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Bigay Suso, Bigay Caya and Other Pre-Hispanic Filipino Customs

Image credit:  Filipiknow.net.  Painting by Amorsolo.

So yes, the title caught your attention, did it not? This article intends to narrate marital and other customs of pre-Hispanic Filipino people as recorded by the 18th century Agustinian friar and chronicler Joaquín Martínez de Zúñiga in his book “An Historical View of the Philippine Islands.”

In the book, de Zúñiga referred to the natives of these islands as “Philippine Indians.”

“Bigay suso” and “bigay caya” were two types of dowries paid by the bridegroom to the family of the bride. The “bigay suso,” de Zúñiga wrote, “was paid to the mother, as a compensation for the milk with which she nourished her daughter.”

“Bigay caya,” on the other hand, was dowry which was “set apart for the maintenance of the newly married couple, although very often, by the expenses of the wedding and apparel, there remained little or nothing for this desirable end.”

Filipino matrimonial customs looked extremely peculiar to de Zúñiga, and particularly because he was a priest. First of all, men married relations excepting their own sisters. If, for some reason, a man found it impossible to live with his wife or if he grew tired of her, he was allowed to return her to her parents.

Moreover, the parents were even required to restore the dowries that the man had paid to them so he could marry their daughter in the first place. If you are thinking that this was remarkably one sided, no it was not.

After the marriage, the husband was required to serve the parents of his wife for several years, particularly during the planting and harvest seasons. Moreover, his relations were required “to behave with courtesy and respect to the bride, and her parents and family, during these years of service, and if they were guilty of any lapse in this respect, the marriage was declared to be annulled…”

In the end, it was always the wife who was going to be at the losing end of such an arrangement. Once the expected period of servitude had ended, the husband “treated his wife as a slave; she was obliged to work for the maintenance of the family, whilst the husband was quite idle, and thought herself happy, if, after having done this, she was not beaten.”

Image credit:  Philippine American War, 18999-1902.

The wedding ceremonies reported by de Zúñiga were also suitably peculiar. These were performed by elderly priestesses called the “babailanas” or the “catalonas.”

The highlight of each ceremony was the slaying of the hog by the priestess. Before doing so, with a lance in her hand she would “make extravagant and ridiculous gestures, work herself up to apparent frenzy, accompanied by foaming at the mouth.”

All the while, she would also be making utterances which those present all believed were prophecies. When done with the mumbo jumbo, she would slay the hog and immediately distribute parts of its carcass to those present.

As per custom, a man was allowed to marry only one woman. However, de Zúñiga noted that prominent – he used the word “principal” – people often had concubines and that commonly these were slaves. Anyone found guilty of adultery was made to pay a fine.

De Zúñiga noted that although these early Filipinos had a written language, they did not apparently have written laws. Civil cases were decided by the Rajah, with the help of elders.

In criminal cases, he wrote, “kinsmen were accustomed to compound with the aggressor for a sum in gold.” In case of murder, retaliation was the only acceptable atonement.

Anyone accused of robbery was asked to pull out a stone from a cauldron of boiling water. If he was unable to do so, he was required to pay a sum of gold, a great part of which had to go to the Rajah.

Anyone found guilty of disrespect for elders was made to pay a fine. However, there were no punishments for fraud or cheatings in one’s dealings. Usury was not only also not punished, it was also quite common.

These early Filipinos, expectedly, were very superstitious. They believed that the souls of their ancestors lived in very large trees or rocks of unusual shape and formation. They also believed in a spirit called the “patianac,” which was supposed to amuse itself by preventing the delivery of a woman in labour.

The name, we all immediately recognise, is remarkably close to another supernatural creature that even people of the present day still talk about: the “tiyanak.”

De Zúñiga also wrote that these early Filipinos believed in a phantom object called the “tigbalang.” He described it as capable of assuming “a variety of uncouth and monstrous shapes, and interposes its authority, to prevent their performing the duties, prescribed by our religion.”

In the present day, the “tigbalang” or “tikbalang” is still frequently talked about, but more as a mythical half-human and half-equine creature.


An Historical View of the Philippine Islands, by Joaquín Martínez de Zúñiga, translated by John Maver

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