Christianity in the Philippines

by Ronnie Hoyle                                                               

When a habit becomes a custom…
by Ronnie Hoyle

RELIGION forms the basis of life for almost every Filipino, from birth to death and beyond: it follows them everywhere, and everywhere they follow its dictates as a ritual of daily living. It almost seems as if they would be lost without the order that ritual gives them throughout the year.

Most rites, rituals and festivals are based on the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, but many of them are only practiced in the Philippines version of Catholicism which has built up over the centuries to control the habits of the local population. But when does a habit become a ritual or a custom?

Eating food three times a day may be a necessary habit, but does it become a ritual when it is performed at precisely the same times? Saying the same prayers to God at exactly 3 pm and 6 pm every day is undoubtedly an imposed and controlled ritual in the Philippines, but is it custom?

It has to be said that underlying Christianity in the Philippines is the previous animistic beliefs of the people who built up their own customs and rites over the untold number of centuries they spent in the islands before the Spanish claimed the archipelago for the production of gold and silver, as well as sugar and spices, to be sent back to the homeland via the Pacific coast port of Acapulco in Mexico.

With some 2,500 inhabited islands and 168 known languages and dialects, plus 35 distinctive tribes, there was previously no cohesion between the islands until the arrival of the Spanish and the imposition of their Catholic ways, so each community had their own gods and different traditional ways and means of appeasing them and celebrating or acknowledging their successes, whether it was the birth of a carabao or a successful crop of rice.

Most of the traditional rites, rituals and customs that were previously followed by the islanders were quickly suppressed with the fear of retribution of the new god instilled by Spanish missionaries if they did not follow the imposition of the new creed: it was often achieved with violence.

This was done in an effort to gain control over what the Spanish thought were pagans and primitives, just as the Spanish conquistadors did in the Caribbean islands at the same time when they were exploring an expanding world in the 15th and 16th centuries and fighting to control it against the takeover bids mounted by the Portuguese, French, Dutch and English.

The fact that the so-called pagan rituals did not die out with the conquest of the islands in the Philippines and the subjugation of the people and their conversion to Christianity can be seen every day throughout the islands: cockfighting, for instance, was a practised custom long before the Spanish arrived, even if it was a Spanish priest who eventually drew up the rules and regulations which still govern the ritual of how the sport should be conducted.

It is still a practiced custom to go cockfighting on certain days of the week, but it has no religious significance…apart from the fact that Filipinos love gambling and worships the bird in the hand!

Another pre-Spanish custom or ritual – which is still carried out on many islands, mostly in secret – is the visit to the shaman or witchdoctor, but this could be claimed to have a religious background.

The local ‘hilock-hilock’ is usually the first one to be consulted in times of illness, since many Filipinos think they cannot afford the cost of conventional medicine and Western-trained doctors or dentists: kill or cure is still often acknowledged as an acceptable way of life in many towns and villages of the islands.

Often, more faith is put in the shaman with his time-worn herbal medicinal cures - even when he may only pass a ‘magic’ egg or a stone over the belly to determine an internal illness - than the professionally-trained doctor who uses modern technology costing thousands of dollars and years to perfect.

In many cases, cures by these faith healers and herbalists are surprisingly effective and the Government itself has stipulated that conventional medical companies may not investigate or use folklore cures from the countryside of the Philippines without paying royalties. This may be difficult in some cases as the healer often calls on ‘spirits’ to intervene and affect the cure, which may only be psychophysical.

In some of the more mountainous areas of Siquijor, shamans today even perform ritualistic ‘psychic’ operations and seem to extract what look like bloody tumours during the so-called operations - which themselves leave no evidence of scars even when there is the appearance of a lot of blood on the skin during the procedure – and which are done without any form of anaesthetic but show no evidence of pain by the patients.

Often, these ‘operations’ are performed to the accompaniment of chants and drums which bear a strong resemblance to those which are still used by voodoo cults in both the Caribbean and Africa.

Since some anthropologists believe that the Ati tribes – or the Negritos, ‘the little black men,’ who are often less than 1.5 meters tall with flat noses and curly hair - may have arrived in the islands straight from Africa, complete with their religion and customs several thousand years ago, it may not be surprising that the rituals of the past could still exist today in some areas which are far away from their original home.

Another animistic belief which has become a custom is that trees are the homes of spirits, so they may not be cut down without making some sort of sacrifice or seeking the permission of the spirit: small gifts of fruit or flowers are often left as recompense, while many others collect their small change as offerings…until the pile becomes too big for the spirits to handle without someone spending it for them!

A custom borrowed from the Chinese system of Feng Shui is also used widely. Created some 3,000 years ago from the Book of Changes, the I Ching, which is at least 6,000 years old, Feng Shui is used to determine the position of houses and offices, even down to what decorations should be used to ensure positive energy and a better environment.

The Chinese influence is known to have existed in the Philippines for nearly 1,000 years from archaeological finds on Alona Beach itself. Chinese trade earthenware from the T’ang period was found lying on the surface, together with thinner and more decorative blue and white glazed porcelain fragments from the Sung/Song Dynasty, while clearing land near Esther Lim Avenue.

