Voodoo and ancient Philippine spirituality

The mere mention of voodoo conjures up visions of dark arts, pins in dolls, horrific spirits and savage sacrifices. I never ever thought that through voodoo I would be given an incredible insight into the mysterious world of my Filipino ancestors. While visiting the recent voodoo exhibit at the Museum of Civilizations in Gatineau across the river from Ottawa in Canada I was introduced to a very different voodoo than what I saw on television or heard about in stories. It was voodoo according to the practitioners themselves. Voodoo or vodoun is the ancient religion of the people of West Africa which was later introduced to the European colonies in the Caribbean through the slave trade.

To practice vodou is to serve the spirits or loa/lwa , communicating with the lwa is at the heart of vodou.

Vodou skull and jar at the Canadian Museum of Civilizations

Vodou skull and jar at the Canadian Museum of Civilizations

“The importance of communicating with the lwa stems from the vodou worldview. To Vodouists, everything that exists is interconnected. Nothing in the universe exists on its own, separate from the rest. Reality, therefore, transcends the fragmented world that we perceive through our rational mind, our senses and our desires. It consists of a multitude of spirits and entities whose energies flow through all things, permeating the earth, the air, water, fire, nature, living beings, celestial bodies…

It is important to know how to deal with the imbalances that the circulation of these energies can provoke… Communicating with the lwa and serving them are thus essential to maintain and bring balance in the world.”

Explanation taken from the exhibit.

Respect for these spirits translates to respect for their world and everything in it, something that we desperately need to relearn. They did not consider themselves to be the conquerors or masters of this world but rather an integral part of the web of life. This is a common theme in hunter-gatherer societies; possibly a remnant from the culture of our  African ancestry? This belief survives in the Philippines intertwined within layers of new influences as each wave of migrations brought with them their own religious practices and unique worldviews. This intimate connection with nature, along with knowledge of generations passed,  allowed them to progress sustainably through the ages until the disruptions of the last century.

Aeta youth learning about their culture. Photo by Kara Santos / IPS

Aeta youth learning about their culture. Photo by Kara Santos / IPS

There is a belief among ancient Filipinos that everything (which sometimes also includes inanimate objects) contains an essence or spirit. Paul Keiko Manansala from asiapacificuniverse.com explains:

“…there was a belief that each individual had more than one soul. Among the Bagobo, each person had a right-hand soul and a left-hand soul. The right-hand soul was the good side of the individual and went to heaven after death. The left-hand soul was the evil in each person and at death it went either to the underworld, or stayed on earth to vex the living. The Ilokanos believed in three souls in the body. The eternal soul that continued after death was known as Kararwa, Alingaas is the soul that is found at places one has been previously; and Karma the soul that inhabits the living body. Sometimes, Karma is seen as a vapor that leaves the body either as an invisible vapor or in the form of an insect traveling to far places…”

Balete  (Ficus) trees are believed to be dwelling places for spirits or supernatural beings. Photo by Miloe88

Balete (Ficus) trees are believed to be dwelling places for spirits or supernatural beings. Photo by Miloe88

“Sometimes, the good soul, rather than ascending to heaven, would take residence in a local tree or similar spot to watch over their loved ones, or take care of unfinished business.”

This is the reason why the Ifugao choose to keep the remains of their deceased ancestors close by, so that they may consult them when faced with difficult problems and to gain insight that is otherwise unavailable. I used to dismiss the belief in anitos and nature dieties as merely a primitive way of trying to connect to natural phenomenon during a time when people had no access to scientific knowledge. Growing up in the Christian community of the lowland and urban areas, I was taught that the beliefs and customs of ancient Filipino societies are both backward and evil. These practices are condemned by the church and remains taboo but haven’t completely disappeared especially among people of the lower incomes and in the rural areas.

Agimat / anting-anting charms sold outside the Roman Catholic church in Taal, Batangas. showing Christian and Freemason imagery.

The pre-colonial practice of agimat / anting-anting survives in these charms sold outside the Roman Catholic church in Taal, Batangas. showing Christian and Freemason imagery.

