Early Tagalog Religion before the arrival of the Spanish.
Our earliest surviving account of Tagalog religion is a remarkable two paragraph summary by encomendero Miguel de Loarca, remarkable in that it sounds much like what is nowadays called folk Catholicism. It presents a creator god who can only be approached through intercessors like deceased relatives or the patron deities of farmers, seafarers, or warriors, all of whom are worshiped in the form of idols which receive sacrifices and adornment. It stands in marked contrast to his lengthy description of Visayan religion with its origin myths, divine genealogies, pantheon of deities, and realms of the dead, a description obviously derived from personal observation and contact with worshipers themselves, rather than a native apologist. It must be said at the offset, however that it is difficult to account for the actual practice of the Tagalog religion within this theological framework. Missionaries in the field— and in the confessional —-evinced no doubt that the multitude of deities, spirits, and ancestors being invoked by the Tagalog shamans were objects of worship in their own right, not mere intercessors. A plausible explanation for the discrepancy might be that Spanish Christians like Loarca were predisposed to fine concepts in other religions which were normative in their own.
Loarca and Chirino said that the Tagalog recognized a creator they called Bathala—though other informants named Molayari or Diwata—but Father Plassencia (1589b, 598) simply said, “The one they principally adored among many other idols was one whom they called Badhala.” The name itself is apparently derived from Sanskrit bhattara (noble lord). which appeared as the 16th centry title batara in the southern Philippines and Borneo. Bathala was describe as “may kapal sa lahat (maker of everything),” kapal meaning to mould something between the hands like clay or wax. Dr. Antonio de Morga, among others, thought it meant an omen bird, but author of the Boxer Codex (1590b, 379) was advised not to use it in this sense “because they did not consider it God, but only his messenger.” He was told that the first word of this god to reach the Philippines was brought by male prophets as “readers of the scriptures of God (taga pagbasa nang sulatan a (?) dios)” Boxer Codex 1590b, 367). If the story is to be taken seriously, it may be worth nothing that in Malay, betara means holy, and was a title applied to the greater Hindu gods in Java, and was also assumed by the ruler of Majapahit.
There was no single word in Tagalog for the other deities to whom Batahal was superior: when necessary, Spanish lexicographers referred to them all as anito. So Father San Buenaventure (1613, 255) commented of Bathala, “According to some he was considered to be the greates of their anitos.” Some of them had names descriptive of their functions. Lakan Bakod, the lord of fences (bakod), was invoked to keep animals out of swiddens, and Amana Sinaya, father of Sinaya who became the inventor of fishing gear, was named when first wetting a net or fishhook. These were the kind of gods the Loarca summary explained as Bathala’s agents. So too, the early dictionaries used the word abogado (advocate) when defining their realms—for example, Lakambini, the abogado of the throat, invoked in case of throat ailments. But in actual prayers, they were petitioned directly, not as intermediaries. During sacrifices made in a new field to Lakapati, a major fertility deity, the farmer would hold up a child and saym “Lakapati, pakanin mo yaring alipin mol huwag mong gutumin (Lakapati, feed this thy slave; let him not hunger)” (San Buenaventura 1613, 361).
Prominent among deities who received full-blow sacrifices were fertility gods. Lakapati, fittingly represented by a hermaphrodite image with both male and female parts, was worshiped in the fields at planting time; and Lakanbakod, who had gilded genitals as long as a rick stalk, was offered eels when fencing swiddens—because, they said, his were the strongest of all fences, “Linalakhan (sic) niya ang bakod nag bukid” (San Buenaventura 1613, 361).
Proprietary deities were appeased both for fruitful produce and protection from harm in their special domains—like Aman Ikabli, the patron of hunters, or Dian Masalanta, of lovers and childbirth. Tuba tappers who failed to make offering to Mankukutod, protector of coconut palms, before climbing a tree, ran the risk of a fall from the trunk. Nobody entered grasslands or forests without acknowledging the overlordship of Uwinan Sana lest they be regarded as trespassers, nor did seamen set sail before sponsoring a major ceremony to call on Haik, the sea god, for fair weather and favorable winds. The Tagalog environment was also peopled with lesser deities like Linga and Bibit who caused illness if not given recognition in the ordinary course of daily activities.
