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Anting-Anting and the Revolution in the Visayas

This heritage article is brought to you by the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc.
Anting-Anting and the Revolution in the Visayas

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The Philippine Revolution (1896-1898) is often regarded as the foundational event of the nation’s history. It popularized Enlightenment-influenced ideals that ultimately weakened the influence of Catholic friars over colonial society. 

There is little understanding in the role of objects such as anting-anting (amulets) in these events, due to an evolutionary view of Philippine history, which regards them as objects of superstition, and the political and socio-economic focus of past historians. 

But historian Reynaldo Ileto pointed out that such objects were key to people’s participation in the Revolution and the Philippine-American War. 

This article suggests other ways of viewing events of the revolutionary period in the Visayas through the lens of these objects, which influenced anti-colonial struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and strengthened communities during social crises and health emergencies.

Persons and Objects of Power

By the late 19th century, anting-anting were often associated with Christian icons, and were distributed by powerful individuals believed to have close ties to them. 

Apart from European missionaries who were seen as possessors of God-given supernatural powers, local religious leaders also claimed to have figures as Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints as sources of power. 

These leaders attracted followers who wanted to share in this power for good health and well-being, and this was especially true in communities with little access to parish priests. 

The diversification of the Visayan spirit world because of Christianization was also evident in how the power (gahom) of local healers came not only from Christian sources, but also ancestral souls and environmental spirits, which formed part of the pre-colonial cosmos.

John Foreman writes about syncretic practices and beliefs in the Philippines: “Many of these superstitions are survivals of former idolatrous beliefs. One of the most prominent of the latter superstitions is that of anting-anting. The most ignorant classes firmly believe that certain persons are possessed of a diabolical influence called anting-anting, which preserves them from all harm. They believe that the body of a man so affected is even refractory to the effects of bullets or steel. Brigands are often captured wearing medallions of the Virgin Mary or the saints as a device of the anting-anting... Some highwaymen, too, have a curious notion that they can escape punishment for a crime committed in Easter week, because the thief on the cross was pardoned [for] his sins.” 

Homer Stuntz adds that, “Certain images like that of the Holy Child of Bangi, the Santo Niño de Cebu, St. Francis de Assisi, Our Lady of Caysaysay, and the Virgin of Antipolo, are believed to have miraculous powers, and exert them on behalf of penitents on occasion.” 

These images replaced pre-colonial counterparts representing ancestor spirits (umalagad), which blessed the living with good health and wellbeing in exchange for rituals and feasts in their honour. 

As Fr. Chirino writes in Relacion de las Islas Filipinas (1604), “In memory of these departed ones, they keep their little idols—some of stone, wood, bone, ivory, or a cayman's teeth; others of gold. They call these larauan, which signifies, ‘idol,’ ‘image,’ or ‘statue;’ and in their necessities they have recourse to these, offering to them barbarous sacrifices.”

The cover page of a Dios-Dios pamphlet confiscated in Leyte around 1890. Taken from Sedeciones y Rebeliones, 1889-1897 [SDS-10562], National Archives of the Philippines.
 

Anting-Anting and the Cholera Epidemic of 1882-1883

Anting-Anting became a means by which revolutionary Visayan religious sects gained adherents after the deadly cholera epidemic of 1882-1883. 

After the epidemic, a sectarian movement labeled by authorities as Dios-Dios emerged in Samar following the 1884 dispersals in a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows (Nuestra Señora de los Dolores) in the Tarangnan visita of Bonga. 

There, people converged in preparation for what healer Isidro de los Reyes prophesied as an imminent universal flood and the end of the world. They were among many islanders conducting pilgrimages to various religious shrines in thanksgiving for surviving the epidemic. 

As the movement spread across Samar, it was led by various healers who prophesied a series of events including a revolution (revolucion), a universal flood, the arrival of a “new king” (rey nuevo), and the appearance of magical cities (ciudad) that would serve as a citadel while cataclysmic events transpired and would serve as their home—where they would also be reunited with relatives who died of cholera—in the new age to come.

For protection from the plague (peste) and other dangers, Dios-Dios leaders distributed among other items, flags and written prayers (oraciones) signed by persons claiming to be medico titulares (licensed doctors). Recruits were also required to follow strict rituals to maintain the power of these objects.

The movement was violently suppressed in Samar between 1884 and 1886, while other leaders were caught by Spanish authorities in Leyte as late as 1890. 

In 1903, American colonial authorities noted that the movement (also known as the Pulahan Movement) gained footholds in Leyte, Cebu, Bohol, Negros, Panay, and Misamis. 

Panay and Negros also saw parallel religious movements in the 1880s, which would later re-emerge during and after the Revolution as the Babaylanes Movement led by Papa (“Pope”) Isio (Dionisio Magbuelas). 

Katipunan leader Pantaleon Villegas, also known as Leon Kilat, presumably had links to the Dios Buhawi Movement in Negros.

The handkerchief “believed to have been owned by Leon Kilat." Various supernatural feats are attributed to Kilat's handkerchief in Cebuano folklore. Photo courtesy of the Cebuano Studies Center, University of San Carlos, Cebu City.  

 

Cataclysmic Revolution

As the nationalist movement gained ground, various communities joined the struggle against the Spanish and American colonial rule. Historical accounts and material artefacts from the turn of the 20th century, in which conflict and another cholera epidemic caused widespread fear, all point to the importance of protective objects associated with or provided by anti-colonial leaders believed to be endowed with supernatural abilities.

Anti-colonial rebels were issued various forms of anting-anting, like librettos (small booklets with magical prayers), belts, and bandanas. 

If a fighter wore an anting-anting upon death, it was attributed to their “lack of faith” and that the wearer “allowed his fear to overcome his confidence.” 

However, one American observer noted that groups like the Pulahanes (whose name was derived from their wearing of pula- or red-coloured clothing) were also “strengthened for their holy warfare by the assurance that those falling on the battlefield would rise from the dead [on] the third day.”

Like their Dios-Dios predecessors, nationalist and sectarian leaders were believed to be either supported by or were embodiments of Christian figures. 

They appealed to or styled themselves as representatives of figures such as the Santo Niño (e.g., Cebu Katipunero leader Leon Kilat), the Virgin Mary (e.g., Leyte Pulahan “Pope” Faustino Ablen), or the Holy Family (e.g., Aguinaldo-appointee General Vicente Lukban in Samar) to attract local recruits to the anti-colonial struggle.

These island-based variations are suggestive of how different religious traditions influenced people's participation in movements for independence and autonomy against colonial forces.

In post-colonial Philippines, various forms of Catholic icons and anting-anting continue to play an active role in the lives of Filipinos, whose embrace of science and modernity does not preclude belief in and engagement with older traditions.

The Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (RAFI) is a non-government organization, one of the biggest in the country, established in 1966. It works in the areas of micro-finance, leadership, education, biodiversity conservation, and legacy programs in cancer support and advocacy and early childhood. It also focuses on the preservation and promotion of local culture and heritage, with its centerpiece, the Casa Gorordo Museum, and through storyweaving. It engages other museums, institutions, and like-minded individuals, such as Prof. George Emmanuelle Borrinaga of the University of San Carlos who writes about local history, such as the revolution and the role of talismans.

This article is sponsored by RAMON ABOITIZ FOUNDATION, INC..
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