Fatalism in a Hostile Geography: The Case of Albay in the Pacific Jinx

A Memory

I remember very clearly, as if it was just yesterday, the howling wind outside, and a more terrifying sound that echoed inside the cavities of our house in Naga, Camarines Sur that 30th of November 2006. They were long howls, whistling as the 250 kph gusts meet trees, buildings and wreckage, the howling interspersed with low moans like an asthmatic child. My bedroom walls were vibrating violently, water was streaming down from one of the junctions of wall and ceiling, our roof painfully creaking from this unseen heaviness. Looking out the window, our street was now a surging river. My grandmother’s transistor radio was blasting the Resuene Vibrante being aired by Bombo Radyo. The hymn to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, I remember, was like a balm to our terrors, the familiar melody and the images it invokes were like light piercing through the darkness of our anxieties. All the while, my grandmother was muttering in-between Hail Mary’s: “May herak an Dios.”

Typhoon Reming lashed down at the Bikol provinces with an unimaginable rage. The light of the following day only guaranteed what was already imagined and feared by the people. The severity of damage was immediately compared by old-timers to Trix, Sisang, Rex, Rosing and others in the nomenclature of monsters.  My mother remarked that Sisang in 1987 was stronger, when all the electric posts in the region were felled down as if they were mere toothpicks.

Daylight finally saw the devastation in our neighborhood, but we were more or less ‘spared’. Daylight also brought with it – slowly at first, then gaining momentum as the hours passed – the terrible news of death that had smitten Albay.

Introduction

In November 30, 2006, Typhoon Reming claimed 1,478[1] lives in the province of Albay alone. Earlier debris from lahar flows of Mayon Volcano have been transported by Reming’s wind and rain, burying some of the villages of Guinobatan, Daraga, Camalig and Legaspi City in mudslides. It was the most destructive typhoon to hit the Philippines in 2006 severely affecting coastal areas and farming municipalities located around the periphery of Mt. Mayon.

Albay seats in a hostile geography (environment) in what is described in the moniker Pacific Jinx , the conjunction of the Pacific Ring of Fire and the Typhoon Belt of the Northwestern Pacific Basin. Typhoon Reming made landfalls in Catanduanes and Albay, reaching maximum wind speeds of 265 kph. It was the second strongest typhoon to hit the region, second only to Seniang in 1970 with winds up to 275 kph. Compared to the other provinces such as Catanduanes and Camarines Sur, Albay suffered the brunt of the extent of damages on lives, communities, services and infrastructures. In Albay alone, 98.6% of barangays were affected, a total of 613,348 families or about 3,122,000 persons.

The Bikolanos are no strangers to natural disasters with Southern Bikol having a hit rate of 19% and Northern Bicol with 16% of the total tropical cyclones that have crossed the Philippines from 1948 to present.[2] The region is also home to two active volcanoes, Mayon and Bulusan, and six other dormant/extinct volcanoes: Isarog, Masaraga, Malinao, Pocdol (Bacon-Manito Volcanic Complex), Asog (Iriga) and Labo. The Bicol Volcanic Arc Chain is the physical manifestation of the highly-active tectonic area below making the region a hotspot for tectonic earthquakes[3] as well.

Given these circumstances, very often, fatalistic attitudes pervade among the people. “Bahala na ang Dios satuya”[4] and “May herak an Dios”[5] are often the attitudes toward disasters – that events like typhoons and eruptions are fated to happen and that human beings cannot therefore change their destinies. How passive, indeed are the Albayanos in the face of this hostile geography? How is this attitude expressed?

As used in this paper, fatalism refers to “an attitude of resignation in the face of some future event or events which are thought to be inevitable”. Fatalism has been shown to play a significant role in determining a vast range of individual behaviors including natural disaster preparedness. For fatalism I intended people‘s propensity to believe that their destinies are ruled by an unseen power, Fate, rather than by their will.

This paper explores some of the narratives that may shed light to this attitude and how these attitudes are situated in the challenging geography and topography of Albay. The paper also explores some of the initiatives of the Province of Albay in disaster risk reduction.

Locating Albay 

Albay is a province in the Bikol region in southeastern Luzon island about 550 kilometers from Manila. It has a land area of 2,554.06 square kilometers, politically subdivided into 15 municipalities, three cities and 720 barangays. At present, it has three congressional districts. The province had a population of 1,233,432 as of May 1, 2010 reflecting an average population density of 482.9 persons per square kilometer. The population of the province grew at the rate of 1.23 percent from  2000 to 2010.[6]

In the income classification of the Department of Finance, Albay is considered a 1st Class Province with an average annual income of P 450 Million and above.[7] The province’s economy is basically agricultural with coconut, hemp, rice, vegetables, sugarcane and pineapple as the major products. Vast grazing lands are also available for pasturing cattle, carabao, horses, goats and sheep. Its forests are sources of timber, rattan, pili nuts and other minor forest products.

Albay is situated between the provinces of Camarines Sur on the north and Sorsogon on the south, bounded on the east by the Pacific Ocean, on the northeast by the Lagonoy Gulf, and on the west and southwest by the Burias Pass. North of the province’ s mainland are the islands of Rapu-Rapu, Batan, Cagraray and San Miguel, all falling under its jurisdiction.[8]. Two-fifths of the entire land area of Albay is characterized by plains and flat lands.[9] The greater portion of these flatlands is in the north-western quadrant. The entire province is surrounded by mountain ranges. The western portion is characterized by low and rolling mountain ranges of less than 600 m in height. The eastern side of the province is where comparatively high and volcanic mountain ranges lie, including Mts. Mayon, Malinao and Masaraga.[10]

In the Provincial Development and Physical Framework Plan (PDPF, 2011-2016), the province is described to be “located in the eastern seaboard of the country and subjected to the pressures and consequent effects of the Pacific Jinx. It is referred to as such because of its geographic location, that of being situated along the Western Pacific Basin which is a generator of climatic conditions such as typhoons, monsoon rains, and thunderstorms, among others. These cause the province to experience more pronounced distribution of precipitation and no pronounced dry season all-year round. Because of its geographic location, volcanism, physiographic and hydro-geologic nature, the province becomes vulnerable to disasters and to the effects of climate change as well.[11]

Poor People in a Hostile Geography

Poor socio-economic conditions and a geography prone to disasters make Albay an immediate candidate for disasters. This section explores some of the geo-physical conditions of the Bikol peninsula, especially the province of Albay, the hazards experienced in the province as well as the socio-economic conditions of the population.

Bicol region is volcanic in origin and part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Known as the Bicol Volcanic Arc or Chain, the volcanoes are the results of the Philippine Sea Plate subducting under the Philippine Mobile Belt, along the Philippine Trench[12]. Volcanism is evident by the number of hot springs, crater lakes, and volcanoes that dot the region starting from Mount Labo in Camarines Norte to the Gate Mountains in Matnog, Sorsogon. Mayon Volcano[13] is the most prominent of the volcanoes in the region, famous for its almost perfect conical shape and for being the most active in the Philippines. Its eruptions have repeatedly inflicted disasters on the region, but during lulls in activity, it is a particularly beautiful mountain. The southernmost tip of the peninsula is dominated by Bulusan Volcano[14], the other active volcano in the region. Tiwi in Albay and the Bacon-Manito[15] area between Sorsogon and Albay are the sites of two major geothermal fields that contribute substantially to the Luzon Power Grid.

Mayon Volcano, a strato-volcano, has a height of 2,462 meters and has a base circumference of 62.8 km[16]. Mayon has erupted 49 times since the first documented activity in 1616. Thus, its symmetric cone was actually formed through alternate pyroclastic and lava flows. The upper slopes of Mayon are steep, reaching up to 35-45º. Pyroclastic flows characteristically occur during each major episode. Lahars occur during approximately one-third of Mayon’s eruptions, when humid, near-surface air is entrained by eruption updrafts, generating heavy rains on the volcano slopes. The resulting runoff mobilises hot ash fall and pyroclastic flow debris into lahars that flow down gullies which existed prior to the eruption, and scour out new channels.

Agnes Espinas in her paper for the Human Development Network classified the hazards experienced in Albay in two categories: geologic and hydro-meterologic hazards.The following types of hazards in Albay are provided by Espinas[17]:

Geologic Hazards

1) Earthquake

Albay experiences quakes generated by the trenches and active faults (tectonic

earthquakes) as well as by the active volcanoes (volcanic earthquakes), closest of which is the Mayon volcano situated almost at the heart of the province. An estimate of 42,500 households or 5.3 % of the total population of the province is considered at risk from earthquakes. (PDPF, 2011-216:17) Similarly at risk are the properties and structures exposed to the hazards whenever the quakes occur.

2) Volcanic Hazards

During eruptions of Mayon Volcano, a total of 86 barangays within the three cities and  six municipalities are considered at risk from (a) pyroclastic flow; (b) ash fall; (c) volcanic  avalanche; (d) lava flow; (e) mud flow; and (f) lava fountaining; among others. Most affected  are the barangays located within the six-kilometer radius permanent danger zone (PDZ) and the eight-kilometer radius extended danger zones. A total of 1675 families are categorically at risk within the 6-kilometers PDZ of the volcano (as of September 2010). (PDPFP, 2011-216: 17)

Hydrometeorologic Hazards

1)Typhoons/Tropical Cyclones

Albay, which lies on the eastern seaboard and is one of the areas first reached by landfalling tropical cyclones, experiences an average visit of 20 tropical cyclones each year with an average of two major destructive typhoons per year. In November 2006, it was hardest-hit by  typhoon Reming which was one of the most deadly and destructive tropical cyclones in the  record of history of the country. The typhoon brought 466 millimetres of rainfall, the highest in 40 years. (http://www.microdis-eu.be/content/albay_philippines). That rainfall caused debris and volcanic materials from the slopes of Mayon Volcano to rush down as mudflows that buried the communities lying at the footslopes of the volcano. Aside from Reming, three other major typhoons hit the province in 2006 and also the succeeding year. These typhoons caused flashfloods and landslides in the affected areas. Figure 3 below depicts the risks to the province brought about by the occurrence of typhoon with those in dark blue showing the very high risk areas. High risk areas are determined by three factors which are: (1) high rainfall increase; (2) highly populated areas/high density; and (3) high poverty incidence.

