History as a Progressive Fantasy Land
When Mark Zuckerberg announced his idea of hell called the Metaverse, people raised their eyebrows, either real or penciled, both neither virtual. He describes it as a VR horror landscape that “has an incredibly inspiring view of whatever you find most beautiful.” If only people unanimously agreed that cats are the paragons of beauty, sure, the Metaverse doesn’t seem like a weird idea, but it is weird, precisely because different people have different things that they “find most beautiful”. In the Metaverse, the loving necrophiliac who finds his long-deceased neighbour as “most beautiful” while she peacefully decays beside him in bed may once again reanimate her back to when she had a regular pulse.
No one really knows when the Metaverse will be unleashed, but those who dress the dead according to their fancy, like necrophiliacs, need not wait for Zuckerberg’s edict, for there is already an open realm where they can fully recreate their deepest desires as they will: it’s called pop history. For those interested from the Philippines, it won’t take long to look for a local example of its potency because there is a recent online demonstration. One of the biggest media networks in the Philippines, GMA, ran a cover story written by Jessica Bartolome and Margaret Claire Layug titled “Our Progressive Past” where ancient Filipino societies are described as “feminist”, “inclusive”, “gender neutral”, and other anachronistic academic buzzwords that don’t make any historical sense.
The idea that the past was “progressive” involves the reification of historical objects as modern subjects that rightfully fit the present and even the future, as something they were not but are. Reification (from the Latin res meaning “thing” as in “public thing” res publica) is to turn an abstraction into a real entity, often for arbitrary and confused reasons. We see this in the GMA article where a progressive fantasy theme park is built from vague notions of modernity found in precolonial mythos. Its supporting base is the presumed richness of Philippine lore which, according to the writers, “seems to be ahead of its time.”
And how was/is it “ahead of its time”? Well, the article offers one reason: “women did not come second. They are independent, powerful, to the point where they are portrayed as an important part of the creation process.” To back their claim, they interviewed Marby Aubrey Villaceran, a professor from the University of the Philippines, who positively concurs by saying that:
“Philippine precolonial culture was feminist even before the conception of the term . . . [b]ecause the myths of early society included women in the process of creation, or they’re created as equal to men and portrayed as independent goddesses whose powers are not stolen from them. Or you have characters who are strong ordinary women.”
If the reasons above already serve as an enough justification for their claims, then even just a cursory audit of other mythologies easily shatters their idea of a progressive Philippine past. The Egyptian goddess Neith was often attributed with the powers of creation and she was also “frequently identified with Isis”,1 another Egyptian goddess whose work was “everything that is ordered, good and useful”.2 Izanami, a Japanese primordial goddess, stirred the seas with her male counterpart Izanagi, creating the first island called Onogoro.3 When the Roman goddess Cura was crossing what probably was a muddy river, the idea of creating humans sprang to her mind, and so she used clay, mud, and water to fashion their form. She later asked Jupiter to give it life after she had finished.4 And similarly, the Sumerian goddess Nammu deposited silt from the fertile deep onto a riverbed, and from its rich mineral composition emerged the first humans.5 These are just a few examples of the many mythologies that feature goddesses playing primary roles in world formation and human creation, of women not playing second fiddle to men. Philippine lore, therefore, wasn’t ahead of its time since, as an example, there is nothing novel in Malakas and Maganda being “born, fully-formed, at the same time.” Ironically, the slimshod attempt to enshrine modern attributes to ancient consciousness boomerangs as an inadvertent admission that ancient Filipino beliefs were not ahead but may have been behind their time because other mythologies that feature the same theme, like the Sumerian and Egyptian, were almost certainly much older.
