And you shall be as gods: The culture of the anting-anting (Part 1) By Dennis Villegas

And you shall be as gods: The culture of the anting-anting (Part 1)

The Philippine Online Chronicles (
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Deep in the night of May 20, 1967, around 400 curiously-attired men congregated on Taft Avenue in Manila, near what is now Vito Cruz, with the intent to march to Malacanang Palace to ask for President Marcos’ resignation. The men wore anting-anting and colorful vests with mixed Latin and Tagalog inscriptions on them. Seemingly at odds with their appearance, they were also wielding daggers and three-foot-long jungle bolos signifying their rebellious intent. They were part of the millenarian sect called Lapiang Malaya (Freedom Society), a quasi-religious political society led by the charismatic 86-year-old Supremo Valentin delos Santos, a former Catholic priest, trained auto mechanic, one-time circus performer, and failed candidate in the past three presidential elections at that time.Early in May 1967, Tatang Valentin, as the Supremo was called, had demanded that Ferdinand Marcos step down. He also wanted the Philippine Armed Forces to surrender their arms to him. Deeply disillusioned by what he termed as the oppression of the poor and the continuing evil influence of foreigners in the Philippines, Tatang Valentin decided it was time to establish a new government, with him as the new Supreme Commander, Commander-in-Chief, and President of the Republic of the Philippines. President Marcos promptly rejected Tatang Valentin’s demand. 

As the kapatid (“brothers,” as Lapiang Malaya members were called) started to arrive from the provinces to gather in the society’s compound in Pasay, the Philippine Constabulary cordoned off the area to prevent more members from joining the already frenzied group.

Then at around 12:30 in the morning of May 21, as the tension between the Lapiang Malaya members and the constabulary heightened, mock gunfire rang in the air, allegedly shot by a prankster. A violent skirmish between the kapatid and the constabulary followed – one that was so one-sided it was later to be called a massacre. As the constabulary opened fire, 32 of the kapatid were killed and some 40 seriously wounded. The constabulary had one mortality: a soldier who was hacked to death. In addition, five constabulary soldiers were wounded by bolo hacks, and three civilians hit by stray bullets.



One of the kapatid killed in the Lapiang Malaya massacre of May 21, 1967. Note the sacred vest and scarf he wears that gave no protection against bullets. Purist anting-anting believers would later say that those killed lacked faith in their anting- anting.

This massacre of the Lapiang Malaya was one of the bloodiest episodes in recent Philippine history. As the front-line members of the Lapiang Malaya fell to gunfire, many other members realized their anting-anting would not protect them. Dispersing in many directions, they were later arrested and charged with rebellion.

Later that morning, Tatang Valentin surrendered to the constabulary. He was brought to the National Mental Hospital, together with 11 of his high-ranking lieutenants. All of them were subjected to psychiatric evaluation and pronounced lunatic. Following his diagnosis, Tatang Valentin was confined to a cell together with a violent patient, who allegedly mauled the old man into a coma. He never regained consciousness and was declared dead in August 1967. The official medical report stated he died of pneumonia.

After Tatang Valentin’s death, the Lapiang Malaya was officially dissolved by the government, with most members either pardoned or sent back to their respective provinces. Most of these were peasants, laborers, and common folks from Southern Tagalog who believed in Tatang Valentin’s promise of a new government based on “true equality and true liberty.” They also subscribed to Tatang Valentin’s promise of supernatural powers once they wore their anting-anting and sacred vests. He convinced them that the bullets of the enemies would turn into snakes and fall around them. But as it happened, and as proven in the bloody morning of May 21, the amulets they wore were no match for the automatic gunfire of the constabulary. The bullets easily tore through their vests, flesh, and bones.



Tatang Valentin delos Santos surrenders to the Constabulary


In retrospect, the Lapiang Malaya massacre is just one of the many episodes in the history of the Filipino mass movements whose combined quest for freedom and faith in the anting-anting led them to fight the oppression of those in power. The revolt of the Cofradia de San Jose in 1840, the Katipunan in 1896, the Colorum rebellions of Southern Tagalog in 1897, the Philippine Revolution of 1899, the Makario Sakay and Felipe Salvador rebellions during the early years of the American occupation, and the Sakdal and the Hukbalahap movements – these are all examples of uprisings driven not only by nationalistic fervor but by religious and superstitious beliefs as well.

The leaders and members of these movements invariably kept an anting-anting to protect them in their battles against the enemies. General Emilio Aguinaldo was known to possess the medallion of the Santissima Trinidad, Andres Bonifacio used the Santiago de Galicia amulet, Felipe Salvador wore the medallion of Christ’s resurrection, and General Macario Sakay went around in an anting-anting vest with the inscribed Caravaca cross design. General Antonio Luna, Bishop Gregorio Aglipay, and General Miguel Malvar were also known to possess an anting-anting.