The Song Dynasty was active in China from 960 AD to 1279 AD, so it is possible that merchants from China may have married and settled in the area and may have brought some of their customs with them. T’ang pottery dates from an even earlier period, 618 AD, so it is obvious that there was regular trade between the two countries for many years before the Spanish arrived.

Even the custom of ‘planting’ small coins underneath the corner posts of houses when they are being built may come from this period, while the custom of having a priest to bless the house and its’ contents by scattering Holy Water everywhere (cover all electrical equipment before this happens to you: water seems to be splashed anywhere from squeezed plastic bottles nowadays!) and a short service obviously has Christian beginnings.

Customs and rites relating to the sea and fishing are so numerous that they could probably fill a book by themselves: many of them are pre-Christian in origin, like the one that the ‘dagat’ (sea) is the home of sometimes bad spirits which try to follow boats to land to plague the families of fishermen and must be waved back to return to their home beneath the waves as boats come ashore.

No one seems to know how or why dolphins have spirits or souls for some fishermen and are regarded as taboo at any time, while other fishermen catch and eat them, but there is a religious reason why it is customary not to go fishing on certain Holy Days, like Good Friday: the priest wanted everyone in church.

One of the other customs of the Filipino around Panglao in connection with the sea - and everywhere else in the Philippines, no doubt – is a throw-back to the hunter-gatherer days: the collection of swaki. This is, in fact, the spiny sea urchin dreaded by divers and swimmers alike.

Inside the shell is a tiny morsel of pink meat with a salty oyster taste, but you need hundreds to make up even a small meal. The reason why people hunt them is sex. It is supposed to give you extra stamina during your matrimonial duties…but then custom says this is also due to drinking tuba, the sap of the coconut tree which is siphoned from the trunk.

Another custom which Filipinos have picked up may have come from the Japanese invasion during the Second World War: the taking off of shoes when entering a house, although this could also stem from a far earlier period when houses were traditionally built on stilts and access was via a steep ‘chicken’ ladder or steps cut out of a tree trunk leaned against the front door…and before shoes or slippers were ever worn in the Philippines.

No written records of what life was really like in the later-named Visayas Islands seems to exist and archaeological evidence of any stone buildings or artefacts also seems to be sparse, probably proving that even structures which might have been used in any religious nature were themselves made of natural materials which were eventually reclaimed by the persistently growing tropical jungle.

Evidence exists that the first Catholic churches themselves were all of wood construction with a nipa thatch roof…the church at Dauis was burned down several times by raiding Moslem pirates from Mindanao who also attacked the former church at Panglao and set it ablaze…which is why the watchtowers were built.

Spain obviously had the most influence on tradition and custom in the Philippines when it tried to alter the mindset of the natives to accept the dominance of the ‘foreigners,’ which is why it is still custom for Filipinos to eat with a spoon and fork: knives were banned for personal use to prevent Filipinos from getting into arguments and fights and killing their conquerors – even bolos and machetes used during the working day were counted in and out of the stores by the priests.

For the same reason, shirts worn by natives had to be tucked into the waistband of any trousers they wore to prevent the concealment of weapons underneath, while the Spanish and trusted upper class were allowed to wear their shirts outside the waistband as a way of distinguishing the two sides: hence the custom of Barong Tagalog which only the notables in the past wore on formal occasions.

Even the stories of the hundreds of different ghosts and ghouls which like to eat human beings – like the Wak-wak, the Aswang and the Sigbin - which appeared during Spanish rule and took a hold on the animistic imagination of the spirit-believing Filipinos may have been created by the Spanish themselves as a way of keeping the troublesome natives in their huts so the soldiers could sleep peacefully at night.

Certain rituals have to be observed to keep them away even today, it is claimed: prayers and invocations to God, salt sprinkled on pathways and garlands of garlic and other wild herbs around windows and, as a last recourse, shooting them with a silver bullet, for instance: all good scenes from the Hammer Horror films of the 1950s and 1960s which have turned into customary belief.

These creatures still exist, as far as numerous Filipinos are concerned, and many claim to have seen them around Panglao since they have escaped from the neighbouring island of Siquijor, or they know of someone else who has had had experience of them: London itself is populated by vampires, according to some local people who have seen them walking and flying about the city in the Hammer Horror films, so it must be true they claim.

The difference between fact, fiction and the result of imagination which becomes acceptable belief in the minds of the majority is a difficult psychological problem to explain to people who grow up with superstition as a background to normal life. When thousands of years of animistic belief cannot be eradicated or overshadowed by 500 years of indoctrination in another belief, it begins to show the complexities of the predicament.

Almost all days of the year have some religious significance in the Philippines since the Roman Catholic Church itself has so many saints that there are not enough days of the year to accommodate them: this was altered in 1969 when Pope Paul VI reduced the number of saints to be venerated each year to 58, not including Christ, the apostles, the Virgin Mary, or St Joseph…so people did not have to spend every day in church and could actually go out to work!

The proviso was that if a particular church decided, it could revere any number of saints it wanted to in the year. And many of them still do…