The supreme being Bathalang Maykapal (Tagalog), Gugurang (Bikolano), Kaptan (Visayan), Kan-Laon (Negros island), Buni (Ilokano), Mangechay (Kapampangan), Melu (B’laan), Ampu Nagsalad (Palawan), Magbabaya (Bukidnon), Minaden (Tiruray), Mahal na Makaako (Mangyan), Bagatulayan (Tinguian), Magbabaya (Talaandig), Nanolay (Gaddang), Mah-nongan (Ifugao), Abal and Cain (Ilongot), and Gutugutumakkan (Agta) mirrors the vodou Bondye who is distant, unknowable, often asexual, and does not intercede in human affairs. Because of this the vodouist direct their worship towards spirits subservient to Bondye, called loa/lwa. This is the equivalent of the anito and to a lesser extent also the diwata (from the Hindu devata). Every anito is responsible for a particular aspect of life.

Bulol by Adrian Caldozo

Bulols usually come as a pair, male and female. Photo by Adrian Caldozo

In Benin, the Dahomey people believe that the supreme being Nana Buluku, begot a hermaphroditic two faced (sometimes twin) deity called Mawu-Lisa associated with the sun and moon. In Philippine cosmology most tribes associate the deities of the sun and moon as brother and sister, and children of the supreme being. In colonial times, the moon goddess became associated with the Virgin Mary; while the sun god became associated with Jesus Christ.

Totem pole at the Canadian Museum of Civilizations.

Totem pole at the Canadian Museum of Civilizations.

Vodou ceremonies revolve around a potomitan, a central pole which is sometimes a living tree, a wooden post , or cement post. They believe that it is the conduit used by the lwa (spirits) to descend among them. I wonder if this center pole have any relation to the central element in many Philippine myths of creation (usually as a reed, bamboo, rod or tree)? Every culture on earth also seems to have an equivalent of this: the Christian cross, the two pillars in the Jewish temple, the two trees in the garden of Eden, the Amerindian totem pole, the Hindu lingam, the central pillar in Japanese temples, the Mayan tree of life etc.

Angono petroglyphs from wikicommons.

Angono petroglyphs from wikicommons.

Could the Angono petrogylphs also be explained by the veve of vodou, which are the symbols drawn on to a surface like a wall or the floor, used to call on to a particular spirit?

I have many more questions that this  simple encounter could not readily answer or explain but I hope that, by understanding more of the cosmology of the ancient cultures of the world, it would help me restore the link and reconnect to the spirits of my ancestors.

A stylized veve window.

A stylized veve window.

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Bamboo dance: a common heritage

The  tinikling of Leyte in the Visayas region is a popular bamboo dance in the Philippines. The dance imitates the movement of the tikling bird as they walk between grass stems, run over tree branches, or dodge bamboo traps set by rice farmers. Dancers imitate the bird’s legendary grace and speed by skillfully maneuvering between large bamboo poles.

Beautiful shot of the Tikling, buff banded rail (Gallirallus philippensis), by Toto Gamboa

Beautiful shot of the Tikling, buff banded rail (Gallirallus philippensis), by Toto Gamboa

The sound of clashing bamboo poles are accompanied by the melody of a rondalla, brought to the Philippines by the Spaniards. The hand and leg movements also display Hispanic characteristics. It is usually performed during important social events such as the town fiesta. I can only imagine what the original version must have been like as no record of it have managed to survive.



Some legends suggests that tinikling was also used as punishment against unproductive natives during colonial times. With the bamboo poles  struck together with the intention to crush the ankles of the poor native while the corrupt masters watch him/her helplessly leap to try to avoid being hurt.

Bamboo dances are an old tradition throughout continental and island South-East Asia with much variation in terms of the timing of the beat, the movements of the dancers and its purpose.

The Bandanese from Maluku, Moluccas (also known as the Spice islands, south of the Philippines) have a similar version of this bamboo dance called tari gaba-gaba as a dance to celebrate friendshipThey were also influenced by Spanish and Portuguese settlers but the accompanying music is their traditional gong ensemble. The Bandanese, like the Visayans, have become mostly Christianized.



The Maranao of Lanao in Mindanao also have their bamboo dance which is traditionally a solo performance and accompanied only by the static beat of the bamboo. (Source: Alejandro, R.G., 1978. Philippine Dance: Mainstream and Crosscurrents. Manila: Vera-Reyes, Inc.) Known as the singkil or kasingkil it was performed only by women, particularly royalty. The dance serves as either a conscious or unconscious advertisement to potential suitors. Incorrectly referred to as Muslim dance, its origins are secular and predates the conversion of the Marano people to Islam.

The modern and unorthodox version by the Bayanihan dance troupe using Western conventions has largely eclipsed the traditional style and most Filipinos now use it as first reference.