The anting-anting likewise figured prominently in the lives of folk heroes and bandits, such as Tiagong Akyat, Nardong Putik, and Kapitan Eddie Set, whose life stories were made into movies by actor Ramon Revilla. But for all the presumed power of the anting-anting they wore, most of these folk heroes and villains ended up being killed by gunfire in encounters with the authorities.

Even former President Ferdinand Marcos, the man Tatang Valentin wanted to overthrow, was known to believe in the anting-anting. Bishop Gregorio Aglipay, reportedly a firm believer in anting-anting, was said to have embedded an anting-anting into the former president’s skin.  Could it be that Marcos’ anting-anting was more powerful than Tatang Valentin’s?

Did Tatang Valentin and his men truly believe that the anting-anting had the power to turn bullets into snakes? If so, why did the anting-anting fail to stop the bullets from penetrating through cloth and flesh? Was Tatang Valentin truly a messiah from God as he claimed he was? Or was he simply, as the government asserted, a madman? What is it in the anting-anting that attracts many Filipinos into believing in it? Where did it come from? What is its history? More importantly, why would some Filipinos suspend logic and place their lives in peril just because they possess an anting-anting?


The culture of the anting-anting



One of the vests of Tatang Valentin delos Santos (Author’s collection)


Every culture has produced its own set of talismans and amulets, and the Philippines is no exception. While some cultures may regard amulets merely as magical accessories to protect one against harm and bad luck, the culture of the Filipino anting-anting may be different, being so ingrained as to be regarded as a religion in itself. Notably, the anting-anting invariably contained mixed symbols of the ancient Filipino religion, Roman Catholicism, the Christian Orthodox church, and Judaism.

For those who believe in its divine properties, the anting-anting is one of the few man-made objects that can make man closer to God or even achieve the qualities of God. It is a long-held belief among the mystics, both in the East and the West, that amulets serve as temporary or even constant habitation of God and other divine spirits. The animist belief that inanimate objects can become receptacles of dwelling of the divine is shown through the ancient worship of statues, relics, beads, portraits, tombs, and of course, amulets.

Before the coming of the Spaniards, the early Filipinos were already known to keep amulets, talismans, charms, and various other objects to protect them from harm, the elements, and the evil spirits. Crocodile tooth, gems, odd-shaped stones, and even fossilized remains of animals were the earliest known examples of anting-anting used by the early Filipinos.

The anting anting has many other names in the Tagalog lexicon: bertud, agimat, gamit, talisman, mutya, or galing. It also comes in many forms. It can be a medallion, a small book, a piece of paper, a tattoo, a crocodile tooth, a meteorite, a vest or scarf inscribed with oraciones, and many others. No one is quite sure how the word anting-anting came to be. According to Lorna Montilla, anting-anting may have evolved from the Latin word “anti,” and thus means “anti-anti” or “against-against.” Indeed if the present belief in the popular use of anting-anting is to be considered, Montilla may be correct, since the anting-anting is mostly used to protect its wearer against harm and illness. But there are also some who put forward the theory that the term is actually derived from the Javanese word “anting-anting” which means ear pendants. Anting-anting may also have been derived from the Bahasa Melayu word “anting” that means “dangling” or “swinging.”



Anting-anting medallions in Quiapo


The enigma and promise of the anting-anting

Part of the attraction of the anting-anting lies in its esoteric nature. Basically, man is attracted to the unknown, to the mysterious. Most anting-anting pieces are puzzling because of their cabalistic figures, mysterious oraciones, and hidden initials. Many people who possess these are very secretive and would not want to reveal what they keep, except maybe those pieces they wear around. They believe that the mystical nature of the anting-anting–their own covenant with the gods–is what makes it powerful. Once revealed to others, its power diminishes or disappears altogether.

The secret symbols and initials are part of the original mystical theogony of the Tagalog. The oraciones—the prayers summoning the divine—are mostly hidden in initials. I found that many of these initials are the numerous names of God and the words God had spoken. For instance, the initials M.M.M. and A.A.A. appear on many medallions which, according to anting-anting believers, are the initials of the true names of the Santissima Trinidad (Holy Trinity). We will unlock these secrets later in this article as we examine each of the medallions.

Many of the symbols are connected with the Filipinos’ concept of God.

The most commonly seen symbol is the Eye contained in a triangle, which represents the Bathala or the Infinito Dios, the ancient Filipino God. This symbol appears in many emblems, banners, and seals of many millenarian groups in Southern Tagalog.

