The Soul Boat and the Boat-Soul: An Inquiry into the Indigenous “Soul”

Bangka, Kaluluwa at Katutubong Paniniwala - Bangka is the general Philippine term for all kinds of seacraft. The rituals involving the bangka reveal that it is more than a water vessel in Philippine culture: it is a repository of an entire belief system in indigenous society.

Bangka, Kaluluwa at Katutubong Paniniwala (The Soul Boat and the Boat-Soul: An Inquiry into the Indigenous “Soul”)
by Maria Bernadette L. Abrera, Ph.D.
(Full paper is available for download from the link)

This paper explores the indigenous world view in the Philippines and in particular, the concept of the soul in the animist context, as revealed in the pre-colonial rituals involving the use of the boats. These boats are commonly called by the general term bangka. The boat rituals as well as the boat terms are utilized to understand the belief system particularly in relation to beliefs about the soul and the afterlife.

The Boat Terms
The Philippine “bangka” comes from the Austronesian ba?ka[h] which means “boat,” a term also found in Indonesia and the Melanesian islands such as Fiji and Samoa (Dempwolff 15). In the Philippines, bangka was first recorded to refer to all kinds of small boats usually used in rivers or in shallow coastal waters (San Antonio 33). By the 18th century however, the term had expanded to include all kinds of water vessels of varying sizes (Noceda y Sanlucar). For example, in the Ilocos region, the bangka was originally a small boat that was comparable to the paraw, a slow-moving small water craft (Carro 46). However, the contemporary description of the bangka in the Ilocos likens it to a large bilog, which is a plank-built boat with no outriggers according to Vanoverbergh, thus indicating its capacity to sail in deep open waters (48). Similarly, the Ilocano boat bilog was a “small bangka” that was hollowed out from a single log in the 19th century that eventually became a large boat made of planks (Carro 57). At present, “bangka” is also found in almost all the Philippine languages including Kapampangan, Hiligaynon, Sebuano, Samar-Leyte, Batad Ifugao, Badjaw, and Sinama languages. Among the Badjaw or Sama Laut, “bangka” is the general term for all kinds of boats not used as houseboats, which are specifically called lipa (Nimmo 60, 61).

In Mindanao during the 17th century, the bangka was not a small boat since it could carry anywhere from twenty to 100 cavans of rice (Combes 786). The Jesuit priest Francisco Combes described it as carved from a single piece of log, which also indicated the length and size of the trees from which such large boats could be made. There were two kinds of bangka in Maguindanao based on the manner it was constructed: the binaluy, made from a single log, and the plank-built kumpit (Juanmarti 9). Today, the kumpit of the Sama and the Tausug is a huge boat made of planks that can measure between 50 to 120 feet in length (Lorenzo-Abrera). We may conclude then, that the bangka was originally a small boat. We may infer then, that the term bangka originally referred to a small boat. As the community and its trade grew, so did the boats, while generally retaining the original names. The term bangka was expanded to accommodate the larger boats that were built later. It is notable too that it was in Mindanao that the bangka is first described as a large trading boat although like the smaller versions it was still carved out of a single piece of log.

During the 18th century, the term “bangka” was found in several Philippine languages, among them Ilokano and Tagalog, but not in the Bikol and Visayan languages. In fact, neither term bangka nor bilog were found in the early Bicol and Visayan vocabularies. Instead, the Bicol term for boat was sacayan and if it were constructed from a single log, it was called a baloto (Lisboa 53). The term bangka is also absent in the 1637 vocabulary for the Visayan, Hiligaynon and Haraya of Panay island (de Mentrida). Likewise the 1668 dictionary for the Visayans of Leyte and Samar indicated that they called as baloto what the Tagalogs referred to as bangka (Alcina 134). In early 16th century Cebu, Pigafetta recorded that the small boat was called a baloto (Pigafetta 197). The baloto according to the Jesuit Alcina, was the smallest, simplest, and most common sea craft. It was hollowed out from a solid piece of log and could be carried ashore by a single person due to its diminuitive size. However, Alcina who was an accomplished navigator himself found it remarkable that this tiny baloto could be used to ride the huge waves off Samar island which was one of the most dangerous waters in the islands. He likened the sight of it to a ball floating on the waves.