Ancient Greek myths also included powerful goddesses. Many of them were key players in the creation of the world. Gaia, the earth, gave birth to the sky, mountains, and seas without male involvement.6 They also acted on their own accord, often using their powers to influence crucial events, like in the Judgement of Paris7 and the Trojan War that later followed.8 Greek literature also featured fierce, complex, and even vindictive women who were capable of effecting justice with their own hands, sometimes with the deft use of chemicals as per Medea poisoning the new bride and father-in-law of Jason, her adulterous husband. Not content, she then included her children with him among the casualties for good measure lest they “fall into the murderous hands of those that love them less”.9
But despite the impressive roster of female figures in ancient Greek myths and literature, many ancient Greek societies, especially the Athenians, observed a vehemence for women that survives to this day in the many intellectual legacies they left behind. As the beloved city of Athena, goddess of wisdom, Athens was home, though not necessarily the birthplace, to many of ancient Greece’s wisest minds. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, Anaxagoras, Aristophanes, and Euripides, to name just a few, all made their names in Athens. A quick search of their profiles online will reveal that all of them are men. And it is these same men that spoke and wrote of women. Speaking of Aristotle’s lasting influence on modern scholarship, Maryanne Cline Horowitz writes that:
“Aristotle’s definition of a female as a ‘mutilated male’ was transmitted into biological, obstetrical, and theological tracts. . . More pervasive still is the Aristotelian intellectual habit of describing the female body as a departure from the norm of the male body and of deducing a characterization of femaleness by lack of maleness.”10
We’ve reached a confusing conundrum. Villaceran’s logic states that an ancient society that includes women in their “process of creation” myths counts as “feminist even before the conception of the term”. If that’s the case, then Athens qualifies for the designation. How, then, could Aristotle hold such misogynistic views if he was part of a society that passed as “feminist”? Moreover, why did the Athenians generally treat women, according to William O’Neal, as “legal nonentities whom the Greek male excluded from any participation in the political or intellectual life of the city”11 when they were supposedly “feminist” according to Villaceran’s standard? Were the Athenians misogynistic feminists?
Not only does the allegation of a feminist precolonial Philippines crumble the instant its underlying logic is examined, but it also fails to stand firm when factually scrutinised.
A few years back, GMA presenter Jessica Soho and her team went to the mountains of Capiz and interviewed one of the last “binukot”, women who were selected from a young age to memorise and echo the epics of their community. Because of this they were forbidden to go out of their houses except on special occasions to ensure that they stay focused and keep their skin fair all throughout their lives. Not only that, they also married young. Lola Feliza, the binukot that Soho interviewed, said that she was married off at the age of 12. When asked if she was happy being selected as a binukot, she emphatically said “no” because there were things that she wanted to do but wasn’t allowed to do so.
Are we to believe that Lola Feliza’s lament is just an isolated incident of a woman robbed of her agency for the preservation of tradition? If so, are we to think that the binukot aside from her were all happy and felt that they were empowered just because they were selected?—after all, binukot women were part of a society that was “feminist even before the conception of the term”, so it should be in their best interest to submit regardless of their personal feelings about the matter.
Or maybe it was Lola Feliza’s fault for not exerting herself, because the article claims that “[w]omen were also able to choose who to marry”. On the surface, this is quite obvious as many precolonial Filipino women were indeed able to choose their partners and continued to do so even after the Spaniards secured their foothold in the archipelago. But this statement has the added implication of generalising marital customs in precolonial Philippines, that indeed, all women could choose freely, as this would help bolster the article’s feminist insinuation. As shown above, however, Lola Feliza was married off as a 12 year old child, and it is unlikely that she had any say in the arrangement. Perhaps many other binukot women experienced a similar fate. So what the GMA article really wants to say is this: “In feminist precolonial Philippines, women were also able to choose who to marry, but some young girls can’t even choose not to marry.” The same can be said of slaves, which were plenty and abundant in ancient Visayan societies. Their bondage secured after successful raids or failure to pay debts. According to Miguel de Loarca’s 1582 Relacion de las Yslas Filipinas, when a slave-master wanted his female slave to marry another slave belonging to someone else, he sends a female emissary to the owner of that slave to arrange a parley. It is then up to the other slave-master to decide if the marriage should go through. The female slave is never consulted of her consent. Children resulting from such marriages automatically become the slaves of the two masters to whom the parents belong to.12
By now it should be clear that the insistence to define precolonial Philippines as feminist undermines the many individual lives of actual women at the time. Like the binukot, their experiences and emotions are erased by a progressive brush meant to paint what they are supposed to be, not what they actually were—the resulting picture is a brand of feminism where strong women figure prominently in myths but real women are locked inside their homes for the rest of their lives.
