Who is the Supreme God of Precolonial Filipinos?

Today, many Filipinos will point at the sky and explain that their god is the same as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is expected since the Philippines is a predominantly Christian country. Our Muslim brothers and sisters will tell us that Allah is their god.

However, it’s a different story for our precolonial forbears and even modern-day indigenous tribes. 

First of all, they weren’t monotheistic. They didn’t believe in just one god. While they acknowledge a supreme deity, he would have been one among many. Still, it’s interesting to explore who they considered the highest-ranking principal god in their tribe’s respective pantheons.

The Supreme Gods Known in Visayas

Visayas is populated by dozens of tribes. Among these tribes, a handful of names point to their supreme god. Kanlaon or Laon is probably the most popular name. Kanlaon is the name of an active volcano on the island of Negros. As a matter of fact, it is said that he dwells there to this day. He has a pet bird called Manaul.

Another supreme being living in a volcano is Gugurang of the Bicolano, who is said to be under Mount Mayon. Ancient Bicolanos call him Atang, and he is said to burst lavas whenever he’s displeased with the people as a warning to repent and mend their ways.

Kaptan is also a popular deity in the Visayan mythos. He is said to live in Kahilwayan and is married to Maguayan. He created the earth and plants.

In Western Visayas, their supreme being is Makagagahum, the creator of all living things. 

In Palawan, the master who wove the world was called Ampuor Nagsalad. Nagsalad means the Weaver. The Tagbanua people called their supreme deity Mangindusa, the creator of all living things and punisher of “dusa” or crime.

On the island of Panay, the Sulod tribe calls their first god Tungkung Langit. He lives in Ibabawnon, the sky realm. It is said that his tears form the raindrops as he weeps for his wife Alunsina.

Interestingly, it was reported that Rajah Kolambu of Mazaua (Limasawa) told Ferdinand Magellan that Abba was the name of their supreme god.

The Principal Deities in Mindanao

The Lumad tribes in Mindanao are one of the most diverse indigenous groups in the Philippines. Perhaps the most familiar name for a Supreme Being comes from Bukidnon, where the father god is called Magbabaya. The Subanun people of Zamboanga call the God of Heaven the most powerful god, Diwata-sa-langit.

The T’boli tribe sees the sun god as a supreme god. He is called Kadaw La Sambad and is married to Bulon La Mogoaw. In the B’laan tribe, the foremost being and creator is called Melu. His assistants are Fie Weh, the good spirit, and Tasu Weh, the evil spirit. It is said that Melu had golden teeth and was obsessed with cleanliness, that he scrubbed himself white. The dead skin that fell from his body created humanity.

Interestingly, only in Mindanao do we find creators who are goddesses! In South Cotabato, the Tiruray tribe believed the creator of the world was Minaden. She is a sister to Tulus. Tiguianes may be another name for the same creator goddess.

Finally, the Manobo peoples call their supreme being the Tagbusan. He supposedly ruled over gods and men and was the god of war. The Bagobo, the largest subgroup of the Manobo, calls their creator the following names: Pamela Manobo, Eugpamolak Manobo, Manama, and Kalayagan. He may be called upon and be addressed by the mabalian (babaylan), the datu, and wise old men.

The Most Powerful Gods in Luzon

Kabuniyan, also spelled Kabunian or Kaboniyan is held as the supreme creator and ruler of all. This belief is shared by the tribes Ba-go, Ifugao, Tinggian, and Kalinga. He lived in the sky and taught men agriculture, religion, and hunting. Apparently, he is a giant wielding a spear as tall as a tree and a head-ax as large as a house roof.

The Itneg calls the supreme being and creator of the world Bagatulayan. However, it seems the creator of the universe for the same people is called Kadaklan. For the Kankana-ey, their universe creator is someone called Adika-ila, but the creator of all things is said to be called Lumauwig. The creator of all things for the Ifugao is called May-nongan. 

The Gaddang tribe’s creator is also a cultural hero called Nanolay. He is said to be benevolent and does not inflict pain or punishment. In Zambales, the highest-ranking deity is the master of life and lord of death. He is called Malayari.

And finally, the Agta people revere Gutugutumakkan, the Supreme Being and Great Creator. He is said to have four manifestations: Tigbalog, the source of life; Lueve, the provider of growth; Amas, who moves people’s hearts; and Binangewan, the precursor of change and death.

The Supremacy of Bathala

Bathala seems to be the very meaning of god in the modern sense. The name Bathalang Maykapal has been disassociated from its precolonial meaning. The Spaniards assigned it to the Christian god. The term “Maykapal” is prominently used in Filipino-translated bibles.

However, the precolonial Bathala of the Tagalog pertains to a wholly different god. He is said to have pierced one of the sun’s eyes with a bolo so its heat would be tolerable. He’s also responsible for pushing the sky away from the earth to where it is now.

Bathala is said to be just and merciful and often takes the role of being a sustainer, keeper, nourisher, and protector of humankind. He appreciates gifts offered to him in worship and is pleased when people are being good, helpful, and moral. He gives blessings and lavishly rewards those who pay him homage, so much so that it sometimes inspires laziness and over-reliance on him.

The phrase “Bahala na!” is said to have been derived from this idea that Bathala will take care of things so they won’t need to bother. This philosophy has become somewhat of a negative trait we find in Filipinos today.

I think Bathala is a crucial concept in the modern Philippines because he indicates the eventual Tagalog’s cultural supremacy. Ironically, the term reflects the Spanish colonizers’ attempt to control our beliefs as they redefined Bathala as the Catholic god.

Therefore, it is our responsibility to correct this misconception and realign the underlying concept of Bathala and all the other Supreme Gods of our many different tribes.

Final Thoughts

While it would seem that neighboring tribes may have different names to describe the same creator, this cannot be said about the entire Philippines. As much as we want to have one supreme precolonial Filipino god over us, that is not the case. 

And that’s okay! 

We must appreciate the many differences and distinctions of each tribe’s supreme being. That is where the richness of Filipino mythology can be felt.

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