Where did ‘anting-anting’ come from?
Belief in anting-anting (amulets), elementals (e.g. elves, kapre, fairies, etc.) and oracion (i.e. magical words) is part of the esoteric or mystical culture of the Philippines.
An international television channel is planning to air an episode on the Filipinos’ beliefs in anting-anting, to be aired in July this year.
For this episode, they interviewed two Filipino anthropologists, some practitioners of anting-anting and this columnist.
The following are only a few of the many questions asked on this subject, which I believe would be of interest to readers of this column.
When did anting-anting first become part of Filipino culture?
It is not easy to trace the beginnings of the belief in anting-anting in Philippine culture. It must have started much earlier than the Spanish colonization of the islands in 1521. There were artifacts found in archaeological diggings indicative of the use of anting-anting buried with the bodies of the deceased.
Belief in anting-anting had always been part of the culture of the most primitive peoples of the ancient world, including the Philippines, which some believe to have been part of the lost advanced civilization called Lemuria some 100,000 years BC.
They made symbols of powerful deities or forces of nature to appease the gods, produce good harvest and protect them from dangers of all kinds. They wore these artifacts on their bodies.
The origins of anting-anting were most likely forms of imitative magic. To produce rain, for example, they sprinkled water in the fields.
Who were the first users of anting-anting before it became as commercialized as it is today? Was it used mostly by albularyo? When did this change happen?
I don’t think anybody has ever recorded or traced the first users of anting-anting. We can only speculate based on archaeological diggings that its use is of very ancient origin.
The use of anting-anting by native healers or albulario must have come about as natural consequences of observing the efficacy of certain objects to heal certain diseases.
Their magical properties then must have extended outside the areas of health, as protection from evil or danger in general.
Belief in anting-anting could not have lasted long unless there was some proof or basis for such belief. Many eyewitness accounts of the effectiveness of anting-anting have abounded in this country since the days of the revolution against Spain and, later, against the Americans. Some well-respected leaders of the revolution have affirmed belief in them.
How would you describe the belief system of the Philippines before Christianity/Catholicism came to the archipelago?
The Filipino belief system is primarily animistic in nature. That means even before the Christian religion was introduced in the country, our people already believed that objects found in nature are alive and have certain magical powers. Certain places or spots were also believed to have strong healing and protective energy.
Such animist beliefs did not cease with the advent of Christianity. Although today, such forces of nature are given Christian names or descriptions, Filipinos’ inner beliefs are still fundamentally animistic in nature.
Christianity, as practiced in the West, is very different from Christianity as it developed in the Philippines. Filipinos, in my opinion, are Christians only in name or in outward practices or rituals. However, inwardly, we are still essentially animistic in philosophy.
Why did the culture of anting-anting become associated with Christianity/Catholicism after it was brought in by the Spanish? Did it evolve or change, and how?
It is the nature of colonized people to accept or adopt the beliefs or practices of the colonial masters. That’s what happened in the Philippines, too. The Spanish colonizers just gave Christian names to what were originally pagan or non-Christian beliefs and practices. Instead of anito, they called it god or Sto. Niño or saint so-and-so. Similar powers or forces, but different names. Incidentally, belief in anting-anting is not particularly a Christian belief. On the contrary, Christianity is against such a belief.
I am always amused when I hear people say that the Philippines is the only Christian country in Asia. That is true only in name. As I said earlier, essentially, Filipinos are still animistic in their basic religious beliefs. But nobody recognizes this fundamental distinction.
Did the Spaniards or Americans try to destroy the use of anting-anting? How did they react to the anting-anting culture?
The Spanish colonizers certainly tried to destroy all native beliefs and practices considered un-Christian or pagan. They destroyed local books, totems and religious artifacts because they were considered to be mere superstition and therefore evil.
The Americans were more tolerant of native practices and beliefs that did not threaten their political hold on the people. I have no knowledge of a systematic attempt by Americans to destroy all forms of native beliefs and practices, unlike what the Spaniards did.
Do you think the power of anting-anting could be real? Why do people believe in it?
It is possible that some anting-anting are really able to protect the owner from harm. The power of the mind over matter is very strong. If one believes in an idea strongly enough, it will work. People believe in anting-anting because they have experienced its efficacy. Those who have not tried it do not believe in it. I do not have sufficient proof or evidence that it works, but I have talked to people whose credibility is high, who claimed to have seen bullets bounce off the bodies of people wearing anting-anting.
Why is Holy Week an important time for anting-anting making, and cleansing and renewal rituals? What is the belief behind doing these ceremonies at this time?
Holy Week has always been considered sacred by Filipinos after Christianity was introduced by the Spaniards. Because of this, anything done during that period is considered holy, powerful and sacred. Medicinal plants gathered during Holy Week therefore become imbued by the sacredness of the occasion. Even sorcerers’ brew is believed to be more potent if done during Holy Week. Practitioners of anting-anting test to their power during this period.
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