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Looking Back

‘Anting-anting’ in Philippine history

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“Anting-anting,” like those crude bronze objects sold outside Quiapo church, may have gone out of fashion, but people still believe in luck and charms that are supposed to attract good fortune and repel the bad. Take a look at the rear view mirror next time you are on public transport there, most likely you will see a rosary, Chinese coins and/or laminated holy pictures. Some jeeps and taxicabs have an entire mini-altar on the dashboard to insure a safe trip. Despite his being stricken off the official list of Catholic saints, Christopher or Cristobal in sticker or magnetic form still guard us on the road. It is surprising that the Virgin of Antipolo that protected galleons that sailed the Manila-Acapulco route, the same miraculous image given the title “Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage,” is not used on the road as well. When Rizal travelled to Europe a lithograph of the Virgin of Antipolo was glued to his trunk to protect against loss or delay in his luggage.

This week, as we remember the events of Edsa 1986, take a close look at photos showing groups of unarmed Filipinos stopping a tank armed with nothing but rosaries and an image of the Virgin Mary. In the secular and modern world, such display of faith is inspiring. Yet to some, it is rather puzzling: Can faith, such as that seen in Edsa 1986, really move mountains? In the Philippines such faith restored democracy and ended two decades of Marcos rule. Today, some historians studying the events of Edsa 1986 look further back through the centuries at similar displays of faith, documenting Filipinos facing adversity or sure death with crucifixes, 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 martyrs Gomez, Burgos and Zamora when they were executed by garrote in 1872. This was done to keep the soldiers safe in the fiercest of battles. Emilio Aguinaldo is said to have outlived all his enemies—both foreign and Filipino—because he had an amulet from a friendly “kapre”  that protected him. The amulet that allegedly kept him alive during the revolution was published in the Philippines Free Press, prompting him to send a disclaimer dated Sept. 25, 1929. In that disclaimer, he declared: “It is not true that I used any anting-anting in the age of the Revolution, neither have I seen any of these two (anting-anting) in photographs supplied by the Free Press.” Despite this, the stories of the “kapre” and Aguinaldo’s anting-anting persist to our day and are repeated to visitors in his Kawit mansion.

Early Spanish accounts describe warriors advancing on superior firearms with amulets of wood, stone or metal—displaying the same kind of faith shown during the Filipino-American War. In more recent times there was much talk about Marcos surviving World War II, assassination attempts, and political intrigue because of an amulet, implanted on some part of his body by Gregorio Aglipay. Despite the cliché about power being the ultimate aphrodisiac, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone will weave a story about an amulet that made Marcos attractive to the opposite sex.

One need not go far to view or acquire an anting-anting. No need to wait in the middle of the night to catch the stone that falls from a banana heart because the stalls outside Quiapo church in Manila are filled with images of Roman Catholic saints, rosaries, scapulars, novenas side by side with herbs, minerals, bottled oil for various ailments, and various cast-iron anting-anting for specific uses. There are anting-anting to ward off the evil eye, to pass examinations, to attract the opposite sex, to make one invulnerable to bullets or bad business, etc. There is an anting-anting for every need and occasion to suit one’s budget. Written with a mix of Pig Latin and sometimes Filipino, the texts on these amulets supplement both Catholic and precolonial images. For general good luck one has the choice between an image of a duwende (dwarf) holding a money bag or a nude Santo Niño. What makes the conservative balk at the anting-anting version of the Christ Child is that it comes with an erect penis! Anthropologists and historians have been conducting research on the anting-anting that reveals the underside of Roman Catholicism in the Philippines. Precolonial beliefs and practices blend almost seamlessly into Catholic rituals. Followers of El Shaddai have lucky handkerchiefs and special umbrellas used upside down to collect grace from heaven.

Thousands of amulets looted from Filipino casualties by enemy soldiers as souvenirs or booty remain in the United States. One of the most significant being the anting-anting vest with text and drawings worn by Macario Sakay now in the US National Archives. One wonders whether nationalists should shift their focus on the demand for the repatriation of the Balangiga Bells to the demand for the return of the anting-anting worn by patriots who died in the struggle for Philippine independence.

Artifact of faith, superstition, history and anthropology, the anting-anting awaits further study and appreciation as an art form—or as another form of Philippine art.

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Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu


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