2) Flood, Lahar and Mudflow

An estimated 12,190 hectares of the province are continually suffering from flood  hazards during rainy season. There are several built-up areas throughout Albay that are annually  constrained by flood, most especially the coastal communities. Generally, 396 out of the total 720 barangays of the province are experiencing flood hazards during heavy rains.

Mudflow is one of the most destructive effects of typhoon in areas near an active volcano  and in areas prone to landslide. During the Super Typhoon Reming destructions were caused in part by rampaging mudflows and lahar flows from the channels of Mayon Volcano. Three cities and five municipalities nestled around the volcano are constantly threatened by mudfows and lahar. The magnitude of devastation caused by Reming resulted to mass permanent relocation into safer grounds of about 10,076 families.(PDPFP, 2011-216: 15) An entire barangay was relocated to another barangay within the municipality to ensure the safety of the residents.

3) Tsunami and Storm Surge

Having a long coastline of 354 kilometers makes the province vulnerable to tsunami and storm surge. Tsunami is a seismic sea wave which is caused by undersea earthquake. Storm surge, on the other hand, is generated by typhoon. It is a temporary rise of the sea level at the coast, above that of predicted tide. It is caused by strong winds and low atmospheric pressure associated with the passage of a typhoon and may last from a few hours to a few days. It destroys seawalls and smash the houses made of light materials that are located along the coasts. As of September 2010, the estimated total population affected by Tsunami and storm surge is approximately 24,700 families located in 149 barangays. (PDPFP, 2011-216:18-19)

4) Landslide and Soil Erosion

About 73% of the province‟s total land area is vulnerable to landslide and soil erosion  owing to its mountainous terrain. Strong earthquake and heavy rainfall cause landslide in areas with steep slopes and clayey soils. Soil erosion is rampant in less vegetated areas exposed to strong winds and as also caused by water runoff during high precipitation. As recorded by APSEMO, a total of about 11,000 to 12,000 families located within the high risk area are threatened by landslide in 127 barangays of the province. (PDPFP, 2011-216:10)

The risks posed by a hazardous topography and geography are further aggravated by the socio-economic conditions of the people[18] – a rice-based agricultural economy and the high level of poverty incidence in the province.

Recent poverty data of the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) for 2013 showed Albay as being the only province in Bicol region which registered a steady increase in poverty incidence since 2006. It was also one of the only two provinces which registered an increase in poverty for the period 2009 to 2012 from 33.9 to 36.1%, the other one being the province of Catanduanes. Albay was also one of the only two Bicol provinces which exceeded the regional poverty incidence pegged at 34.1%. Albay had 36.1% and the other province was Masbate with 44.2%. Though Masbate registered a decrease in poverty statistics it remained on the top spot, followed by Albay.[19] NSCB reported that the magnitude of poverty incidence in Albay rose by 36.2%[20] in 2012 even though the Bicol region’s economy grew by 7.1%, faster than the NCR.

Albay is basically an agricultural province. The agricultural zone of Albay accounts for 158,311.63 hectares or 62% of the total land area with coconut, rice and corn as the major agricultural crops[21]. Natural disasters adversely impact on the agricultural economy of Albay. Tropical cyclones that beat on the province on a regular basis damage crops, especially during the harvesting season of rice (October-December) which coincides with some of the strongest typhoons of the year. In the case of Typhoon Reming, damages to agriculture amounted to a staggering P 545,194,897[22] considering that a net return of income for palay in the Bicol Region is P 14,993 per hectare[23]. Agriculture employs 40.7%[24] of the total regional employment roughly translating to 852,000 farmers, fisherfolk and their families adversely impacted by natural disasters in the region.

These socio-economic conditions in the region place Albay, not only in the middle of the Pacific Jinx of natural disasters but also greatly magnifies their vulnerability and limits their resilience and adaptive capacities. Natural disasters spiral into human catastrophes when they entrench the poverty that already exists and pull more people down into poverty as their assets vanish, together with their means to generate an income[25]. The risk of impoverishment is linked to lack of access to the markets, capital, assets and insurance mechanisms that can help people to cope and to rebuild. This combination of exposure to natural disasters vulnerability and limited access to social safety nets, to land and to work is a serious risk factor, as is living in a remote rural area.

The transformation of hazards into disasters is far from ‘natural’. It reflects structural

inequalities that are rooted in the complex political economy of disaster risk and  development. A community’s disaster risk varies across time and space and is driven heavily by interacting economic, socio-cultural and demographic factors. Poverty is one of the strongest determinants of disaster risk, as well as shaping the capacity to recover and reconstruct. The poorest people in a  community are often affected disproportionately by disaster events, particularly in the long-term. However, poverty is by no means synonymous with vulnerability. Indeed, vulnerability is shaped by wider social, institutional and political factors that govern entitlements and capabilities.

Recent initiatives by the Province of Albay address these issues and insist that fatalistic attitudes have no place in the province.

Reducing Risk in Albay

Segundo Romero in an Oxfam report remarked that “prior to 1989, Albay’s disaster risk management strategy was mainly after-the-fact-disaster response”[26] which was more akin to the supposed fatalistic attitude often accused to people in disaster-prone areas like Albay. The approach of the provincial government, the key government agencies, and the partner institutions like non-government organisations, was generally responsive and reactive to calamities and that preparedness is sought within the shorter period rather than a long term endeavour. Primarily, the activities are focused on the safety of the affected families and the provision of relief assistance during the calamity[27].

With the recurrence of more devastating typhoons and the more frequent eruption of Mayon Volcano, which used to occur once in every ten year period but later beam more frequent in intervals of three or five years, the provincial government was prompted to initiate better measures to cope with calamities. In 1989, with the support from the Italian government, the adoption of community-based disaster preparedness methodologies and responsive activities to ultimately reduce the adverse effects of natural disasters was undertaken. Among the programs introduced, were as follows[28]:

  1. Institutional set-up and disaster management education;
  2. Establishment of a disaster operations centre, installation of radio communication equipment, provision of rescue and relief facilities and the construction of embankments and evacuation facilities in 11 barangay; and
  3. Launching of income generation projects for prospective volunteers to encourage their participation in disaster management strategies.

The Sangguniang Panlalawigan in 1994 supported the institutionalisation of a disaster management office through the issuance of a resolution for the creation of a Disaster Risk Management Office (DRMO) called the Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office (APSEMO). The shift now from disaster response to disaster risk reduction is now possible. This shift in paradigm is now captured in Albay’s Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction Management (DRRM) with the goals of safe development defined as disaster proofing; integrating climate change programs specifically adaptation and DRRM to achieve greater economic viability; acknowledging the potent effects of geologic, anthropogenic and climatic hazards which limit the attainment of millenium development goals and the human development index[29].

Several ordinances and resolutions were also passed by the Sangguniang Panlalawigan to support these initiatives:

  1. SP Resolution 2007-04 – proclaims climate change adaptation as provincial policy and that all behavior, projects, programs, grants of licenses and permits should be consistent with adaptation.
  2. SP Appropriation Ordinance 2007-01 – supplemental budget identifies A2C2 program as a budgetary item and with corresponding funding for activities.
  3. SP Ordinance to strengthen Sec. 48 Item 3 Chapter 6 of RA 9003 – Solid Waste Management Law; Banning “open burning” and provides local mechanism for enforcement, as well as training of barangay tanods to record in barangay logbook any violations.
  4. SP Ordinance 2007-51 – updating and reviewing of Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. Reorganizatioin of Provincial Land Use Committee under Provincial Executive Order 2007-07.
  5. Albay Declaration on Climate Change Adaptation – prioritise climate change adaptation in local and national policies; promote “climate-proofing” development; advocate the creation of oversight bodies in the government; mainstreaming of climate change through the local and regional partnerships for sustainable development; Research and Development; promote environmentally sustainable practices. (Resolutions have been passed to the Philippine Congress to adopt the declaration as a framework for mainstreaming climate change in the country.

A Center for Initiatives and Research on Climate Adaptation (CIRCA) has also been created. This is a joint venture of the the Provincial Government of Albay together with the Environmental Management Bureau, World Agroforestry Center, and Bicol University.

Espinas underscored that institutional reformation and creation to undertake the tasks under the DRRM framework contributed to developing a more responsive governance and system within the province. The preceding discussion shows a very proactive approach by the government in reducing risk but these altogether is on the realm of the state, acting on the safety and welfare of the people. What happens in the private though offers a glimpse on the supposed fatalism of these people in an unsafe environment.

Several Expressions

Our understanding of behavior suggests that all ideas arise from man’s experience with his surroundings. A people exposed to a throng of natural hazards must have expressed these realities of environment in their culture, including folk narratives and beliefs, as Wilhelm Dilthey suggested that “experience urges toward expression or communication with others”[30]. The process of using this train of methodology must be done with caution since “the relationship is clearly dialogic and dialectical, for experience structures expressions, in that we understand other people and their expressions on the basis of our own experience and understanding. But expressions also structure experience, in that dominant narratives of a historical era, important rituals and festivals, and classic works of art define and illuminate inner experience.”[31]

My goal is not to make an in-depth analysis of these cultural expressions but instead make a survey of these expressions which may help in understanding how passive and fatalistic the Bikolanos of Albay in the events of natural disasters. We may treat the epic-fragment Ibalong as one of these Dilthean expressions.

Ibalong[32], the sixty stanzas that remain of a full-length folk epic, was presumably jotted down in its complete Bikol narrative by Fray Bernardino de Melendreras (1815-1867), a Franciscan missionary in Guinobatan, Albay. Ibalong gives a grave picture of a deluge, almost with a historical tone that is absent in the other stanzas. In the sixty stanzas, seven were devoted to a single “deluge” which wreaked havoc to the ancient Bikol land. This singular moment changed courses of rivers, submerged lands, transformed a volcano to a lake, in a cataclysmic event that swept as far north as Labo in Camarines Norte to Bato in the boundaries of Camarines Sur and Albay. Whirlwinds, volcanic eruptions and storm surges are here described, with references to specific locations in mainland Bikol.

45

Hubo entonces un diluvio

Promovido por el Onos,

Que el aspecto de esta tierra

Por completo trastorno.

Asin ta dinatngan masulog na baha,

Onos ginikanan, si kusog dakula,

Si orog kagayon, tiwasay na daga

Iba nang paghilngon naliwat kawasa.