The theatrical lao kra top mai of Thailand; the robam kom araek of Cambodia; and to a lesser extent, the mua sap of Vietnam shows the apsara hand gestures found in Buddhist and Hindu art. It was used as etertainment by farmers at the end of a long workday in the fields. In Vietnam mua sap is performed to celebrate events like Tet.

The Lizu, Hmong and Miao of South-East China consider their bamboo dance as a game or sport where anyone can participate. The goal is not to get your foot caught in the closing bamboo. Whoever remains last will be the winner.

In Sabah, Borneo, the anggalang magunatip of the Murut tribe is performed as a welcome to the returning warriors during their head-hunting days. Unlike the groups mentioned above, they have retained their traditional woven dresses, loincloth and feathered head-dress clothing. Their culture is very reminiscent of the Ifugao tribes of Northern Luzon, probably an echo from a time when the Austronesian culture was dominant in the region.

The Chin, Karen, and Mizo of Burma, Thailand, Bangladesh and India also have a bamboo dance called cheraw; and the Mizo recently set a world record for the largest ‘bamboo dance’ for the Guiness world record with 10, 736 dancers. Although their language is part of the Sino-Tibetan group of language, their culture is closer to the Austronesian culture of their eastern origin. In ancient times, the cheraw was originally performed with the hope of providing solace to the soul of a deceased mother who had left her newborn child on earth.

In the United States of America, a version of tinikling is taught as a type of aerobic exercise for the P.E. classes of grades K-12. Introduced by the large Filipino-American community there, it has evolved to accommodate hip-hop music, further evidence of the flexibility of the dance to be transformed by the people. I personally do not find it culturally or aesthetically pleasing but I do appreciate the effort of making it more appealing and somewhat relevant to a younger (displaced) generation.

The are numerous other bamboo dances from India to the Pacific islands which does not involve passing through clashing bamboo poles which I will discuss in another post in the future.

I suppose these dances must have had a common origin which eventually got lost as it was adopted into the different culture it was exposed to. I assume that the origin is an ancient culture in what is now Northern Vietnam and Southern China which is the proposed homeland of the Austronesian culture. We may never know the true origin or the original purpose of the bamboo dance but  we can celebrate its ability to survive through the ages.

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Split bamboo: dance of the perfect man and woman

The familiar story of the Tagalog creation story “Si Malakas at si Maganda” (The strong one, and the beautiful one); the first man and first woman emerging from the equal halves of a single piece of bamboo, is well known to most Filipinos. Maximo D. Ramos explains in his 1990 book Philippine myths, legends and folk tales – “The first striking motif of many Philippine creation myths is their attribution of the origin of mankind to a reed.” 

Parallels can be seen in the imagery of the creation myths of each Philippine tribe¹ , and to a greater extent the South – East Asia Pacific region where the central element is some kind of rod:

Aeta, Batak, Mamanwa, Itneg                                                reeds

Japan                                                                                          reed shoots

Manama                                                                                     blades of grass

Tagalog, Visayan, Maguindanao, Tausug, Bukidnon, T’boli            bamboo

Yami (Taiwan)                                                                          staff

Solomon Islands                                                                       stalk of sugar cane

Tiruray, Panay, Manobo                                                         engraved posts

Mansaka                                                                                    kasili and bangay wood

Bisaya                                                                                        coconut tree

Mandaya                                                                                   egg

The split bamboo is sometimes also interpreted as the ying-yang. With the ying principle embodied in the woman,  and the yang principle embodied in the man. In ancient Philippine societies the status of the woman is at least equal to that of the man. Maganda, the archetypal woman (and sometimes transvestite man as babaylan) were the spiritual leaders, keepers of culture, and healers of the tribe. Malakas, the archetypal male , as warrior were hunters, traders, and builders.

Elements of the creation story can easily be found in the imagery of the legend of a certain Dayang Gandingan in the Maranao epic Darangen (which is roughly based on the Hindu epic Ramayana) and the royal dance Singkil. While walking the forest chasing butterflies, diwatas (forest dieties) caused an earthquake that shook the trees and the rocks; the princess , with amazing agility, was able to skip nimbly from one place to another place so that her feet did not touch the fallen trees and rocks. The king worried about his daughter then sent his most courageous and strong warrior to rescue the princess.

