Looking Back

‘Chewing testicles’

One chapter deleted from the late Bienvenido Santos’ memoirs was on me. Part of it was on his vain attempt to get a young historian and a young poetess to fall in love with each other. “Ah,” he groaned, “Cupid wasted all his arrows.” Santos’ slim book is called “Memory’s Fictions,” a title that has made me think long and hard about the primary sources I use in my work. Can memoirs and letters be trusted? Don’t these contain a certain point of view, a bias perhaps, that can change the way a story is told?

Then there is the wonderful title of Caroline Hau’s book, “Necessary Fictions,” a sharp work of literary criticism that covers Philippine literature and the nation from 1946 to 1980. Writing about the hoax that is the Code of Kalantiaw reminds me of “necessary fictions” and the people who refuse to believe that something is wrong with this alleged pre-Spanish Philippine law passed in Aklan in 1433. One reader even sent an e-mail to ask: “What is funny about the Code of Kalantiaw?”


Each semester when my students go over the Code of Kalantiaw, they fall off their seats laughing about the harsh punishments for: those who shoot arrows at night at old men and women, those who sing while travelling at night, or those who kill black cats during a new moon. It was a crime to keep a dog that bites the chief. It was also a crime to hide one’s beautiful daughters from the chief and his sons.

We read the Code of Kalantiaw and laugh because we can instinctively sense that something is wrong. A reader in New York e-mailed:


“Just read the full Kalantiaw for the first time. For an economist, the absurdly severe punishments are a tip-off that the thing is fake. Why? Because societies almost always develop a graduated and rational scale of punishments—i.e., the more severe the infraction, the harsher the punishment. The cost has to correspond with the value.

“Take jaywalking or pickpocketing. They’re not punished with the death penalty. Why not?

Because if you are caught jaywalking, you may as well kill the cop. If you are eventually caught, you’ll be hanged either way, so you may as well kill the cop and baka sakali, makakatakas ka(perhaps you can escape).”

Kalantiaw punishes men who are excessively lustful by sentencing them to swim in the river for three hours. One of my students commented on this with a question: “How did they reckon three hours then? They didn’t have watches and clocks.” Kalantiaw punishes those who perform their necessities in a place where idols are kept. Does this mean that in Aklan in 1433, they already had signs that warned: “Bawal omehe deto”?

Reading the Kalantiaw Code orally in class leads to many “aha moments.” This is one of the reasons I have remained a teacher all these years, I learn much more from my students than I teach them. During a discussion years ago a couple of my Chinoy students at the back started giggling, and when I asked them to share the joke they explained that a Filipino would understand Kalantiaw as “ka” (the honorific) and “Lantiaw” the name of the pre-Spanish lawgiver, but a Chinoy, on the other hand, using his/her native tongue, would understand “ka” as the verb “to bite or chew” and “lantiaw” as “testicles.” Thus, in their reckoning, Kalantiaw means “to chew or bite testicles.”

We all had a hearty laugh in class over that one, but later I wondered if Jose E. Marco, who created the Code of Kalantiaw, had purposely chosen that name as a hint that everyone but Ateneo undergrads seemed to have picked up. If Marco did this on purpose, then he truly had the last laugh.

My interest in the Code of Kalantiaw stems not only from the National Historical Institute’s declaration in 2004 that it was a hoax, but also from my reading of the correspondence and archive of the University of Chicago Philippine Studies Program that published the following: The Robertson Text and translation of the Povedano manuscript of 1572. PSP Transcript 2. Chicago 1954. E.D. Hester ed.; The Povedano manuscript of 1578.


PSP Transcript 3. Chicago 1954; The Robertson Translations of the Pavon manuscripts of 1838-1839. PSP Transcript 5A, 5B, 5C, and 5D. Chicago 1957.

All these ancient manuscripts were the handiwork of Jose E. Marco of Negros who had been making forgeries since 1911.

Marco’s creations were taken seriously by many American authorities, including James Alexander Robertson and H. Otley Beyer. Some of his forgeries were deposited and even displayed proudly in the National Library before these were mercifully destroyed in the Battle for Manila in 1945. After the war Marco created a new series of work that was supposed to be the long-lost writings of Fr. Jose Burgos, including a novel, “La Loba Negra” (The Black She-wolf).

When you go over the astounding list of works by Marco, you cannot but admire him for his productivity that spanned half a century. Here was a man now reviled by historians and anthropologists, but sometimes I tell myself: We wanted to find pre-Spanish writings, there was none, so he made some for us. We wanted to find the writings of Father Burgos, there was none, so he made some for us. Of course, he was a cheat, a forger, but can it also be said that he created “necessary fictions” for a nation in search of its soul? Was Marco a conman or a nationalist? What happens when history is handmaiden to nationhood? Questions, questions.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Code of Kalantiaw, column, History, hoax
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