Then came a deluge on the land

Caused by the Onos force of old

So that the features of this earth

Were completely changed to behold.

46

Reventaron los volcanes

Hantic, Colasi, Isarog,

Y al mismo tiempo sentiose

Un espantoso temblor.

Su bukid na Hantik, Kulasi, Isarog

Gabos nangagtuga, nagputok nin kusog,

Asin kasabay pa si dakulang linog

Sa bilog na rona gabos na natanyog.

Volcanoes Hantik, Isarog,

Culasi also burst so quick

And was felt simultaneously

The whole ground quake convulsively.

47

Fue tanta sacudida,

Que el mar en seco dejo

El istmo de Pasacao

Del modo que se ve hoy.

Sa kusog nin linog kuminadal-kadal,

Dagat suminuko may dagang naglataw

Na iyo na ngunyan satong matata-naw

Bilang kauswagan duman sa Pasacao.

So mighty was the jolting sway

To its bottom the sea gave way

Effecting isthmus in the fray

At Pasacao as seen today.

48

Separo del continente

La isleta de Malbogon

Donde moran las sibilas

Llamadas Hilan, Lariong.

Igwang nakasiblag daga na kaputol

Asin pinag-apod na purong Malbogong,

duwang aswang iyong nag-erok na lolong

Na pinagngaranan Hilang asin Laryong.

A torn part of the mainland formed

The islet known as Malbogong

Inhabited by witches strong

The so-called Hilang and Laryong.

49

El caudaloso Inarihan

Su curso el Este torcio,

Pues, antes del cataclismo,

Desaguaba por Ponon.

     Nagbaha nin orog salog Inarihan

Bulos pasulnopan sala nang dalagan,

Kaya kan dai pa ini minasupngay

Si gabos na tubig Ponong dinadatngan.

The waters flow of Inarihan

Its course due East ran up all wrong,

So that before this cataclysm

Flowed to Ponong, where set the sun.

50

En Bato se hundio un gran monte

Y en su sitio aparecio

El lago, hoy alimenta

Con su pesca a Ibalon.

May dakulang bulod sa Bato nagtundag,

Sa kinamugtakan danaw luminuwas

Na pinaghalean manga sirang layas

Naging kabuhayan kan Ibalong nanggad.

In Bato a big mountain sank

That generated water tank

A lake came up which now supplies

Fish consumption by Ibalong folks.

51

Del golfo de Calabagñan

Desaparecio Dagatnon,

De donde eran los Dumagat

Que habitaron en Cotmon.

Manga nag-erok dagang Kalabangan

Na manga Dagatnong napara nin basang,

Si manga Dumagat nagsalihid duman

Na hale sa Kotmong enot na erokan.

From the gulf of Calabangan

Where all Dagatnong has-been wiped out

From which had come the Dumagat

Who had inhabited Cotmong.

This cataclysm which transformed the physical features of Bikol begs to ask: is this in mythic time or is the event rooted in a real catastrophic past? Certainly, all the places mentioned in the stanzas refer to real place-names, ethhnonyms still used in the present time. If we accept as authentic the Ibalong fragment, this attests to how the environment plays an important part in Bikolano cosmology and how it underscores the hostility of the region’s location. Earlier in the epic, the hero Handiong cleared the forests of hundreds of monsters and brought civilization (writing, pottery, boat-making) to the land, but from the 45th to the 51st stanza, the heroes themselves were strikingly silent and absent. Nature was supreme once again, an episode when nature showed it cannot be tamed like the monster-siblings of the snake-woman Oryol.

One of the mentioned powers in this epic-fragment is Onos, “an old force” of nature. Modern, standard, central Bikol language uses the word “Onos” to refer to a storm, whirlwind or tornado[33]. Onos has never figured in other narratives of the Bikolanos except in this epic-fragment. Yet this deluge-bringing force was attributed to be the cause of the earthquakes, eruptions and storm surges that transformed the face of ancient Bikol. In Legaspi, Albay, the Yawa river is so named because it is thought of as a sleeping monster. “Yawa” means monster or demon and gives reference to how it swells during lahar flows of Mayon, then becomes a gentle river during dry seasons. Onos and the Yawa then gives us this Bikolano notion of a dormant “old force” sleeping in nature. Yet what caused it to awaken? The epic gives us the impression that it occurred without warning, in the literary sense, the stanzas in Ibalong were like a slash in the fabric of the story. Or were the exploits of Handiong preceding the deluge stanzas, of taming wild nature and killing “monsters” the reason for the awakening of Onos? We can only turn to speculation at this point. Yet the more popular belief among the Bikolanos is the belief that sin or human transgression is the main cause of disasters.

The word “dawat” for instance, refers to a sudden thunderstorm which causes flashfloods.The Dawat, according to older Bikolanos, is caused by incest and that God brings the dawat to punish the sinners/offenders. Dawat is most probably a pre-Spanish word, documented by Marcos de Lisboa in his 1754 dictionary, 182 years after the colonisation of Bikol, but still very much used today to refer to very strong and sudden rains. Disasters in the context of the dawat are directly sent by God, giving us the impression that man is intimately (metaphysically in this case) linked to weather perturbations, in which transgressions of a religious law, breaking of taboo, or committing sin, upsets the natural order, or perhaps a divine order.

This sin-disaster connection is most evident in the beliefs surrounding the traslacion procession of Our Lady of Peñafrancia. Every 2nd Friday of September, the image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, lovingly called by the Bikolanos as “Ina”, is transferred from the Basilica Minore to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Naga City, by procession carried by thousands of men. It is the common belief by Catholic Bikolanos that a slow procession, or if the image is damaged in that procession, perhaps a torn “manto” or cloak, missing crown or aureole, would mean a bad year of typhoons ahead. This connection of the image to weather, most especially rain, is especially evident whenever it rains during the processions (both traslacion and the 9th day of the novena fluvial procession). People the processions, devotees most especially, would welcome the light rain saying it is a “blessing” from Ina.

On the morning of August 15, 1981, the miraculous image was stolen from her shrine. The entire region was shocked by the news and people could not believe that such a sacrilegious act could happen. A little over a year later, however, the region rejoiced over the finding of the image. On September 8, 1982, at the height of Typhoon Ruping in Bikol, it was transported from Manila to Naga in a caravan, and some said the rain over Naga miraculously stopped when a mass was finally said in the Metropolitan Cathedral. Such connection of faith to natural disasters forms part of the Bikolano psyche. The “dawat” and the transgression-disaster connection in the Peñafrancia devotion illustrates negative actions being “punished”, but prayers against natural disasters form the other side of this illustration, positive actions through supplications and oblations are rewarded.

The “Oratio Imperata” is a set of Roman Catholic invocative prayers which the local ordinary or prelate of the church may publicly pray when a grave need or calamity occurs. In imminent dangers, like an approaching typhoon in Bikol, an Oratio Imperata is prayed by the community, often with an “Awrora” or dawn procession of the image of Peñafrancia or our Lady of Salvation in most areas of Albay. In most towns, the image of the Divino Rostro (the face of Jesus) is also processed because of the belief that it once spared Bikol from the “cholera morbo” of 1882. Below is an example of an “Oratio Imperata ad Repellendam Tempestates atque Calamitates” approved by the Diocese of Legaspi:

Amang makakamhan, iniitaas mi ang samong mga puso

sa pagpapasalamat huli kan mga nangangalasan kan Saimong linalang,

huli kan Saimong pangataman sa pagtao Mo

kan samong mga pangangaipo digdi sa daga,

asin huli kan Saimong kadunongan na nag-aantabay

kan lakaw kan bilog na kinaban.

Inaako mi na nagkasala kami Saimo asin sa kapalibutan.

Dai mi nasabotan asin naotob an Saimong kabotan na atamanon an kinaban.

An kapalibutan nagsasakit huli kan samong mga salang gibo,

Asin ngonyan namamatean mi na

An pagdusang-balik kan samong pag-abuso asin kapabayaan.

Padagos an labi-labing pag-init kan kinaban.

Huli kaini naglalawig an tig-initan; nagdadakul asin nagkukusog an mga bagyo, uran, baha, pagtuga kan bulkan, asin iba pang mga natural na calamidad.

Dai kaming mabibirikan kundi Ika, mamomoton na Ama.

Sa saimo kami minahagad nin kapatawaran kan samong mga kasalan.

Ilikay mo kami, an samong mga namomotan, asin mga pagrogaring

Sa peligro nin mga calamidad, natural man o kagibohan nin tawo.

Antabayan Mo kaming magtalubo na magin mga responsableng Paraataman kan saimong linalang.

Asin mga matinabang na parasurog kan kapwang nangangaipo.

Huli ki Kristo, samong Kagurangnan.

Amen.

V- Nuestra Señora de Salvacion

R- Ipamibi mo kami.

Almighty Father, we raise our hearts to You in gratitude

for the wonders of creation of which we are part,

for Your providence that sustains us in our needs, and

for Your wisdom that guides the course of the universe.

We acknowledge our sins against You and the rest of creation.

We have not been good stewards of Nature.

We have confused Your command to subdue the earth.

The environment is made to suffer our wrongdoing,

and now we reap the harvest of our abuse and indifference.

Global warming is upon us. Typhoons, floods, volcanic eruption,

and other natural calamities occur in increasing number and intensity.

We turn to You, our loving Father, and beg forgiveness for our sins.

We ask that we, our loved ones and our hard-earned possessions

be spared from the threat of calamities, natural and man-made.

We beseech You to inspire us all to grow into

responsible stewards of Your creation,

and generous neighbors to those in need.

Through Christ, our Lord.

Amen.

V- Our Mother of Salvation.

R- Pray for us.

The Oratio Imperata is not a permanent religious recitation, but rather only for used for a short period of time of need. The prayers are often recited post-communion or after the conclusion or final benediction of the Holy Mass. The Oratio Imperata, becomes then a reverse of the sin-disaster association, where a sin is punished by a storm. It is effectively, storming heaven with prayers.