At this point we need to look back at the example of Athens as it is highly illustrative of a common tendency among unscrupulous academics and writers to homogenise a complex scattering of communities into one intelligible continuity. While some non-Athenian Greeks did share their aversion towards women, like Semonides of Amorgos who wrote in his poem Types of Women that the opposite sex was designed by Zeus as “the greatest of all evils”,13 other Greek societies were more conscientious in their attitudes towards women. Aristotle bewailed the fact that Spartan women governed their men and even held a significant portion of Spartan wealth that by the 330s BCE “almost two-fifths of the whole country (Lakonia)” were in their hands.14 Away from the Greek mainland we find the Minoan island of Crete which, according to historian Bettany Hughes, “brims with so many female images that a few bold scholars insist Minoan Crete was a matriarchy.” Calling it as such “might be going too far,” Hughes admits, “but there is certainly something unusual going on in Crete when it comes to women and the powers and privileges they enjoyed.”15 An early 14th century BCE sarcophagus recovered in Hagia Triada, an archaeological site in Crete, is designed with frescoes that portray women taking part in the sacrifice of a bull.16 All the shrine deities depicted in the same artifact are also exclusively female.17 Minoan Crete and Sparta are just two examples that give us a surface view of ancient Greece’s rich historical horizon, hinting that there’s more to find out when we study each of its unique pieces more carefully. Thus, to homogenise ancient Greece without consciously delineating its complex constituents is like running it over with a titanic bulldozer in order to flatten its variable historical landscape into an imagined uniformity. What is left is an extremely impoverished plain that is easy to tread, but is devoid of anything interesting or meaningful.
And that’s what’s being done to precolonial Filipino history. Writers, academics, artists, and history dilettantes willingly clear the rugged fields of the complex past to make it more suitable to their tastes and needs. The diversity of female precolonial healers and spiritualists is one of the biggest casualties caused by this sweep, for they are now all subsumed under the babaylan umbrella. Briefly, the babaylanes, according to most—if not all, historical manuscripts, were Visayans. The Tagalogs had catalonans.18 Among the Orang Laut, or Badjao, the jinn denda act as spiritual mediums during certain rituals.19 But in describing those who “were said to be able to communicate with the gods” and “were said to have healing powers”, only the babaylan is referenced in the GMA article. Neither the catalonan nor the jinn denda are mentioned despite both also performing the same functions. Why? Is it because babaylan sounds close to babae, the Filipino word for female, thus making easy to establish the claim that they were venerated because of their being babae? Or is it because of the associated mysticism built throughout the years by popular culture that makes the babaylan the best matriarch archetype? Or is it because males were also allowed to become babaylanes, providing us with the perfect example of precolonial gender fluidity in practice? It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasoning, but it’s easy to see the consequence: the names of the past are blurred by a present spirit.
Probing what the babaylan means in popular culture is important to expose the willingness of many to disregard historical data and accuracy just to heighten the drama of romantic national narratives. Again, we have Villaceran providing us with an example. She says that Spanish “missionaries perceived the babaylan as their great enemy” so these clerics “burned all our records. They erased our history, as well as our culture, for them to impose their own.”
What actual historical texts and research tell us, however, is quite different.
The whole colonial project would’ve collapsed early on had Spanish priests and personnel antagonised the locals, especially the Visayans. They knew what had happened to Magellan in Mactan when he overexerted himself, so later Spanish expeditions were more cautious in their dealings with the locals. That is to say, while such atrocities aren’t far from possible, and they certainly did occur at times, what generally happened was the constant overlapping of two disparate cultures that gradually amalgamated through time without the graphic cultural violence that nationalists always fantasise, because the most active theatre of war after the Spaniards established themselves was on the economic front. A more detailed refutation is found in a previous Biblitikal entry titled “The Babaylan Survived Colonialism”. Specific passages from the article that deal with Villaceran’s claims are reproduced below:
The Spanish empire realised that the Philippines is very far from Spain, so it was decreed that it be placed under the Viceroyalty of Nueva España which was nearer. This meant that material, technical, and personnel requests from the country had to undergo several processes in Mexico before getting reviewed in Madrid. For the Spanish settlers in the Philippines, this was an added headache, and compounding to the problem was travel time: they had to wait for months for ships to reach Mexico, then to Spain, then back to Mexico, and finally to the Philippines. And in occasions where such requests were granted, there was still the problem of having to cross the treacherous Pacific just for things and people to safely land on Philippine shores. In 400 voyages between Manila and Acapulco from 1565 to 1915, there were 59 accidents of immeasurable losses in wealth and human lives. When such aid did arrive in the Philippines, they were often only available and utilised in Luzon, where the centre of Spanish rule, Manila, was located.
