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A Question of Souls and Spirits
by Bing Camacho
Date: 11/28/2006

Talk to any Filipino about the supernatural and you will never hear the end of it. Her father, his cousin, and his cousin’s father’s cousin—each of them will have stories to tell, and each retelling will be different from its previous telling. Where did we get such vivid and irrepressible imaginations of the world beyond?

The world of the early Filipinos was a mysterious, spiritual, and complex one. They believed that all things—animate and inanimate—have souls or spirits called anito or diwata. Diwata live on earth, in the sky, and in the underworld. They possess human-like characteristics. The diwata of the Bagobo supposedly can feel hunger, and the Manobo believe these incorporeal beings have intestines, except they are made of brass. The Tagbanuwa of Palawan say that the diwata of the forest wear clothing made of tree bark, and the spirits of the sky-world wear wrap-around skirts. They also smell very sweet. However, they can also be grotesque. According to the Manuvu, these creatures have bodies that are sheathed in fingernail-like materials, which are smooth and shiny, and “with skin only on their joints.”

These creatures number in legions and, in our current ordered universe, we divide them into two types: the nature spirits and the spirits of the dead.

Nature spirits live in trees, rocks, rivers, mountains, and volcanoes. The bigger animals are believed to have two souls, and the smaller ones like birds and insects have a single soul. Inanimate objects like tools and weapons have one soul. Of the food items, the coconut and the banana are held in esteem.

Our ancestors were not content with having simply one soul. The Bagobo and the Ifugao believe they have two souls, the Tiruray have three, the Tagbanuwa six, and the Bukidnon seven. These spirits grow in proportion to the growth of the body—they are small and weak when the person is still a baby, and they grow bigger and stronger in health and maturity. These souls lodge in different parts of the body, protecting the individual from harm. The Tagbanuwa have their souls in their hands and feet to guard them against cuts and bruises. Of the two souls of the Ifugao, one resides in the eyes, which leaves when its host is sick, and the other in the breath, which withdraws upon his or her death.

Spirits of the dead continue to live in the mortal world and, over time, they become part of the pantheon of diwata. They are invoked in times of birth and healing, house building, disputes and war. Even as their individual identities grow faint over the years, they are remembered and honored for it is believed they become spirits of the forests, fields, mountain passes, and rivers, and are given the same respect and reverence accorded to nature.

The anito is believed to have power over the mortal world. They can bring famine and death when angered. When invoked or appeased, they can bring back a wandering soul to its body; increase the already stored grain in the granary, and influence such social conducts as making amends without losing face or tempering excessive revelry. Sometimes they are simply malevolent and it does us good to stay away from them.

Today, we call these beliefs superstitious. We raise our eyebrows at people who walk around a mound of anthill and we challenge a spirit to reveal itself for us to believe. But we should take pause. Perhaps if we believe that cats have power to strike down lightning, we will think twice about throwing them along the highway where they will be crushed to death? If the diwata indeed live in trees, will we allow our forests to die? We say that people who embrace such beliefs are backward and simple-minded but what of those who walk the earth as if it is there only to serve his needs and desires?

Much like our ancestors and indigenous peoples, we are helpless when Nature unleashes its power. Unlike us, they are not mortified by the fact that there are forces beyond our control. They also understand these catastrophes are man’s own undoing.

Who then is the wiser?

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