The Fruitless Search for Pre-Hispanic Filipino Martial Arts

Do you really believe Shaquille O’Neal is one of the best basketball players of all time, someone comparable to Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Stephen Curry?   The three time Finals MVP is one of the NBA’s iconic superstars with the most championship rings from his pay day with the Orlando Magics, LA Lakers and the Miami Heats, spanning a remarkable 20 year career that racked up record breaking number of rebounds and points on the paint.  What about former world champion George Foreman; does he belong to the league of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard or Manny Pacquiao?    Yet, it’s a no brainer that their technical skills in their respective sports border on the mediocre. So what then are their prime  attributes that made them sports icons in their heyday?  Size and brute strength.

Size and brute strength, matter in almost all sports including the martial arts.  These elements and other intrinsic qualities bring me now to support my belief that the existence of a martial arts  or non-existence thereof is not a proof of  the fighting capability of a particular warrior class in ancient history.  Case in point, is there a Viking martial arts being practiced in modern times?  By martial arts we mean something that is structured, codified,  systematized  with a strict hierarchy and ranking tradition in the mold of the Oriental martial arts like kung fu and karate?  What about a Nepalese Gurkha martial arts, or an Apache Indian martial arts or a Hungarian martial arts.  Yet the Vikings after the dark ages conquered more than half of Europe from England and as far as the Kiev in Ukraine.

The Nepalese Gurkhas known for their ferocity in battle are now organic in British Royal Armed Forces.  The Gurkha regiment renowned for their skill with the kukri knife and have fought many great battles since World War 2 up to the recapture of the Falklands in 1982.   But  is there anyone out there offering kukri knife fighting techniques?  The Apaches are feared for the ambush tactics are considered one of the best knife fighters in the world.   But  why can’t we find  apache knife fighting and tomahawk training camps around the seminar crazy USA?  The descendants of Atilla the Hun, the Hungarians were once the perennial thorn in the Roman Empire’s ambitions for the conquest of all Europe.  But can you find dojos spread across the world teaching a Hun martial arts?

Corollary to this premise, the ancient Philippine natives did not practice a martial art prior to the arrival of the Spaniards.   But this does not diminish the fighting skills of ancient Filipino warrior class – the Bisaya Pintados, the Moro Iranun and Tausug raiders, the Macabebes of Pampanga and the Igorot head hunters of the Mountain Province.

To make my argument more compelling, let us draw a parallel between the Vikings, the Iranun and Pintado Mangayaw (raiders).  Below are the similarities of these warriors half a world apart:

1.)    All were sea borne raiders

2.)    Environment – the Scandinavian Vikings have long dark boring winters, farming only on short summer months with sparse arable land .   The Southwest monsoon winds are ideal for sail driven boats of Pre-Hispanic Philippine raiders – the Iranuns, Tausugs and  Visayan Pintados.

“The summer winds in Scandinavia are ideal for sailing down the coast of England, France and the Mediterranean.  Due to the Gulf Stream, parts of Scandinavia enjoy mild climate in the summer, but severe winters . Northern Scandinavia is very mountainous, particularly in Norway, which causes a rain shadow over northern Sweden, giving it very dry climate compared to Norway’s wet coastline. Along with mountains, Norway and Sweden have large forested areas and bogs, making overland travel difficult, and makes farmland scarce. Most farmland is found along the southern coastline of Sweden, and northern and southern Denmark, making the Danes the wealthiest of the Scandinavians.”

3.)   Rowing the oars –  practically 24/7 when the winds are low and when navigating narrow rivers and channels gave the Vikings and ancient Filipino raiders extraordinary upper body strength and arm muscles ideal for sword fights.   Rowing alone is a grueling regimen tougher than a thousand sinawali twirls with a rattan stick or doing a sedentary one hour kung fu horse stance or performing a  kata from Pinan to Koshangku Dai.

4.)   Similarities between Women Vikings and Visayan Pintados

  1. The Pintados have strict marriage customs, no one marries below his station. Men marry as many wives as they can buy and support. The women are sexually uninhibited, even encouraging their own daughters’ sexuality.
  2. Likewise Viking women were the pioneers of the women’s liberation movement, aside from weaving sails for the long boats a maritime leap in shipbuilding which was state of the art during the 8th century, also fought alongside men and had equal rights with men in the Viking society.  Recent archaeological digs found proof of the existence of Viking shield maidens in the burial grounds in the island of Birka.  Wife swapping or wife sharing is a casual affair among Vikings.
  3. Violence of action- The word berserk trace its etymology from the word berserker to describe a ferocious state of mind almost a drug crazed trance like state of a Viking warrior in the thick of a battle.  A deranged violence that is similar to a frenzied rush of the Moro Juramentado.

