That’s the way we were


Conquistadors were busily conquering and frailes converting, but some scholarly types asked around and wrote about the land and the indios they found. In 1590, it was probably Governor General Luis Pérez Dasmariñas who got someone to summarize the most reliable accounts then available, had an artist draw some naturales, asked a calligrapher to make everything presentable, and dispatched the beautifully handwritten and illustrated manuscript to his bosses back in Spain.

Indios did not understand Spanish and the curious interviewers had little more than elementary Tagalog, Cebuano, whatever. Both interviewer and respondent must have done their best but misunderstanding was inevitable. Just the same, the record is what we now know about our ancestors when they met the arriving foreigners. Dasmarinas’ manuscript survived and it is now in the US. Known as the Boxer Codex, it is a treasured possession of Indiana University’s Lilly Library.

PORTRAIT OF THE PRE-COLONIAL FILIPINO Naturales: Gold-embellished Tagalog noble couple

The Codex has 22 chapters, each about a particular Pinoy group, and China, Japan, and other distant lands. One chapter is about Tagalogs, ruled among others by Rajahs Solimán, Ladia (or Matandâ), and Lakandulà. The following is what Dasmariñas reported were what Tagalogs believed in, how they behaved, and how they looked.

The Supreme Being

Tagalogs have and revere one God called Bathala, who created all things, but “they do not know nor can they explain when, how, why He made them, or what His abode is in heaven.”

PORTRAIT OF THE PRE-COLONIAL FILIPINO Naturales: A trio of Tagalog common men

Invoking Divine Providence

People have souls called anito that go to casanaan. Their help is sought to cure the sick in a ceremony called mag-anito. Priests and priestesses preside over the service before an altar lit with candles and adorned with valuable textiles and gold ornaments. Relatives and neighbors, bodies smeared with the blood of sacrificial animals, chant and dance to the rhythm of drums and bells imploring anitos to cure the bedridden. The event ends when the food (the sacrificed pigs and chickens) is gone and “when everybody or most of them get drunk.” Priests call on the anitos and, depending on the signs received, the patient is declared as on the way to recovery. If he or she dies anyway, the explanation is that other, more powerful anitos had intervened.

Priests and priestesses

The (male) priests dress like females. They were called bayog or bayoguin. In fairness, it is possible that as now, ancient Tagalog priests dressed in long vestments that could be misunderstood as gowns. The narrator, however, makes no bones about it, describing priests as out and out gay. “hey marry males and sleep with them …”  On the other hand, priestesses, called catalonan, “… are usually old and their function is to cure the sick with superstitious words …” So there.


The pomp and circumstance of funerals varied with the social and economic status of the dearly departed. Ordinary deceased were shrouded in a white sheet and promptly buried next to his or her house or field. Food and alcoholic drinks ended proceedings. The rich buried their dead in wood coffins and in the 16th-century equivalent of a Manila Memorial mausoleum, a structure with curtains and lamps and with a guard or custodian for up to three or four years. In some places, slaves were killed and buried with their masters, one instance being cited of 60 slaves thus dispatched.

Pregnancy and birth

Women who wish to become pregnant breed and fatten pigs. A promise is then made to the anito that the pigs will be sacrificed in a grand feast when she gives birth. The husband also promises not to cut his hair until the baby arrives.

After the baby is born, no palay is pounded and winnowed into rice under the house in the belief that the baby will die if any grains are eaten by roaming chickens.


The writer is surprised that unlike European practice where the bride brings a dowry to the marriage partnership, Tagalog men makes a payment to the bride-to-be’s family and to her close relatives. Marriage is unlikely without these emoluments. The wedding follows dowry negotiations and payments. Proceedings end with a wedding feast (food and drink again) and the pair are made to eat from the same plate. On their wedding night, the bride’s mother or some old women bring the couple to bed where they are made to lie down and covered with a sheet amid general ribald hilarity. Then everybody heads beneath the house directly under the couple’s bed. A thick stake is driven deep into the ground to help speed matters up.

Sundry customs and beliefs

When eating, chiefs would always reserve a little of everything as an offering to Bathalà and the anitos. They did not offer any rice or fresh fruit to anyone nor allow anyone to wear new clothing lest the erstwhile giver be in want of those things.

Nothing should be eaten where rice is planted. The one who does so will die or turn mad.

Rain while the sun is shining announces that an anito wedding is underway. Anitos are blamed when there is an earthquake. Everyone has to make loud noises, deliver blows to walls and the ground, and in general cause a big commotion to frighten the anitos away and stop the earthquake.

The singing of a certain reddish-blue bird is interpreted either as a warning or as a go-signal before a journey. It depends on the sound. A sneeze, a lizard clucking, a snake crossing one’s path are considered warnings against proceeding on an intended journey or task.

When walking along a river or bathing, or doing laundry, or crossing on a boat one prays to the crocodile, asking him to swim to deep water and not to frighten or hurt one. One is not the crocodile’s enemy so the crocodile should target instead one’s enemies. Food is sometimes offered to the crocodile.

Appropriate incantations will cure poisoning, abscesses, and certain diseases; bestow curative powers to sesame seed oil; make fighting cocks braver, husbands more faithful and/or better in bed. There was a prescribed script for each objective.

Amulets made from crocodile teeth or man-shaped seeds or tree roots were worn to assure victory in battle, to avoid capture, to be invisible, to bestow good fortune, good health, and long life.

Ceremonies with the usual feasting and imbibing assure good harvests and victory in a fight. Established rules guide house construction.

Bravery in battle or other high achievement makes a person a bayani. He is awarded gold covered buffalo horns and is an honored guest at weddings and other celebrations.

The way we looked

It is only natural for us to imagine our great greats as wearing kilos of gold necklaces, earrings, chains, bracelets, knee rings, breastplates, and other objects like those at the Ayala Museum. Indeed, Boxer Codex illustrates well robed Tagalog datu and their wives loaded down with gold. The drawing of “a trio of Tagalog common men,” however, shows that most of our ancestors probably had little more than a red g-string to their name.

Note: This article is based on Luis Donoso et al, transcribers and editors, Boxer Codex (Quezon City: Vibal Foundation, Inc.. 2016).

Comments are cordially invited, addressed to [email protected].