However, the bangka was more than just a boat. The technology and its entire process of construction embodied the beliefs of the indigenous culture. Alcina, who was among the most detailed recorders of its native construction, noted that there were a “million superstitions” involved in cutting tree and shaping the log (Alcina 162). Nothing in its construction happened by chance. For example, the nodes of the tree were counted and determined in which part of the boat it would fall, because this would affect the fate of the boat. Such painstaking chore shows us the immense value attributed to the boats beyond the simple function of transporting people and trade.

The Boat Rituals
The rituals where the boats figured are most instructive in revealing the beliefs that lay beneath the surface. One such religious procedure was called the kibang. In Tagalog, this term meant the rocking motion of a boat on the waves. As a ceremony however, kibang was the old tradition of asking the anito (the spirit of the departed) what luck would befall the riders before sailing or docking, and the movement was attributed as the spirit’s response (de San Antonio 67). Visayans also had this ritual, similarly called guibang (Fernandez and Koback 442). It was usually done before a raiding or a fishing expedition, intoning before the small baloto, “Guibang, guibang cun magtoto cami” (Sway, sway, if we should proceed).” If the baloto did sway, it meant good fortune; the greater the rocking movement, the better one’s fortune. As the baloto swayed, they would ask who was causing the boat to sway, a deity or an ancestor’s spirit. Where the boat swayed at the mention of the name, deity or spirit, there was their answer. This ritual is practiced until the present time (Funtecha 13). Likewise, when the children or relatives of a person who had drowned got sick they would be placed in a boat called barangay together with a baylan (a female diviner) and at the place she indicated, they would throw down a wooden chest full of clothes and other belongings of the dead person (de Loarca 85-86). Simultaneously, they would ask their ancestors to help and heal the sick relatives.

The bacalag was an important Visayan boat launching ritual recorded in the 17th century. When a mangaiao (raiding boat) was to be launched, it would be rolled over several pieces of logs and at the end of these was an enslaved captive (Alcina 162-163). This was reportedly done so that through the blood of the human sacrifice, the boat would be feared by their enemies and would succeed in obtaining numerous captives. During the ritual, the appeal was uttered, “Daoharlucsin iginbabacalagna,” a request that people would fear the boat in the same manner that the sacrificed captive did. In Calagan (Caraga), the bacalag ritual was performed for the healing a of datu (chief) who was seriously ill.

Calag in Bicol and Visayan means “soul,” the root word in both bacalag and Calagan. We can conclude that Fr. Combes was referring to the bacalag ritual as a “revolting” ancient tradition in Caraga when he said, “for the boats to obtain good fortune, they promise it at the first instance a name, usually that of one of their slaves” (41). It would have been the name of the sacrificed slave, which made it so repulsive to the Jesuit observer. Remnants of this ritual remain although in less severe form. In Masbate island, the prow of a boat to be launched is brushed with chicken blood, while prayers are intoned. This is usually performed by an elderly person. A boatbuilder in Cavite also reported doing this practice on the boat of a businessman from Iloilo City, who had requested the ritual. In the movie “Muro-Ami” which was set in Bohol island and records its fishing practices, the captain’s father brushed chicken blood on the prow of the boat that would be used for fishing. The practice has even been transmitted to a modern form of transport: the wheels of a new car are also brushed with chicken blood. The sacrifice is believed to bring the boat good fortune. Fishermen in the northernmost Philippine island of Batanes offer up a pig to transfer to the animal whatever ill fortune may befall them or their boats (Mangahas 67, 77). When they do not find any catch, they perform the cleansing ritual not only on themselves but also on their boat, as they believe envy or witchcraft has made them dirty, along with the boats and the port (Mangahas 87).

These examples of rituals indicate a way of thinking about boats which go beyond its function of transportation. To understand this, we need to go to the basic tenets of the animist belief system, the most essential being the concept of the soul.

The Indigenous “Soul”
Bagobos, an indigenous Philippine ethnic group in Mindanao, believe that all things possess a gimokud or soul, 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.

