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.


slowly, slowly, the bonsai

slowly, slowly, the bonsai
bending to the will
of iron wires.
out of constant strain:
slowly, slowly creeping
to the big bowl
of freedom in the sky.


Re-imagining the Balyana Priestess in Pre-hispanic Bikol


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,”

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).


The Ash-Covered Moon

the ash-covered moon
bloated and scarred
desires itself
as it smiles
deflated in the ocean.


Isang Pagnilay-nilay sa Butuan: o Kung Bakit Dapat Kumilos ang Lungsod ng Butuan Tungo sa Pagpapahalaga ng mga Nalalabing Liktao

Marahil may manghang nabibighani sa aking loob o ‘di kaya’y isang palaisipan na humahilanang pilit lutasin, kung kaya’t napupuno ako ng sigasig sa tuwing pupunta sa mga lugar kung saan umaalingasaw ang mga labi ng kasaysayan at pati na nang mga lumang anito at diwata, mapa-museo man ito, silid-aklatan o lumang mga simbahan.  Di maikakaila na may sariling kalinangan at kaluluwa ang mga lugar na ito. May mga kwento at sanaysay ang bawat ukit, tipak, at ang unti-unting pagkatunaw ng kanilang mga materyal. Halos maririnig ang bulong ng mga sinaunang tao sa marahang pagkabulok ng mga labi ng liktao dito. Kaya naman sa bawat bagong lugar na aking napupuntahan, mapa-lokal o internasyonal na biyahe man ito, ay dapat na kasama sa gala ang mga museo, mga lumang distrito o lugar ng sambahan sa kanilang bayan. Sa mga lugar na ito kasi ay may hindi maipaliwanag na koneksyon o dis-koneksyon na nagaganap sa ating kamalayan, bilang kasapi man o kaya’y bisita/turista sa bayan.

Higit pa sa isang lakbay-aral, ang byaheng-Butuan ng aming grupo sa Qualitative Research  noong  Disyembre 8 at 9 ay isa ring pagmumulat sa akin. Simple lang ang aking naging repleksyon sa kabuuan ng lakbay-aral: ang yaman ng ating kultura lalo na mga kulturang-materyal, mapa-sinauna man ito o kasalukuyang-likha; ngunit sa isang banda ay ang hirap namang buuhin ang kamalayang magpoprotekta sa mga ito.

Sa isang napakalungkot na ikot ng tadhana, binayo ang mga bayan sa Davao Oriental at Compostela Valley ng napakalakas na bagyong Pablo, isang linggo bago ang aming itinakdang araw ng paglakbay. Dadaanan patungong Butuan ang mga lugar na ito. May mga agam-agam na ring pumasok sa aking isip kung dapat pa bang ituloy o hindi ang nasabing lakbay-aral, ngunit mainam na ring tinuloy ito at mas naging makabuluhan (para sa akin) ang byahe sa gitna ng lalim ng di-makitang sugat na natamo ng mga nasalanta. Bukod kasi sa pag-aaral ng mga nabubulok na liktao sa mga museo, lumagom ang diskurso sa misyon ng akademiya, lalo na ng agham tao, sa pagtuon ng pansin at pagtugon sa kapakanan ng mga taong mahihirap, naaapi, naisasaiwalat, at nakakalimutan, higit pa sa pansariling mga ambisyon. Ang mga wasak na mga bahay, taniman, gusaling pribado o publiko, kagubatan, sambahan, at pati na ang mga tulalang mga mata na nakatingala sa kawalan, ang nagsilbing pambungad at pangwakas na telon sa aming byahe. Pumasok sa isip ko (sa gitna ng Trento at San Franz) ang mga tanong: ‘yung nabubulok na balangay ba ang dapat iahon o ang libo-libong nawalan ng pag-asa at kabuhayan sa taunang mga kalamidad na dumadaan? Ang nakaraan ba o ang hinaharap ang dapat pagtuunan ng pansin?’ O ‘di kaya’y sa parehong pagkakataon ay sadyang napakaikli lang talaga ng ating memorya?