The connection of God to the anting-anting, therefore, is key to understanding its nature. To unlock the secrets of the anting-anting’s hidden meanings, myths, and symbolisms, one must be able to understand the Filipino’s concept of God. The anting-anting is the Filipino’s way to approach God, and to contain God within a medallion or vest, and thereby achieve a divine connection which will give him the qualities of God.

Another attraction of the anting-anting is the promise it gives to its possessor. Many who keep them believe that the anting-anting gives them spiritual power that can protect them from material harm. Many of the people who put their faith in the anting-anting, such as the kapatid of the Lapiang Malaya, held the notion that they gain supernatural powers through the anting-anting. They can become invisible to enemies, impervious to bullets and knives, escape mortal dangers, be in two places at the same time, perform miracles, and so on. Therefore, the anting-anting endows them with the attributes of the gods.

With all these attributes of power and promise, many people who believe in the anting-anting spend most of their lives searching for the most powerful ones. They go to the most remote places in search of the anting-anting. They undergo great sacrifice and peril to hunt them. For example, in the past, it was a common belief that an unchristened fetus, recently aborted or miscarried, must be exhumed from the cemetery, put into a bottle or jar, soaked in liquor, and eaten one tablespoon everyday for a whole year. The pickled fetus is still believed powerful by some of the most radical faithful in the Tagalog region. This author knows of a person who fell gravely ill after eating pickled fetus for a week.

There are also people who swallow the anting-anting, in the belief that once ingested, its powers are absorbed by the body. This is called the subo (swallow), still being practiced by many believers. Another extreme is the baon, in which the anting-anting is embedded into the believer’s skin, like what Marcos was said to have had inside the skin of his back.


The theogony of the anting-anting

The ancient Filipinos believed in the existence of God. In Tagalog mythology, God is the Bathalang Maykapal or Bathala, the creator of the universe. Although the name Bathala may be Tagalog, it has counterparts in other parts of the Philippines. Bathala rules the world. He provides man with his needs and protects the world against evil. There are other deities in the ancient religion of the Tagalogs, but Bathala is the highest and most powerful.

To make the conquest easy and readily convert Filipinos into the new religion, the friar missionaries interpreted Bathala to be the same Spanish God of the Roman Catholic religion. Rather than erase the old belief in the Bathala, the friars simply adapted the Bathala into the new faith. The friars may have even encouraged local beliefs and superstitions among the Filipinos, including the belief in anting-anting, to create a market for similar objects like scapulars, scarves, relics, medallions, and rosaries.

The veneration of material objects, long a tradition among the Filipinos, has thus been encouraged and fused with Roman Catholicism. The Filipinos then created their own interpretations of these objects to suit their beliefs. Thus, many of the symbols that can be seen on the anting-anting are fusions of the Roman Catholic faith and the pre-colonial religion of the Filipinos.

The important change instituted by the friar missionaries had something to do with the concept of God among the Filipinos. Although Bathala is interpreted by the friars to be the same Spanish God of the Roman Catholics, Bathala’s monotheistic being was changed, as he was now viewed as consisting of three persons. This is the Doctrine of the Santissima Trinidad (Holy Trinity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit).

This doctrine is the most important dogma of Catholicism. In the book Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church published by the Vatican, the doctrine is stated:

The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but One God in three persons. The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire.


The Tres Personas or Santissima Trinidad.  This image is now banned in Roman Catholic churches, but is still being used in many altars of Folk Catholic religions in Southern Tagalog, such as the Tres Personas Solo Dios and the Iglesia Watawat ng Lahi.  It is also frequently used on anting-anting medallions and vests.

The early Filipinos may have difficulty understanding this concept of the Santissima Trinidad. How can the Bathala be One and Three at the same time? To solve this theological crisis, and to retain the easier concept that the God is only One, the Tagalogs created the mythology of the Infinito Dios. In this new theogony, Bathala is again One, but his name has become the Infinito Dios, and immediately below him—but also Gods in their own right —are the Santissima Trinidad: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

The concept of the Bathala/Infinito Dios existing before the Santissima Trinidad may seem easier to understand for the early Filipinos. Here, the line is clear: the Infinito Dios is the One and Only God. He retains his role as the creator of the universe, the provider of mankind, and the protector against evil.

The later arrival of the Santissima Trinidad into the Filipino theogony created the myth that the Santissima Trinidad, a newcomer in Filipino theogony, wanted to baptize, i.e., convert, the Infinito Dios, not knowing that the Infinito Dios was already existing even before the Santissima Trinidad existed. The Infinito Dios is higher than, although one with, the Santissima Trinidad.