Bagobos believe that both men and animals possess two souls, the bad soul on the left and the good on the right. Man-made objects have only one soul, such as the soul of a betel nut box, or the soul of a lime container. Among the Ifugao, this has been rendered in English as “soulstuff” (alimaduan) which is different from the soul (linawa). The alimaduan is that which gives the object its distinctive characteristic. For example, the alimaduan of the rice is to yield grain; of the pigs and chickens, to grow and multiply; of the person, to have desirable traits (Barton 141-142). However, a knife that bends lacks soulstuff, so does a tree that does not bear fruit.

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).

Inferring from this, the boat then possesses its own soul, which is fundamentally related to the tree that had been used for its construction. The entire boat building process and construction rituals are rooted in the belief in the soul: offerings are made to the soul inhabiting the tree so that it would remain in the tree when the log is transformed into a boat. It is this soul of the boat that gives it its good qualities as a boat. We can get a glimpse of what these qualities are from a rowing song among the Ivatans of Batanes. Upon the start of a sea voyage, the boatmen address the boat, asking it to be steady of purpose, to be forceful, and to be alert in finding land with a beautiful bay (Scheerer 315-316). Similarly, Malays pray to the soul of a boat prior to a voyage and appeal that it keeps the planks together (Skeat 279).

In the epic “Sandayo” of the Subanon of Zamboanga, the hero’s boat Gadyong reveals that it has its own mind because when informed that they were going on a raid, it refused to budge. When Sandayo the hero finally relented and said that he was going to court a maiden, only then did the boat sail. The functions of thought, will, and movement are attributes of the soul, thus the need for the hero to entreat his boat as though it were a person.

This animist belief is seen in another aspect, the boat parts. Boats have a “face”, particularly eyes. The boat atop the burial jar found in the Manunggul cave in Palawan has a face at the prow, and one can see the eyes, nose, mouth and ears. Likewise, the prow of the lipa or houseboats in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi are called sampong (face) with a discernible eye, brow, nose, and mouth. Even the terms used in boat construction also refer to the face: sealing the planks is napirnga (to have a speck in the eye) and the sealant itself, pamota (speck, mote). According to Lorenzo-Abrera, the stern is called sampong buli (the face behind) by the Sama (Paghihinang Kumpit 183).

The belief in a soul in inanimate objects, plants and animals also explains the presence of grave goods. Since these objects have souls, then they can accompany the dead on his journey and be brought over to the afterlife, along with the souls of the slaves buried with him. When these grave goods are completely decomposed materially, then they can be useful to the soul of the dead (Benedict 54). The souls of these objects will be used by the soul of the dead person. This is why, among the Kankanay, not a single iron nail is used in the coffin because the dead person desires that everything should disintegrate together with his corpse (Canol 58). This could help explain why up to the 17th century, the Spaniards would note that not a single piece of iron was used in building the boats.

Mourning
Boats figured prominently in the death rituals as they were part and parcel of the entire animistic belief. There were several forms of mourning: maglahe, morotal, larao, and marabay. Maglahe (magarahe among the Tagalogs) was the mourning indicated by fasting, upon the death of a parent or close relative (Loarca 88-89). The mourner ate no rice, only bananas and sweet potatoes, and drank only tuba (coconut wine). He wound rattan vine around his entire arm and neck. The mourning ended when the mourner had taken a captive or killed someone.

Morotal was a woman’s mourning, where she would get on a barangay boat together with other women and three chosen warriors: one to steer the boat, another to bail, and the third to stay in the bow. The men sang about their bravery in war all the while rowing the boat filled with jars of wine. A great feast would be held upon reaching their destination, and the mourning came to an end with the woman eating rice again and wearing gold ornaments (Loarca 89).

Larao was the mourning for a datu (chief). Everyone observed this ritual, where no one could have any quarrel, the weapons were carried with the points down, daggers carried with reversed hilts, and no one could wear colorful clothing. All was silence. Along the shore signs were placed indicating a larao so that no one could transgress the silence on pain of death (Chirino 135). This practice is recorded in the Maranao epic “Darangen”, where white flags were placed at the river mouth and around the community. Singing was forbidden and silence was enforced. Whoever broke the rule would suffer death. Similarly, the Bilaans cease all activity and merriment when their datu dies, and all help out in preparation for the burial (Cabrera 191).

