The devil in Philippine life | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

The devil in Philippine life

/ 05:04 AM October 29, 2021

What does the devil look like? For me, he is an adult male with horns and bat-like wings. As a child, I was terrified of illustrations of the devil and hell in a pre-Vatican II catechism owned by my maternal grandparents. I also remember the devil from our kitchen cupboard; after all, his likeness was on a popular brand of hot sauce before Tabasco dominated the Philippine market. This devil had red skin, horns, and a black pointed tail, and carried a pitchfork.

In Philippine art, Fernando Amorsolo left us with the iconic image of the devil on bottles of gin, depicted as being driven back into the flames of hell by St. Michael. Long before Ginebra San Miguel was rebranded into GSM, it was popularly known as “Marca Demonio.” Why did Pinoys latch on to the vanquished devil more than to the archangel whose name honors this clear liquid fire? One explanation can be that, to drinking-age Pinoys, San Miguel refers to the beer in the fat brown bottle rather than the gin in the four-sided or “cuatro cantos” bottle.


The devil does not seem to figure in the 21st century as much as it did in 17th- and 18th-century Philippines, at least in the historical literature. In the index to the 55-volume compilation of documents known to historians as “Blair & Robertson,” you will find “Devil” between “Despujol” (Spanish governor-general) and “Dewey” (U.S. admiral who sunk the Spanish fleet in the 1898 Battle of Manila Bay). References to the devil (and demons) deal with “his influence over the natives,” how the devil possessed native priests who addressed him, how he appeared in dreams and visions, how he tormented human beings or was hostile to Christians, how the devil was exorcised by religious ministers, etc. These make for remarkable reading during the Halloween weekend.

To the Spanish missionaries, the devil seemed very real indeed, and while they did not actually see him, they believed that whatever religion or beliefs they found in the islands were his handiwork. From the 17th-century accounts of early Recollect missions, for example, we learn about Fray Rodrigo de San Miguel, assigned to Zambales. When informed by the natives that a particular thicket was “consecrated to their devils” and that anyone who cut or touched any plants within would die, Fray Rodrigo focused on a tree heavy with fruit “that resembled the excellent plums we know in Europe.” Actually, these were “paho”—ripe, mellow, and ready for harvesting, but nobody touched the fruit. After making the sign of the cross, Fray Rodrigo started repeating in Latin: “Ecce crucem Domini: fugite partes adversae. Vicit lep de trobu Juda” (Behold the Cross of the Lord. Flee ye, adverse ones. The lion of Judah is conqueror). Then he climbed the tree, breaking branches as he ascended. After gathering much fruit, the priest proceeded to eat much of it to the horror of the natives. Fray Rodrigo lived and won many converts.


Another Recollect missionary, Fray Jacinto de San Fulgencio who was assigned to Butuan, went out of his comfort zone into a place called Linao. Here he took an idol from a temple that was described as “a fierce devil, made of wood, covered with black paint, which made it ugly and frightful.” Warned that he would die if he so much as touched the idol, he calmly took it from the altar and brought it back to Butuan. Father Jacinto refused gold offered as a ransom for the idol. His act drew many conversions—or so they claim in their chronicles.

While Rizal read and scoffed at early friar accounts of the Philippines and the Filipinos, his contemporary Isabelo de los Reyes wove them into a funny story serialized in the bilingual Spanish-Tagalog newspaper La España Oriental as “Ang Diablo sa Filipinas ayon sa nasasabi sa mga casulatan luma sa Kastila” (1889). The late Benedict Anderson published an annotated English translation of De los Reyes’ little-known work, whose punchline is simple: The Devil was unknown to Filipinos before the Spanish conquest; the religious introduced a new faith and a new enemy (Satan) in the islands.

It is unfortunate that this welcome twist in the story does not figure in the commemoration this year of the 500th anniversary of the introduction of Christianity in the Philippines.


Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: devil, History, Religion
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