The altar of the religious sect Tres Personas Solo Dios. In the pantheon of Gods, the Infinito Dios (Bathala) sits on a higher level than the Santissima Trinidad. The Infinito Dios and the Santissima Trinidad are One, however, consistent with the Roman Catholic teaching that God is One in three persons.

The Mythology of the Infinito Dios



The medallion of the Infinito Dios. The central figure is that of Bathala/Infinito Dios being baptized by Jesus Christ, one of the Santissima Trinidad.  (Author’s collection)


The world of the Philippine anting-anting is mainly based on the mythology of the Infinito Dios. The Infinito Dios is represented by a single eye in a triangle. This symbol is still widely used in many folk Catholic religions in the Tagalog region, such as the Iglesia Watawat ng Lahi, Ciudad Mistica de Dios, Tres Personas Solo Dios, to name a few. Even the Katipunan of Andres Bonifacio and later the revolutionary government of General Aguinaldo—both of whom were known to have kept an anting-anting–used this symbol in many of their official seals and banners.


The Eye, symbol of God found in many anting-anting medallions and scarves. This one was seen by the author on the foothills of Mount Banahaw and Dolores, Quezon.

In the beginning, there was a bright light that covered the entire universe. This light was called the Infinito Dios. There is no God other than the Infinito Dios. He was the Animasola (Lonely Soul), a winged eye wrapped in a shawl, forever changing his form while floating in space. Soon the Infinito Dios decided to create the world. He pulled the light in order to give way to the darkness. His light receded until it became a small ball of light. The ball of light suddenly had a gash on the lower portion that became a mouth. On top of the mouth a line appeared that became the nose. On top of the nose emerged two holes that became eyes. From these eyes came forth bursts of flame. Parallel to the eyes, on the sides, two holes appeared that became the ears. In short, the Infinito Dios, the ball of light, became a figure resembling a man’s head.


Animasola, the Winged Eye.This symbol is used in the altar of the Ciudad Mistica de Dios, a religious millenarian group located on Banahaw.

The Infinito Dios decided to create beings to assist him in his task of creation. While thinking, the Infinito Dios suddenly had perspiration on his right side. When he wiped his right side, the droplets became 16 spirits. Two of these spirits became Uph Madac and Abo Natac, the two elders who reside in the two corners of the Earth and are the guardians of the Sun and the Moon. The next six spirits became the beings who reside outside the earth. They did not want to receive any blessings from the Infinito Dios. Their names are Elim, Borim, Morim, Bicairim, Persulatim and Mitim. The next seven spirits became the unbaptized Archangels named Amaley, Alpacor, Amacor, Apalco, Alco, Arago, and Azaragoe.



The first 16 spirit beings that emanated from Infinito Dios



The six spirit beings that did not want to take any authority from the Infinito Dios



The seven archangels, unbaptized

The last spirit was called Luzbel, a spirit whose name means light of heaven. His name is Becca, the being who will later rebel against the Infinito Dios. His other name is Lucifer.

Meanwhile, the Infinito Dios decided to create other beings. While thinking, he suddenly perspired on his left side. Wiping the perspiration, the droplets became eight spirit beings. Five of them became the beings who went to Jesus Christ while he was nailed to the cross to ask for his blessing. But before he could give his blessing to these five spirits, Jesus expired. The five spirits never received their blessings and therefore retained their original names of Istac, Inatac, Isnatac, Tartaraw, and Sarapao.

The last three spirit beings became known as the Tres Personas, or the Santisima Trinidad. The Infinito Dios gave them the task to create the world and its inhabitants. On each of the eyes of the Tres Personas can be seen the letter M, which is the initial of their names: Magob, Mariagob, and Magogab.(1)


In the above mythology, one can gather that the Infinito Dios was the beginning of everything. No one created the Infinito Dios. He was there from the start, a floating Eye within a triangle wrapped in a shawl. From him emanated the other spirit elders, the archangels, Lucifer (Luzbel), and the Santissima Trinidad.

The Infinito Dios is the highest God in the theogony of the anting-anting. Sometimes He is called the Nuno, or the oldest being from whom everything emanated. For this reason, the Infinito Dios is a separate entity from the Santissima Trinidad (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), although the latter emanated from his body as perspiration, along with the other first beings of the universe. The Infinito Dios gave the authority to create the world to the Santissima Trinidad.

(To be continued)

Photos 1-3 – clippings from the Manila Times and Manila Daily Bulletin; the rest of the photos taken by the author


Dennis Villegas is a college lecturer based in Manila. He dabbles in art and photography in his spare time.

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