Hindi man pinalad ang aming grupo na makita ang kabuuang koleksyon ng National Museum sa kadahilanang inaayos ang gusali, napakinggan naman namin ang makulay na kasaysayan ng Butuan galing mismo kay Mr. Greg Hontiveros, may akda ng “Butuan of a Thousand Years”. Madarama ang kasalukayang laban ng mga lokal na pantas ng kasaysayan, antropologo at arkeyologo, sa paglikha ng isang naratibong tataguyod sa makabuluhan at dantaong kasaysayan ng Butuan – ang pag-asang mailuklok sa pambansang kamalayan ang unang misa sa Mazzaua (Masao), ang maitaguyod sa mga sulating pangkasaysayan ang progresibong kumunidad ng Butuan bago pa man ang mga Kastila, ang husay sa paggawa ng mga bangkang gamit sa pangangalakal at ang koneksyon sa sinauna at mayamang imperyo ng Majapahit at Sri Vijaya sa kasulukuyang bansa ng Indonesia. Nakakamangha ang mga sanaysay ng mga eksperto ukol sa pambihirang hukay at mga natatagpuang liktao sa Butuan, at mas marami pa nga sa sagot ang mga katanungan na umuusbong sa mga ito. Halimbawa ay ang kontrobersyal na unang misa na sa kasalukuyan ang sinasabing naganap sa Limasawa, Timog Leyte. Nang marinig ko ang mga inisa-isang ebidensya ni Mr. Hontiveros, hindi ko mapigil na mag-taray (kahit na sa loob-loob ko lang) at bumulong ng So what? Ano naman kung malaman natin kung saan idinaos ang unang misa sa kapuluan ng Pilipinas? Hindi ba’t naging kasangkapan lamang ang relihiyong Kristiyano sa pagsakop ng mga Kastila? Mali rin, para sa akin, ang daloy ng argumento ni Mr. Hontiveros na dahil daw sa paparating na anibersaryo ng pagka-Katoliko ng Pilipinas ay kailangang malaman talaga natin kung saan idinaos ito. Siguro kung ganoon nga at gusto nating malaman ang totoo, ang daloy ng argumento ay walang iba kundi ayusin ang maling naisulat, at hindi dahil sa Katolikong bansa tayo o dahil sa isang anibersaryo na magbubukas lamang ng mga pilit nang humihilom na mga sugat na gawa ng koloniyalismo. Wastuhin ang mali. Tapos. (Ngunit kasama na rin marahil dito ang mga tagong agenda ng lokal na pamahalaan para sa isang Mazzaua Festival o slogan na Catholicism begun in Butuan, atbp.) Para kasi sa akin, move on  na tayo sa mga mas importanteng bagay. Maraming mga nakatiwangwang na hukay na dapat pagtuunan ng pansin, mga balangay na dapat iahon, mga kasangkapang paso at ceramic na dapat alagaan, mga kalansay ng ating mga ninuno, mga liktaong kabahin ng ating pagkakakilanlan na unti-unting ninanakaw at kinakalakal sa black market, habang nagbubunong-isip ang mga madunong kung saan nga ba ang Mazzaua ni Pigafetta.

Bilang mga mag-aaral ng agham-tao, nararapat ipaglaban ang dapat, tapat at sapat na pag-alaga, paglinang at pag-aaral sa mga liktaong nahuhukay sa Butuan. Malalim ang ugnayan ng agham tao sa arkeyolohiya sapagkat ang huli ang siyang nagpapakabuluhan ng mga pang-kultura, panlipunan at pisikal na mga katangian ng sinaunang mga tao. Kung ang agham tao ay siyang nag-aaral sa pangkalahatang aspeto ng pagiging-tao, bukod tangi sa mga hayop dahil sa tinatamong kultura, ang paghukay, pagdiskubre at pag-unawa naman sa mga likhang gawa (material culture) ng mga tao ang siyang nagbibigay kahulugan sa ebolusyon ng sangkatauhan at ang mga pagbabagong naganap sa ating pagka-tao. Lahat daw ng mga pag-aaral na napapaloob sa manto ng agham panlipunan ay base sa interpretasyon hindi tulad ng mga positivist na larangang akademiko, kung kaya’t ang pag-unawa at pagpapakubuluhan sa ibang aspeto ng pinag-aaralan ay kadalasang nahahaluan ng mga personal na mga opinyon, haka-haka at paminsa-minsanang hula. Dito pumapasok ang mga liktaong nadidiskubre ng arkeyologo na nagbibigay-linaw at materyal na pruweba sa mga dati’y hinuha lamang. Halimbawa dito ay ang mga nadiskubreng liktao na may disenyong tulad sa mga kulturang Hinduismo at Budismo, na nagbibigay ebidensya sa impluwensiyang banyaga sa katutubong kultura, kahit pa nga may mga tanong na muling humahalina ng kasagutan: ang mga liktao bang ito (Hal. ang ginintuang Tara) ay gawa ng mga katutubo? Ginamit ba ito ng mga sinaunang tao sa kanilang katutubong paniniwala? Ginawa ba ito para ikalakal? Atbp.

