SINCE February is known as the Philippine Arts Festival Month, I wanted to write something about the prehispanic Visayan literature that is part of our cultural heritage. But what I found were two ancient Visayan epics that were originally sung for several nights and were later written down by the 16th century Spanish missionaries.
What is lamentable is the fact that these works were summarized and because of its brevity, so many of the beautiful lines were excised. Now you can read the epics in less than fifteen minutes!
Today, not many of us know or have heard about these epics nor are these even mentioned in our textbooks. Why so? Visual artist and historian Enrico S. Lluch gave this sage observation that Spanish colonization was successful in making the people forget or drop their past to the point that to acknowledge that one belongs to a lumad group was a big social no no and a source of shame. At that time, everything must conform to the standards set by the Spaniards that no wonder we are known as the Latinos of Asia!
According to eminent historian, the late William Henry Scott, in his book titled "Looking for the Prehispanic Filipino" (1992), the noblest literary form of the early Visayans was the siday or the kandu. It was sung for six hours or for a whole night through, or was even continued the next night. There were frequent repetitions of long lines with only a variation of a few words and this must have struck the Spanish listeners as tiresome. The usual theme was the heroic exploits of their ancestors, the valor of the warriors and the beauty of women, or even the exaltation of heroes still alive. The siday or the kandu must have been what the folklorists today consider as an epic.
Scott wrote that in the societies that produced Philippine epics, power and prestige were not based on ownership of herds of cattle but on the control of slave labor. Visayan heroes who were celebrated as "karanduun," that is worthy of kandu acclaim, would have won their reputations in real life on slave raids called "pangayaw." So normative were these raids that one kandu says of the heroine, "You raid with your eyes and capture many, and with only a glance you take more prisoners than raiders do with their pangayaw." (1992:111).
Fr. Francisco Alcina, an early Spanish missionary who wrote the monumental four volume "Historia de las islas e Indios de Bisayas" where he attempted to reconstruct prehispanic Visayan society by interviewing the oldest residents, was fortunate to live during the twilight years of the classic Visayan culture and recorded it faithfully without prejudice. It is the background in which the Visayan epic literature must be seen. In his day, Bohol raids as far as Ternate in Moluccas were still living memories, and he knew of Samar parishioners who were descendants of captives taken on the coasts of Luzon. Datos of high rank demanded brides of equal rank and if they could not be obtained locally, kidnapped them from other communities, though Alcina wrote that their fathers-in-law would be reconciled afterwards when they saw their grandchildren and were brought ladies in return to marry their sons and relatives. Raiders even came from Jolo and Mindanao on such missions and he attributed the similarity between Visayan and certain Mindanao languages to this intermarriage (1992:112).
These epics are characterized by highly repetitious plots: battle follows battle and voyage after voyage by sea or air in search of a kidnapped princess or some hidden treasure. The heroines are royal princesses secluded in their chambers and were known as the binokots. The Hispanized version of this is the "princesa nga gitorre" or the princess who lived on a tower. The binokots spent their time spinning, weaving and embroidering the clothes of the princes and were esteemed for such skill as well as their beauty. It is a beauty that is crowned with a great mass of hair embellished with artificial switches which is a great offense for a man even to touch.
And every epic ends just like the finale of most teleseryes of today – a colorful and lavish wedding feast for the binokot and her prince or hero in which the main families displayed their wealth and magnanimity. All these show that long before the Spanish conquistadores came to our shores, our forefathers had a rich material culture.
What a thrill it must have been to the young and old listeners as they sat perhaps around a bonfire or on a field on a moonlit night as they listened to the stories of their ancestor warriors' bravery, the virtues and beauty of the women and the supernatural help given to the heroes.
Now, few of those grand epics survived but in a condensed version and sadly, it is not even widely known. What we have are the Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales or the Greek epic, the Iliad. But these do not belong to us and it cannot compensate for what we have lost.