This Visayas Town Once Reviled Judas Iscariot By Setting His Dick on Fire
Holy Week is hardly the time for celebrations and fiestas. How can you be jubilant while commemorating the death and rebirth of Jesus Christ? Some regions commemorate the week by joining in flagellations and crucifixions. It’s a solemn affair for sure, but trust Filipinos to find joy in even the dreariest times.
In the town of San Juan de Buenaventura in the province of Antique, a different type of Holy Week celebration takes place—in which they burn Judas Iscariot and set his dick aflame with fireworks galore. Now that’s a fiesta.
Akin to the lights and noises of Mardi Gras, the burning of Judas—and his penis—marks the end of Lent in Antique. Judas effigies are common among Catholic communities, and most, including Antique’s Judas effigy, take place on Black Saturday—the day Christ rested in his tomb before his resurrection. But this Visayan ritual sets itself apart by starting the effigy in the one place it would hurt the most had the notorious betrayer lived—his genitals.
Clash of Faith
It’s natural for outsiders to be baffled at this act, and even call it heretical or blasphemous. To say it’s lewd might be accurate, as anything genital-related would make any devout Filipino grandmother gape. But before we cast judgment, it might do us good to look back at the history of Antique and Antiquenos.
Centuries ago, the province was known in the Spanish colonial era as a hotbed of unrest, and Antique acquired an anarchic character that was only fueled when the Katipunan used the province as a staging point to start the revolution in Visayas. The growing anti-clerical sentiments against the Catholic Church, then a symbol of Spanish power and oppression, only grew, and a few centuries later, a number of locals joined a new protestant church: the Philippine Independent Church (PIC) or Aglapayanism. It’s not hard to see why considering the local church has an open view of sexuality.
Founded in 1902, the PIC pioneered the first Judas effigy in the small barrio of San Pedro, San Juan de Buenaventura in 1903. According to retired UP professor Rosario Cruz-Lucero, “The Independents were waving a symbol of nationalism in defiance of the structure of authority that was the Catholic Church, which was also the monument to the persecution and oppression the Filipinos suffered under Spanish rule.”
But Why the Penis?
In the “carnivalesque” festival, the parade begins during Catholic mass on the eve of Easter Sunday, aka Black Saturday. As drunk musicians play music on the back of a truck, the parade of people descends on the single women exiting a Catholic church with the unlit effigy of Judas Iscariot in tow, penis and all.
Making the effigy is no easy feat as the town starts building it, sometimes with straw or sometimes with cloth, as early as the first day of Lent. It takes a village and the town’s most skilled effigy artists to put it together. But while the material might change, one thing remains the same: the phallus of Judas, made with moist dark wood—often unrealistically big.
After the parade, a mock trial takes place, symbolically denouncing Judas, as well as chants and songs and dances. Then the real fun begins: setting Judas alight by starting the fuse sticking out of Judas’ shoes as the effigy hangs from a noose. As the fire makes its way through the effigy, it sets off the firecrackers stuffed inside the dummy.
“His head, being the biggest part of the effigy, takes the longest to explode because it is stuffed with the largest and most numerous firecrackers,” wrote Lucero. “The loudest blast, however, occurs in his testicles, which are also disproportionately large so as to hold the strongest explosives.”
And so Judas’ balls explode in a glorious spectacle, although the last time we checked the Bible, the traitor didn’t have any.
“Everything of Judas is completely consumed by the fire, except his phallus, which is carved out of fresh wood,” wrote Lucero. “It drops to the ground, and anyone who wants to is allowed to pick it up and keep it for him/herself.”
“Throughout the whole parade from beginning to end, the people, including the children, are given license to touch, stroke, shake Judas’ phallus in any way they want. It is always the bolder child or two who does so, with gestures of exaggerated coyness, while ribald laughter and cheering noises emanate from his peers.”
Kids just being kids, we guess. Despite the humor of the festival, Lucero points out that it’s a symbolic event, an ode to the town’s history and heritage.
“What ultimately survives is the phallus pointing an accusing finger at the Catholic Church,” wrote Lucero.
The phallus has long been used by multiple cultures as a symbol of power and virility, and you could come up with countless theories behind the Judas phallus festival. Perhaps it was, as Lucero writes, a symbol against Catholic rule and censorship, in triumph against the powers that be. Maybe the unburnt phallus symbolizes the survival of sin and betrayal, just as Judas betrayed Jesus. Maybe it’s simply a mockery for the person responsible for Christ’s crucifixion.
Or maybe the townspeople just have a wicked sense of humor.
Whatever the reason may be, Lucero wrote that the ritual of Judas Iscariot and his phallus has been gradually disappearing from the barrio, and those who remember it are becoming far and few, only remembered in academic papers and a handful of articles, just like this one.
Lucero, R. (2006). Judas and His Phallus: The Carnivalesque Narratives of Holy Week in Catholic Philippines. History and Anthropology, 17 (1). 39-56.
Rafael, V. (1988). Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion In Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule. Quezon City, Philippines. Ateneo de Manila University Press