Other stories abound in Albay and Camarines Sur. The wedding of “animistic” belief and Catholicism is evident in the story of the Calpi tree which became the wood for the images of Our Lady of Salvation (now in Joroan, Tiwi, Albay), Our Lady of Solitude (in Buhi, Camarines Sur) and St. Anthony of Padua (Nabua, Camarines Sur)[34]. The story goes that on a certain day while Mariano Dacuba, a tenant of Don Silverio Arcilla, was clearing the land, he chopped off a big Calpi tree[35]. But there was something about it: already severed from the base for many hours it maintained its life and freshness. Suddenly it occurred to him to bring it personally to Buhi. He informed Don Silverio about it and the latter consulted with the Friar Pastor. In Buhi this time lived a sculptor by the name Bagacumba. He had him summoned for the possibility of carving an image from the wood. Indeed three images were produced: Our Lady of Salvation, Our Lady of Solitude and St. Anthony of Padua. But the story does not end there. In the town of Buhi, surrounding the lake of Buhi, it was said by the townspeople that the sculptor Bagacumba threw some of the unused woods from the Calpe tree, and is said to float  in a specific part of the lake to warn people of impending calamities like typhoons. Some of the old people of Buhi are still able to point at this exact location in the lake.

Stories such as this point to supernatural connections with the natural. The Calpe tree, for instance is thought to be miraculous, even when it was still a tree, but human hands transformed the tree to statues that became symbols, windows to the divine, sharing the access to this tree’s power. And yet the leftover wood still retained its “nature”  and hence its connection to the natural (i.e. warning people of typhoons). Man is not passive in this cosmology, not just a recipient of punishments or rewards, but an active actor in nature, and the supernatural. Access to supernature is acquired, that is as a gift (the Calpe tree), as a purchase (palaspas), or through the performance of appropriate acts (Oratio Imperata).

A dormant force, Onos, lies sleeping, but men learned to quell it with supplications, obligatory prayers, even talismans (in the form of the “palaspas”). It is never fully mastered yet there is the understanding that a certain connection between men and the realm of storm gods, the wielders of the powers of weather and earth, is present and available. Even Bikolano children pray to the Sto. Niño during earthquakes, praying that the child Jesus would hold the globe firmly in his hand – evidence of this connection and hence, communication.

These beliefs, others would say superstitions, may perhaps be forms of adaptation to forces that people barely understand by making sense of these mysterious physical forces in the language and images they recognize.

Conclusion

Although the precise meaning of the word fatalism changes across cultures and religions, it can be linked with people‘s propensity to believe that their destinies are ruled by an unseen power – Fate – rather than by their will. Hence, fatalism can undermine the confidence in the link between effort and disaster preparedness.

The concept of fatalism has been central to the development of religious and philosophical thought. Of course, this is not surprising because the question of whether or not our destinies are under our control is at the root of our thoughts and has shaped our cultural evolution.

In this sense, we may doubt the supposed fatalistic attitude of the people of Albay. It is easy to assume that a people in poor socio-economic conditions exposed to severe hazards in a hostile environment have a tendency for fatalism, a “bahala na” attitude in terms of disaster preparedness. Over the years, local government initiatives have shown a more proactive stance in mitigation and adaptation. Yet, this is in the realm of the state. What happens in the household or in the individual is still very much moored in belief (or perhaps faith) that is oftentimes confused with fatalistic attitudes.

The narratives presented show that “communing”, meaning a direct link, to this “Onos” force or perhaps to the “owners” of these natural forces is possible, and even to mediate or negotiate with these force/s. It is directly linked in faith – the supposed power, and not the powerless-ness of fatalism, to avert disasters. 

One may confuse this faith to being passive, waiting for the typhoon to strike them down, all the time praying for salvation. We should not forget the people of Cagsawa who run to the church during the 1814 eruption of Mayon, believing they would be spared in the sacred space of the church. Developing resilience and resistance requires knowledge of disasters and risks. It must be clear that in any effort for risk reduction and disaster preparedness in Albay, there must be the understanding that efforts will not start at zero, at some fatalistic population. Innate in the culture of the people is the will to live, to survive, to preserve oneself against calamities – and this is exactly the capital for local initiatives. The Albayanos want to live, even in this most perilous of places.

The Bikolanos’ faith, if we may call it that, has no room for fatalism. Only when faith in a higher being recedes does fatalism take over. This is not the case in the Albayanos of Bikol. In essence, faith causes us to press in, seek, and overcome – fatalism causes us to give up. Faith inspires hope while fatalism offers only fear.

References

Albay Province Website, http://www.albay.gov.ph, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

Andal, Eric et. al., “Characterization of the Pleistocene Volcanic Chain of the Bicol Arc, Philippines:      Implications for Geohazard Assessment” in TAO, Vol. 16, No. 4, 865-883, October 2005.

Bankoff, Greg. Cultures of Disaster: Society and Natural Hazard in the Philippines, London: RoutledgeCurzon (2003).

Bicol Mail, Albay registers poorest economic performance in http://www.bicolmail.com/2012/?p=8279, retrieved on January 27,2014.

Bicol Today, Bicol poverty remains high despite growth of regional economy in http://bicoltoday.com/2013/07/30/bicol-poverty-remains-high-despite-growth-of-regional-economy/#sthash.yE5khzvg.dpuf, retrieved on January 28, 2014.

Bruner, Edward. “Introduction” in Anthropology of Experience, Victor Turner and Edward Bruner (eds), Chicago: University of Illinois Press (1986).

Bureau of Agricultural Statistics, Regional Profile: Bicol in http://countrystat.bas.gov.ph/?cont=16&r=5, retrieved on January 28, 2014.

Department of Finance, DEPARTMENT ORDER No. 23-08 July 29, 2008.

Department of Science and Technology – Region V, Albay Profile in http://region5.dost.gov.ph/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=11&Itemid=9, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

Espinas, Agnes. “Geography and Public Planning: Albay and Disaster Risk Management” in Human Development Network Discussion Paper Series, PHDR Issue 2012/2013 No. 4.

Jones, Lindsey et. al., The geography of poverty, disasters and climate extremes in 2030, UK: Overseas Development Institute (2013).

Mintz, Malcolm W. and Britanico, Jose. Bikol-English Dictionary, Quezon City: New Day Publishers (1985).

National Economic Development Authority Bicol, Bicol Rehabilitation in http://www.neda5.net/rehab_plan/extent_damages.htm retrieved on January 25, 2014.

National Statistical Coordination Board, “Philippine Standard Geographic Codes, Province of Albay” in http://www.nscb.gov.ph/activestats/psgc/province.asp?provcode=050500000&regCode=05&regName=REGION+V+%28Bicol+Region%29, retrieved on January 25, 2014.

National Statistical Coordination Board, “The Province of Albay” Overview of the Region. Makati City, Philippines: 2014.

Padua, Michael. Typhoon Climatology in http://weather.com.ph/typhoon/climatology, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

Provincial Government of Albay, Disaster Risk Reduction Management Plan, (2009), 13.

Rolando P. Orense Orense, Rolando P. and Ikeda, Makoto. “Damage Caused by Typhoon-Induced Lahar Flows From Mayon Volcano, Philippines” in Soils and Foundations by the Japanese Geotechnical Society, Vol. 47. No. 6, 1123-1132, December 2007.

Romero, Segundo. A Permanent Disaster Risk Management Office: Visible, Measurable Impact over the Years. Albay Provincial Government in Building Resilient Communities: Good Practices in Disaster Risk Management, Oxfam Great Britain (2008).

Turner, Victor. “Dewey, Dilthey and Drama: an Essay in the Anthropology of Experience” in Anthropology of Experience, Victor Turner and Edward Bruner (eds), Chicago: University of Illinois Press (1986).


[1] National Economic Development Authority Bicol, Bicol Rehabilitation in http://www.neda5.net/rehab_plan/extent_damages.htm retrieved on January 25, 2014.

[2] David Michael V. Padua, Typhoon Climatology in http://weather.com.ph/typhoon/climatology, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

[3] Greg Bankoff, Cultures of Disaster: Society and Natural Hazard in the Philippines, London: RoutledgeCurzon (2003), 37.

[4] “God will take care of us.”

[5] “God will show mercy.”

[6] National Statistical Coordination Board, “Philippine Standard Geographic Codes, Province of Albay” in http://www.nscb.gov.ph/activestats/psgc/province.asp?provcode=050500000&regCode=05&regName=REGION+V+%28Bicol+Region%29, retrieved on January 25, 2014.

[7] Department of Finance, DEPARTMENT ORDER No. 23-08 July 29, 2008.

[8] National Statistical Coordination Board, “The Province of Albay” Overview of the Region. Makati City, Philippines: 2014.

[9] Rolando P. Orense and Makoto Ikeda, “Damage Caused by Typhoon-Induced Lahar Flows From Mayon Volcano, Philippines” in Soils and Foundations by the Japanese Geotechnical Society, Vol. 47. No. 6, 1123-1132, December 2007.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Agnes Espinas, “Geography and Public Planning: Albay and Disaster Risk Management” in Human Development Network Discussion Paper Series, PHDR Issue 2012/2013 No. 4.

[12] Eric S. Andal, et. al., “Characterization of the Pleistocene Volcanic Chain of the Bicol Arc,

Philippines: Implications for Geohazard Assessment” in TAO, Vol. 16, No. 4, 865-883, October 2005.

[13] Global Volcanism Program, Mayon in http://www.volcano.si.edu/volcano.cfm?vn=273030, retrieved January 27, 2014.

[14] Ibid., Bulusan in http://www.volcano.si.edu/volcano.cfm?vn=273010, retrieved January 27, 2014.

[15] Ibid., Pocdol Mountains in http://www.volcano.si.edu/volcano.cfm?vn=273020, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

[16] Albay Province Website, www.albay.gov.ph, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

[17] Agnes Espinas, 4-7.

[18] Bicol Mail, Albay registers poorest economic performance in http://www.bicolmail.com/2012/?p=8279, retrieved on January 27,2014.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Bicol Today, Bicol poverty remains high despite growth of regional economy in http://bicoltoday.com/2013/07/30/bicol-poverty-remains-high-despite-growth-of-regional-economy/#sthash.yE5khzvg.dpuf, retrieved on January 28, 2014.

[21] Department of Science and Technology – Region V, Albay Profile in http://region5.dost.gov.ph/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=11&Itemid=9, retrieved on January 27, 2014.

[22] Espinas, 21.

[23] Bureau of Agricultural Statistics, Regional Profile: Bicol in http://countrystat.bas.gov.ph/?cont=16&r=5, retrieved on January 28, 2014.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Lindsey Jones, et. al., The geography of poverty, disasters and climate extremes in 2030, UK: Overseas Development Institute (2013), viii.