For pueblos far from Manila, this was certainly a problem. And the difficulty of distance would often come into focus when sporadic spells of infectious diseases surfaced. COVID-19 continues to highlight the difficulty in going to the doctor or chemist when sick, how much more if there are none in the vicinity? This sorry situation never did improve in the course of Spain’s rule. Towards the end of the 19th century, there were only 19 licensed physicians in the Visayas, 2 in Mindanao, and 42 in Luzon. There was also the disparity in infrastructures built. Most, if not all, hospitals were only found in Luzon. So during such catastrophes, priests, who were often the only Spanish presence in rural areas, had to rely on local herbology and ingenuity. In 1628, a cholera epidemic had swept through the islands, and according to Fransisco Colin the local curanderos, healers who primarily practised herbal and physical therapeutics rather than spiritual interventions, used a concoction made of coconut oil mixed with bark fragments of the manunggal tree to supposed great effect.
Science, therefore, never could’ve displaced the babaylanes because it wasn’t a coherent and consistent alternative to traditional medicine. The babaylanes remained integral to Visayan society for their needed healing activities, a fact that even priests acknowledged since most of them only had little training in the natural sciences (and were unfamiliar with local flora).”
So the truth is less dramatic than the one proposed by the article. Having been colonised by sickly Spaniards who could hardly acclimatise to the conditions in the archipelago does not look too good on a nation’s résumé. And that is why its intellectuals and artists readily come up with tales of moral conquest to incite nationalist rancor: that the good locals were brutally trampled by evil foreigners. They “erased our history” so says Villaceran, and in doing so took down the babaylan who, she says, were “the guardians of religion and culture”. This is ironic given that those who “erased our history” were actually the ones who transmitted much of what we know about the babaylanes. In fact, much of what we know of precolonial Philippines in general comes from Spanish chronicles. Cilapulapu’s name has entered the historical records only because Antonio Pigafetta, the Venetian chronicler of the Armada de Maluco, wrote of his defiance against Magellan’s demands.20 (Pigafetta wrote his original manuscript, it is said, in Italian. But we can mention it here as part of a greater Spanish canon because its material was sourced when he was part of a Spanish expedition to the indies.) We know of morotal, the way by which Visayan women mourned their dead, because Loarca described it for posterity.21 And when it comes to writing, it was Pedro Chirino who was the first to completely and comprehensively describe the Baybayin script. We even learn from him how one clever Visayan child from Tigbauan, Iloilo learned to write using the Latin alphabet in just three months by reading Chirino’s letters and copying them.22
More damning against the sensationalist retelling is the report by Fransisco Alcina on how some of the babaylanes actually helped in evangelising the Visayans. According to Alcina in his 1668 Historia de las islas e indios Visayas, a special class of babaylanes called the catooran, or truth-tellers:
“. . . ayudado no poco á los Padres en la enseñanza y doctrina de sus compatriotas los Bisayas, y han sido Maestros . . . que han servido mucho á la facil conversacion de muchos y muchas de ellas”.
“. . . helped not just a little the fathers in teaching the gospels to their fellow Visayans, and they have been called teachers here . . . that have been of great service in easily converting many of them”.23
The babaylan that the article describes is, therefore, far from a historically recognisable person. It is a cheap caricature of the manifold qualities of autochthonous healers and spiritualists as they’re all crowded to fit a modern tailoring of the Visayan babaylan. Of course, that’s no problem for the nation’s idealists because history, for them, isn’t a rigorous method to explain and explore the past, but it is a means to ideology. They will shape history according to the dictates of their nationalist sentiments and ideals. As a result, the dead ancients are resurrected and unwillingly robbed of their complexities, worries, schemes, prejudices, interests, goals, ambitions, and uniqueness. They are then forced to strictly act their designated role in the many nationalist dramatisations of the past. On the stage, the reanimated babaylan is a hollow model of moral virtue and progressive spirit that should be emulated by the present to better the nation’s future, much to the horror of the past.