Napakayaman sa kasaysayan at napaka-importante ng Butuan sa pagguhit ng ating kolektibong kwentong-bayan bago pa dumating ang mga conquistador at marahil ay marami pang naghihintay sa ilalim ng lupa na magbibigay ng mas malawak na pag-unawa sa ating nakaraan. Ngunit mapapansin ang kawalang suporta ng lokal na pamahalaan at pati na ng kumunidad na nakapaligid sa mga lugar na pinaghuhukayan. Walang karampatang budget na ibinibigay ang pamahalaan sa paghahanap ng iba pang labi o liktao na marahil ay makapagpapatunay ng maraming haka-haka at katanungan ng mga antropologo at historiograpo ukol sa ating mga ninuno. Pati na ang pagprotekta sa mga ito ay isinasantabi at mas binigyang halaga pa ang laban para sa unang misa. Ang Butuan Boat Excavation Sites, halimbawa, ay nakakaawang tingnan sa kasalukuyan nitong kalagayan: nakatiwangwang at napapabayaang nakababad sa putik at tubig, naghihintay ng kung sinong magbibigay ng pera na hindi nalalayo sa kalagayan ng mga namamalimos na lumad sa Davao. Hindi nakapagtataka kung bakit may mga discrepancy  sa mga ginawang carbon dating  sa mga balangay.

Ang kulang ay hindi lamang ang suporta mula sa lokal at pambansang pamahalaan, kundi ang pagpapakubuluhan natin sa ating kasaysayan. Iginuhit ng mga nanakop sa ating mga utak na walang sibilisasyon bago ang kanilang paghari, ngunit heto ang Butuan na nagpapasiwalat sa kanilang kasinungalingan: may mataas na sibilisasyon sa bunganga ng ilog Agusan. Hindi nakapagtataka kung bakit ang ikli ng ating memorya.

[For Photos:]


Decisions, Decisions

I want to start by narrating how I came about my paper for Bro. Karl Gaspar – which has everything to do with what I’m intending to write for my thesis. So permit me to say that writing a paper for one of Mindanao’s intellectual giants, in two days, is a feat that must be recorded by my future biographer. Assuming of course that I become one of the following: a crush ng bayan – world-renowned professor in the level of Clifford Geertz or, a famous artista with 5 million followers in twitter, or a bible-thumping religious leader with a vast mountain getaway in Talomo. No puns intended, just shooting at the moon.

Doing my paper for Bro. Karl Gaspar’s class was especially challenging for me. My original proposal was to do a study on the Naga River and how it becomes a sacred river during the fluvial procession of our Lady of Penafrancia. It was really an exciting subject that picked at my interest as a Bikolano and as a devotee myself. But when Bro. Karl returned my proposal saying that I should rather connect my paper to my thesis, I was not exactly jumping up and down with joy. I was caught in a quandary because my thesis proposal was also turned down, my proposal being an investigation on the T’boli t’nalak enterprise and women empowerment. Dr. Vidal suggested that we do something in line with the Ateneo de Davao University’s environmental anthropology program.

So I was suddenly given two tasks: my thesis proposal and my paper for Bro. Karl.

I decided to stick with the T’boli people and do something in line with climate change. For my thesis, I wanted to examine how the T’boli of Lake Sebu perceives the risks of climate change. It would use ethnographic methods to diagnose how cultural values and beliefs inform the risk perceptions of the T’boli – from understanding how they respond to extreme weather events, to how they plan for an uncertain future driven by climate change. It would also investigate the myths and stories that inform them of severe weather events.

I finally had a very sketchy framework to work on. But when August came, I found myself in the middle of organizing an international meeting in Taipei and attending a Service Learning Program in Jogjakarta. It’s not a walk in the woods, these two. I have to liaise among the different presidents and rectors of the Jesuit universities and colleges in Asia Pacific, organizing a meeting in a location that I’m not familiar with and talking to people in the higher echelons of society, twice, thrice my age!