[26] Segundo Romero, A Permanent Disaster Risk Management Office: Visible, Measurable Impact over the Years. Albay Provincial Government in Building Resilient Communities: Good Practices in Disaster Risk Management, Oxfam Great Britain (2008), 6.

[27] Espinas, 9.

[28] Romero.

[29] Provincial Government of Albay, Disaster Risk Reduction Management Plan, (2009), 13.

[30] Victor Turner, “Dewey, Dilthey and Drama: an Essay in the Anthropology of Experience” in Anthropology of Experience, Victor Turner and Edward Bruner (eds), Chicago: University of Illinois Press (1986), 33.

[31] Edward Bruner, “Introduction” in Anthropology of Experience, Victor Turner and Edward Bruner (eds), Chicago: University of Illinois Press (1986), 6.

[32] Put afterwards into Spanish by Melendreras in Ibal, a 400-page manuscript in verse on the ancient custom of the Indios of Albay, its sixty-stanza portion was later included in a treatise on the Bicol Region by Castaño in 1895 as un pequeño fragmento inedito en verso. But because no credit was given to Melendreras by Castaño in the work, students of the Ibalong have since presumed that it was recorded and translated by Castaño himself.

[33] Malcolm W. Mintz and Jose Britanico, Bikol-English Dictionary, Quezon City: New Day Publishers (1985).

[34] Nabua, Buhi (in Camarines Sur) and Tiwi (in Albay) are adjacent municipalities.

[35] A kind of a citrus.

In the Waters of Sulu

We boarded MV Trisha Kerstin 2 departing from Zamboanga to Bongao, yesterday at 4 in the afternoon. We were told that we set sail at 7 in the evening, but due to a ‘steering problem’ we departed Zamboanga at 3 in the morning. Not a very good experience for a first-timer. But surprisingly, passengers never complained, as if it was to be expected – When in Rome… Well, in Zamboanga, expect the unexpected and remember to keep a cool head.

I woke up this morning to a stunning view of Basilan and other islands, the gentle sun peeking from the low hills. From our vantage point, it looks like only one island, but the stacked-up hues of blue betrays the illusion. One man pointed to an area and said it was Malamawi. Oh, the names of these islands smell of adventures and ancient tales! 

Breakfast was spartan. A cafeteria sells hot water and cup noodles. We bought our noodles and bread in Zamboanga, so we only had to buy hot water for 50 pesos. I noticed the ship’s plan posted in the cafeteria and realized it’s a Japanese cargo ship, intended to transport vehicles. MV Trisha, of course, was modified: another floor here, bunkers there, and cots everywhere on the 2nd and 3rd floors, the first reserved for cargoes. 

It is a Babel here. Languages I’ve heard are Tausug, Sama, Bisaya, Tagalog. I have yet to find a Bikolano so we can add our language to that list. Include also chicken, goat and dog talks. To pass the time, I noticed that people resort to smoking, talking with strangers, staring at one point in the horizon, sleeping, watching a movie, and more sleeping. It’s easy to strike a conversation. Choose a random stranger, ask something, and maybe out of boredom or sheer friendliness, the other would gladly open a conversation with you. The hard accented Tagalog is hard to understand at first, but I survived. I find it dangerous to talk about certain topics though. A stranger asking your views on politics, the Zamboanga Siege, or your opinions on Nur Misuari, is best to be avoided. 

Entering the waters of Sulu, one cannot miss the number of boats fishing for sardines, tamban. Our last count puts them to 44. Large nets trawl schools of sardines and I can’t help but wonder how fishing in this area is being regulated. Over-fishing is a possibility. 

MV Trisha passed right in front of ‘Lupah Sug’, Jolo, Sulu. Although quite far, I noticed it is a sprawling community. A large mosque with 4 minarets cannot be missed by the eyes. Several mountains, extinct volcanoes perhaps, tower the island. My companion, a Sama from Laminusa, pointed at Bud Daho, site of a terrible massacre of an entire community in 1906. Surrounding the main island are several other smaller islets with dazzlingly white beaches. Some inhabited, some not. In one islet, a community enjoys the white beach right at their front doors. On closer inspection, the architectural design of their houses are uniquely theirs, supported by stilts with their roofs like 2 trapezoids on top of one another. To the right and left of this community, long stretches of white sand beaches tempt an eager soul passing by in his old, heavily-converted Japanese ship. 

Before reaching the waters of Tawi-Tawi, our friend pointed at 3 island to the left side of ship. He said that in between the islands of Tara and Siasi is Tara Strait, where legends say a snake and a Sarinaga (dragon) fought. One island was cut into two because of that fight, and until now signs of that battle can still be seen in the area. I can only dream of collecting stories such as this to share with the children. Tell them of our heritage, our treasures of identities. 

We have just entered the waters of Tawi-Tawi, but we still have 5 more hours before reaching Bongao. On our right, another string of islets seating on turquoise water beckons – here on the edges of our country, beauty needs no announcements, she is a revelation.

5:40 pm, October 15 aboard MV Trisha Kerstin 2

Notes on Peace: In Ciudad de Sambuwangan

The rugged coastline came into view as we approached the airport of Zamboanga City, Sambuwangan to the ancient Sama people. This was only my second time to visit this city. The first time was a quick stopover as we transitted for Tawi-Tawi. But this second visit, only days after the ‘Zamboanga Siege’ and with the city still trying to salvage itself from the trauma of those days, brings out various emotions in me. 

Down below us, as we neared land, houses on stilts grew larger, ships lining the coast calls eager young men and women to a better life perhaps in Sabah, while flooded houses also grew more vivid – reminding the plane’s passengers of yet another recent calamity that hit the city.

I searched within me, if I’ve come prepared. Have I read enough materials on this siege? How much do I know of the ethnic diversity in the area, to better understand the situation? How sensitive am I to woundedness? Will anyone be ever really prepared to face such monsters as trauma and grief?

I joined a group from the Ateneo de Davao’s Al Qalam Institute of Islamic Identities and Dialogue to map out the network of collaborators in the Sulu Zone which includes Zamboanga City, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. The institute’s aim is to train people from these communities to be peace advocates among their people. I feel really blessed that I am part of this project, even if only in the beginning stages, because this area sorely needs such intervention. I am of the belief that peace in this area is possible, but people from the community must first understand the different circumstances, contexts and present conditions prevailing in the Sulu Zone and beyond it. Peace works, as I understand it must not take on an attitude of imposition, a top-down business that relies heavily on imperial Manila, driven by it’s own notions and prejudices. Instead peace works must take on a participatory approach that depends on a community’s aspirations, narratives, and worldviews. The community itself must aspire and work for it. It may take years, with our generation not seeing its fruition, but at least we rest in the assurance that we haved sowed the seeds of lasting and inclusive peace.

Our group has come to the city of Zamboanga when its wounds have barely healed. Bienvenidos a Ciudad de Zamboanga! declares a poster in its airport, but a heavy sigh is perceptible, as audible as a wall riddled by bullet holes. Scars of the tragedies are palpable: several houses have hung the Philippine flag to show support to the Government Forces, several Sama Dilaut families stranded with their boats parked in one boulevard because their houses are no more, stories of the siege and floods fill hotel lobbies, thousands still in evacuation centers around the city, a mandatory 10:00 pm to 5:00 am curfew, and of course, one will not miss the army men in the city who have become as ubiquitous as dust in a library. It is almost like martial law is in effect. But never have I been more emotional when we finally set foot in barangay Sta. Barbara, ‘ground zero’ of the Zamboanga Siege. 

The morning of October 13, we were invited by Fr. Bert Alejo, SJ to attend what I understood only as just a repainting of a mosque damaged during the siege. I was partly surprised when we were blocked by a group of military, asking us of our purpose in Sta. Barbara. It turned out that the whole area, including Rio Hondo and Sta. Catalina have been cordoned off, quarantined. We had to call Fr Bert while he in turn let the secretary of Zamboanga Mayor Beng Climaco talk to the officer for us to finally enter the area. 

The silence was the first to hit me. It was eerily pregnant in the mid-morning sun. Conversations were hushed and only greetings of welcome from friends punctuate the silence. The mosque, as it turned out, was riddled by bullet holes, its minaret, where two female snipers of the MNLF were positioned, turned into a coarse sieve. ‘Riddled, ‘ I surmised was such an apt word after all. Instead of just ‘being perforated,’ the minaret was a real riddle, an enigmatic piece of that mosque, a riddle of what transpired on September, piercing the sky, perhaps even asking the heavens for answers.

As we gathered together on the rooftop of the Sta. Barbara Mosque sharing that same indifferent morning heat, I felt the unmistakable collective aspiration to rebuild, not just infrastructures but most importantly, relations. Speeches were made, allusions to light conquering darkness were referred to, calls to unity were pronounced, God was called to bear witness and give guidance. Are these not the same pronouncements and prayers of the other group, of the ‘enemy’? I had to make sense of the senseless-ness, if I can. If anyone can.

Several groups joined in the symbolic act of repainting the mosque’s minaret. And as a symbol, several interpretations may be presented: reconciliation of Muslims and Christians, mending the gaps between the two religions, or the conquering of a bitter chapter in the city’s history. A fitting symbol indeed, if we also consider the fact that the mosque was named after a Christian saint.

Perhaps we can also reflect on the name Barbara, from the Greek Barbados and Arabic Al-Barbar referring to foreigners or ‘barbarians’. Who is the real foreigner in Sambuwangan/Zamboanga when Sama, Sama Dilaut, Tausug, Chavacano, Bisaya and other groups call it home? Perhaps the damaged minaret calls us to reflect on how we exclude or marginalize the other, and how this othering has caused so many wounds among our people.

I want to end my reflections on that day with an experience in Fort Pilar.

I went in line to touch the cross near the altar at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pilar. I observed several devotees in the line pointing to a bullet hole in a cement vase. A mother with her child was in front of me and the mother explained to the child that it was a bullet hole from the fighting in September. The child stared at it for several seconds, and I can only begin to imagine the images that passed by his wondering eyes. How many people, on their way to touch the sacred image, saw that same bullet hole and what it represents, and prayed, really prayed for peace?

