Looking Back

The Boxer Codex


Thousands are expected to perish if a great earthquake hits Manila because people live and work in high-rise buildings. A similar earthquake in the pre-Spanish Philippines would have caused little or no casualties because people lived in simpler homes, though coastal communities could be wiped out by a tsunami. Our ancestors coped with earthquakes by making noise. The anonymous author of the Boxer Codex said of the early Filipinos: “When the earth shakes they say the anitos do it, and so they all go about delivering blows to the house and making much noise, saying that the anitos become scared and stop the earthquake.”

Contrary to popular belief, the Boxer Codex has nothing to do with Manny Pacquiao, Jinky, or even Aling Dionisia. The Boxer Codex is a 307-page Spanish manuscript on the people and customs of Luzon, including Zambales, the Cordilleras and Cagayan. It also has a section on the Visayas. What make this work exceptional are the 75 color drawings of the different peoples of what are today New Guinea, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Moluccas, Cambodia, Brunei, Thailand, China, Japan, etc. Of the 75 drawings, 15 pertain to the Philippines and are some of the earliest representations we have of the Tagalog, Bisaya, Cagayanon and Negrito, documenting how they dressed and how they wore gold jewelry at the time of contact with the Spaniards. These charming illustrations by an unknown Chinese artist were made in the manner of the illuminated prayer books known as “Book of Hours.”

The original manuscript was found in the home of the historian C.R. Boxer before it was sent to the Lilly Library in the University of Indiana in Bloomington. Boxer recounted how he placed a nominal bid at an auction for an anonymous, undated manuscript (its title page was missing) that the auction catalogue described as a curious 18th-century work on Asia. Some weeks later, Boxer received a parcel in the mail. When he opened the parcel he realized he had a late-16th-century work so beautifully made it could have been owned by either the Bishop of Manila or, in this case, the governor-general (Luis Perez Dasmariñas, who succeeded his father, the ill-fated Gov. Gomez Perez Dasmariñas, who was killed by mutinous Sangley row men in 1593).

This manuscript now bears the historian’s name as the Boxer Codex. Filipinos in Manila need not travel to Indiana to see it because a digital copy is available in the Ayala Museum gold collection. With the click of a mouse you can see on a large LCD screen the original handwritten text as well as a more legible transcription and an accompanying English translation of the text from the original Spanish. One cannot read the whole Codex in its digital format in one sitting so it is best to consult the translation by Carlos Quirino and Mauro Garcia in the Philippine Journal of Science (1958).

While the material in the Codex is centuries-old, it remains relevant to us for the picture it paints of life in the pre-Spanish Philippines. I am interested in the section on omens and superstitions because some of them are still current in our times. For example, the Boxer Codex states:

“If somebody sneezes, or they hear a lizard’s clucking, or if some snake crosses their path, they turn back saying that those are signs that God had sent and that it is not His will for them to continue, and that if they proceed some evil would befall them.”

Out world is so busy we will hardly notice a lizard’s clucking. Many of us live in an urban setting and would hardly have snakes crossing our path; this may explain why the snake has been substituted by a black cat as a bad omen. The sneezing omen I experienced in Abra two years ago. I was to take the long land trip back to Manila and thanked my hosts for their hospitality. On my way out I sneezed, and was pulled back into the house and made to wait 15 minutes for whatever misfortune I was to encounter on the road to pass.

The Boxer Codex records many superstitions of the early Filipinos, some of which are:

• “They do not allow anything to be eaten where rice is planted, because they believe that he who does so will either die or turn mad.”

• “When it rains while the sun is shining and the sun is somewhat reddish, they say the anitos unite to war on them and they are in great fear; and neither women nor children are allowed to go down from their houses until the rain stops and the sky clears up.”

• “The first day that the new moon appears, they adore it and ask for favors. Going on water by the river or in a boat, they pray to the crocodile, asking it to go to the deep and not to frighten or hurt them as they are not its enemies and do not seek its harm but its well-being, and for it to inflict harm on their enemies.”

• “They use herbs to attract those whom they like and correspondingly use others on those whom they dislike.”

• “When women are pregnant the husbands do not cut their hair, because they say their offspring would be born bald and hairless if they do so.”

• “They have an aversion to eat two bananas that are joined one with another or any food that are two in one because they believe they will give birth to two creatures from the same womb, which they consider a great insult.”

The Boxer Codex is a mirror of the past and shows us how much we have changed or remained the same for centuries.

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