No matter how bizarre, absurd, and historically distorted the claims discussed so far are, they are nothing out of the ordinary in academia. They are even encouraged, regrettably, judging by the steady release of similar articles in well-regarded anthologies, journals, and publications. “Critical scholarship” is how it’s commonly called, which is why it is also almost always immune from strict scrutiny and exhaustive editing because this mode of research is less concerned with being correct; what matters most to it is being critical, whatever that means. And possessed by this critical spirit, universities and other academic institutions have, for decades on end, willingly awarded researchers with PhDs and tenures for their daring in assessing the textures of kimchi from the viewpoint of Keynesian economics, for their ability to expand on the Freudian themes encapsulated in embroidered socks, for describing the refulgence of an individual sand picked randomly from a beach using a quaternary reading of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. This list of mental torments is immense and continues to grow at each passing day.
Most abhorrent is the fact that this is not even a new thing. It has been allowed to seep its sewage unchecked. And in fairness to today’s guilty scholars, they are not entirely at fault despite their documented drivel: ersatz is what is demanded of them. But not all academics subscribe to such inanity. Those who have nothing but contempt against critical scholarship would be delighted to know that an indignant voice from within the academe had already lashed out against it, a voice that perfectly characterises all that had been said so far about the egregiousness of this approach. In The Philosophy of History, the German Philosopher G.W.F. Hegel has these choice words for what counts as “history” in critical research:
“It is not history itself that is here presented. We might more properly designate it as a History of History; a criticism of historical narratives and an investigation of their truth and credibility. Its peculiarity in point of fact and of intention, consists in the acuteness with which the writer extorts something from the records which was not in the matters recorded. . . This ‘higher criticism’ has been the pretext for introducing all the anti-historical monstrosities that a vain imagination could suggest. Here we have the other method of making the past a living reality; putting subjective fancies in the place of historical data; fancies whose merit is measured by their boldness, that is, the scantiness of the particulars on which they are based, and the peremptoriness with which they contravene the best established facts of history.”24
The last line impeccably describes the underlying critical temper running through the GMA article. Historical details are marshalled throughout, but only end up being mere materials for progressive posturing. And to achieve great effect, certain techniques that edify the critical approach are employed as historical method. There are two instances of this in the article that are most striking.
The first is the one applied by James Loreto Piscos, a professor from San Beda University-Manila. It involves the reshaping of the moral binary of good versus evil into Western contra Eastern philosophy, where the latter is given certain qualities that make it more moral and righteous than the former. Piscos says that early Filipinos had a culture “where they are actually harmonizing everything.” He then goes on to say that this is characteristic of Eastern thinking where being “part of the universe. . . of nature” is central because us humans “are not in control but we are part of it.” In contrast, Western thinking is “always ‘man is the center of the universe [and] in control,’ using freedom, using free will and force”.
The philosophical locution drapes a veneer of legitimacy over Piscos’ comparison, however much it borders hortatory. But once removed of its frills, what is bared is a silly philosophical discrepancy disguised as historical fact. In other words, what he says is not at all true.
