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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