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Balátik and Moropóro Stars of Philippine skies

By Dante L. Ambrosio
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:55:00 02/02/2008

Filed Under: Astronomy, Nature

MANILA, Philippines--WE ARE RUNNING TWO ARTICLES ON THE ROLE THAT STARS, CONSTELLATIONS, THE SUN and the moon play in the lives of Filipinos. This is in response to the weather bureau?s appeal for the public to help it gather stories about celestial objects that shaped ?our culture or beliefs.?

Last week, we featured how the Badjaos of Tawi-tawi use stars in hunting, planting, fishing and seafaring. Today, we focus on the influence of Balátik (Orion) and Moropóro (Pleiades) on the practices of various groups in the country.

Studies show that before the Spaniards came to the country, early Filipinos already had a rich knowledge of the heavens. This knowledge, retained mostly by elders of indigenous communities, may be lost unless it is recorded, popularized and passed on to the next generation. -- Editor

* * *

AMONG THE STAR groups that are often mentioned in studies of stars in Philippine skies, two appear to be more prominent. These are Orion and the Pleiades, which are called by various names, among which are Balátik and Moropóro.

How to explain the prominence? There is a combination of reasons.

One, Orion is composed of several bright stars. The combination of the stars of Orion?s Belt and Orion?s Sword remind many Philippine cultures of the spring trap used in hunting wild pigs. They call the trap balátik. Christian Filipinos, on the other hand, see in the stars of Orion?s Belt the Tres Marias or Tatlong Maria (Three Marias) which are of Spanish-Christian origin.

Prominent positions

The Pleiades? distinguishing mark is the bunching together of its stars, a rarity among naked-eye stars. It is called Moropóro, Molopólo or Mapúlon by various ethnic groups throughout the archipelago. Christian Filipinos know it as either Supot ni Hudas (Judas? pouch) or Rosaryo (rosary).

Two, Orion and the Pleaides occupy very prominent positions in Philippine skies. They both rise in the east, traverse the sky almost through the zenith and set in the west. Orion?s brightness and the large area it occupies horizontally in the middle of the sky make it the most visible among constellations during its seasonal appearance, with Pleiades leading it off not far ahead.

Swidden farming

Three, their seasonal appearance in Philippine skies at night coincides with environmental conditions that are conducive to various cultures? activities, most especially kaingin or swidden farming. Thus, the local population?s dependence on these stars in timing the various stages of their agricultural work.

It is this third reason which makes Orion and the Pleiades particularly important among Philippine cultures. The two appear from October to May in the Philippine night sky. This is the kaingin period for swidden farmers. They choose the land for kaingin around December and January, clear it from January to February, let the cut trees and grasses dry during the hot months of March and April, and burn them around late April as the gentle northeast wind blows.

They plant the cleared land around May after the first drops of rain. Both Orion and the Pleiades? changing positions at nightfall during these months serve to guide the swidden farmers in their work.

A number of stars of Orion form the Philippine constellation commonly known as Balátik. It is named after a spear trap used for hunting, especially wild pigs. William Henry Scott described a Visayan spear trap in this manner:


?The balátik was a rather sophisticated machine. Standing on two stout poles driven into the ground in the form of an X, it had a long stock with a slot to hold the shaft, a powerful bow or spring to propel it, and a catch to hold the string and release it when triggered. It even had a safety lock to prevent it from firing accidentally?.?

It is indeed a widely used trap which researchers had described or drawn a number of times. Francis H. Lambrecht had a drawing of an Ifugao bala?ih trap which is no different from a balátik.

Balátik as an asterism clones the trap in the sky. My Badjao or Sama Dilaut informant pointed it out to me as it sets in the west in an early May night. It is composed of Orion?s Belt as the shaft or arrow and Orion?s Sword as the bow or thruster.

Nicole Revel had the same stars and form for the Palawan Binawägan mägsasawäd , which is also named after the Palawan?s spear trap.

Spanish chroniclers

Philippine groups already recognized Balátik as a trap and a constellation by the time Spaniards colonized the archipelago in 1565. Juan de Plasencia mentioned it in his 1589 account as one of the Tagalog stars though misidentifying it as Ursa Major. Alonso de Mentrida mentioned the same in his Hiligaynon vocabulary but like Plasencia misidentified it?for Gemini this time.

Seventeenth century compilers of Tagalog vocabularies like Francisco de San Antonio and Pedro de San Buenaventura described it as both a trap and an asterism composed of the stars of Orion. They identified it as the Spanish Tres Marias, referring to Orion?s Belt.

Ethnographic studies
Later ethnographic studies revealed Balátik?s popularity across the archipelago. The asterism is known as Balátik or by its cognates Bayatik, Belatik, Batik to several Philippine groups. The Ifugao Balbalays, the Jama Mapun Batik and the Palawan Binawägan mägsasawäd refer to the same trap and asterism.