Teaching Peace, Developing Tolerance, Instilling Sensitivity

I grew up in an extremely pious Catholic city. Every year, thousands of devotees gather in Naga City to show their love to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, bringing with them a multitude of thanksgivings and prayer-requests to Ina. The festivity during the nine-day novena itself has become a cultural icon, the celebrations referring to the city while the city prides in being the steward of this devotion – Pueblo amante de Maria. But looking in retrospect, with me now immersed for two and a half years in the cultures and struggles of Mindanao, I found myself asking questions on religious tolerance and sensitivity, of challenging my worldview as a Taga-Naga Catholic and to reflect on the level of tolerance given to non-Catholics in and around Naga. How, for instance, are we portraying our pagan past in performances like street dancings during the Peñafrancia festival? How much space is provided for the narratology of non-believers in the public discourses? How are we excluding non-Catholics when we institutionalize such religious events? I believe such questions must be addressed in pedagogy.

Developing a curriculum and reforming methods of instruction with a particular sensitivity to diversity in cultures and religions in the Philippine context is an imperative in promoting peace and in pursuing a society marked with respect and acceptance of the ‘otherness’ of the other.

We are in a point in our educational history when great leaps and bounds are being done not only in the adding of two years in Basic Education but also of reforms being done in curriculum and classroom instruction. This is also an opportune time to integrate subject matters or topics relating to peace, and in amending certain topics that have been deemed passé, obsolete or culturally insensitive. Methods of instruction in the classroom must also be changed to cater to more and more plural ethnicities, backgrounds and religions of the students.

For instance, in teaching Grades 6 and 7, a crucial time for transforming attitudes and biases of students, greater emphasis on multiculturalism can be done. This includes, among other things, the use of literary samples from the different ethnolinguistic groups of the Philippines in teaching Values Education or in other suitable subjects. In English subjects, literature tends to lean in favor of English writers and Western categories of literature when in fact, there is a treasure chest full of literary gems from the Indigenous Communities which may be carefully translated to English without losing its soul, and not packaged in a Western literary category, but as it is. In this way, students may be able to appreciate the diversity of cultures, and also, of worldviews in the Philippines. 

Religious intolerance may be corrected by choosing carefully the topics, examples and methods of instruction. Students must be given the freedom to express their beliefs in projects, or written compositions, without feeling betrayed by the prejudices in the textbooks or the way the teacher delivered the lesson. This point begs an example. The ‘Moro-Moro’, (which in fact was a type of theater in several Luzon areas) for instance, as a type of Philippine theater play may not be omitted on textbooks but instead used as a jump-off point for students’ personal reflection on their attitudes towards Muslims – a movement towards conscientization that can be strengthened in higher year levels. 

It must also be clear, in the development of curriculum, to refrain from generalizing that the wars in Mindanao have been caused by the gaps in the relationship of Muslims and Christians when in fact, several studies have already concluded that the hardening of ethnic and religious identities were the consequences, and not the causes of conflicts in Mindanao. Students must be given input on the political and socio-economic conditions of Mindanao to better understand how conflicts are triggered and identities mustered in wars. This can be iterated in the Social Science subject and emphasized on Values Education.

How do we teach the ‘Mindanao Problem’ to students outside Mindanao who have never been directly impacted by the many challenges in Mindanao? By putting Mindanao right at their doorstep. I, for one, am a product of an educational upbringing where Mindanao seems to be so far off from my own community. By bringing into the fore how this ‘Problem’ directly and indirectly impacts on the students’ own community, a better interest might be attained. By giving emphasis on Mindanao’s indispensable contribution to statehood and nationhood, ranging from contributions on cultural diversity to economy and contributions to the nation’s collective symbols and narratives, Mindanao becomes a bedfellow to the student who lives in a mountain community in Camarines Sur. 

Instilling sensitivity of the other requires that we move out of the tribalistic frame of mind that is often characteristic of many groups here in Mindanao. This pervading tribalistic attitude is marked by insensitivity to non-members of the ‘tribe’ or group and shuts any sense of the pursuit of the common good, and takes personal and tribal affronts to wars and violence against this ‘other’. It fences in the ‘tribe’ away from the nation and away from the global world, taking into consideration the good of the tribe or even in some instances, only the private, individual good. This lack of the sense of the common good, of this ‘my tribe’ attitude needs to addressed as one of the primary causes of conflicts in Mindanao. A Sama Banguingui youth, for example, can identify his or her role in a globalized world, or identify his or her contribution to nation building. This must be addressed not only in education but also in agencies working for the development of Mindanao like the Mindanao Development Authority. Public interests, the summation of interests of those individuals comprising Mindanao is imperative in any development plans, of which education holds a key role. By addressing the dearth of the sense of the common good in education and development plans, we can imagine a movement from the tribal good and on to a good that serves the nation (or even nation/s in the context of Mindanao) and the global world, which ultimately, serves the community.

A change in attitude is required of every citizen, most particularly the young, if ever this is to be achieved. Here the emphasis is on education, the right kind of education, with its core deeply rooted in forming culturally-, peace-, and environment-sensitive citizens not just of the immediate community but also of the nation and the global world who sees him/herself in the web of human relations. This is an education that is not cold-hearted but is committed to the ethics of care, valuing the other not because he or she is a victim of injustice, but because the other is valuable per se.

On Anthropologists and Ethnic Conflicts

The traditional domain of the Anthropologist has been the small community, often in what has been coined as “indigenous peoples,” while his ethnography and holism in analyzing phenomena are his tools-of-the-trade that enable him to understand the “understanding of the other”. At present, there has been an increased interest in the social sciences in the study of conflicts and violence both in small communities (i.e. skirmishes among tribes) and larger states, nations or sub-cultures (e.g. Shia vs. Sunni in the Middle East). This has led to the mainstreaming of conflict studies in Anthropology especially because of how anthropologists, equipped with the holism of the discipline, are able to look at the many facets of the conflict from its emergence to a, hopefully, successful conciliation between the opposing sides. The study of conflict and violence has been greatly influenced by the wars of the 20th century that saw in its wake great atrocities to humanity ranging from genocide to unconscionable aggression against the weak. This evolution of the discipline in synch with the great movement of History(ies), has led to the invaluable contribution of anthropology to the understanding of conflict between differing cultural groups.

Rye Barcott in his article for Survival: Global Politics and Strategy entitled Marine Experiences and Anthropological Reflections gives an insightful peek at a US Marine’s experience in ethnic conflicts and a reflexive take in trying to understand the conflicts in Bosnia, Kenya and Iraq with an anthropological lens. Barcott is an advocate of Participatory Development which seeks to engage local populations in development projects, which he explicated in It Happened on the Way to War, and is very clearly advocated in the Survival article: “Those small and great acts become part of the discourse that fosters tolerance and reconciliation” and “Provided it remains rooted in the community, it will continue for generations to come”.[1]

Barcott, talking about ethnic conflicts and the role of the anthropologist in such events, invoked at the beginning of his article the statement of the American Anthropological Association adopted in June 1999 which among other things, “opposes suppression of diversity by powerful states of factions and denounces claims by such entities of superior cultural values, which may lead to ethnic cleansing (the attempt to create an ethnically homogenous land by removing people with distinct cultural identities.”[2] He further explained the role of the anthropologist in ethnic conflicts:

Anthropologists’ close contact with cultures and groups can lead them to identify flash points of emerging strife. They can contribute to diplomacy, especially at the local and community levels, where their fieldwork places them to work closely with relevant factions. They can contribute to healing processes, such as truth and reconciliation projects…

An addition here, perhaps is how the holism of anthropology helps in framing the conflict by recognizing the different kinds of ethnic settings, putting into consideration different factors: demographic patterns and ethnic geography; pre-colonial and colonial legacies; the histories, fears, and goals of ethnic groups in the country; economic factors and trends; and regional and international influences. In this sense then, the anthropologist is placed at a very important position in preventing, modulating and resolving ethnic conflicts.

Barcott, in Survival, recollected his experiences in Bosnia, Kenya and Iraq as a Marine officer and contemplated at the root causes of ethnic conflicts in these areas. He concluded that, “More often than not, political and economic factors – not primarily religious difference – are deeply involved in instigating ethnic conflict. Yet once ethnic conflict begins, collective identities often are manipulated in ways that intensify and prolong the violence.” This, he added, is where the anthropologist can help in early intervention when the strife is just emerging, and “help prevent conflict by identifying incipient ethnic tensions.” The anthropologist is also in the position to advise political and military leaders “and help then devise and monitor reconciliation efforts.”

In Bosnia, for example, during the civil war that purged regions of certain ethnic groups, Barcott asserted that “protracted ethnic violence makes ethnic identities more rigid and intolerant, and why efforts to reconcile and reintegrate ethnic groups often fail.” This hardening of ethnic identities was in fact a consequence and not a cause of conflict, which goes back to how Barcott described collective identities as malleable, “especially under the pressure of trauma and tragedy.”

This malleability of identities may also be attributed to how, indeed, culture is malleable: “Culture is not static. It is not immutable. It can be transformed and made compatible with other cultures, although doing so might take many years.”[3] This is also how anthropologists can contribute in the on-going processes to solve, or primarily, to understand ethnic conflicts. Transformation in culture is natural and dynamic, which may be seamless or characterized by social upheavals. Identifying creases in these cultural transformations, where potential conflicts may emerge, is another role of the anthropologist.

What is, on the outside, religious violence, in fact must be analyzed in the lenses of culture. Talking about his experience in the US counter-insurgency operations in Iraq, Barcott said that, “we needed better understanding of local sub-cultures, tribal politics and history, not to mention a better understanding of the shifting Iraqi perspectives on the war.” He added, and here we can compare this to the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Oplan Bayanihan operations in Mindanao: “a counter-insurgency is a battle for the support of the local population. If one does not have an adequate grasp of who the local population is and what motivates it, the counter-insurgency is fundamentally flawed.” Again, we are led back by Barcott to his paradigm of participatory development, which leads to joint decision making about what should be achieved and how. While outsiders (Armed Forces) are equal partners in the development effort, the primary stakeholders are primus inter pares, i.e., they are equal partners with a significant say in decisions concerning their lives. Dialogue, facilitated by people who are understand the communities, identifies and analyzes critical issues, and an exchange of knowledge and experiences leads to solutions.

