Weeks before the “tanim-bala” (bullet-planting) scandal at the airports, I visited Quiapo to prepare for the annual lecture that I do at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine. During their sophomore year, medical students are told to visit the “Quiapo Medical Center”—actually the area around the basilica—to learn about the dizzying variety of goods and services being sold there, some of which are related to health.
I’ve been making “pilgrimages” to Quiapo for more than 30 years now, dating back to one of my first jobs where I had to study medicinal plants. Through the years I’ve seen many changes. Medicinal plants are still sold there, but are rapidly retreating to the background, giving way to amulets, talismans, charms and assorted religious paraphernalia, including the bullets (bala) that I wrote about last week. Given the many inquiries I received after the column, I thought I may as well do a report on my latest field adventure in Quiapo.
But first, let’s deal with the terms. In English, a distinction is made between amulets and talismans. Amulets are objects that are believed to protect a person from harm. In Filipino, these would be the anting-anting. From Jose Panganiban’s now-classic Tagalog dictionary and thesaurus (published in 1971), you’ll find anting-anting traced back to the Malay anting, which means “swinging” or “dangling,” and the Javanese anting-anting, which refer to… ear pendants!
The English word “talisman” is more specific for objects that supposedly bring luck, although often enough, they’re also believed to have some protective function. The world of magical objects is complicated, and in the Philippines we have materials that are very specific in bringing something about. The gayuma, for example, works as a love charm. There is also the agimat(a word of Arabic origins) that is protective, as well as bestowing the user with power. I’ll save the agimat and gayuma for a future column.
Suffice it to say that the anting-anting, while having a mainly protective function, is believed also to just bring luck (pampasuwerte). This is probably more of a marketing ploy than anything else because labeling something as such gives it a generic multipurpose cachet.
The bullet is an example for this do-all, be-all object; it’s for luck, but it also has a curious specific function: to bring fertility. It also reflects the way magical beliefs work, the fertility function being derived from the bullet’s phallic shape, plus of course the known projectile force of ammunition. (Writing for a family newspaper can be challenging. I hope that description was antiseptic enough.)
The most well-known of the anting-anting are the metal ones, with religious symbols and corrupted Latin inscribed. According to the vendors I interviewed, the most popular one is the “divine eye” (one said “third eye”), which has an eye, presumably God’s, enclosed in a triangle.
In my trip to Quiapo this year I did find a new “bestseller”—St. Benedict’s medal, which I do not recall being sold in Quiapo previously. This seems to be a copy of the more “official” St. Benedict’s medal one buys from the Benedictines, approved by Pope Benedict XIV way back in 1742. The official medal, someone told me, costs hundreds of pesos. The Quiapo version can go as low as P50 each.
The case of St. Benedict’s medal shows the gray area between officially approved Catholic “sacramentals”—medals, scapulars and other similar objects—and folk amulets. The Catholic Church emphasizes that sacramentals have no power of their own, that if they have an “effect,” it comes from the faith of the person using them. In the real world, of course, magic takes over and reflects our many anxieties and uncertainties.
If, for example, we have the bullet amulet today, there used to be an amulet popular with Spanish soldiers, bearing the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with the inscription “Détente, bala” or “Stop, bullet.” The scapular is also iconic in reflecting our fears—its design reflecting the need to protect the user’s front, as well as the back. In earlier forays to Quiapo, vendors would try to sell amulets that supposedly protect users from being stabbed… in the back.
These days, the vendors promote their wares more around protection from kulam (sorcery), evil spirits (maligno), or aswang (humans who are not quite humans). The fear of stabbing is still around, but more in the more figurative sense of back-stabbing, as vendors guarantee their amulets’ protecting users from tsismis (gossip) and intrigue.
Besides the religious medallions, there are all kinds of other amulets. A class in itself is the kontra-usug, usually a combination of seeds and dried plant material, wrapped in red cloth with or without a cross outside. It is a kind of juvenile amulet, pinned to the shirt of a child for protection.
“Puera usug” (away with usug) is a common expression uttered by parents or older people caring for a child when someone greets or compliments the child; it is said that without this remark, the child might come down with usug, manifested by irritability and crying. Usually, it is just colic or gas pain, but people still call the condition usug.
During my latest trip to Quiapo, I asked the vendors if they had stuff to protect older people from balis, a Visayan term used to refer to sorcery, as well as to an illness similar to usug (a severe stomach ache, for example) if one is complimented by someone. The vendors all had a plastic red and black bracelet which they said was for adults, for protection not just from usug but also from sorcery.
Amulets are often attributed to animism, a belief that objects may have a life or power of their own. I have a different perspective: I look at amulets, or at least the ones sold in Quiapo, as coming to us from Catholicism, with its view of one almighty powerful God. The amulets, with its depiction of Catholic religious imagery complete with Latin phrases, represent negotiations on accessing that powerful God, or at least Jesus, or the Virgin Mary, or the saints. Having an amulet signifies the power of these almighty supernatural beings.
The bullet probably belongs to an older animist tradition, without invocations of God or the saints. I’ve wondered if the reported increase of passengers “caught” with bullets may actually come from a perception that the airports have more predators now, including the syndicates that, ironically, plant the bullets in people’s luggage.
It’s pathetic, when you think about it—spent bullets used for protection. I wonder how many other travelers carry the divine eye, or St. Benedict’s medal, to protect themselves from the airport’s maligno, or evil forces.
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