The Teduray Seretar and the Bukidnon Magbangal may not be a trap, yet they are also associated with hunting. Both are hunters and kaingin farmers in the myths. Seretar?s body is formed by Orion?s Belt, his left arm by Betelgeuse and his right by Rigel. His bolo, kept in a rattan scabbard, is Orion?s Sword in modern astronomy. Fay-Cooper Cole did not identify the Bukidnon stars by their modern names but it may be surmised that Magbangal is composed of the stars of Orion given the facts of his observations. He did mention that Magbangal is a hunter and a swidden farmer.

Weaving is an important craft among the Ilokanos and Igorots of northern Luzon. This is, perhaps, one reason they see quite a different figure in the stars of Orion. Rather than a trap, they see their weaving frame, the gagan-ayan, among its stars.

The three stars of Orion?s belt are known as Tatlong Maria, Atlung Maria and Trismariiya to Christian Filipinos from the Spanish Tres Marias. Still we find the old Tagalog name Balátik being reported among the Christian Tagalogs of Tayabas (now Quezon province) as cited by Arsenio Manuel in his Tayabas Tagalog lexicography.


The Pleiades is the next well-known asterism in Philippine skies. I use the term Moropóro to refer to it because it is known to several Philippine groups by this name or by its cognates.

Plasencia reported in 1589 that the Tagalogs knew of the Spaniards? siete cabrillas or ?seven goats,? the Spanish version of the Pleiades. The Tagalogs called theirs Mapúlon. He added that because of this, they knew of the changing of the season.

San Antonio and San Buenaventura listed Mapolon in their respective 17th century Tagalog vocabularies, identifying it likewise with the Pleiades and the Spanish goats. Juan de Noceda and Pedro de Sanlucar had Mapolong or Polonpolon as the Tagalog name for the Pleiades.

Cock?s foot
Three hundred years later, the Tagalogs of Tayabas still recognize it as Mapúlon, while those of Laguna province call it Mapulong. Manuel gave three meanings to the Tayabas Tagalogs? mapulún: it is a group of stars in which one is surrounded by many; it is a group of scales in a fighting cock?s foot in which one scale is surrounded by six others; and, it is the neat winding of a string on a spool.

Miguel de Loarca, reporting on the Bisayans of Panay in 1582, observed that the Pleiades marked the first month of their seasonal calendar, the time to start preparing land for farming. He did not give its name or the time of its appearance.

Mentrida, however, said the Hiligaynons of Panay called Pleiades Molopólo. Scott averred that the Bisayan name for Pleiades is Moropóro, meaning ?boiling lights? or ?flock of birds.? He timed its appearance in the month of June at dawn.

The early Bikolanos of southeastern Luzon also called the Pleiades Moropóro.

These names or their cognates are still with other Philippine groups particularly on the central and southern islands of the Visayas and Mindanao. The Pleiades is Murupúru in Antique on Panay island and among the Tagbanuas of Palawan, Molopólo to the Bukidnons of Bukidnon, and Mulupúlu to the Arumanen Manobos of Cotabato.

Sweet potatoes
These names, however, mean different things. I have mentioned Scott?s meaning of Moropóro, though I do not understand what he meant by ?boiling lights.? To the Bisayans, Molopólo is a plant belonging to the mallow family.

Other Philippine groups have different names for the Pleiades. The Teduray Kufukufu are flies swarming over the remains of the wild pig killed by the hunter Seretar. To the Palawans, Manapuru is a bunch of sweet potatoes eaten by a wild pig. Mopo, to the Jama Mapuns, is the pig, which is the target of their Batik.


The stories about Balátik and Moropóro are closely tied with two different economic activities of the early Filipinos. One story revolves around hunting, while the other centers on agriculture, kaingin farming in particular.

Stuart Schlegel said the Teduray Seretar (Orion) is a hunter. Baka (the Hyades) is the jaw of the wild pig he killed while Kufukufu are the flies swarming over the remains of the pig. A Teduray myth, recounted by Schlegel, tells that the three are cousins who consented to be left behind in the sky to serve as guides to farmers while their kin proceeded to the region of their great god to live there forever.

The story of the hunter, the pig and the trap is quite common among some southern Philippine cultures. It can be found among the Palawans, Bukidnons, Jama Mapuns and Samas.

The story of Magbangal and his wives among the Bukidnons as recounted by Cole is not unlike the story of Tohng and his wives, which Eric Casiño found among the Jama Mapuns and which I also heard among the Tausugs and Samas of Tawi-tawi. Magbangal is a star group formed out of the stars of Orion while Tohng and his two wives are the Jama Mapun Tanggung composed of the three main stars of Aquila. Tanggung is the Sama Paliyama.

The story is about a kaingin farmer with magical powers who ordered one of his wives not to interfere with his work but who nonetheless disobeyed him. This forced him to go to the sky with his tools and wives to help guide those left behind in their agricultural work. The story tells why people have to break their back doing kaingin farming to survive.

Orion and the Pleiades are two of the more prominent star groups among Philippine cultures mainly because they serve as guides to kaingin farmers.

Schlegel, Revel and Cole described how the Tedurays, Palawans and Bukidnons use the stars of Orion and the Pleiades in swidden farming. In Teduray kaingin farming, for example, Schlegel identified at least four positions of Seretar and Kufukufu that are crucial in determining its stages.

