Looking Back



While signing copies of my latest book “Chulalongkorn’s Elephants” with my trademark green ink, I was surprised when someone handed me a freshly sharpened Mongol pencil and requested that I use it on his book. I got some odd requests for special messages then, but using the iconic yellow pencil was unusual. When I was told that it was the pencil he planned to use in a coming board examination, I wished him all the luck in the universe. If he turns out to be this year’s topnotcher, I would be swamped with pencils.

Although we live in the Age of the Internet and the iPad,  many of us still believe in luck and carry about things meant to draw good fortune or protection—everything from rosaries to rabbits’ feet.  I have a friend who has the reputation for editing manuscripts that end up with National Book Awards. Today she doesn’t even need to edit a manuscript, all she has to do is sleep with your manuscript under her pillow for a night and your chances of winning a literary award goes up significantly.

We use amulets or anting-anting for different purposes. We are lucky that we have photo documentation of their use.

Some of the iconic pictures of Edsa 1986 were of people who stood in front of tanks armed with nothing but bravery bolstered by faith. They stood their ground and stopped tanks by holding rosaries and an image of the Virgin Mary aloft. Such a display of faith in a modern and secular era was inspiring to some and puzzling to others. That was the kind of faith that could literally move mountains.

It has been a quarter of a century since Edsa, and the Philippines has not changed much. Jaded historians now look further back through the centuries, researching other places, other times when Filipinos faced adversity or sure death with rosaries, scapulars, or anting-anting.

During the Philippine Revolution, Andres Bonifacio was said to have distributed pieces of black cloth that had allegedly been cut from the  cassocks worn by the martyred priests we remember as Gomburza today: Gomez, Burgos and Zamora, who were executed by garrote in Bagumbayan in 1872. These pieces of cloth were believed to protect the bearer from harm and made ill-equipped and hastily trained Katipuneros fight a superior enemy with bravery and faith.

Emilio Aguinaldo is said to have outlived all his enemies “foreigners and Filipinos alike” because he had an amulet and a friendly kapre nesting in an ancient mango tree near his bedroom window in Kawit, Cavite, who warned him of approaching danger.

Spanish chronicles describe Filipino warriors advancing on superior weapons wearing or carrying amulets of wood, stone, or metal.

It was the same belief in anting-anting that fired Aguinaldo’s army during the Filipino-American War or soldiers fighting the Japanese during World War II.

In more contemporary times, we are told that Ferdinand Marcos survived World War II, assassination attempts, political intrigue and two decades in power because of an amulet implanted under his skin during his youth by Gregorio Aglipay. Imelda Marcos was gifted with a rosary by Ninoy Aquino that adorned one of the principal images of the Santo Niño in Malacañang. Cory Aquino drew strength from prayer, often using a rosary specially made for her by one of the visionaries of Fatima.

Anting-anting are on display in the stalls outside Quiapo church where these amulets are sold side by side with novenas, rosaries, crucifixes and assorted religious images. Anting-anting made of cast  metal are sold alongside assorted medicinal herbs, rocks, wood and bottled oil for various ailments or uses legible from their labels, like “Pampa-laki” or “Pampa-regla.”

There are anting-anting for specific uses: some to ward off bad luck, the evil-eye, or aswang; others to attract money, good fortune, love, or sex with a partner of the opposite or same gender; still others to make one invulnerable to bullets; and others to help the bearer pass exams or do well in business. One could say there is an anting-anting for every need, an amulet for any budget.

These pieces of metal often come with text that is a mix of pig Latin and Filipino. They bear images from Roman Catholic and our older pre-Spanish  religion. For example, you have a choice between a small brass duende  (dwarf) holding a bag of gold or money or an image of the Christ Child, nude and showing a fully erect penis.

A lot of anthropological and historical field research has been undertaken in Quiapo where the underside of Roman Catholicism in the Philippines blends seamlessly with our pre-Spanish beliefs, rituals and customs.

