Because of the various cultural influences on the Filipinos in the past, one has to dig deep into the Philippine psyche to understand what Filipinos used to believe in and what some of them still do. When Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan came and discovered the Philippine Islands in 1521, he was welcomed by friendly Muslims who agreed to convert themselves to Christianity. Brought to the islands from neighboring Southeast Asian countries in the 14th century, the Islam religion was slowly gaining ground in the Philippines during the 16th century. Some historians even claim that, if the Spaniard colonists came 50 years earlier, the Philippines would have been completely Muslim from north to south. To date, Muslim Filipinos are now confined to a small area of Mindanao, called the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), composed of five provinces and one city, with the regional capital outside its jurisdiction (Wikipedia).
A Tausug royal bride performs Pangalay, a traditional Tausug wedding dance. (Source: L. A. Zamboanga Times, Photo by Hader Glang, article by John L. Shinn III)
However, there is evidence that pre-colonial Filipinos had another belief system, the worship of spirits or animism. They believed that their dead ancestors continued to survive in a world inhabited by good and bad supernatural spirits (Maghirang, Tony, onephil.com). A priest or priestess called babaylan, acted as shaman, and mediated for them in communicating with these ancestors. They created wooden statues called anitos to represent these spirits or diwatas. When the Spanish colonizers came, the babaylans were suppressed and anitos destroyed. The babaylans were replaced by the arbularyos (Filipinized Spanish word, herbolarios) who were the village healers, using local herbs to cure diseases, especially those brought about by supernatural causes (Wikipedia).
Talking about babaylans, the Spanish friars in the 16th century artfully dismissed them as witches. They convinced villagers that these babaylans were diabolically empowered. Their acts, according to the Spanish frailes, matched most of the European criteria for identifying witches: capacity to influence another person, conjuring the dead, casting spells, falling into a trance and using superstitions to heal the sick.
To this day, there are still witches or mangkukulam in Tagalog, or mambabarang in Cebuano. In the island of Siquijor in Central Visayas, the Witchcraft Festival is held during Holy Week. “The mangkukulam recites a spell and pierces the part of a voodoo doll where the witch wants to inflict pain and suffering on the person represented by the voodoo doll.” (Source: Maghirang, onephil.com) To avoid being bewitched, one sometimes buys an amulet called anting-anting from the mangkukulam. Sometimes, it’s a pebble or a piece of cloth tied and worn like a necklace near one’s heart to ward off witch spells.
And finally, the Catholic religion is now entrenched in the Philippines and is part of Spain’s legacy to the islands. The influence of this faith is endemic in the political and economic lives of the Filipinos and deserves a whole column to be devoted to it. However, as in many things, it has been Filipinized and suited to the citizens’ belief system. (Next week: Catholicism in the Philippines)