In the 16th century, a datu was buried in a boat with many rowers who would serve him in the other world (Chirino 135). Slaves, food and drink were placed in the vessel that would carry the dead chief to the next life (Chirino 134). Sometimes as many as 60 slaves would be made to accompany the datu in the afterlife. To accommodate this many passengers, the burial boat would have been a barangay.

According to Loarca, when a datu descended from Dumaguet dies, a slave is made to die in the same manner as the chief (88). He added that the slave chosen for this was the most wretched they could find, a foreigner and not one of them, for he remarked that they were “not at all cruel”. The dead were buried in wooden coffins, piled with gold, clothing, and other expensive objects as they believed that if a person left this world well off, he would be received well in the next life.

Tagalogs buried the dead beside his house; if it was a datu, he would be placed under a small house or porch constructed for this purpose (de Plasencia 122). There was a mourning period of four days, after which the corpse was placed in a boat and buried. Animals could be placed in the boat instead of rowers: a male and female species of the animal would be placed in the seat of the rowers, usually two goats, deers, or hens. If the dead person was a warrior, a living slave would be tied underneath the corpse to die in this manner. Songs about the warrior’s prowess and good qualities were sung by relatives during the wake.

Boat coffins
The archeological evidence of boat-shaped coffins abound from north to south of the Philippine islands as well as in the entire Southeast Asian region (Tenazas). While bangka is the general term for boats, in other minor Philippine languages it is transposed as kabang. The Tagalog term for coffin is kabaong. Briefly, we note that boats are used as houses up to the present by some Philippine ethnolingguistic groups, and that the shape and function of houses have been studied to closely resemble boats. The Bikol term for house is harong, which sounds similar to the Malay term for coffin, larong. This paper infers that the term kabaong meant a boathouse for the dead, intended to transport him to the afterlife.

If the dead had been a member of a raiding team, the coffin would be in the shape of the boat called barangay. Animals would be placed as rowers, with a slave to oversee everything (de San Antonio 152). If he were a renowned sailor, he would be buried in his boat, with slaves to row him to the afterlife. In Bohol, a datu was reported to have been buried with 70 armed slaves and food supplies, just as he had sailed when still living (Colin 174). This supposedly ensured that he could maintain his raiding prowess beyond this world.

It is notable that the kabaong, coffin, is very similarly made as the bangka/kabang, boat. Often, boats are simply mentioned as made of hardwood. In Butuan City, where the oldest balangays (boat) in the Philippines were discovered, there were also excavated coffins made from the hardwood dungon (Heretiera litorales) (Roxas-Lim 56). This hardwood is especially used to construct the boat keel. It had also been noted that coffin planks and its cover were very tightly sewn that not even air could pass through (Chirino 134). It meant that the coffin was likewise constructed watertight in anticipation of its passage in the river or sea.

Significantly, burial jars were almost always found near the shore or in coastal areas (Fox 159-160). In Samar and Leyte, the sea was within view from the site of the jars, and in Sorsogon and Tayabas, these were near the sea. The burial caves, including the elevated sites in Batanes, were facing the sea. In 1857, it was noted of the Ifugao that they buried their dead under their houses, which was attributed to have been an influence from the Chinese “as they had not previously done this” (Alarcon 89). The river and the sea served as passageways to the afterlife, thus the coffin was a boat.

Journey to the Afterlife
One important concept of this spiritual boat journey concerns abay, from where the mourning ritual called marabay takes its root. The marabay mourner stays beside the corpse, taking no solid food for three days. After this time, the mourner may then consume food but nothing that had been passed over fire, until he had taken a head.

Abay refers to boats traveling together. In Bikol it meant several boats sailing in tandem, but a second meaning was for the dead to travel with companions. Among the Sama Laut, the present-day burial ceremony actually consists of several boats sailing together to an island where the burial will take place (Nimmo 194). The stature of the dead person can be seen from the number of boats that accompany the burial boat procession.

