Among the ancient gods of the Philippines, Apolaki was the Tagalog and Pangasinan deity of the sun and the lord of war. He is the son of Bathala (creator) and brother of Mayari (lunar deity). A few weeks ago, our resident writer, Daniel De Guzman, submitted an article where he quoted from the book “Ang Diablo sa Filipinas ayon sa nasasabi sa mga casulatan luma sa Kastila” (The Devil in the Philippines according to ancient Spanish documents) by folklorist, Isabelo de los Reyes. This passage, spoken as Apolaki, has stuck with me ever since.
“Umiiyak ako sapagkat nakita kong natupad na ang malaong kong pinangingilagan, na tatangap kayo ng mga taong taga ibang lupa maputi ang ngipin, mahahabang barong na tila alampay. Lalagyan nila ang inyong mga bahay ng dalawang tulos na nagkakasalisi (ito ang Cruz) at nang ako ay lalong mahirapan, ako nga ay papanao na at dahilan sa taga ibang lupa ako inyong iiwan bagamat ako ang dati nyong Panginoon”
(I weep to see the completion of what I expected for many years, namely that you would welcome some foreigners with white teeth and hooded heads, who would implant amidst your houses crossed poles (Crosses) to torment me all the more. I am leaving you to seek people who will follow me, for you have abandoned me, your ancient lord, for foreigners)
This makes me feel deeply saddened. Not as a statement from a forgotten god, but as a metaphor to the current state, and accuracy, of cultural preservation in the Philippines. It has been generally accepted that the Spanish destroyed Philippine culture and forced the hearts and minds of the people away from the ancient gods. They did, but there is a preface and postscript to this narrative which indicates that the pre-Spanish polytheistic religions were already posed for collapse.
Death of the Gods: Pre-Spanish Philippines
Muslim traders from the Arabian peninsula were thought to have brought Islam to SE Asia by the 10th century. Islam was established as the dominant religion in the Indonesian archipelago by the 16th century. It came to the Philippinesaround the 13th century, about two hundred years before the advent of Christianity. Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Southern Philippines (Mindanao and the Sulu Islands) were, at times, under the rule of a single dynasty (Srivijaya, Śailendra, Majapahit and Mataram) and tended to follow suit with religious practices. This is why the indigenous practices of the Northern Philippines are so different.
By the 16th century, a Muslim Kingdom emerged in what is now Manila as the focus of political power on Luzon. Islamic regions were responsible for the development of dynamic interaction between inhabitants and communities in the archipelago, especially in matters of trade and commerce. This may have been the catalyst for growth in foreign trade between the southern islands and the outside world, including the west.
Without documentation we are only able to guess – based on what happened with other polytheistic religions – what allowed Islam to spread so rapidly throughout the Philippines. Not unlike the Romans, ancient Filipinos tended towards syncretism – seeing the same gods under different names in different places of the archipelago. Ultimately, this belief system accommodated animism, Indianized beliefs and imagery, plus Chinese superstitions. The natural emergence of intellectual religious thought and esoteric philosophy left an opening for a monotheistic religion to take root – which at this point, for the Philippines, was Islam. The arrival of colonialism brought a forced version of this process.
Death of the Gods: Spanish Arrival
So what did the Spanish do? Simply put, the persuasive powers and tactics of the missionaries were so overwhelming that Filipinos had no choice but to toss their beliefs aside and embrace Catholicism. In 1595 just outside Manila, Fray Diego del Villar reported that many men and women were still seeking the guidance of the catalonan (priest or priestess in Tagalog pre-colonial religion). This caused a massive burning of all the idols in the village in front of the people residing there. The Spanish flogged and tortured the catalonans into submission. Instead of worshipping multiple gods, the people were trained, forced, or convinced to love and revere one – or suffer the consequence. This was the end of the gods, totemism, and idols in the accessible regions of the Philippines.