Images of these deities were properly called likha, but also larawan, a model or form. Wooden ones were often crudely anthropomorphic in form and large enough to be adorned with gold chains or have actual food placed in their mouth. Others were small enough to be carried around like talismans, and were made of stone, gold, shell, or clay—not necessarily always a figure but sometimes a crocodile tooth, a boar’s tusks, or an unusual stone. Little earthenware figures in the shape of a man or cat, imported from China, were held in the hand to swear an oath. But images of deceased persons were called anito, which Father Blancas de San Jose defined as “idol or soul of their ancestors.”
On the other hand, Father Ribadeneyra thought such anito were believed by the Tagalogs to have been conceived together with human beings, good ones for ordinary people, evil ones for slaves, and the less fortunate. Other missionaries, however, regularly applied the term to all idols as well as the “false gods” they represented. Father Oliver (1590b, 32), preaching in Batangas in the 1590s, likened the Old Testament “great anito called Beelzebub” to a local deity, Lakan Balingasay—“malaking Anito ang pangalan si Belzebu, na kun baga dito Lakan Balingasay.”
Father Buenaventura (1613, 361), however insisted that the term really meant an act of worship:
More appropriately would it be called an offering because anito does not signify any particular things, such as an idol, but an offering and the prayer they would make to deceased friends and relatives…(or) an offering they made to anything they finished, like a boat, house, fishnet, etc., and it was mats cooked food, gold and other things.
Thus, naga-anito meant to perform such an act, and pinagaanitohan was the soul petitioned. So penitents in the confessional were asked, “Naga-anito ka (Did you make anito)?” or “May pinaga-anitohang ka (have you invoked some soul)? (San Buenaventura 1614, 361). Naga-anito also included any act calling on the supernatural—for example, malimakan, taking auguries by balancing one oiled cowry shell on top of another.
Celestial bodies were also venerated as deities—Tala, the Morning Star, Mapulon, the Pleiades, and Balatik, the Big Dipper—and the new moon was always invoked for material increase and wealth. Crocodiles were especially feared and venerated: offerings of food were set out for them, and the salaksak bird was considered sacred because it was permitted to pick a crocodile’s teeth without harm. Some Tagalogs believed crocodiles had the souls of deceased human beings, and so anointed, shrouded, and buried them when dead. In Batangas, the same obsequies were given a flat headed lizard called tuko, believed to be poisonous. The balete tree was reverenced as the abode of spirits: there the most solemn community sacrifices were made, and there prominent chiefs were sometimes given a secondary burial.
Omen birds and lizards were considered divine messengers, particularly the tigmamanukan bird, manuk being the general term for any bird, lizard, or snake that crossed the path as an omen. All such encounters were called salubong. If the tigmamanukan bird flew across from right to left when men were starting out on an expedition, it was giving the labay sign of successful plundering, but if from left to right, a sure warning that they would never return. If they happened to catch one in a trap, they would cut its beak and release it with the words, “kita ay iwawala, kun akoey mey kakawnan, lalabay ka (you are free, so when I set forth, sing on the right)” (San Buenaventura 1613, 95).
The greatest religious attention was given to ancestor worship—that is, veneration of the spirits of the departed. These were generally parents or grandparents, but occasionally a popular hero known for his bravery, ferocity, and active love life. The former were considered the immediate cause of illness or misfortune, and had to be placated by sacrifices to likha kept in the house (those who could afford to do set food aside for them at every meal), or the intervention of shamans called katulunan. Their memory was carefully kept alive by himakas, a personal garment or piece of jewelery preserved as a memorial, and pahiyin tabus against mentioning their name, eating from a plate they had used, or sitting in some spot they had frequented. At several points along the Pasig River, porcelain plates were set out with offerings by descendants who trafficked along that route.
Source: Barangay: Sixteenth Century Philippine Culture and Society by William Henry Scott.