The dance animates the story with the clashing bamboo like the turbulent waves of the sea god, the fans symbolizing the winds, and the mythical sarimanok bird perched on top of the crown ready to knock on the primordial reed.

¹ Only the Bagobo cornmeal dough (probably from Mayan corn mythology introduced via the Galleon trade with Mexico), and the Bilaan dirt /dead skin (probably from Arab or Christian missionaries), seems to have been taken from a general foreign influence. Source: Mabel Cook Cole, Philippine Folk Tales (Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Company, 1916)

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Rising from the sea: origin of land and people

According to the cosmology of the Itneg (Tinguian) of Abra, in the beginning there was only the sky and the sea. One day a kite (Haliastur indus intermediusgrew tired of flying but had no place to alight and rest, so it decided to set the sea against the sky. The sea hurled its waters against the sky and in response the sky threw boulders to subdue the sea¹. These boulders became the islands of the archipelago.

Mayon Volcano, Albay. Tryfon Topalidis

Mayon Volcano, Albay. Tryfon Topalidis

Legends about boulders raining from the sky forming islands sounds a bit far fetched for us to imagine nowadays, but when we consider the historic accounts of the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, it becomes clear that they may not have been that far off. The violent explosion and resulting tsunami from an undersea volcano, the shower of boulders and ash, and the summit eventually breaking through forming a new island could easily be remembered by primitive societies as a titanic skirmish between the sky and the sea.

Landsat Data Continuity Mission satellite orbited over Indonesia’s Flores Sea and snapped shots of Paluweh, a volcanic island.

Landsat Data Continuity Mission satellite orbited over Indonesia’s Flores Sea and snapped shots of Paluweh, a volcanic island.

Rising from the waters of the Pacific ocean, volcanoes and fault lines dot the entire region which continues in present times to be seismically active. These mighty forces of nature bring great destruction and also much fertility to the land. The minerals mixed with the abundant rain enriches the soil allowing the lush rainforests to propagate.

The story continues that on one of these islands, grew a reed from which the Supreme Being created the first man and first woman whose children became the ancestors of the inhabitants of the world.²

¹ (Relación de las Yslas Filipinas, 1582) Miguel de Loarca, trans. A.B. Llopis Repotente

² There are numerous versions of this story  found all over Maritime Southeast Asia, each tribe incorporating elements of their culture in it.

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Peeling off the layers.

The complicated culture and history of the Filipino people is becoming more and more visible both in media and in publications as the country gains interest from the global community due to a currently strong performing economy, an escalating territorial dispute with China, and a developing tourism industry. There has been many misrepresentations about the country and its people because of the lack of knowledge of both visitors and the Filipino people themselves. Through this blog I hope to expose the different aspects of our indigenous, colonial and present-day identity in the hope to help Filipinos and visitors alike to understand the genuine heritage of the peoples of the Philippine archipelago.

Let us first consider that the Filipino people before the arrival and colonization of Spain and America never really considered themselves to be one group but rather a constantly evolving landscape of different tribes, kingdoms and states. In fact, the whole region of South East Asia is a collection of extremely diverse groups of people with borders only later established by former European powers.

The Philippines is indeed a modern invention retained by revolutionaries at the turn of the 20th century, with originally good intentions for the establishment of an independent state that would allow for freedom and self determination. Sadly this has also caused the erosion and homogenization of the cultures and languages it wishes to preserve.

Most of the recognized Philippine indigenous groups would agree that only the lowland Christianized and Westernized inhabitants of the country should be labelled ‘Filipinos’ as they are who they have always been and was never really ‘conquered’. This is especially true for the Igorots, the Moros, and the Lumads, who maintain a strong connection to their identity. Marginalized groups such as the Aeta, Ati, Agta, Bajao, Mangyan, the tribes of Palawan, and the tribes of Panay barely has the ability to maintain their vanishing territories and cultures let alone promote it.

Despite of knowledge of the many atrocities committed during the colonial eras, many low-land Filipinos still cling to the notion that they are Hispanic or Americanized because of the influences of the Christian and Catholic Churches, Hollywood, and the misguided idea that it is more prestigious. Who then is the true Filipino?

In reality Filipino is merely a name we adopt to identify to a person born of parents from the territory of the Philippines. Fickle as it may seem we are stuck with it and the only way it would resonate to all of us is to celebrate our joint history and take pride in the richness and diversity of our people. We must ensure that we preserve what we have left and also protect it from the corruption of modern aesthetics.

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