Thousands of amulets were looted from Filipino casualties and prisoners by the enemy during the Filipino-American War and taken home to the United States as souvenirs and booty. One of the most important historical anting-anting was a vest worn by Macario Sakay which is preserved in the U. National Archives. So far there has been no campaign for the repatriation of this anting-anting, like the one for the return of the Balangiga bells, but one can only wish that it will be returned home and preserved in the National Museum or the National Historical Commission.

Artifacts of faith and history, the anting-anting deserves serious academic study to help us appreciate it as yet another expression of Philippine art.

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  • Anonymous

    While I agree that anting-antings might make a good subject for sociological studies, I think the Philippines will be better off if people choose to make their own destiny without thinking that some inanimate amulet will do it or help them do it for them. Too much superstition (and the accompanying fatalism – “kapalaran, etc.”) hinders progress.

  • Anonymous

    We can dream all we can that historical pieces /artifacts/war booty souvenirs be returned to the Philippines from the archives where they are kept/collected. But the truth is, does the Philippines know, have continuous capability, show true value, and dare maintain its historical treasures? Our country, the direction of government, education, and the people have a poor sense of history. These treasures are still intact/protected in the foreign archives. I doubt if it would have been the same had these remained in the Philippines. Many of it would have been either fenced, junked, under a thick blanket of dust, or destroyed in oblivion.

  • Anonymous

    they just lack knowledge. anting anting is just a form of faking, of pretending, of deception. you fake people to believe you are strong and powerful. anting anting would make you survive, if knowledge is not the primary tool for survival. 

    but however, that is part of a cultural upbringing. if they collate all data and information of anting anting, that would become a book of luck and destiny, not a book of faking and deceiving.

    • Anonymous

      “they just lack knowledge. anting anting is just a form of faking, of
      pretending, of deception. you fake people to believe you are strong and
      powerful. anting anting would make you survive, if knowledge is not the
      primary tool for survival. ”

      ====> Sounds like Catholicism. he-he-he!

      • Anonymous

        Gee, reddfrog, I don’t think that is called for. The Catholicism that is practiced in the Philippines is different from the Catholicism here in western countries. They are really not much into the Mary-Mary-Scapular thing. Philippine Catholicism has a pagan overlay owing to the beliefs of our ancestors. This is the reason why I am sometimes aghast to see manghuhulas, arbularyos and other practitioners of what is basically occult having all the Catholic religious images around them and mixing their oraciones with basically Catholic prayers. Come to think of it, unconsciously a number of Filipinos actually use the rosary and the scapular as a sort of amulet too- kaya may rosaryo sa dashboard dahil akala nila this will protect them – di na baleng reckless driver sila! As for me, I just believe in God and that’s it – I think if you just follow the Christian precept of say doing unto others what you want them to do to you, a whole lot of what most people consider as “misfortune” will not occur – kung lahat ng driver magbibigayan sa kalye, baka hindi na kailangan ng rosaryo para maiwasan ang sakuna.

      • Anonymous

        yes, anting anting is truly fake dear son, but it is much far different from catholism.

    • Anonymous

      i think you are the one who has lack of knowledge on anting-anting(amulet). noong una ndi ako naniniwala talga but when somebody tested thier anting-anting nakita ko mismo sa harapan ko kung 
      paano nga nangyari na ndi nabutas o nasira ang isang panyo or medalyon sa pagbaril sa anting-anting, yon pa ngang isang amulet eh bumalik ang bala sa bumaril buti at may pang kontra sya kya hindi sya tinablan. kunti lng kc na tao ang pinag kakalooban nyan ung mabuting puso

    • Anonymous

      peoples of different cultures hold on to something for luck.  the americans have their rabbit’s foot because nature with its goodness has also it’s terrible outbust. having one anting anting is sort of protection held on by our ancestors such  that it has been  innately etched in all human genes through out history from the times of our forebears.

  • Guest

    anting-anting as expression of art? or attitude/belief? Do we express art? or we make concrete that which is intangible in us through art?

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