking back, we can recognize that the Spanish colonial period isn’t where the history of the Philippines should begin, but they weren’t going to admit that. In so far as the actual truth of the matter… There were stories and beliefs in this land they entered. There was a society in the land they stumbled upon, so this dream of theirs could only be realized in one way: (music cuts off) cleaning off the slate by force and rebuilding a society of their own design on the hastily flatten land.

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And to their credit, they did a pretty good job, helped—I imagine—by the already fragmented nature of the Philippines and the old guns, germs, and steel that no native force could defend themselves against. Under the Spanish’s careful attention, buildings were taken apart, ways of life soon followed, and the old religion… Well, it lingered. Just not strongly.

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Today, being Catholic is part of being Filipino. That’s a sweeping generalization, so let me make some clarifications. Yes, Islam has a footing in the southern islands, there’s a born again Christian community in Manila, and undoubtedly, there are other religious communities, including traditional ones. But these groups are outliers. Catholicism has seeped so deeply into the Filipino identity that it can’t be taken for granted or easily separated. It’s not just a matter of belief or creed or even demographics. Let me give you some examples of this. Towns and communities are often named for Catholic saints and/or built around large church named for saints, and these saints elicit a special loyalty from those who live beneath their banner. Look, I was raised an ocean away, and I still wear an image of my family’s patron around my neck almost 24/7. Why do I do it? Well, in my mind, there was some point and I can’t pin down when it happened in which this saint stopped being a saint or just a disciple of God or a once human representative of God. Instead, the saint had started to become a small piece of the home I can’t really call my home. Of the place where all my family is, of the family I ardently wish I could see more often.

Then there’s the churches, like I mentioned. At the center of towns, with the market sprawling around the complex. If you need to go to town, our ride will probably just drop you off by the church. And it’s where you can find tricycle drivers—more on them in a later episode—to take you home. And you don’t just care about your own church either. There’s the need to mark special occasions by touring the ones within a few hours’ drive complete with frequent stops for pictures beneath the steeples or saint shrines. And don’t forget the landmarks that commemorate Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Also, hot spots, mind you. These are the places where you would go for a day trip.

Or—one that you might be more familiar with—there are the news stories every Easter about a small group of Filipinos whipping or outright crucifying themselves to honor Christ’s passion.

What about the exaltation of priests? Or the importance of a child’s christening or how all weddings still take place in churches?

No, the Philippines is decidedly Catholic and content with these beliefs. And honestly, I’m not inclined to condemn that. Or, back track for clarification. I’m not in any position to make any judgments at all about this or to make any judgments about judgements. For any number of reasons.

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The point I had been trying to make was that the Spanish were unfortunately and incredibly successful at stripping away what came before. Think about it. They had plenty of practice at this colonization thing. There were fragments left behind, and by that I mean, the Spanish did make a few records, some whispers of beliefs lingered out of the colonizer’s ear shot, and some beliefs seemingly were passed down in DNA. Some things were undoubtedly lost, but enough remains for people to piece together some sort of coherent picture. Unfortunately, the pieces that remained were still marred by attempts to destroy them.

Or we think so. (Music cuts) It actually gets somewhat complicated.

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For the Tagalog people, the traditional religion lined up with Christianity in a rather convenient way. Convenient for the missionaries, of course. You can almost think of it like mass-conversion with training wheels, I guess. Or not. I came up with that simile on a whim and was way too proud of it to cut it out, though it may trample upon any and all notions of historical or theological accuracy.

Sure, the Tagalog religion wasn’t strictly monotheistic—that is, a religion that worships only one god and believes that such a god is the only one in all of existence as opposed to a belief collection or family of gods—but Christian missionaries were able to make it work. Bathala wasn’t the only god, but the lesser gods were indisputably lesser than Bathala, in part because they had been made by him. As for him, he just existed. Always had and always would. He just came to be and assumed authority over the world. And in some variations, this was out of benevolence and in others Bathala seems to be taking what was his by default. I mean, the only equals he ever had—beings that were neither created or born but had always existed—had both died. One by his hand.

Bathala—sometimes called Maykapal or Abba—was so great and powerful that nothing he created could dare ever challenge him, much like the Christian god. He was also well aware of what happened on the world below, including the actions of the people he created. He was pleased when his people offered him gifts or sacrifices and obeyed his laws. Those who did such, who were faithful were carefully guarded by him.

And it was good when people obeyed his laws, for he willed what was good, and obeying him meant fulfilling that desire for goodness

Much like the Christian god, Bathala is compassionate to those who minded his laws but equally unforgiving of its violators. Of course, rather than using any of the tools seen in the Old Testament, Bathala preferred to use lightning to punish wrongdoers. And I mean, if I had a choice, I’d probably go with lightning as well. Just saying.

