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.


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).


Love for the Poor (Message to the AJCUAP SLP Participants)

To the participants and faculty of the member-institutions of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities in Asia Pacific, volunteers and staff of this AJCU-AP Service Learning Program, Dios Marhay na banggi sato gabos, good evening.

In behalf of Fr. Joel Tabora, chairman of the AJCUAP, I would like to extend his warmest greetings of welcome to everyone, especially to the participants and faculty-mentors of our different member-institutions and extend also his sincerest gratitude to the Ateneo de Naga University for hosting this event. I am especially thankful to my alma mater for graciously hosting the 6th Service Learning Program and for courageously facing head on, a chimera, a monster so familiar its face is the face of our neighbor: poverty.

The theme for this year’s SLP is a beautiful message, and a profound challenge. Love for the Poor. The poor here is not some abstract, and occasionally present ‘other’. Western idea of the ‘other’ does not quite fit in our oriental appropriation of the neighbor, who is not completely the ‘other’ but also of us, in us. The ‘kapwa’ in Tagalog and Bikol, the ‘isigkatawo’ in Bisaya. Poverty then is not some distant situation, nor is it a place where we go to for exposure and immersion, but a condition felt and experienced by our kapwa, the ‘other’ who is also of us. We are already in poverty, immersed and fully exposed, yet seemingly blind and deaf to this reality. Only through compassion, of ‘suffering with’, of putting ourselves in their shoes, do we realize that a suffering world, a suffering neighbor, is also a suffering us. It is the aim of this SLP that you find the ‘kapwa’, who is also yourself, in the abject conditions of poverty.

‘Love for the poor’ most of all is a Gospel message and a Jesuit mission. The universities and schools, as venues and agents for change, are moved to action by this message. We gather here as different educational institutions with different visions and missions prompted by local needs, but ultimately we come together in the spirit of Jesuit Education as an apostolic instrument, in the service of the church as it serves society. In this SLP, we invite you dear participants to reflect on the actual situation of today’s world and to respond to the call of Christ who had a special love and concern for the poor. To be a self-transforming experience, this contact, this encounter through the service learning program, must be joined with reflection and intimate meditation.

Lastly, I wish you all to enjoy your stay here in Bikol, surrounded with the warm smiles of the Bikolanos, some of us poor but also richly blessed with God’s graces.

I wish you all a blessed and profound experience here in Bikol.

Dios an mabalos saindo gabos. Thank you.


The Ash-Covered Moon

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