The Spanish also quickly displaced the Moros from the political and economic dominance they had in the region. This had a grave impact on the belief structures of the natives – especially on the coasts of Luzon and the Visayas where the Moros reacted by conducting raids and piracy. In “Relacion de las Yslas Filipinas” (1589) Miguel de Loarca mentions, “For a few years past they have had among them one form of witchcraft which was invented by the natives of Ybalon after the Spaniards had come here.”
It’s interesting to note that regardless of which “gods” were worshipped, the mythical creatures survived. There is no equating them to anything in organized religion. Yes, I’ve heard the Spanish tagged them as “demons” (and even invented them), but in the minds of the people, they have remained relatively untouched as the indigenous animist spirits and creatures they are – both malevolent and benevolent. They existed before the Spanish arrived, and they existed after they left.
What if the Spanish never arrived?
Hatred of Spanish colonization is warranted. Its impact is so tragic and so deeply rooted that it has become the focus of all things negative in defining Philippine cultural identity. The Spanish must be faulted for their methods of conversion, but I believe the gods would have suffered the same fate regardless. If the Spanish had not arrived, I don’t think we would see the Philippines as its own country – likely, the Muslim south would have been absorbed into Malaysia or Indonesia, and the north claimed by China.
As for the gods, there is no country that comes to mind where ancient and pagan gods remained the prominent religion. Malaysian, Indonesian and Chinese pagan gods fared no better. However, like the Philippines, their creatures and animist spirits continued to thrive. Unlike the Philippines, these countries acknowledge that these creatures pre-date organized religion and are part of their cultural identity. It is a near impossible task to separate polytheism from animist folk beliefs – but for some reason, the 20th century Philippine academe insisted on it. After liberation from the Spanish, indigenous folk beliefs continued to be seen as ignorant superstitions, while the ancient gods were venerated in elitist literature.
Death of the Gods: Modern Philippines
The Spanish ruled over the Philippines for roughly 340 years. It has been over 100 years since that time. The cultural and religious transformation imposed by the Spanish continues to be the focal point of blame when it comes to identity – and it should be. But the efforts to blame the Spanish should be matched with admiration for the culture and beliefs that survived. Lapu-Lapu and the Battle of Mactan postponed Spanish colonization for 40 years. This has been rewarded with movies, monuments, and hero status. The Igorot people of Luzon successfully fought against the Spanish for 340 years, keeping their culture and belief system relatively intact. Where are their monuments? Where is the admiration for the Lumad people who have kept their pre-Spanish beliefs, traditions and customs alive all these years?
Yes, the pains of a culture lost can still be felt, but there is still so much left that should be studied, celebrated, and promoted. The remaining indigenous peoples can provide invaluable insight to the past if you choose to look. I wonder how Apolaki would perceive the celebrity culture that has blinded today’s Filipino youth to reality. Along with crosses, we have planted carefully crafted celebrity personas in our homes, who we follow with an allegiance that is only shadowed by the Catholic legacy of Spanish colonization.
Reviving the Ancient Gods
If you’re willing, it would only take a generation to change. Ask your bookstore to carry titles on Philippine Myths. If they already do, ask that they move them from the undesirable, sun-bleached shelf at the back of the store to a visible spot. More importantly, read these stories to your children. Teach them, and yourselves, about the ancient gods that were worshipped by your ancestors. Tell them stories of the mythical beings that go bump in the night. This history belongs to you and it is only through you that it is kept alive. You may not have killed the ancient gods, but you can decide whether they stay that way. If #ALDUB can get 12 million tweets, surely your culture and history are worth one.
The stories of ancient Filipino gods and other tales equal that of the Romans and Greeks. There are Tolkienesquemoments in the cautionary tales of heroism, and creatures not even rivalled by The Brothers Grimm. They belong to you. They are your myths, your folklore and your fairy tales. Will you claim them, or will Apolaki’s fictional lament remain truth?