The influence of religion on Filipino martial arts

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Religion and spirituality played an important role in the development of Filipino martial arts (FMA). Just like in other martial cultures, religion helps the Filipino warrior deal with the issue of his eventual demise. In pre-colonial Philippine society, when marauders, enemy tribesmen and foreign invaders were constant threats, a warrior had to be at peace with the fact that he could die in battle any day.

In between invasions, Filipino fighting men during peaceful times preoccupied themselves with the brutal sport of arnis-escrima stick fighting. Practitioners entering the deadly contest of juego todo (all-out stick fighting matches without the aid of armor) must deal with the possibility of death. For the men involved in these deadly arts, religion offered the promise of protection, invincibility or in the case of death in combat, a pleasant passage to the afterlife.

Sample pages from the Doctrina Christiana, the very first book published in the Philippines. Notice the texts are in native baybayin and Spanish.

The Philippines was influenced by many religions through the centuries but two—indigenous beliefs and Catholicism—left a lingering mark on FMA. This is particularly evident in the esoteric practice of acquiring anting-anting (object possessing magical powers) and oracion (magical prayers), a skill highly esteemed by some traditional arnisadores.

The late FMA scholar Pedro Reyes wrote how arnisadores managed to weave the two faiths together. In his article titled “Echoing the Energy’s Equation” (Rapid Journal Vol.3 No. 2) he said, “In many cases, the changes were not too traumatic. For example, the arnisadores simply moved the great days of initiation into the oraciones of the Moon Goddess to the days of the Lent and to All Souls Day. As for the celebration of the Earth God — Christmas became one of them, leaving only the summer initiations without Christian equivalents. Incidentally, arnisadores prefer to offer themselves to the Goddess. A traditional practice, for example, is to drill during the nights of the moon to seek the favor, protection and strength of the Great Mother.”


Many kinds of powers were believed to be derived from the used of anting-anting and oracion. Among them were the ability to be impervious to blade and bullets, the ability to become invisible as well as the capability to heal. In the following account from the book “The Former Philippines thru Foreign Eyes” by Fedor Jagor, Tomas de Comyn, Chas Wilkes and Rudolf Virchow, an anting-anting provided extraordinary courage and strength to its owner. “Superstition is rife. Besides the little church images of the Virgin, which every Filipina wears by a string round the neck, many also have heathen amulets, of which I had an opportunity of examining one that had been taken from a very daring criminal. It consisted of a small ounce flask, stuffed full of vegetable root fibers, which appeared to have been fried in oil. This flask, which is prepared by the heathen tribes, is accredited with the virtue of making its owner strong and courageous. The capture of this individual was very difficult; but, as soon as the little flask was taken from him, he gave up all resistance, and allowed himself to be bound. “

Escrima maestro Ireneo Olavides demonstrates a technique. PHOTO COURTESY OF ESCRIMA DE CAMPO JDC-IO CLAN

It is also interesting to note that in the Philippines, the practice of testing the potency of an anting-anting or oracion was done on Good Friday, one of the most sacred days in the Christian calendar. Owners of anting-antings and oraciones during this occasion perform the blood curdling act of having parts of their body hacked with sharp bolos or having a gun with live ammunitions fired at them at point blank range.

The practice of naming arnis-escrima systems and techniques after saints and deities is also a clear indication of the influence of indigenous religion and Catholicism on FMA. The San Miguel System of Eskrima founded by Grandmaster Filemon “Momoy” Cañete of the famed Doce Pares group was named after San Miguel or Saint Michael the Archangel. The arnis strike “Tagang San Miguel,” an outside downward diagonal strike, described in the very first published book on arnis “Mga Karunungan sa Larong Arnis” by Placido Yambao and Buenaventura Mirafuente, was also named after the sword-wielding captain of the heavenly hosts.

“Bahala na,” a Filipino philosophical-spiritual concept often used in FMA circles, traces its etymology to the word “Bathala,” the name of the supreme deity of the ancient Filipinos. Bahala na came from Bathala na, which means “Let God.” Then and now, a Filipino fighter utter “Bahala na,” before plunging into the heat of battle, it simply means he is entrusting his fate in the hands of God.

The teachings of Catholicism in the Philippines were passed on from one generation through the next through preserved archives. In sharp contrast, there is a dearth of written documents on ancient Filipino religions except those written by foreign scholars. The reason for this is because much of these historical accounts were transferred orally, hence lost through the passing of time. Pertaining to the oral traditions of pre-colonial Filipinos, a portion of “The Philippine Islands, 1493–1898 Volume XXI, 1624,” edited and annotated by Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson, reads, “Their whole religion was based on those songs, and they were passed on from generation to generation, and were sung in their feasts and most solemn assemblies.”

Originally published in FMA Pulse April 7, 2011

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