What it means to practice and revive our indigenous belief system?
I often get asked what is it I actually practice, what I believe in, and if I practice alone or with a group. These are questions I sometimes ponder myself as I try to reconstruct and revive the indigenous beliefs and practices of the Philippines. Working alone, I don’t have the fortunate privilege of having a community to turn to, to discuss with in regards to Anituo. I have found very few people really interested in our indigenous beliefs and the structure of it. I hope one day there can be a community of like minded individuals where we can practice and celebrate together while sharing stories, thoughts, and contributions to the religion but for now I have to accept it as is.
As someone reviving our ancestors indigenous beliefs and bringing them to the modern day, there is a lot of work and research. Oh yes the constant research. We don’t have any written sources from our ancestors that we have found in regards to religion and folklore prior to colonization. Heck, the only document we do have is the Laguna Copperplate which talks about someone getting released from his debts. As simple as that document is though it does give an insight on what the people practiced as we now know at some point in time the people around the Tagalog regions followed an old Hindu calendar that is still used in India based on the inscription of the Saka year and mention of the month of Waisakha which is the local term for the Hindu month Vaisakha. But other than this we have no other documents written by us prior to colonization that we have found to date. In that regard we must make due with what we do have which are the Spanish historical written accounts of our ancestors. Some notable accounts well worth mentioning are those from Francisco Alcina, Pedro Chirino, Antonio de Morga, Juan de Plasencia, and Antonio Pigafetta, just to name a few.
Reading those various accounts one must take in what they mention about our ancestors beliefs and practices. I have written notes in a notebook dedicated to the research, writing down where the information comes from and by what group of people it was practiced by. Often times a problem that comes with Reconstructionist faiths is that all your time is consumed by research and not actually practicing. In a sense without the involved practice its not a living religion. That has been a problem with me in regards to my practice as I have spent my time researching but not actually practicing. However when there is no book or resource with the information I have learned and gathered readily available it is understandable but something I must also overcome if I want to revive the indigenous beliefs into a living religion in our modern age.
Besides those hardships however I have come to love what I do and what I have learned through all that research. I have learned names of deities that have been long forgotten today. Of rituals for harvests, sickness, and offerings to the spirits of the forests and seas when hunting and fishing that aren’t practiced anymore. Of the spirit houses our ancestors had by the rivers, forests, and outside the villages, that were often given offerings. Of a cosmology that derives from a native point of view coming from our environment living in islands by the sea and mountains, and of our understandings of where we as a people come from. Its this system of beliefs that are indigenous to us that make me continue researching and using that information into a modern practice.
One such example is the celebration of the moon. Our ancestors celebrated every full moon as a joyous and spiritual event as to them it was the time when the Diwata came down to earth. It was a time of feasting and welcoming the Diwata. I have taken this practice and celebrate every full moon as a holiday toward the Diwata. However, what I do that our ancestors didn’t do is that along with celebrating the Diwata, I also celebrate and give offerings to a specific Diwata for that lunar month and the following month another Diwata is celebrated.
For example this coming full moon I will be celebrating the Bisayan Diwata, Banwanun, who is the Diwata of the forests. During this coming full moon not only will I leave offerings to the various Diwata but I will also set aside a special offering to Banwanun of pork and chicken. If I was a hunter and hunted my own food I would give my first catch as my offerings as what was traditionally done by hunters as thanks to Banwanun for providing them game. However seeing as I live in the suburbs and don’t hunt, my humble offerings will suffice for the forest god. This celebration is part of a modern calendar that not only has a historical basis as a day of celebration but has added on something I have personally decided to celebrate as well during each full moon as a holiday for a specific Diwata.
Is it hard to practice Anituo when you aren’t living in the islands of your ancestors where the Diwata & Anito reside? At times yes, depending on the situation. For example, I would love to make a pilgrimage to Mt. Madyaas (or Madjaas) in Panay as it the home of the Bisayan Diwata, the Bisayan version of Mt. Olympus. There are so many myths revolving this sacred mountain, one that this is where some Bisayans go in the afterlife (the other place being in a tall mountain in Borneo). Another belief is that there is a tall tree belonging to the Diwata Si Dapa, that marks the lifespans of every individual once they are born. Another mountain I would want to personally give my offerings to is Mt. Kanlaon, the home of Laon, the Goddess of agriculture & harvests who is also the supreme deity among the Bisayans based on many of the historical accounts, all specifically mentioning that Laon is a woman.
However the Diwata aren’t the only aspects in our indigenous beliefs. More importantly was the veneration of our ancestors and spirits, known as Anito by many groups. There are numerous Anito, comprising of nature spirits, spirits of our dead ancestors, spirits of cultural hero’s, etc. There is an anito of the river, mountain, a specific tree, rock, etc. This belief is very animistic and the belief that there is a spirit in all natural things can be extended outside of the Philippines to nature in general.
Practicing in an environment outside the Philippines isn’t that hard though if you know how to connect with the Diwata and Anito and there are no real holidays practiced collectively throughout the islands besides harvest and planting festivals as well the celebration of the lunar months. Of course harvest and planting times here in the Northeast of the U.S. differs greatly compared to that in the Philippines, but even then there are variations of planting and harvesting times in various regions of the Philippines.
But back to the original question of what does it mean to revive our indigenous belief systems? For me as a Pilipin@-American living away from our homeland, practicing Anituo is something spiritual for me in connecting with my ancestors, nature, the Anito & Diwata, and reclaiming an indigenous spirituality that shaped who our ancestors were and our cultures.
Illustration by Pen Prestado