So the parallels are fairly clear. Of course, this is assuming that this portrayal is accurate and not the product of some early missionary influences. That’s just me anticipating an objection right there. I think there’s sufficient reason to trust that Bathala’s character was such if for no other reason that such is a common theme throughout many of the world’s religions, ancient and otherwise.

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All the same, regardless of where you feel comfortable drawing that line, through the diligent work of these missionaries, Bathala became Diyos, spelled d-i-y-o-s and derived from the Spanish word for God.

However, there are things about Bathala and the world he built that are unique to him and were brushed aside by the missionaries. But this little theology major (softer)—despite my degree I actually don’t think I know anywhere near enough considering all the time I spent studying it so please don’t ask me any questions—noticed something on that front. Another potential connection between Bathala and God.

You see, Bathala had a messenger of sorts, an omen bird more accurately. Though this bird could be any bird or lizard by some standards, typically, this omen bringer was a small dark-colored bird that despite or because of its celebrity, preferred to hide. The story goes that the Tigmamanukan bird was the creature sent by Bathala to do his work on earth, mostly on the “guiding his people” front. Obviously the bird couldn’t talk and with them generally tending on the shy side, these messages would require a great deal of interpretation. For example, Tagalogs would take meaning from the direction this bird flew over head. Flying to the was a good sign.. Going from left to right on the other hand… Not so great.

Depictions of Bathala often feature this bird. The two were delicately linked in a way. It was understood that whenever Bathala couldn’t be on earth—which was all the time—the bird would do. It got to the point that the first missionaries who observed the religious practices of the Tagalog people briefly thought that they actually worshipped the bird. But these outsiders were promptly corrected. After all, the Tagalogs could not be accused of losing focus on Bathala. That…. That was a great way to get struck by lightning.

Now, here’s the weird thing that I noticed, and it’s a loose connection, I won’t deny that. Actually, it’s more of a random thought my brain had that I felt the need to word-vomit into this podcast. For any Catholics out there, doesn’t this kind of sound like the Holy Spirit who often takes the form of, or at least is depicted as, a dove? A highest being sending a bird or being represented by a bird in the eyes of its believers. Yeah, that thought is not going anywhere substantial, and it’s certainly not a one to one parallel. Not even sure why I brought it up. But there’s an aspect of this podcast that has to just be my natural thoughts and reactions, so there’s that one.

It may be rude to just drop that thought and run, but I really don’t have anything to add. There’s something fascinating about the unintentional parallels between various religious traditions, but because this one either does not exist or has not been noticed, I haven’t been able to make sense of it. On the other hand, one thing I can say is that this might have also made the missionaries’ job easier. Any connection would have made the new religion easier to accept, I suppose.

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Here’s another aspect of the old religion that confused missionaries. The missionaries also observed that despite the Tagalogs’ devotion to Bathala and the truest of all beliefs that he was unquestionably the highest being of them all, all the sacrifices being made weren’t being made to Bathala. Or so it seemed. It looked like the Tagalog people were making offerings to their ancestral spirits, known as anitos. Miguel de Loarca asked about this. Now, he was one of the few outsiders who diligently tried to record the way of life the colonizers were erasing, and perhaps the fact he gathered these facts at all speaks to his dedication and entitles him to some credibility even from a skeptical observer. To clarify, let me point out two aspects of this action. On one hand, he sought this information out, and on the other, the Tagalog people were willing to give it to him.

So with that, Miguel de Loarca asked about the sacrifices being presented to the anitos. Why weren’t they going to Bathala?

The answer was that, in a way, they were . Bathala was simply far too great a lord to hear his people’s cries, and it wasn’t a matter of ego or pride. He wasn’t willingly ignoring the pleas of the people below him. Rather, Bathala lived in Kaluwalhatian. Think of it as the highest level of heaven, for a lack of a better English equivalent. Kaluwalhatian was too far away for their supplications to make it to Bathala, making it a matter of logistics. The spirits of deceased relatives—because of their spiritual form—could cross the distance between Bathala’s dwelling and the earth below, relaying messages to him on the living person’s behalf. Lesser deities could do the same thing.

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Now, I’m going to recap and rearrange yet again. Clearly, there is no one on par with Bathala. He is the head of all deities, and everyone else—if you grossly simplify it—are just intercessors. Great. Catholicism has a lot of intercessors in the form of the saints. Twist some names around and there you go. Or that’s part of my theory, anyway.

