Indigenous Symbols of Protection and Strength in the Philippines

The indigenous communities of the Philippines are spiritual peoples with symbols interwoven into their daily lives. They believed that the natural world could be full of potential dangers, both seen and unseen, and that a way to protect themselves was through the power of symbols. Symbols for them held the capacity to imbue power and protection to their fellow tribespeople. The visual arts of the indigenous Filipinos are ripe with symbolic meaning, from textiles, jewelry, architecture, and even the very markings on their body. 

The Bagobo are among the traditional highlander tribes in Mindanao, among the southern regions of the Philippines. They live along the Western coast across the city of Davao. Unlike their more colorful neighbors to the North, the Maranao, the Bagobo’s clothing are predominantly earth-toned and bear variations of rust red. One of the most important weaving motifs of the Bagobo is the crocodile. The crocodile symbol in textiles was believed to ward away evil spirits, which the Bagobo called buso. The tangkulo, or headcloth, featured an implied crocodile motif that was dyed onto the fabric as geometric symbols. The tangkulo was worn exclusively by the magani, or warrior class of the Bagobo, and the crocodile symbol was said to give them the strength to protect their people. Another southern Mindanao tribe, the B’laan, weave the crocodile motif into their lower garments to keep the wearers safe from spirits.

Crocodile motif on a kinarayan textile from Virgil Apostol's Way of the Ancient Healer

The people of Ilocos and the Itnegs of Abra in northwestern Luzon produced a fabric known as binakol. Unlike most other Philippine textiles that are either colorfully decorated or feature intricate motifs, the binakol is noteworthy for its use of a square grid pattern that creates an optical illusion meant to visually mimic a whirlpool. This simple yet effective motif is known as kusikus. The kusikus was designed as a protective symbol to appease the wrath of the wind god, who was believed to live within whirlwinds or whirlpools. Sailing communities would even use fabric with the kusikus motif as masts to shield their voyages against danger.

Binakul Handwoven Jacket

Another motif that symbolizes strength or protection is the Mangyan pakudus. This geometric symbol was derived from the Spanish word for “cross” and was also believed to represent sacred protection. The Mangyan embroider this symbol on their clothing, bags, and jewelry.

Hand-embroidered Pakudos on a Mangyan Blouse

The matang punay, or “dove’s eye”, is a symbol incorporated by the Bukidnon to signify watchful protection. Punay, meaning “dove”, was a powerful female deity that lived in the mountains of the Bukidnon and was a central figure in many of their funeral rites. Upon the passing of one of their own, the Bukidnon would make offerings to Punay and entreat her to help protect and guide the souls of their dead in the afterlife. The matang punay thus represents not only the watchful eyes of Punay, but also those of their many ancestors who have passed.

Hand-stitched Bukidnon blouse with Matang Punay Embroidery, a protective eye of the ancestors

The Visayan Pintados, or “painted Visayans”, were so-called because of their heavily tattooed appearances. They fiercely fought back against the forces of Spanish colonization and were known for actively initiating war both on land and sea. The geometric patterns tattooed on each warrior’s body symbolized their strength and skill in battle. The more tattoos a warrior would have, the more they were to be feared amongst their enemies.

Illustration of the Visayan Pintados as seen in the Boxer Codex

One of the most prominent symbols of protection carried by the indigenous Filipinos was the anting-anting. The anting-anting is a sacred amulet, worn as a necklace or sometimes merely kept as a charm by the user, that was typically fashioned out of either metal or wood. The more modern form of the anting-anting features inscriptions and often religious symbols. Back in pre-colonial times, Filipinos would use different objects, like stones or pieces of metal, as their own kinds of anting-anting. This mysterious amulet exemplifies the Filipinos’ animistic beliefs, which held that even inanimate objects could hold great power. or anitos. The lingling-o pendant is another amulet that was mostly used as a fertility charm but was also worn for protection.

Even today, Filipinos continue to hold symbols like the binakul, pakudos, and anting-anting in high regard as both a spiritual means for safety and as a way to preserve the traditional practices of their ancestors.