In Western medicine, the influential humoural theory defined human health as the constant internal fluctuation of the four humours within the body. This wasn’t an attribute that exclusively manifested in humans, for it was due to a biological kinship with other living creatures which were also of the same constituent humours.25 Galen, the foremost medical authority in the Roman empire during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, championed the theory and with his giant reputation ushered its universality, cementing it as the premier medical thought for much of Western medicine’s history.26 In fact, the theory stood unchallenged for so long that one of the pioneers of Philippine pharmacology, the 17th century Jesuit pharmacist Georg Joseph Kamel, applied the humoural theory in appraising the healing properties of indigenous Philippine flora.27
As can be clearly seen, even in medical philosophy, the idea that man was part of nature wasn’t alien to Western thought. Every living thing was integrated within a dynamic universal whole, and this formulation was the vital kernel in the “feminist” Aristotle’s natural philosophy which placed an “emphasis on the eternity of the world, the unicity of the intellect, and its naturalistic and deterministic modes of explanation”.28 This made some Catholic theologians groan and grunt since they believed this idea placed nature on an equal footing with God, not just as a creation of the divine. On the other hand, many among the clergy realised that Aristotelian natural philosophy could help solve many divine enigmas because it was difficult to materially explain how certain miracles of faith occurred. One puzzling area in Catholicism where this asynchrony reared itself was in the mystery of transubstantiation, the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ while still retaining their physical forms. “How could faith and reason be reconciled in this case?” asks historian of science James Hannam. A resolution was proposed by the 11th century Italian Archbishop of Canterbury Lanfranc, who, according to Hannam:
“. . . found it by thinking carefully about Aristotelian logic. During the Mass, said Lanfranc, while the bread and wine maintained their accidental properties of looking and tasting food and drink, their substance changed to the body and blood of Christ.”29
The functional compatibility of Aristotelian natural philosophy with Catholic theology made it possible for the likes of Kamel to successfully synthesise the two into a cohesive mode of research, experimentation, and religious veneration. The natural world had become the expression of God’s grace, power, creativity, solicitousness, revelation, and divine will, and the philosophical exploration of its wonders was a form of discovering the greater breadth of God’s architecture. A direct result of this coupling was how it turned Catholicism into a strong coherent force able to easily constellate the diverse set of naturalistic indigenous beliefs into one formal religion. To explain various natural phenomena, ancient Filipinos turned to myths as a mode of explanation. In the Visayas, for example, eclipses were caused by a mythical snake (not a dragon) called Bakunawa. Now, nature itself is the explanation; not of-itself, but rather of God’s omnipotence. Idols of Mary, Jesus, and the many Catholic saints had replaced anito figurines in the household and places of worship. Anthropologist Felipe Jocano, who is also interviewed in the article, concurs, saying that “[a] lot overlaps with Catholicism and it wasn’t that difficult to accept it. Each saint had a function in the natural world”.
While historically real, the differences between Western and Eastern philosophy described by Piscos in the colonial experience of the Philippines didn’t constitute a wide gulf. There were many points of intelligible analogues that were easy enough to connect given time and opportune interaction. And the more one connects the dots, the more it is easier to see that Piscos is only using philosophy to mask a moral judgement, a judgement that falls short in the court of history.
But then there’s another suspect, this time donning the suit of critique. Though Jocano acknowledges the historical interplay that had occurred between Catholicism and the many indigenous beliefs, he settles for a moral condemnation in his criticism of colonialism. It is most pronounced in his contention that “[t]he Spaniards, in their attempt to gain control of the islands, demonized everything that wasn’t part of the Catholic setting”. And part of that “demonized everything” was “Yawa”. Jocano believes that the word “yawa”, a common pejorative expression among Visayans, actually comes from the name of a Visayan goddess called Nagmalitong Yawa who was unfortunately targeted by the Spaniards in their cruel evangelical campaigns. “The Spaniards," says Jocano, “labeled everything that had to do with the other religions [as something] from the devil”.
The loaded use of “everything” instantly exposes the lack of historicity in Jocano’s statements. If it were true that “everything” was indeed demonised, then why is it that Canlaon, the paramount goddess of the Visayans according to Loarca30 and Alcina,31 wasn’t, whereas Yawa, who isn’t even recorded in historical chronicles, was? It doesn’t make sense that the Spaniards, in their crusade against paganism, would rather denigrate a lesser known deity than one that is recorded to be venerated by many.
If indeed it was the case, there are other ways to trace the path Yawa took from being a deity to a derogative; ways that involve conjectures based on history, not morality. For one, Yawa the goddess and yawa the expression might have arisen separately and have no connection with each other whatsoever. Nagmalitong Yawa figures heavily in the Sulod epic Hinilawod. The Sulod, or Bukidnon, was a loose group of highland dwellers in the island of Panay, consisting of the Panaynon, Agburin-on, etc.32 Yawa, the expletive, is commonly associated with eastern Visayans who speak Bisaya. There are no current studies that includes a goddess “Yawa” in the mythologies of Bisaya-speaking Visayans, so it’s highly possible that the Panay Yawa and the Bisaya yawa emerged in a convergent manner: right around the same time, but share no actual relationship.
