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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One Response to Voodoo and ancient Philippine spirituality

  1. Thanks for following “Tails from Paris”. We’re now following your blog too.

    If you want to sharpen your international sense of humor, we do also have a French version called “Sous nos Couettes” : http://sousnoscouettes.com/.

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    Best from Paris, France 😉

    Alix, Roxane & their bald, bold & funny (at least he pretends to …) Dad

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