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With Sto. Niño image, animist past revisited


CEBU CITY—With just a few days of catechism, which consisted mostly of rhetorical remarks by Ferdinand Magellan, it would have been impossible for King Humabon and the people of Cebu during his time to have fully understood the Christian faith brought to them by the Spaniards in 1521.

Not only was the brevity of proselytization a great stumbling block in the full appreciation of the tenets of Christian faith but the language barrier between the Europeans and the Cebuanos would have also posed as a major hindrance to it.

Enrique de Malacca, Magellan’s servant who may be a Cebuano, might have served as an interpreter in this venture at Christianizing the people of Cebu, if he did indeed have a hand on it.

What may be certain, if the facts are considered, is that it would have been highly impossible for the Cebuanos to easily abandon their animist faith or their belief in nature spirits, in place of the God of the white men.

Central in the conversion of the Cebuanos, as we have been told, is the image of the Sto. Niño.

Antonio de Pigafetta, the scribe of the Magellan expedition, said in an account that the queen of Cebu fell in love with the image so that she was willing to give up her animist deities in place of the image of the Christ child.

But does this presumption hold water?

From the European perspective, the conversion of Amihan (the supposed native name of Juana before her baptism) to Christianity was brought about by the Sto. Niño.

Pigafetta said: “After dinner, the priest and some of the others went ashore to baptize the queen … . We conducted her to the platform and she was made to sit on a cushion … until she should be ready. She was shown an image of our Lady, a very beautiful wooden child Jesus and a cross. Thereupon, she was overcome with contrition and asked for baptism amid her tears.”

When the queen was baptized, some 800 Cebuanos were brought to the Christian fold.

But apparently, the animist faith was highly ingrained among the early Cebuanos. A few days after the rite, Magellan was aghast when he found that Humabon still kept his idols despite his promise to burn these.

According to other early Spanish chroniclers, animist shrines were not only found in homes and fields but also in grave sites, shores and streams.

Awed by the power of the Europeans, Amihan probably thought of the Sto. Niño as a greater deity, especially since it looked much like their foreign guests.

The image was also attired in a different kind of finery compared to her grimy larawan (wooden idols) with tusks “like those of the wild boar” whom she frequently offered pag-anito (worship).


But the natives were also quick to abandon their newfound faith.

The repudiation of Christianity came a few days after Lapu-Lapu’s triumph on Mactan Island when Humabon on May 1, 1521, ordered the massacre of the Spanish survivors by enticing them to a banquet. Some Spaniards, including Pigafetta, survived and made it back to Europe.

Due to lack of historical documents, it was not certain what happened to the image of the Sto. Niño.

But Nick Joaquin, in the book “Culture and History,” wrote that within 44 years—from 1521 until its rediscovery in 1565—the image underwent some sort of “nativization … so that legends annul its European origin by declaring it to have arisen in this land.”

According to its most popular legend, the Sto. Niño was merely a driftwood which always got caught in a fisherman’s net.  To cut a long story short, the fisherman brought home the driftwood and used it to make fire the following day. But the wood didn’t burn but was instead transformed into the Sto. Niño.

For more than four decades, the Sto. Niño was an animist deity—worshipped as a rain god based on some legends.

During drought, the ancient Cebuanos would bathe the image in the sea, just as mentioned in the Sto. Niño’s gozos published in an 1888 novena:

“Cun ulan ang pangayoon

Ug imong pagadugayon

Dadad-on ca sa baybayon

Ug sa dagat pasalomon,

Ug dayon nila macuha

Ang ulan nga guitinguha”


(If they seek rain

And you delay it

You’d be brought to the shore

And bathed in the sea,

And they then obtain

The rain they desire.

—Translation by author)

The image may have only regained its Christian significance in 1565 when Juan de Camuz, a soldier of Legazpi’s fleet, rediscovered it inside a wooden chest in a burned hut. Its rediscovery was later construed as an auspicious sign by Legazpi to continue subjugating Cebu and the entire archipelago for the Spanish crown.

“The presence of the Sto. Niño—as Julius Bautista succinctly puts in ‘Figuring Catholicism’—therefore was that tangible, divinely sanctioned connection between Magellan and the possibility of Spanish evangelization of the islands.”

It’s almost five centuries since the Sto. Niño was brought to our shores, but have we totally abandoned our animist past? That’s a question difficult to answer.

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Tags: Beliefs , Ferdinand Magellan , Religion , Sto. Niño

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