The Tagalogs are members of an ethnic group inhabiting the central part of the island of Luzon in the Philippines. The Philippine Revolution (1896 to 1898), the first organized revolt against western colonial rule in Asia, started in the Tagalog region hence it was sometimes referred to by the Spanish as the “Tagalog War.” With the seat of the Spanish government established in Manila, the Tagalog provinces also absorbed more influences from Spain compared to other regions in the country. The Tagalog province of Laguna is where the country’s National Hero Dr. Jose Rizal was born. Known for his intellectual and physical prowess, Rizal was an expert practitioner of arnis de mano, the most popular term for Filipino martial arts (FMA) in the Tagalog region.
“The word taga meant a native inhabitant, and tagalog was apparently a contraction of taga ilog, river dweller, presumably in distinction from taga bundok, mountain dwellers between Nagcarlan [Laguna] and Lamon Bay, though they spoke the same language,” wrote William Henry Scott on the etymology of the term Tagalog, in his book, Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society.
The Tagalogs before their conversion to Catholicism, were as warlike as any of the other ethnic tribes in the Philippines, a part of Scott’s book reads, “Heads were brought back as trophies of war. When the Spaniards invade Batangas towns, they often found enemy heads impaled on stakes, and bayubay meant “to hang the heads of the vanquished on long bars, as these natives used to do.” Pugot and sumbali meant to cut a head off, and tungol or bungol was to grab someone from behind and cut his throat. Perhaps the iwa—a dagger wide and flat at the end—was a weapon designed for head taking.” On the arms of pre-colonial Tagalogs, Scott wrote, “Tagalogs fought with the usual Philippine weapons—the single edged balaraw dagger. The wavy kris (kalis), spears with both metal and fire-hardened tips, padded armor and carabao hide breastplates, and long narrow shields (kalasag), or round bucklers (palisay). The bow and arrow were used only in certain regions, and the blowgun nowhere. Those with access to foreign imports sometimes had Japanese swords (katana) or Chinese peaked helmets (kupya or tangkulog); but the Chinese evidently never shared their firearms, though Legazpi sent one to Spain which was taken from a Chinese junk in Mindoro. The Bornean arquebus (astingal) was also known, but the Spaniards seem never to have faced any in Luzon encounters as they did in Mindanao.”
Tagalog mercenaries even participated in overseas conflicts among them the local wars initiated by the exiled Sultan of Malacca against the Portuguese in 1525. Chronicler Joao de Barros, having witnessed the ferocity of the Tagalog mercenaries in battle described them as, “the most warlike and valiant of these parts.”
The temperament of Tagalog males was also noted in Scott’s work, “Tagalog men suffer insults meekly: balantagi was defined as lex talionis (that is, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth), and sampal was to split a man from top down. San Buenaventura (1613, 349) illustrated with the example, “Sa ako’y lalaban niya’y sinampa ako ng aking katana [He defied me so I split him in half with my sword].” The mention of the Japanese sword katana also incites interest. Scott pointed out that Japanese swords were among the products imported by pre-colonial Filipinos, an indication of their appreciation of fine bladed weapons.
The Tagalogs, based on the observations of early western chroniclers possessed a deep sense of brotherhood, “A Tagalog’s primary identity was with his bayan [town or community]and loyalty to his kababayan (townmates),” wrote Scott. This may explain why the revolt against Spain first gathered momentum within the Tagalog provinces.
Bathala-worship, Islam and Catholicism all have taken roots in the Tagalog region with the latter leaving the most profound influence. It is safe to surmise that indoctrination in Catholic teachings had done much in taming the warlike character of the Tagalogs—a supposition that applies to the other ethnic tribes in the Philippines as well.
“Our earliest surviving account of Tagalog religion is a remarkable two-paragraph summary by encomendero Miguel de Loarca, remarkable in that it sounds much like what is nowadays called folk Catholicism. It presents a creator god who can only be approached through intercessors like deceased relatives or the patron deities of farmers, seafarers, or warriors, all of whom are worshiped in the form of idols which receive sacrifices and adornment,” wrote Scott.
Folk Catholicism is endemic in many far-flung Tagalog provinces even today. It is highly probable that folk Catholicism in the region may have come about as a result of the various religious influences absorbed by the Tagalogs through the ages. An excellent work on the subject is the book The Samahan of Papa God: Tradition and Conversion in a Tagalog Peasant Religious Movement by cultural anthropologist Robert S. Love. A part of Love’s book reads, “The Christianity of the poorest strata of Tagalog society in eastern Laguna province is discovered to have little to do with Roman Catholic Church as an institution, however. Rather, the focus of religious experience is the home in the village or on the peripheries of the town, the inspiration is both tradition and “that which is Tagalog,” and the carrier par excellence of that tradition is the religious samahan: cults, brotherhoods or social movements, led by traditional curers, which at once embody and interpret or make meaningful a more generalized religious sentiment.”
The acquisition of anting-anting, an object believed to possess magical powers is still practiced among members of such Tagalog cults. One samahan member, whom Love interviewed narrates, “Any man who gets the amulet of this Impinito Dios provided that he knows how to serve it and feed it with prayers is a fearlessly brave man (barakong lalaki lit., virile or potent male). This Impinito Dios amulet was made “long before” (noong una) by the Jesuit priests to be used as protection in a shoot out.”