Another familiar picture that Barcott provided are the Kenyan ethnic clashes of 1997 and early 2000.  The 1997 clashes happened in Likoni, Kenya, where police station and outpost were destroyed, along with countless market stalls and offices. Many non-local Kenyans were either killed or maimed, as the raiders targeted LuoLuhya, Kamba and Kikuyu communities. Barcott also described the explosive violence following the December 2007 elections where violent clashes between different ethnic groups happened in Kibera. Yet again, Barcott shared that the hardening of ethnic identities was only a consequence of socio-economic factors: “The protests over rent hikes took on an ethnic character, as many of the landlords self-identified as Nubians while those who were renting and rioting were mostly Luos.” This leads us to the earlier assertion that cultural identity, poverty, secessionist politics, and ethnic violence interrelate, and the anthropologist, in the helm of community fieldwork and informed by the “native viewpoint”, plays a crucial role.

I referred to the Kenyan conflicts as “familiar” because I was reminded of the recent events in Mindanao. The clash between the government forces and the Moro National Liberation Front in Zamboanga City (September 2013), which is characteristically secessionist in the outside, is actually rooted in not only cultural grounds but also socio-economic conditions. The lack of economic opportunities, especially for specific ethnic groups in the area, may be seen as inflaming the horizontal and vertical conflicts. Horizontal conflicts in that instance may be the conflicts between different sub-cultures, Tausug vs. Sama, or Muslim vs. Christian, while vertical conflict is between the MNLF vs. the Government of the Philippines – all interrelating synergistically, compounded many times by this lack of economic opportunities and concentrating in a volatile area in Zamboanga City.

Addressing ethnic conflicts does not have a universal template as each situation and community calls for its unique approach, but how little we know of the culture – behaviors, world views, etc. – deeply impacts on the processes of intervention and reconciliation which may help save lives and the integrity of communities.


[1] Rye Barcott. (2008) Marine Experiences and Anthropological Reflections in Anthropology in Conflict: An Exchange, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 50: 3, 138.

[2] Ibid, 128.

[3] Ibid, 131.

Examining the Vision of Mindanao 2020

The Mindanao 2020 Peace and Development Framework Plan is, in itself, a remarkable attempt at collaboration and clear-sightedness. The document is built on the idea that the situation in Mindanao must be changed and that the problem must be addressed at its roots. But in every development framework, one must ask several questions: 1) Development from what state to what ‘improved’ state? 2) Development for whom? 3) What is the context and definition of development in this framework plan? 4) How do we realize the vision of the development framework plan?

The Mindanao 2020 document provides the context and the present conditions in Mindanao, specifically on the “Where We are Now” section, enumerating several historical key moments, economic points and social conditions. The document asserts, as part of its context that at the heart of the “Mindanao Problem” lies injustice. It specifies that “historical injustices lie at the root of the conflict in Mindanao: from colonization, annexation of the Moro homeland to the Philippine state; a series of government policies that led to the minoritization of the Moro and indigenous inhabitants; and on to newer and various forms of injustice whether real or perceived, coupled with the politics of exclusion and years of neglect have exacerbated these divides that add volatility to the struggle for ancestral domain and self-determination” (p. 19). Truthful, at the least, but overly simplistic, I might add. This is too simplistic that it might lead to a tunnel vision, instead of the 20/20 vision and promise. It might indeed be true that injustice lies at the bottom of the Mindanao Problem, but this too is multi-faceted and must, in my opinion, not be the sole root of this “problem”.

In my 2 years of stay in Mindanao, I have always sensed a pervading tribalism in the many groups calling Mindanao their home. This tribal attitude shuts any sense of common good and takes personal and tribal affronts to wars and violence against the “other”. It fences in the “tribe” away from the nation and away from a global world, taking only into consideration the good of the “tribe” or even in some cases, only the private, individual good. This lack of the common good in the discourse on development works must be one of the problems of Mindanao that needs to be addressed. Public interests, the summation of interests of those individuals comprising Mindanao, is imperative in any development plans – one of such public interests that need to be addressed is the dearth of historical and social justice. Yet with common good, we are also confronted with the tension between the ontological and the practical, the common good as something to be attained at as a convenient construct, without a foundation in reality, or something possible and attainable in which the micro and macro economy should serve. I believe that this can be addressed if we put this issue of the common good in our classrooms, meeting halls and councils.

With common good, we can imagine a movement from the tribal good and on to a good that serves the nation and the global world, and then vice versa. A change in attitude is required if ever this is to be attained, and the promises of development be achieved. Here the emphasis is on education, the right kind of education, I might add, with its core deeply rooted in forming citizens not just of the immediate community but also of the nation and the global world. This is an education that is not cold-hearted but is committed to the ethics of “care”, valuing the other not because he or she is a victim of injustice, but because the other is valuable per se. This caring society, if made as an intrinsic part of any development plan, “would attend to the health of the social relations between its members, rather than promote the nearly boundless pursuit of individual self-interests.”[1]

The development framework of the document is also rooted in very strong neoliberal attitudes, in which it is assumed that the market will take care of the social ills of Mindanao. For instance,opening up Mindanao to extractive industries will only give birth to more conflicts. Streamlining business processes and minimizing transaction costs will not ensure the equitable distribution of wealth. Working on that development phantasm we call “developed world”, where we model every developments to the USA, European countries, or Japan, might not work hand in hand with environmental conservation and IP rights. This challenge also needs to be re-examined.

Overall, Mindanao 2020 is a hopeful package; the vision and promise are written in broad strokes, yet pessimism has a way of creeping in to the shadows of our vision once we go out of boardrooms and out into the villages.


[1] Virginia Held, “The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global”, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Re-imagining the Balyana Priestess in Pre-hispanic Bikol

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This article is an attempt to study the [mga] balyana or priestesses of Bikol and  analyze some of the  names in the epic-fragment of Ibalon and practices of the ancient religion as cited in the Lisboa dictionary (1754). It  features three images/personalities: the Balyana, the Asog and Oryol.

Balyana and Asog

Many would define a priestess as a woman who leads rituals. But there are a range of names and culturally-defined meanings, including shaman, medicine woman, diviner, spirit-medium, oracle, sibyl and wisewoman. There is no sharp division in these categories. The shaman may be a ritual leader, but also a solitary practitioner. The visionary can act as healer, the medicine woman speak prophetically. The ceremonial role of the priestess does not preclude her from entering into trance or shamanic spiritual journeys.

The main sources for the Philippine study of priestesses are manuscripts written by the missionaries upon contact with the inhabitants of our islands. These include the Bolinao, Manila and Visayas Manuscripts, also, writings by Pigafetta, Marcos de Lisboa, and other Spanish writers in the Philippine contact of that century.

Lisboa pointed at the role of the balyana as “priestesses to whom the natives entrusted their religious needs and obligations such as the performance of supplicatory rituals,” indicating the varied roles of this priestess as spirit-medium, healer, ritual-leader and others. The balyanas as many Spanish writers noted were mostly old women.

It is also important to add in this article the position and function of their male counterparts. Carolyn Brewer in her book Holy Confrontation: Religion, Gender and Sexuality in the Philippines, studied the role of transgendered male priests in the Philippines widely known as asog and bayog. The presence of these transvestite priests suggests different theories in anthropology. Two opposing theories are the following: “the third sex/gender group is regarded as being neither male nor female or being a composite of both. It is their ambiguous status which locates them beyond the more conventional sexual and gender dualism of society and becomes a sign associated with the primal creative force.” (Brewer, 1999) And another, one which Brewer asserts is that, “… male shaman’s identification with the feminine either as temporary transvestism or as a more permanent lifestyle choice, reinforced the normative situation of female as shaman, and femininity as the vehicle to the spirit world.”

The “Bolinao Manuscript” is one piece of document that is important in the study of the female role in spirituality during the pre-colonial era as it is a record of 236 Dominican interviews of suspected catalonan, (priestesses in the Pampanga region) most of whom are elderly women. Occurring between 1679 and 1684, the interrogations provide valuable details of the practices and paraphernalia associated with ‘animism’, supplying clear evidence of the persistence of spirit veneration. The document reveals the interactions between individual catalonan and their group bonding as daughters, mothers and grandmother. In this manuscript, there is a suggestion that rather than a complete transgendered existence, the three male shamans in the document (Calimlim 70, Calinog and Mamacuit) dressed in women’s clothes only when they performed the ceremonies for the anitos. (Brewer 1999) This would suggest that these men dressed as women to perform the ceremonies of sacrifice and that the transvestism was seen as a drawing in, or rather an immersion into the realm of the spiritual which was feminine.

Balyana and Oryol

In the Archivo del Bibliofilo Filipino in Spain, a copy of the “Breve Noticia Acerca del Origin, Religion, Creencias y Supersticiones de los Antigous Indios del Bicol” by Wenceslao Retana (1895) can be found; it is an account of the ancient Bikolanos, their origin, superstitions and beliefs, a Spanish translation of an ‘epic-fragment’ later entitled Ibalon. It was written for the Archivo by Fray Jose Castaño, a Fransiscan, then rector of the Colegio de Almagro in Spain. 

The structure of the fragment found is divided into two sections. The first part is a request of Yling, a legendary Bikol name of a magical bird or perhaps representing a group of listeners, seated under the cool shade of a daod tree, to the poet Cadugnong, imploring him/her to sing of the historic events in the realm of Handiong.

The second part is the song of Cadugnung which narrates in poetical verse the events of long ago in a trilogy centered on Baltog, legendary first man and king of the Bikolanos and his two mighty warriors, Handiong and Bantong.

One stanza in the original Spanish of the Bikolano epic-fragment, Ibalon, speaks of the ‘sibilas’ Hilan and Lariong:

Separó del continente

Las isleta de Malbogon

Donde moran las Sibilas

Llamadas Hilan, Lariong.

The same stanza translated in English and Bikol is the following:

A torn part from the mainland formed

The islet known as Malbogon

Where went to live the two witches

Whose names were Hilang and Laryong.

 

Igwang nakasiblag daga na kaputol

Asin pinagapod na purong Malbogong,

Duwang aswang iyong nagerok na lolong

Pinangaranang Hilang asin Laryong.