Two of these are their appearance in the east at nightfall and their setting in the west before the end of their seasonal appearance. The other two are when they are at locations the Tedurays call ranga (chicken?s nest), which is 10 degrees around the zenith, and kemuda (riding the horse) which is the zenith itself. These positions signify the propitious times for particular stages of kaingin farming.

Since the changing of the seasons indicates when to begin agricultural work, it follows that the stars used as kaingin markers also serve as indicators of this change. As early as late 16th century, both Plasencia and Loarca had noted this in the case of the Pleaides among the Tagalogs of Luzon and the Bisayans of Panay.

The Bukidnons know that when all constellations (i.e. Magbangal, et al) appear in the east it is the dry season; when they appear at the zenith it is the hot season, and when they rise in the west it is the beginning of the rainy season?exactly the positions taken by Orion and the Pleiades during these periods.

Rice ritual
Reports from Cordillera in northern Luzon usually mentioned the stars in rituals and prayers. An example is the botó sacrifice by the Mayawyaw Ifugaos as reported by Lambrecht. The sacrifice is supposed to be the most important part of the Ifugao rice ritual. Invoked in the prayers, aside from the sun and the moon, are 10 stars: Balbaláys, Tállo, Pumînal, Tunúgan, Ilîhan, Palpállo, Nahikîhig, Nachalipópong, Agiwána and Nîpngot.

In the pakdé sacrifice of the Kankana-eys, Morice Vanoverbegh found a number of star groups to which some of the prayers are addressed. He named and identified them thus: Kinamálig or Balangáy (Ursa Major), Tudóng, Binabbáis (Orion?s Belt), Salibúbu (Pleiades), Pinadánga (Hyades), Wáyat, Dopó, Ketmá, Uling, and Liwliw. He also mentioned a few asterisms not mentioned in the prayers: Kinallaúb (Coma Berenices), Sangbát and Laská.

(Dante L. Ambrosio is a professor at the History Department, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City. He can be reached at danteambrosio@yahoo.com)

* * *

Heavenly bodies, ?camote? and Igorot weddings

By Maurice Malanes, Inquirer Northern Luzon

Page A14

BAGUIO CITY -- A STORY was told about the late Lakay (elder) Talin-eng of Kibungan, Benguet who got stuck in the middle of a pulley-operated tramline, which Kankana-ey folk used to employ to cross the Amburayan River in neighboring Kapangan town.

As he sought help, the elder was said to have prayed, ?Ilam ay Agew, laton met ay bakenak mangakew (O Lord Sun, You know I?m not a thief).?

It was a prayer of a man, who felt he was being punished for some wrongs he did not commit. So for him, the sun, which was either regarded as an all-knowing god or a representation of some supreme being, could attest to his clean record.

Talin-eng failed to pull some rope so the tramline got stuck midway across above the river.

In their prayer rituals, traditional Igorot priests would invoke the sun, the moon and the stars to guide them and bless their harvests and other livelihoods.

Besides being revered as some kind of divine objects, heavenly bodies have guided the daily lives of Igorot folk, particularly in farming.

Until now, some upland folk in Kibungan plant certain crops during a certain phase of the moon. They believe, for example, that it will be more auspicious to plant camote (sweet potato) cuttings and bean seeds on days between beska (equivalent of first quarter lunar phase) and teke or full moon.

According to them, crops planted or seeds sowed when the moon is beginning to reappear after lened (new moon) will grow as the moon?s phases turn into a full moon. They, therefore, avoid planting after full moon when it fades out into a new moon.

To the Kankana-ey folk of Kibungan, the period between the first quarter and the full moon signifies birth, growth and hope.

Even rituals for activities such as wedding, thanksgiving and burial are set on days between the first quarter and the full moon.

The phase after the full moon is called bakas, which literally means destruction or fading out. Kibungan folk believe that crops planted during this period are not as productive as those sown before the full moon.

Any day before the full moon is also believed to be the appropriate time for a new couple to wed because this period signifies growth and progress or an unfolding into something full or abundant.

While Igorot cosmology is generally considered part of the group?s folk tales, organic farmers claim that this traditional cosmology has some scientific basis.

Greg Kitma of Baguio City, who considers himself a biodynamic organic farmer, says the level of gravitational pull of the moon varies during its different phases.

The earth?s gravitational pull also reacts in certain ways during the different phases of the moon or during certain planetary or star alignments.

These gravitational processes affect how plants grow in the same way that there is high or low tide during certain lunar phases, says Kitma.

He follows a cropping calendar based not only on the phases of the moon but also on other movements in the solar system.

He says it would be good to plant root crops such as potatoes and yam during certain phases of the moon when its gravitational pull is weaker than that of the Earth.

But crops such as beans, tomatoes and eggplant are best planted during a full moon, when the gravitational pull of the moon is stronger, he says.

?Our ancestors were actually more scientific than we thought,? said Kitma, an Ibaloi.

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