Another line of investigation suggests that the denigration of Yawa might have occurred earlier, even before the Spaniards arrived in the archipelago. Sanjaya, progenitor of the formidable Sailendra dynasty of ancient Java, launched several offensives against many of his maritime neighbours to cement his kingdom’s place in the region. He had successfully defeated Srivijayan forces in the 8th century and even managed to annex parts of Cambodia. Academic transcriptions of Indonesian historical texts spell the name of their polity as “Yava”.33 Their expansive influence and naval conquests in the waters of southeast Asia may have given them a reputation of ruthlessness, so much so that in the traditional accounts, Airlangga, one of Java’s most prominent kings, first had to “struggle with ‘demons’ in central Java, a struggle that lasted from 1025 to 1037” to consolidate his rule in the central region.34 Over time and distance, pronunciations must have changed. What was once Yava or Jawa (in Indonesia, people from Java are called Orang Jawa), may have morphed into yawa in Bisaya tongues, and owing to their past military encounters with them, the Bisaya may have adopted it as a word to remember their enemies, their “demons”. Traditional accounts narrate that the Visayans are from Borneo and the other Indonesian islands. What led to their exile from their homeland and arrival in the archipelago is anyone’s guess, but one can also suppose that it might have been influenced and/or triggered by Java’s growing maritime might.
The examples provided above are just two of the many ways one can historically investigate how words change in meaning over time without resorting to moralistic cop-outs. Jocano may well be correct, but as it stands, there is no historical evidence that even slightly supports his supposition. Morality, as is always the case, is no substitute for rigorous research.
At its core, the GMA article is simply a call to treat others respectfully and with dignity. However, painting positive platitudes over history dilutes the impact of the message and turns it into a verbose mess devoid of anything meaningful. There is no need to romanticise the past as an egalitarian wonderland just to feel better about today’s troubles. The lessons of the past are lessons on what could be better and what to avoid. It is not to be emulated, for that means to regress, the very opposite of being “progressive”. Ancient peoples found appropriate solutions to problems of their time. What they did and didn’t do corresponded to their immediate needs and wants. Did they have to pay bills for unreliable water and electric connection? No. Did they worry over their children’s matriculation fees? No. Did they lose sleep over submission deadlines? No. The present has a spirit of its own far removed from the unchangeable ancient past, and it is this spirit that needs to be confronted in fighting for a better future: for what is done today will become part of the future’s past. With this in mind, it is best to remember what political philosopher Frantz Fannon declared:
“In no way should I derive my basic purpose from the past of the peoples of color.
In no way should I dedicate myself to the revival of an unjustly unrecognised Negro civilization. I will not make myself a man of any past. I do not want to exalt the past at the expense of my present and my future.
It is not because the Indo-Chinese has discovered a culture of his own that he is in revolt. It is because ‘quite simply’ it was, in more than one way, becoming impossible for him to breathe.”35
Malignant and wayward spirits were often seen as the chief cause of tribulations centuries ago, and to dispel them, the babaylanes had to conduct rituals and at times offer sacrifices. Nowadays, these malevolent forces have taken the form of the politician and businessman; many of them are even venerated and praised for their supposed virtues. And Zuckerberg, who is of their kind, is planning to expand their reach with the Metaverse.
Rituals have no effect on today’s hell. Only a revolution can overhaul the current state of things: a revolution premised not on a fantastic past, but driven by how shit the present is. And only then can each of us enjoy “an incredibly inspiring view of whatever you find most beautiful”, even without a VR headset and an internet connection.
