Ancient Filipinos Believed That All Things Have a Spirit and Meaning

Posted on Dec 14, 2010 in A Holistic Approach, ancient symbols, fave, history, people, talinghaga

We have to go back to prehistoric times to know how our culture developed to appreciate our cultural heritage as a people and rekindle the Filipino diwa (spirit) to guide us along the pathways of the 21st century.

— Jocano

To understand why Filipinos perceive meanings within baybayin symbols we need to understand too, that ancient Filipinos were animists, thus they believed everything has a spirit, everything has a soul and thus, everything, even symbols, such as tattoo symbols or writing symbols would have meaning, even spiritual meaning.

Previously, I posted information about Lane Wilcken’s recently published book Filipino Tattoos, Ancient to Modern. Lane was raised with traditional spiritual beliefs of the Philippines passed on to him by his grandmother, a mangnigulut or midwife/healer, and great-great grandmother, a mangnganito (spirit medium). His parents style of teaching included metaphors and analogies. He grew up greatly interested in mythology, ancient legends and different cultural practices. He expanded his interest in symbolism by studying at the Southern Utah University and finishing BS Sociology with a focus on Symbolic Interactionism and a Minor in Communications.

Lane has been researching the indigenous past of the Philippines and the Pacific Islands for nearly two decades, incorporating oral traditions, written history, linguistics, and personal experience. His ancestral ties to this work continue to motivate his research. He lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Book Description from Amazon
Tattooing is a very old and spiritually respected art form that has existed in many different cultures around the world. After many centuries of not being practiced in Europe, tattooing was re-introduced to the Western world through the inhabitants of the Pacific Ocean.

Beginning in the 16th century, European explorers came across many people who practiced tattooing as an integral part of their cultures. This is the first serious study of Filipino tattoos, and it considers early accounts from explorers and Spanish-speaking writers.

The text presents Filipino cultural practices connected with ancestral and spiritual aspects of tattoo markings, and how they relate to the process and tools used to make the marks.

In the Philippine Islands, tatoos were applied to men and women for many different reasons. It became a form of clothing. Certain designs recognized manhood and personal accomplishments as well as attractiveness, fertility, and continuity of the family or village. Facial tattoos occurred on the bravest warriors with names that denoted particular honor.

Through the fascinating text and over 200 images, including color photographs and design drawings, the deep meanings and importance of these markings becomes apparent.

Some of the findings in Lane’s book are about the meanings and spiritual significance of ancient tattoo symbols from the Philippines (and other Pacific Islands such as Hawaii and New Zealand(Maori)).

The ancients of all nations gave symbols meanings. Manytimes these meanings were deep and spiritual. To give all things meaning and a soul is the basis of animist spirituality. To believe that all things have a spirit is a source of respect and reverance for all of Life. This is part of the indigenous mind and an indigenous worldview.

Antonio Ingles generously shared his notes on “Relationality in the Filipinos… bayanihan spirit lives on!” (Ingles is taking his PhD in Applied Cosmic Anthropology, is a professor at De La Salle-College, and is the founder/chairman of Aral Pinoy.)

He writes:

“Ang hindi lumingon sa pinangalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.”
[Free translation] “They who do not learn the lessons from the past cannot reach their intended destination” (as cited in Jocano, 1998, p. 22).

And what lessons were they? First, that today’s relationality in the Filipino character is rooted in the prehistoric past, and second, it embodies the wisdom of our ancestors, thus the Filipinos’ bayanihan spirit lives on.

Reading Ingles’ notes led me to read The Soul Boat and the Boat-Soul: An Inquiry into the Indigenous “Soul” by Maria Bernadette L. Abrera, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of History at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City, Philippines. Her paper explains how the animist beliefs of the ancient people in the Philippines stemmed from how they believed all things have a soul, and this is the source of their reverance and respect for all life:

Page 4
Bagobos, an indigenous Philippine ethnic group in Mindanao, believe that all things possess a gimokud or soul (sumangat), including man-made objects (Benedict 54, 65).

Similarly, the Sama of Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi believe that the sumangat or soul is found in all nature, even inanimate things (Casiño 113). This is believed to be the intrinsic spirit of an object that may be revealed at a particular time, according to Bottignolo and which gives the object its desirable characteristics as such (41).

This is the reason why warriors, for example, show a reverential attitude toward their weapons; it is not simply the physical object of a metal weapon but a blade that possesses the soul of a blade. The soul of that object is what makes it hard and strong, whose strength would be revealed during battle. Thus, warriors give names to their personal weapons not as ownership of the object but in recognition of its animism. Forging the weapon then becomes not an ordinary, but a sacred, activity in order that the soul of the blade may not depart from it.

As another example, there is also a ritual involving the “rice-soul”. The Mandaya pray to the “soul of the rice” before planting so that it would cause the plant to bear many grains.

This basic animist principle of plants and objects possessing “souls” enable us to understand oral literature better, beginning with the epics. The epic “Kudaman” of Palawan island’s Tagbanua people, for example, reveals that when Kudaman went down the house, the handrail shed tears of sorrow for the hero’s departure. This would show that they believe that the house possesses a life and therefore a soul, and can thus display its own emotions.

In the epic of “Labaw Donggon” the hero’s boat is believed to be magical and charmed, as it possesses powers of its own and the hero can talk to it to do his bidding.

Filipinos’ belief system in the soul was quite intricate. The Bagobos believed that both people and animals have dual souls in dynamic balance to each other akin to yin-yang:

The term for soulstuff, alimaduan, is based on dua (two) which is also the root for kaluluwa (soul). This would indicate the belief in another, or a second, presence within the material object. The concept of an alimaduan is the reason why there are rituals to render proper homage to important objects: a ritual in forging a metal weapon, in weaving clothing, in making a boat.
A very clear example of this is in the belief in the amulet or charm. Amulets are considered animate objects, going by the terms used to refer to these: amulets are “given food” to mean that they are prayed on, for if they lack “food” (prayers), they will “sulk” (magtatampo) and “leave” (maglalayas). What this boils down to is that if an amulet owner does not offer up sufficient prayers, he will lose the amulet. Through these terms, the concept is clarified that the amulet is not only animate, but possesses a “soul” from whence its power emanates. Based on the concept of the alimaduan, one may infer the presence of the soul in an object for so long as that object possesses the qualities that are proper to it. The Malays believe that human, animals, birds, plants, fishes, crocodiles, rocks, weapons, food, clothing, ornaments, and other objects have each their own autochthonous soul (Skeat 53).

By understanding the animist spirituality of the ancient people in the Philippines, we can come closer to understanding how the ancient people of the Philippines could believe that baybayin and the individual symbols within the ancient writing system in the Philippines, would have deeper meanings.

The basis of animist spirituality is that all things have a soul and is the source of respect and reverance for all of Life. This is the indigenous mind and worldview.

Abrera, M. B. (2007). The soul boat and the boat-soul: An inquiry into the indigenous “soul”. Retrieved December 4, 2010, from ResearchSEA Asia’s first research news portal:


  1. (kayganda po nito, pati na rin ng inyong buong blogsite! maraming salamat 🙂

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  2. Thanks for posting this!…It Helped me through a lot of Araling Panlipunan assignments!!

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  3. That’s done in a modern baybayin font style, and it spells out a-ko-pi-to

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