We take note of the term sibilas in the third line. The word means “sibyl,” and in the modern understanding is defined as “seer”, “clairvoyant”, “spiritualist”, “mystic” and “diviner”. The term is a Greek original and refers to the prophetess of the Hellenic god Apollo in his temples. Although it is not clear how the original writer intended the term to mean, the over-all temperament of the people to supposed sibyls and witches was not positive during the time of the Inquisition (founded in the 12th century for the purpose of exterminating those who held the wrong ideas about religion or heresy). Other indications of the distrust to sibilas and witches were present in writings of that century. Literature of the Inquisition points at witchcraft as arising from female carnality, and “all wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman.” (Kramer and Sprenger, 1971) Laws of the Medieval Church took away most of women’s traditional roles one by one: priestess, midwife, healer, landowner, lawmaker, judge, historian, craftswoman, merchant, record keeper, spiritual advisor, prophet, funerary official, and intermediary between heaven, earth and the underworld.

It is of interest also to note how the translation from the original Spanish evolved. From the Spanish sibilas (sibyls, mystics, seer) to the English “witches” and the bikol “mga aswang”. The term changed in meaning. If the writer of the Spanish version meant it to be witches, the right word to be used was brujas instead of the more polite sibilas as it was the term used that time.

The supposed ‘sibyls’ Hilan and Lariong are important. Ma. Lilia Realubit pointed out that Hilan is a corruption of the Bikol term hilang (sickness) while Lariong is a distortion of lagdong or idols of the anitos which was considered to be the souls of departed ancestors who looked after their living descendants. (Realubit, 1983) We may assume that these sibilas may be balyanas, priestesses that were also parabawi(exorcist), hokluban (witch doctor), mangkukulam (sorcerer) and parabulong (healer/herb doctor). Suggesting that they conceived the source of both therapy and anti-therapy, healing and the power to cause harm and injury, as the same, or issuing from the same source.

Inserted also in the Relacion de las Yslas Filipinas of Pedro Chirino (1582) are the names of Naguined, Macbarubac and Arapayan, described as being “demonios” of Ybalon to which the people pray to and offer crocodile teeth for kulam or anti-therapy. It is of interest to note that the Relacion which was published in 1582 have included the names of the three witches stated in the dictionary of Lisboa which was published in 1794. This would presuppose that the names of these three “demonios” have been known widespread among the Bikolanos.

What surprised me is the name of the first “demonio” Naguined or Nagini (as described by Lisboa) which in India refers to the feminine form of the word Naga or snake beings. Can this be a demonization of the Bikol Nagini[d], displacing the images associated with indigenous religious leaders and divinities transforming them into “demonios” and witches in the conversion project of the Spanish colonizers? Perhaps.

Oryol, the snake woman of the Ibalon epic, and Naguined are connected in this light. The connection of snake and the feminine is mostly in the sense of rhythm and tides. In ancient times, the snake was seen as the earthly counterpart of the moon, which rules the tide of the sea and of women. Women in turn was seen by the primitives as the embodiment of the earth and master of the rhythms, seasons and tides of the earth and the creatures on it.

This is where the character of Oryol in the epic Ibalon finds significance. Three things are important in this discussion: Oryol being a Nagini or a snake being, Oryol as the daughter of Aswang and a killer of men and lastly, Oryol and her supposed fickle-mindedness in the epic Ibalon.

As a snake-woman, she is a Nagini and master of the seasons and the tide – of change. The reader is reminded of how Oryol shifts from a beautiful woman to that of a snake, always luring men to their death in the Higabo spring. (Realubit, 1983) The snake as chthonic, as opposed to telluric (the tilled soil) is the highest symbol of the unknown, of the mysterious, as it lives in caves and the crevasses underground. This association to the woman is important because the woman can be considered as also being chthonic, inward, whose body was seen as a mystery, capable of giving birth like the earth. Oryol as a snake-woman is a symbol, an image of mystery that guides the unseen forces of pregnancy, ebbing and flow of the tide and phallus and the rhythm of planting and harvests so useful to the agricultural Bikolanos of that time.

The story also tells us that Oryol is the daughter of Aswang, god of evil and the brother/sister of Gugurang, chief of the gods. Many have accepted the image of Aswang (the Bikol god and not the nocturnal ‘monster’) as masculine  but it is also possible that Aswang is female, the sister of Gugurang.   Being the daughter of Aswang, one is immediately exposed to an icon of evil. But analyzing how in the rituals the balyana is ambivalent, supplicating Aswang one time and then giving offerings to Gugurang in another, may show how the pre-hispanic Bikolanos viewed evil occurrences as controllable. The balyana in a way becomes a daughter both of Gugurang and Aswang of good (karahayan) and evil (karaotan) or more precisely, light and darkness, an intermediary between the two extremes. Oryol on the other hand, as a symbol of the dark, the night and the dark soil, is an image of the wilderness, the untamed earth in which no man has ever conquered. In a sense, the imagery of her luring men to their deaths may be construed as an initiation, just as the men of Kali, Ishtar, Kore, and other mystery cults have to die symbolically, which means losing a part of themselves, and facing the darkness of the untamed regions of their psyche, in order to emerge as the hero.

But Oryol is also ‘fickle-minded’. The epic states that Oryol sometimes helped Handiong in the killing of wild creatures that roamed Bikol like the Pongos. Only recently, Prof. Zeus Salazar authored a book about an archeological find in Libmanan, Camarines Sur entitled “Liktao at Epiko: Ang Takip ng Tapayang Libingan ng Libmanan, Camarines Sur.” It is interesting to note this research as Salazar asserted an important part of the epic Ibalon, how Oryol ‘changed her mind’ and helped Handiong. The epic-fragment itself is silent on why Oryol changed her mind and later on helped the principal hero Handiong. The said cover of the burial jar (now in the Museum of the Holy Rosary Minor Seminary in Naga) purportedly implies an ancient civilization in Libmanan possibly founded by a Historical Handiong. Important in the argument of Salazar is the part in the artifact where a man seems to be talking to a snake whose left hand is holding a deer, perhaps an offering. Salazar asserted that this was the missing part in the epic where Handiong talked to Oryol.

Salazar writes:

Malinaw na naging batayan ng pagsimula at pag-usbong ng kalinangang Bikolnon ang pagkakasundo nina Uryol at Handiong… Sa pagkakasunod-sunod ng mga pangyayari, naganap ang pakikipaglaban ni Handiong sa mga buwaya at sarimaw bago niya kabakahin ang mga “ahas na may boses na parang sirena” (las serpientes, que tenian/cual la sirena la voz) na kalahi/kampon ni Uryol. Sa katunayan, tila kampon nitong huli hindi lamang ang mga kalahing ahas kunid gayundin ang lahat ng hayop at nilalang sa balat ng lupa at karagatan – kasama ang Usa na sa “epiko” ay tila iginalang ni Handiong simula’t sapul (hindi niya pinagpapatay; sa katunayan, walang nabanggit na Usa sa “epiko.”) Nagmimistulang panginoon ng kahayupan, kakahuyan at lupa si Uryol. Kung kaya’t sa tingin ni Uryol nilapastangan ni Handiong ang kaayusang likas sa rehiyong Bikol nang ito at ang mga Bikol ay dumating at pakialaman dito ang mga hayop at iba pang nilalang, sapul ng kapaligiran/kalikasan. (2004)

The seeming fickle-mindedness of the snake-woman in the Spanish version of the epic is understandable in this light. This conceptualization of Nature-Woman, Snake-Change is parallel to the mystery cults in the western traditions (represented by the cult of Demeter) and eastern traditions (represented by the cult of Kali-Ma). The balyana as an important social figure comparable to the hadi, raha or datu is an embodiment of the power that is symbolically portrayed by Oryol in the epic. As daughter of Aswang, the balyana is also the initiator in the community as she performs the rites of initiation to one stage of human development to the other; From menarche to motherhood, to crone-stage and for men, puberty, adulthood and then death. But not only is the balyana the officiator in these rites, she is also an initiator to the mysteries of life. As daughter of Aswang, she teaches the community to face their fear of death and to accept that evil (karaotan) is an integral part of life.

As snake-woman, the balyana teaches the community of change, of the seasons and the tides and women as the governors of seasonal change, the ebb and flow of water and phallus. Being the officiator in major planting rituals, the community acknowledges her as an embodiment of the seasons (birth, life and rebirth) capable of calling the seeds to grow and the earth to be fertile as her own womb. As snake-woman, she is wild and nubile, the personification of the ancient forests and the fertility of Nature, later on subdued (talked-over as pointed by Salazar) by the civic-minded Handiong, himself a symbol of a different change that foreshadows a great revolution in the culture of the ancient Bikolanos.

The balyana and Oryol relate and connect such heterogenous things as birth, becoming, death and resurrection; the cosmic darkness, prenatal existence, and life after death, followed by a rebirth as seen in the moon. The balyana’s and asog’s rituals were expressions of these experiences. Oryol is the symbol of the earth and the mystery of its transformative powers.

We then wonder how these images were transformed, infused or maybe appropriated in the Bikolano’s devotion to Ina - Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia. How did the Cimarrones, the ‘pagan’ inhabitants of Mt. Isarog, saw and conceived in their minds the stories of the Virgin riding the moon? How did they feel and apprehend their first glimpse of white priests in their skirts? What were the gossips in the village when the Black Virgin, shaped like the distant mountain of Mayon , brought to life a decapitated dog, in the riverbank of Naga (-Nagini)?

[Illustration of the Haliya (done during lunar eclipses) ritual re-imagined by Mr. Pen Prestado]

Sources Cited:

Brewer, Carolyn. (1999). “Baylan, Asog, Transvestism, and Sodomy: Gender, Sexuality and the Sacred in Early Colonial Philippines,” http://wwwsshe.murdoch.edu.au/intersections/issue2/carolyn2.html.

de Lisboa, Marcos. (1754) “Vocabulario de la lengua Bicol”.

Eliade, Mircea. (1961). “The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion,” (New York: Harper & Rows) p. 11.Reyes, Jose Calleja Reyes. (1992) “Bikol Maharlika,” (Manila: JMC Press).

Kramer, Heinrich and Sprenger, James. (1971). “Malleus Maleficarum,” (New York: Dover).

Salazar, Zeus. (2004). “Liktao at Epiko: And Takip ng Tapayang Libingan ng Libmanan, Camarines Sur,” (Quezon City: Palimbagan ng Lahi).