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ViScience: Keeping Time in Ancient Visayas

ViScience: Keeping Time in Ancient Visayas
There's no better clock than a chicken's cluck.

Welcome to ViScience, a Bibliotikal series on the scientific knowledge of ancient Visayans. For the first entry, we will be taking a look at how ancient Visayans understood and kept time as recorded by the Spanish missionary Fransisco Ignacio Alcina.1

In a world without clocks, ancient Visayans relied on regularly occurring environmental cues to divide days into meaningful segments. To better illustrate this, we will travel back to the ancient past and accompany Sictab, a semi-fictional Visayan, as he takes information from his environment to infer the time and coordinate his activities accordingly.

When Sictab2 woke up, he was lying on the wooden floor of his hut, blanketed by the comforting chill of cold darkness. The day before, he was baptised into the Catholic faith by Fransisco Ignacio Alcina, an intellectually curious cleric who went around the village after the ceremony asking about snakes. Still bemused from yesterday’s proceedings, Sictab reluctantly opened his eyes, slowly rose up, repeatedly practiced the sign of the cross to perfect the manoeuvre, and did some light stretching to physically prepare for the day’s tasks. The sun had yet to rise, but there were things that needed to be done before the first rays of light licked the night away.

Sictab was a tambalan, a Visayan healer versed in herbal medicine. As such, he needed ready supplies of all the botanical materia medica necessary for his service, and it was for this reason that he woke up early. According to the secret knowledge exclusive to the ears of his enclave, the healing powers of select plants can only be harnessed during certain hours of the day, and some are enlivened only by twilight. Sictab was running low on such herbs, so, like a punctual avian with sole access to annelids, he woke up early to collect these special crepuscular herbs. He readied himself, grabbed his trusty implements, and set off to the forest to look for them.

Unfortunately, Sictab was already quite late. When he arrived in the familiar undergrowth teeming with healing herbs, fruits, and flowers, he was left frowning in dismay because the crepuscular plants he wanted to collect were now inert. The reason? Multiple beams of light had already toned the thickets, announcing the imminent arrival of morning. It was already nasirag na, sunrise.

Maybe he woke up a few minutes late. Maybe he walked too slow. Whatever the case, Sictab contented himself with what was still available and potent enough to collect. This took him quite a while as there was no more reason to hurry, and by the time he was done, Sictab looked to the direction of the sun and saw that it had already risen above the horizon, roughly corresponding to seven or eight in the morning, which in the local tongue was called nabahao na.

He made his way back on a slow stroll, meticulously looking left and right to see if there were any other plants of interest. Also, caution was necessary as the forest was full of creatures eager to enjoy a quick meal out of unwary passersby, regardless of size or species. Angry snakes were known to gift careless Visayans with certain death and hungry crocodiles offered permanent body enhancements via surprise amputations. Luckily for Sictab, it didn’t take him long to reach home safe and sound. And instead of rapacious reptiles, the only animals that greeted him were loudly clucking chickens. Sictab looked at some of the hens to see if it was already nangitlog na, the time when they laid eggs, right about nine in the morning.

Now back in his hut, Sictab immediately set to work by segregating the herbs he had collected into their individual jars. He was careful not to mix things together as that could cause some concerns. In very special cases, the difference between a batuan and a calamansi is the death of a patient. Other herbs needed pounding, trimming, cutting, squeezing, and even boiling, so it took him some time to be done with work. After what seemed for like an hour, he had finished everything. He then went out of the hut, stood under the bright sunlight and jiggled his left arm so that all of his bracelets neatly stacked around his wrist. He then lifted his arm straight towards the sun as if trying to grab it. Because the sun was at an already higher position than earlier, Sictab also had to raise his arm at a higher angle and this caused his bracelets to dangle down from his wrist. This displacement meant that it was already macalululu, which corresponded to about 10 in the morning.

Sictab took a nap which was shortly interrupted by his stomach demanding immediate reparations as it was empty and he hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s ceremony, so he went to the village centre where many of his fellow Visayans were preparing for their usual communal lunch. Since it was still nagambagna sa odtohan, a jump away from noon, right around 11 in the morning, there was no food yet ready to eat when he arrived. The fishermen who had earlier caught a large number of fish were still undecided whether to cook all of their catch or leave some behind for the next day. They wanted to enjoy all the blessings today’s efforts brought, but they also wanted to ensure that tomorrow’s laziness will be supported with food. They eventually decided to cook all the fish including some choice crabs. The women came later bringing steaming shoots of bamboo filled with rice, which was absolutely necessary for a Visayan meal. The food was now ready, but they were still waiting for some of the younger Visayans to bring large banana leaves that they will use to place their food on. Although Sictab was already starving, he couldn’t help but wish that there was pig in the menu. Oh well, he had to settle with what was available.

At right about noon, or odto, they began to eat. Laid on the floor were large banana leaves forming one long stretch, and along the middle stood a mountain range of rice. They placed the fish and crabs on the sides. Sictab and the rest huddled around the banana leaves and dug right in, scooping rice and fragments of fish with their hands. Then, just after everyone had started, one of the elders came to join. He had his slaves carry a number of fresh coconuts for them to drink. It was starting to become a feast. There was so much food and beverage to go around that by the time they finished eating, it was already palis na, the moment when the sun starts to decline in the west, around one in the afternoon.