Rivka Ulmer, “The Egyptian Gods in Midrashic Texts,” Harvard Theological Review 103, no. 2, (2010): 191. ↩︎
Valentino Gasparini, “Isis and Osiris: Demonology vs. Henotheism?” Numen 58, no. 5/6 (2011): 707 ↩︎
Kojiki, trans. Donald Philippi (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969), 49. ↩︎
Hyginvs, Fabvlae, ed. Peter Marshall, 2nd rev. ed. (Munich: K. G. Saur Verlag, 2002), 171-172. ↩︎
Thorkild Jacobsen, “Sumerian Mythology: A Review Article,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 5, no. 2 (1946): 140. ↩︎
Hesiod, Theogony, Works and Days, Testimonia, ed. and trans. Glenn Most (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2006), 13. ↩︎
Homer, Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 589. ↩︎
Ibid., 114. ↩︎
Euripides, Ten Plays, trans. Moses Hadas & John McLean (New York: Bantam Books, 1960), 56-63. ↩︎
Maryanne Cline Horowitz, “Aristotle and Woman”, Journal of the History of Biology 9, no. 2 (1976): 194-195. ↩︎
William O’Neal, “The Status of Women in Ancient Athens,” International Social Science Review 68, no. 3 (1993): 117. ↩︎
Miguel de Loarca, “Relacion de Las Yslas Filipinas,” in The Philippine Islands: 1493-1998, eds. Emma Blair and James Robertson, vol. 5 (1582–1583) (Cleveland, OH: The Arthur H. Clarke Company, 1903), 158, 160. ↩︎
Sarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schocken Books, 1995): 51. ↩︎
Paul Cartledge, “Spartan Wives: Liberation or Licence?” The Classical Quarterly, New Series 31, no. 1 (1981): 87-88. ↩︎
Bettany Hughes, Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore (London: Pimlico, 2006), 322. ↩︎
Jeremy McInerney, “Bulls and Bull-leaping in the Minoan World,” Expedition 53, no. 3 (2011): 8. ↩︎
Marymay Downing, “Prehistoric Goddesses: The Cretan Challenge,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 1, no. 1 (1985): 12. ↩︎
Grace Barretto-Tesoro, “Where are the datu and catalonan in early Philippine societies?: Investigating status in Calatagan”, Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 36, no. 3 (1998): 79-80. ↩︎
Antonio Pigafetta, Journal of Magellan’s Voyage (1525). [Manuscript] Held at: Yale University Library. Beinecke MS 351, 48r ↩︎
Loarca, “Relacion,” 136-139. ↩︎
Pedro Chirino, Relación de Las Islas Filipinas, 2nd ed. (Manila: Esteban Balbás, 1890), 58-59. ↩︎
Fransisco Ignacio Alcina, The Muñoz Text of Alcina’s History of the Bisayan Islands (1668), ed. Victor Baltazar, vol. 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960), 207-208. ↩︎
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. John Sibree (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004), 7. ↩︎
Vivian Nutton, Ancient Medicine (London: Routledge, 2004), 118. ↩︎
Vivian Nutton, “The Fatal Embrace: Galen and the History of Ancient Medicine,” Science in Context 18, no. 1 (2005): 115. ↩︎
Sebestian Kroupa, “Georg Joseph Kamel (1661-1706): A Jesuit Pharmacist at the Frontiers of Colonial Empire” (PhD thesis, Cambridge University, 2019): 175. ↩︎
Edward Grant, “Science and the Medieval University,” in Rebirth, Reform, and Resilience: Universities in Transition 1300-1700, eds. James Kittelson & Pamela Transue (Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1984), 79. ↩︎
James Hannam, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London: Icon Books, 2009), 48. ↩︎
Loarca, “Relacion,” 134-135. ↩︎
Fransisco Ignacio Alcina, The Muñoz Text of Alcina’s History of the Bisayan Islands (1668), trans. Paul Lietz, vol. 3, 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1962), 183. ↩︎
Hugan-an, Hinilawod: Adventures of Humadapnon, Tarangban I, trans. Felipe Landa Jocano (Manila: PUNLAD Research House, Inc., 2000), 2. ↩︎
Waruno Mahdi, “Yavadvipa and the Merapi Volcano in West Sumatra,” Archipel 75, (2008): 129. ↩︎
Kenneth Hall, “Economic History of Early Southeast Asia: East Java, 927-1222,” in The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, vol. 1, From Early Times to c. 1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 210. ↩︎
Frantz Fannon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London: Pluto Press, 1986), 226. ↩︎