Sunday, December 16, 2007

Notes on Philippine pre-colonial literature

Notes and anecdotes on Philippine pre-colonial literature, mostly taken from my Filipino 14 class under Mr. Popa.

    The pre-colonial period in the Philippines is the longest chapter in the country's history. Yet it is also the darkest chapter in history, with very few records extant. The lack of knowledge concerning the period stems from the lack of resources concerning this era, brought on by the perishability of the items produced during those times. Having a strong affinity with nature, the early Filipino communities produced items molded from the raw materials in the region, mostly from plants and trees. Another reason was the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. The Catholic friars who were tasked with converting the "uncivilized" natives demonized the pre-colonial culture, seeing the beliefs of that era as a threat to their mission to spread Christianity in the land. Only a few manuscripts still survive to this day, mostly done by Spanish priests who had immersed themselves in the community in an attempt to decipher their ways. One of the most important was the Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala by Fr. Juan de Noceda and Fr. Pedro San Lucar (1734), an anthology of early oral lore that preserved many examples of pre-colonial literature.

    However, despite the Spanish teachings, Philippine pre-colonial culture was not as barbaric as it had been made out to be. The presence of a bustling trade economy with Chinese and Muslim merchants existed long before the landing of the Spaniards. The oral literature in existence during that time also displayed a sense of sophistication beyond that of simple barbaric cultures. Anitism, a term coined by Stephen Hislop, refers to the religion prevalent in the religion at that time. The early Filipinos believed in the presence of anitos, primordial forces of nature that could accompany or possess people.

    Filipinos also held the principle of loob with great importance. Loosely translated, loob means inside. Loob is also a vague reference to the soul. An attempt to explain loob may proceed as follows. The concept of loob can, first and foremost, be related to the concept of a soul. It is something that resides within the person. However, it is not corporeal, or as specific as a soul; it is a vital part of the person but not the person in his/her entirety. Loob is also related to space and trust; with the phrase malapit ang loob ko sa iyo (malapit meaning near) referring to a person's high trust level with the other. Loob is also a personal space, something sacred to the person that belongs to him alone.

    The Filipinos were also well-endowed in the area of literature. A long-standing oral tradition that still survives in remnants to this day traces its roots to the pre-colonial period. Philippine literature employed everyday language, and was a communal activity. As such, the social relevance of literature during that time was very important. Themes included the daily routines of the community, living in accordance with nature and living within the community. Literature was the primary expression of the community's experiences, beliefs and emotions.

    Filipino pre-colonial literature followed certain conventions. Due to its oral nature, most stories had a formulaic method of construction. This was reinforced by the duty of literature as a reflection of the communal belief and experience; the repetition of themes highlighted the prevalent qualities of the region's culture, and identity was thus embodied. The oral tradition also refined the structure of pre-colonial literature, employing the use of rhythm and rhyme to great effect. Rhythm and rhyme distinguished literary pieces from normal conversation while employing the familiar everyday language that everyone in the community understood. These devices also made the pieces easier to remember and retell, while allowing the storyteller to associate the rise and fall of tone with the appropriate portions of the story.

    Philippine literature possesses a deep level of sophistication, seen in the organic unity of language, theme and relevance within each piece. The use of common language did not prevent the pieces from obtaining a touch of elegance that set it apart, a testament to the literary ability of the pre-colonial culture. Literature was a vital tool for community cohesiveness, rooted in the foundations of language as a tool for survival. Banding together to overcome the dangers of the wild, literature took on communal themes that promoted a sense of togetherness throughout the locals. Literature also reflected the affinity of pre-colonial Fipinos with nature, with the use of colorful metaphors and vivid backgrounds to enhance the story and express their appreciation of nature itself. Literature is such an integral part of pre-colonial Philippine culture that it was one of the methods employed by the Spanish in order to convert the Filipinos towards Christianity. However, the Filipinos were intensely critical of these Spanish pieces, largely due to their inability to relate them to their communal beliefs.

Additional sources:

  1. Philippine Literature: A History and Anthology by Bienvenido Lumbrera and Cynthia Nograles Lumbrera (1997)
  2. Popular Filipino Spirit-World Beliefs, with a proposed theological response by Reuel U. Almocera (2000)

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