The Gurkhas and the Igorots have one thing in common, high altitude environment, a condition that gave them good cardiovascular strength even in the most mundane domestic tasks.  Why would one bother to study a martial art when dying in war promises the Valhalla for the Vikings and Paradise and seven virgins for the Moro raiders?

It is foolhardy to assume however that the Pre-Hispanic Filipinos were nothing but uncivilized, bloodthirsty maniacs.  Perhaps we should also examine what we have accomplished prior to the arrival of the Spaniards that is rich in aesthetic value but forgotten over time primarily due to commercialism and irresponsible misrepresentation.  The Hud-Hud of the Ifugao’s is about the life and heroism of the native Ifugao.   It tells in the most compelling narrative the exploits of Aliguyon a feared and respected Ifugao of the Gohandan tribe.

The epic poems called binalaybay still resonate in the hinterlands of Antique that tell tales of heroism, chivalry and courage. The Solili eskrima dance ritual of newlyweds in the island province of Siquijor is also a traditional wedding practice in Barangay Sibalom, Antique.   The colorful Moro-Moro stage plays also known as Linambay in Cebu depicts more of the swashbuckling action on the victory of the Christians against the Mohammedan Moors.    These are the art forms that define our Filipino identity and character, not the fairy tales about the blind princess of Gandara or the 2,000 year old kali.

The attempt to find academic validity of a Pre-Hispanic Filipino Martial Arts has become an obsession almost like the endless quest for the elusive Holy Grail among young Filipinos especially those growing up in the USA.  Bullied in school, discriminated in the work place, branded as nerds, many of them find solace in a Filipino sense of identity and nationalism through eskrima arnis.   The kali nomenclature proposed by early pioneering eskrimadors in Stockton was based on an earlier book by Yambao and Mirafuente.  It is more muddled than ever in controversy.  There is however a huge following on the Hispanic origin of the FMA after the publication of our book Cebuano Eskrima: Beyond the Myth.  What was once purely hypothesis is now widely accepted historical fact that eskrima arnis is derived from our Spanish colonizers.  Thanks to the gentlemen from HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) especially Matt Galas for providing us irrefutable evidence that are duly chronicled not by eskrimadors but reputable historians.

The history in the development of eskrima in defense against Moro pirate raids through the tutelage by Spanish friars is more dramatic, more violent, more colorful than the myths earlier circulated.  The daring exploits Cebuano eskrimadors who defended their beach front homes from Moro raiders like Solferino “Kapitan Perong” Borinaga of Camotes, Juan Diyong of San Fernando, Laurente “Laguno” Sabanal of Moalboal and Tata Lucio Pastor of Doong Island are documented by historians in the academe, not by pretentious pseudo historians in the FMA.

Despite its Hispanic origins, present day eskrima arnis has evolved over the years through the Filipino’s ingenuity, an innate talent that has spurred imitation productions such as the firearms industry in Danao City.   However, unlike the Brazilians who never disowned the Angolan origins of capoeira and the Japanese jiu jit su in BJJ, many in the mainstream FMA sector are still in denial on the real history of eskrima arnis, yet these same individuals continue to enjoy on a daily basis the ensaimadas, estofados, paella, arroz caldo- delectable cuisine that traditionally is still plated on the average Filipino table.   When we are incensed we swear puta, punyeta, torpe, loco !   And greet friends with kumusta (como esta in Spanish)!

We gloat over the “Filipinoness” of everything and quick to own up even half-bred success stories such as Bruno Mars, yet the Puerto Ricans are quiet about him, neither did the Mexicans make any noise about Jessica Sanchez.   But wait, can’t we even take pride in our own kundiman? Hold on to your pants, kundiman is influenced by Spanish chorro, bolero, fandango and flamenco.   How about OPM(Original Pilipino Music)?  Not even close,  Freddie Aguilar, Heber Bartolome, Sampaguita are heavily influenced by Peter, Paul and Mary, Jim Croce, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and Janis Joplin.

There are more than just bits and fragments of Spain in the Filipinos’ daily existence.  For Christ’s sake, we can’t even count beyond 200 and tell time in our own language.   I’m getting hungry writing this, I want to eat chorizo and empanada, and take a siesta afterwards.

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