In doing my research, I was struck by the few shards of this pantheon that I was able to find and piece together. Certainly not enough to fully rebuild the structure that had been, and I find this greatly unsatisfying. I want to go into each and every deity’s story, giving each as much of a spotlight that I can from what information I’m able to gather. Best case scenario it’s going to be a lot because we are talking about a pantheon of deities here, so I’m not sure how to best go about it. I want to be thorough, but I don’t want to neglect the origin stories of the other ethnolinguistic groups of the Philippines, even if they aren’t my own, and there’s quite a lot more I could go into within the Philippines in general. Like, remember Jocano from my brief jump into anthropology? Well, I wanted to go more into his career and achievements in either his own episode or in an episode devoted to the tales of accomplished but not well known Filipinos. That unit is fairly far down on the horizon, and at this rate, it’s just going to keep getting kicked back.

But, there are things I still want to share that should be shared about this religion, some can wait and some cannot. There’s one thing in particularly that when I read, I knew I had to bring up.

So the Filipinos had a conception of the afterlife, right? That much was established when I brought up the ancestral spirits. I mean, the unsaid premise there would be that there is a spiritual soul that does not require a physical body to sustain it and—at the end of one’s life—the spirit and the flesh separate. The flesh decays, but the spirit lives on. That’s part of an afterlife, by most technical definitions. For the Tagalog people, you exist after death in some form, and while you may become messenger for your living relatives, there were other aspects to your new (in quotes here) “life.” (Pause and softer) That word choice might have been in poor taste. Actually it probably, probably was.

Burial practices included an aspect of preparing the dead for what came next. This included leaving food, jewelry, or other tokens to have with them wherever they ended up. Yes, there were two places the spirit of the departed could go. The Tagalogs had some sort of conception of heaven and hell, as Jocano outlined in his work, or final destinations that the spirit could end up as a reflection of how they lived on earth. Those who lived good and just lives, obeying all of Bathala’s laws and wishes would go to Maca, a place of eternal peace and happiness. Like Heaven, in the Christian tradition. The bad, on the other hand, went to Kasanaan, or a village of nothing but grief and affliction. Like Hell.

And this Hell—or this hell-like place, depending on semantics—had its own ruler, Kasanaan was ruled by Sitan, a being that took great pleasure in torturing those who wound up in his domain, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was trying to convince the living to stray from the proper path and fall into evil. Within each person, it’s almost a battle between Bathala and Sitan, good or evil, for the fate of the soul.

Sounds familiar, right? Okay, if you grew up in the Judeo-Christian tradition then it probably sounds familiar. Another correction, if you paid attention to whatever religious lessons you might have had when you were brought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition, then that probably sounds family. Actually, you might not even need that much. The name “Sitan” is a bit on the nose, isn’t it?

Yes and no. I guess it depends on what came into your mind when you heard that name. This wasn’t a case of colonizers overwriting what was there before. Sure, they might have taken advantage of the situation, but it’s not a situation they created. Jocano had a better explanation for this fairly obvious connection. Sitan, according to Jocano, was likely a derivative not of the Christian Satan, but of the Islamic ruler of the underworld, spelled S-a-i-t-a-n. Because yeah, this is getting a little confusing. Islam and Christianity have their own links, obviously, what with both being Abrahamic religions, or religions that trace back to the biblical figure Abraham and the covenant he made with God. And this extended to the theology of eternal damnation.

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Now, remember that Jocano was the one to suggest an alternative to Beyer’s flawed Wave Migration Theory. Jocano’s core population theory argued that there were not clear waves of migration. Rather, in pursuit of favorable conditions and fertile lands, people freely migrated around Southeast Asia for a while, intermingling and sharing ideas as long as they were able to before environmental factors isolated them into de facto groups or nations. Each group, then, developed their own set of beliefs and identities independent of, but still linked to, those of the others who came from that shared origin point. Now, that’s a gross simplification of a gross simplification, but point being, this flow of people and ideas is what made it possible for Sitan’s name to enter the Tagalog consciousness.

Come to think of it, that still might not make any sense to you without a bit more context. Namely, that Islam spread throughout Asia through trade and more convention missionary work and actually still has a strong foothold in Malaysia and Indonesia, but that’s a history lesson I can’t give right now.

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Here’s the take away, though. The pre-colonized Philippines wasn’t as isolated as the colonizers might have thought, or as you might have thought when you glanced at a map or when you thought about the sea-faring technology at the time. Which is great on one hand, but on the other, if you are super concerned about authenticity, then you are running into a bit of a problem here, now aren’t you? Because now you have to start drawing arbitrary lines at seemingly random points to determine what is authentically Filipino and what isn’t. I’m not talking about colonization here. The entrance of representatives from a far-away place and the imposition of their ideas is a pretty clear line dividing one time and another. However, if Jocano is right, this flow of ideas is part of early Filipino culture, so can you even distinguish what is (in quotes here) properly Tagalog and which isn’t?