In the Visayas, abay also referred to boats sailing together, but likewise contained a second meaning which signified being in another’s company until death (de Mentrida 4). It also meant a certain supernatural power manifested through words, an ability which a person possessed until death. This meaning is given more clarity with the Tagalog meaning of abay. First, it meant accompanying a person to another place; second, it signified a friend or a respected person whom one brought along to a gathering; and lastly, it referred to the person’s soul, in the sense of being a companion. When Spanish colonization began to spread the Christian faith, this indigenous concept was utilized to explain religious tenets, as when abay, referring to the soul, was used in a sample sentence as:

Abay. (…) y aplicado al alma, dicen: Paabay camo sa manga calagyo ninyong Santos
at sa manga catutubo. (Applying to the soul, they say: Ask to be guided by your
namesake saints and by the catutubo.)

Abay as a concept can thus be reduced to the idea of a companion, either as boats sailing in company or as persons traveling together. The nature of such travel could be temporary and brief, such as going to a gathering, or over the period of one’s entire lifetime, such as in indicated by having the soul as companion.

The concept of the abay (companion) explains why there are to be companions for the dead. They will help and serve him in the afterlife. Thus the mourning called mangabay, where one stays beside the corpse, shows that it is first and foremost the mourning relative who must accompany the dead while there are yet slaves to be found for the journey. Once their souls have been obtained for the journey – meaning that they were either killed or left to die, both through a ritual - then the mourner is freed from the task of acting as the abay. The avoidance of abay would also explain certain ethnic beliefs regarding death. For example, among the Bagobo, the sound of a cricket is deemed as the dead person’s invitation for one to become his abay. Thus the relative, upon hearing the insect, addresses it: “You can come here no more because you are now going to the Great City (the afterlife). You have still a little love for me; do not bring me sickness.” We see in this the idea that just as a person needs company while he is on earth, so does the soul as it travels and goes to the afterlife. Hence, there is both a physical and a spiritual abay.

The soul, since it is also a companion, is also considered an abay while the person is alive. However, in the sample sentence explaining the meaning of abay, we encounter another term, calagyo, to wit: calagyo ninyong santos, your namesake saints. A calagyo in pre-colonial culture was a person who was one’s namesake and it would be worthwhile investigating in another study whether this term for a namesake was indeed related to the concept of calag or soul. What can be established now is that these indigenous concepts were used to introduce and explain colonial concepts, in this case pertaining to religion. Thus, the native idea of the calagyo became the vehicle to introduce the idea of a patron saint and naming people after them in the process of Christianization. They would thus become the namesake’s guide in life.

The second term we encounter is catutubo, defined as a person who was the same age as oneself. This term reflected another belief about the soul as a companion, or abay, but in particular as one who grew up with the person from birth. From this, the Spanish missionaries were able to find a parallel concept by which to introduce the guardian angel as the spirit who was from the very beginning with the person it was watching over. Mixing the terms, this guardian spirit was called angel na ating catutubo, which would mean the angel who was the same age as the person. This would mean the indigenization of the Christian concept of the guardian angel who was not “born” at the same time as the person and therefore could have no age, as it was a spirit. The concept that would be the same as catutubo is in the Maranao belief in the tonong. This is believed to be one’s twin who is a spirit and who guards the person and defends him from harm. The tonong is given to a person upon birth. This spirit-twin keeps the person company at all times, warns him of impending danger, and helps him during battle. The tonong has the power to guard the person it accompanies through life, and can be the source of the person’s amazing abilities. There are three kinds of tonong based on its location: in the clouds, on top of trees, and in the water. The tonong who lives in the water is called a diwata.

Abay thus refers to the following: boats sailing together; a person who accompanies another in a journey; the soul of another that would accompany the dead to the afterlife. Marabay, the mourning ritual, thus meant seeking a soul to act as companion for the dead relative, which was why it ended only upon the taking of the life of another. These journeys, both on earth and to the next life, all involved the use of boats.

These boat rituals and terms show us that the boats themselves may be read as a repository of the animist belief system. The uses in the various rituals reveal the worldview and explain the interrelations among the different segments of the entire cosmic set-up in the indigenous mind. The boat served as a transport vehicle during one’s life and in the afterlife. The bangka was a boat that transported souls to the afterlife and a boat that had a soul of its own.

Published: 03 Aug 2007

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Philippine Social Sciences Review