Their now enlarged stomachs testified that it was a very fulfilling meal. There was nothing left on the banana leaves except for scattered pieces of bukog, fish bones. The crabs also vanished, even their exoskeletons. To keep healthy, a heavy lunch was usually followed by a grueling session of sleep, but the euphoric atmosphere kept their spirits ecstatic, and so they continued talking and laughing. And before the festive feel simmered down, one of them suggested that they reward themselves with tuba, coconut wine, for preparing such a great lunch. All agreed to the reasonable proposal. Those able to climb the tall coconut trees hastily went off to collect the heavenly nectar. It was already ligas na at this time, around two in the afternoon, when the sun was already at a great distance to the west. After a long wait, they came back one by one, some in groups, all bringing large segments of bamboo filled with fresh tuba.

They started drinking around three in the afternoon, which in Visayan tongue was called tunga na sa iraya, meaning that the sun is halfway to sunset. As per usual, their drinking involved lots of singing, making jokes, telling fabulous stories, and recalling scary encounters with nocturnal creatures real or imagined—the line was often blurred, almost invisible, especially in the dark.

Time moved endlessly as minute after minute crashed like incessant waves, and the wine, too, also seemed without end, as everyone’s mug or cup kept on getting refilled with alcohol. And who could blame them for extending the jamboree, as even their environment was making it more enjoyable to get drunk. The winds joined bringing a cool breeze as it was already four in the afternoon, or humalag na, when the sun is on clear descent. The shade was also much larger now, so they spread further apart leaving a huge circle in the middle as they wanted to bulang, have cock fighting bouts. The men excitedly ran to their coops then came back holding their most formidable fowls. When all was set and the feathered warriors were ready, an even louder commotion than earlier began as each cheered for their bets as loud as their alcohol-drenched throats allowed them to. Trinkets, bracelets, animal teeth, blades, jewelry, and other paraphernalia changed hands after every bloody match as they were gambled away.

When you mix alcohol—and by that a hazardous amount of alcohol—with an activity that involves extremely sharp objects, it’s guaranteed that involuntary hemorrhages will occur. And it did occur on this day. One adequately drunk Visayan was so proud of his chicken combatant that after it had secured victory, he ran to it, picked it up, and immediately embraced it. Problem is, before they’re let to fight, these chickens are suited with a very sharp blade on their leg, also called bulang, which they use to kill their foes. This implement can easily cut through flesh. A quick flick can even leave the opposing chicken beheaded. Because the bulang was still on his chicken, the overjoyed Visayan had cut open his torso, running from his left lower ribcage, through his sternum, and up to his right clavicle. The unfortunate man fainted. Everyone rushed to check up on him. Sictab was in the crowd but he had the good sense to run and find herbs needed to stop the wound from getting worse. It didn’t take him long to return to the bloody scene as the path was still well-lit. The sun was still up, although it was now level with the coconuts, natupung na sa lubi as the Visayans say, indicating that it is already about five in the afternoon.

With skill and adept hands steeled by decades of experience, Sictab was able to quickly stop the bleeding. The other villagers looked in admiration as he expertly plied his healing craft on the poor Visayan, and some of the younger ones were even saying that they would like to learn from him. After cleaning and cauterising the wound, Sictab took a handful of oregano leaves that he had brought and chewed them for a few seconds. He then he spat the pap on to his hand and squeezed it above the gaping mouth of his patient, letting the sap drip. Its taste was so bitter that it immediately snapped the man back to consciousness. Upon seeing the villagers gathered around him, the man’s first priority was to ask where his beloved chicken was and if it was safe. When it seemed that all danger had been averted, the villagers carried the man back to his hut, and the rest started to go home as well. Their heavy footsteps, made heavier by alcohol intoxication, echoed an inner frustration from gambling their valuables away. Many went home having lost treasured memorabilia. One went home having lost a significant amount of blood. Many came home holding dead chickens. However for Sictab, he went home having solidified his important place in the village once again. But there was no time to bask in glory as it was already getting dark. The sun had already set, natonor na, it was now out of sight.

Sictab’s hut was a few hundred metres away from the village since he wanted to live near the forest. On his way home, he passed a cold stream from which he drank handfuls of freshwater. He was tempted to bathe and wash the bloodstains off, but he was already very exhausted, so after he had his fill, he took off. By the time he reached home it was almost completely dark, so he lit a small torch that stood just outside his doorway and went inside so he could rest. The lingering fragrance of blood mixing with the aroma of alcohol from his breath made his head swirl, and soon enough his temples throbbed in a glorious headache, so he laid down and tried to sleep the pain away. But no matter how tired and drunk Sictab was, there was a penetrating sense of being watched that prevented him from falling asleep. He knew he was alone, but he could feel that something was on its way to get him. He didn’t know what. There were faint sounds of rustling foliage from afar that grew louder and louder, and the sudden thump of the torch as it fell to the ground shook Sictab up. The fall had extinguished the flame, and a suffocating black void quickly swallowed the fading light. It was already ugsirino, the time when the night is so dark that one has to ask who is approaching because it’s difficult to see each other’s faces. And Sictab did just that: since he couldn’t see anything, he shouted, asking who it was that came to disturb him. There was no response, so he shouted even louder. Again, he was only met with cold silence. Sictab stretched out his hands sidewards and slowly made his way to the corner where he kept his trusty and sharp binangon. But as he tiptoed his way in the dark, a violent force swept him off his feet. His head slammed on the wooden floor, causing a concussion. Sictab tried to get up, but he couldn’t move his legs. They were bound by a heavy cold that was now slithering up his torso, gradually getting tighter and tighter. He was now losing consciousness. He remembered waking up this morning feeling wrapped by a cold chill, and now that he was about to sleep, perhaps his last, another cold was shrouding him, more violent and hungry, with a taste for blood.

  1. 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), 42-44. ↩︎

  2. The name is an anagram for Bactis, an intelligent Visayan mentioned by Alcina. ↩︎

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