I guess this leads to the question, should this matter? Honestly? It’s not something I’m overly concerned with. Not directly, I mean.

I was looking for Sitan’s origin story, thinking it would be an interesting addition to this podcast, but I couldn’t find one. It has to be out there, I would think, and I just haven’t turned over the right stone out of the thousands of stones set out before me. But I haven’t had any luck.

However, if Sitan is really an imported concept, I could see him not having any sort of origin story at all, that people just took for granted that he was there. Or just did not think about the deity who eagerly pursued their destruction. Think about it in today’s terms. How many people know the story of the fallen Lucifer? Not as many as probably should. There are too many other things on our mind, too many other biblical saying and stories to juggle. And we just don’t care about the ultimate sinner who obviously doesn’t care at all about us.

Priorities being what they are, this ball may have been dropped. Assuming it even made it that far. As I see it, it’s possible this story didn’t make it over the ocean. Hey, sea-faring isn’t easy even now; it had to be a lot harder back then, so you can’t blame those captains for any cargo lost along the way.

But look, take this person’s completely uninformed theory for one way in which Sitan could have entered the Tagalog consciousness without explanation. Because what I’m suggesting is that all of a sudden there’s an extra deity that doesn’t have a story, and that might not seem possible to you. I think it is at the very least within the realm of human possibility, even if I don’t think that’s what actually happened. So while my theory may not be valid, the existence of it is the point.

In this theory, Kasanaan already existed, which to me seems logically sound. A place of punishment for the worst members of your community is certainly appealing, and that word doesn’t have a clear connection to any other religion. So we can say that you have a place where the sinners go and the Tagalog people understand this. That this was an (in quotes) native idea.

So now, you have two guys one talking and only one of them knows Sitan, having heard that story somewhere in his travels or through someone who heard about it in his travels, and this guy is the type of person to not concern himself with why or how Sitan fell out of his god’s graces. He’s just this unfortunate soul who made the most of his banishment to the land of misery and woe by bringing other people there to be tortured.  Now, this guy is talking to this other person who practices the Tagalog faith and knows all about Kasanaan.

            Imagine a conversation like this, paraphrasing wildly, of course.

·         Guy 1: My neighbor down the street is such a jerk I can’t wait until he ends up in hell.

·         Guy 2: Yeah, Sitan will have a good time with a guy like that.

·         Guy 1: What… What do you mean?

·         Guy 2: You know, Sitan. The ruler of Hell. The guy who makes everyone’s life a nightmare as punishment for breaking Bathala’s laws.

Now, after hearing this seemingly sound explanation, Guy 1 goes along with it because he and Guy 2 are good friends, and they’ve had many conversations about various other religious beliefs. If not many then enough for them to trust that they share a set of beliefs or an understanding of the world. So Guy 1 is able to go along with his remark. Now imagine this conversation happens again and again. And next thing you know, Sitan is part of the religious consciousness. And to everyone else, Sitan’s presence is not worth questioning. After all, he’s the proverbial bad guy, so who really cares?

Alternatively, maybe nobody recorded it—prominently or at all—because it seemed so obviously Christian that there was seemingly nothing to preserve. On that note, Jocano’s theory is relatively young in the grand scheme of things. He only died a few years ago. In fact, you can find news coverage of his death on Youtube. So it’s possible that his theory came far too late to save this story, if that’s what happened.

Is this to say I’m going to throw in the towel? No, I’m going to keep digging into Sitan’s story as well as those the other early Tagalog deities. I’m just not sure how I’ll handle those yet. I guess you’ll have to subscribe to find out? That’s a bit shameless. I didn’t mean it in that way, but there’s no way around it. Because I genuinely don’t know what I’m going to do. Spin off podcast? Bonus posts? Save them up for an absurdly long episode? It’s all on the table, assuming that these options won’t crash my RSS feed.

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There’s a Tagalog phrase that seems very relevant right now. Bahala na. It’s a derivative of Bathala’s name, and it means to just go with the flow and be open to what happens next. It’s the product of believing in an omnipotent deity whose will is unquestionably good. You can and—in many ways—have to place your trust in that higher power for all things in your life. In doing so, you are allowing your life to work out in the best possible way. Now, this isn’t to say this was or is the philosophy of the Philippines completely, but it’s a relevant thought especially in this context. Also the philosophy nerd in me wants to dig into that issue in a future episode.

But for now, Bahala na.


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