So I was still left with nothing but this ‘sketchy’ framework. I asked for a two-day extension from Bro. Karl Gaspar, invoking the spirit of ‘cura personalis’ and all the angels and saints. Thankfully, he assented to my implorations. Now, I was back to being virtually a tabula rasa. It was clear though that I wanted to work on the T’boli of Lake Sebu and that it must be connected with the framework I have in mind for my thesis – something that I can go back to when I come to thesis writing. So right there and then (as if the gods decided they would spare some mercy on me, opened up the gates of inspiration), I decided to do a survey of the ancestral domains, especially of the waters in their traditional territory and the condition of those bodies of water. I also wanted to explore the mythos of the T’boli specifically those that have something to do with water. So I came up with a ‘brief survey of people, hydrogeology and expressions of indigenous knowledge’. I called it ‘The Water of the T’boli S’bu,’ just to sound cute, for effect! I was trying to recall Megamind: “it’s all about… Presentation!”

I finally did it. But we were not expected to use any anthropological approaches for this paper yet. We were freshies in the study of anthropology and we, or at least I, haven’t got any clue as to those theories and theorists. It was fortunate though that Fr. DJ de los Reyes requires (actually, compels) us to read primary sources for our ethnography class. Now and then, we get to read anthropological approaches and methods used by these distinguished ethnographers. Reading Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard, we discovered the jewels of functionalism, with Geertz, Douglas and Turner, we digested symbolic and interpretive anthropology. But the latter books really made me take a closer look at the symbolic approach. I thought to myself that this is – should – be my approach for the thesis.

Since I started my paper for Bro. Karl with the water myths of the T’boli, it struck me as edifying when Geertz asserts that “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture as these webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.” This is exactly what I was looking for. This approach, of studying cultural symbols and how they can be interpreted to better understand a particular society, can best help me to understand the rituals, myths and legends of the T’boli, particularly how these inform them about climate change and the risks associated with climate change. But aside from this kind of approach, where I want to interpret the myths of the T’boli, I also wanted to use a much more inclusive theory for my whole thesis and not just a chapter on rituals and myths– that is, something that my thesis can ride on like a train perhaps or a boat that will lead me to a better understanding of T’boli behavior.

But this morning, as we were discussing Social Evolutionism in our ‘Theories’ class, and miraculously sated by the graces of our food benefactor, Ate Carol (may her tribe increase three-folds and may her food increase four-folds!), I was struck by the theory of Ecological Anthropology. I thought, this must be it, and for dramatic effect, I said it again. This must be it.

But seriously, as an anthropological approach that focuses on the complex relations between peoples and the environment, this ought really be the backbone of my thesis. This approach investigates how the environment shapes peoples’ social, economic and political life. In this theory, the history of our species is one of adaptation – an obvious offshoot of Darwin’s. If I were to study climate change and the different modes of adaptations made by the T’boli as imbedded in their mythos (and maybe their psyche), ecological anthropology will help me understand how these vulnerable indigenous groups adapted before and how we are to be able to help them to secure their future.

My paper for Bro. Karl Gaspar’s class ends with several questions that I believe would be the tarmac, the jumping-off point where my thesis should take off. I quote it here:

“This is both an introduction and a challenge to further studies on how T’boli S’bu’s cultural values and beliefs inform risk perceptions, and how this in turn guides water resource decision-making.  It challenges more questions:

1. How does climate change and global warming affect the T’boli S’bu’s lived world?

2. How do they express the changes in climate patterns?

3. How do they address these changes in climate?

4. How do they participate in national and local policies on climate change mitigation?

5. How do they perceive and receive their mythologies and stories on climate change?”

And now that I can visualize my thesis with a much clearer framework, the ecological approach presents promising answers to these questions I raised. By starting with the idea that the environment shapes us through our resiliency in hostile environments, slowly adapting, and creating a culture that manifests how we have adapted, my thesis can present adaptations made by the T’boli, supplemented and supported by the interpretations of myths, symbols and rituals. In this way, I may perhaps come about with useful recommendations for people working with indigenous peoples and other vulnerable groups.

Doing a graduate thesis is definitely not smooth sailing. We revise, and then revise again. Maybe next semester, I would have found another theory to work on – or not. Decisions will have to be done, and many prior decisions have to be undone. This whole business of ‘understanding others’ understanding’ is indeed very interesting. There are so many facets of our humanity and cultures that need to be studied on. But by studying it one must be systematic, critical and thorough – able to ask the right questions. For is it not true that ‘the right question is already half of the solution’?