Beyond Virgin Mary: Reclaiming the Female Role in Religious Performance and Imagery

by: Maria Portia Olenka C. Placino

Religious imagery and practices have been part of the Philippine way of life from the pre-colonial time to the present. Through this time, various changes have occurred. Many would be unrecognizable to most Filipinos. Yet they still exist. The role of women in pre-colonial religious practices is publicly dominant compared to their role today. Presently, most religious institutions are not led by women. They are placed in a quieter role within the institution and are seldom considered as representative or image of such institution.

This paper will examine the female religious imagery of the Philippines during the pre-colonial up to the post-colonial period. Particularly, it would look into the early religious imagery as documented in various literatures as well the actual practices still alive today, particularly in Lucban, Quezon. Parts of the paper were based on interviews with local Lucbanins particularly owners of the female santo and the living memory of other Lucbanins including the author who is a local of the town. The paper would examine how different beliefs, practices and representations were carried over during the pre-colonial times, changed by colonial beliefs and merged and combined by the present post-colonial consciousness.

Diwata, Likha, Babaylan and Katalunan

During the pre-colonial times, deities may be male or female. Everyday language interprets the word diwata as a female deity. According to Scott, “Diwata is a Malay-Sanskrit term for gods or good head and Visayan maniwala or magdiwa meant to invoke or deify them” (78). Female diwata is considered just a powerful as male diwata. Scott (79) cites Lalahhon as a “fire-breathing goddess of Mount Canlaon who could be invoked for good crops but who sent out swarms of locusts if angered, while Mayong was the diwata of the volcano in Ibalon (Albay) which bears her name.” Local legends in Quezon refer to two powerful diwata of the two dominating mountains of the province, the male one is Banahaw and the female is Makiling. The mountain bears the name of their diwata and it is believed that they may either bless or curse according to the treatment of their kingdom. Popular lore still refers to this legend and such belief is still alive in everyday consciousness.

Pre-colonial religious practitioners were also dominantly female. The Visayas refer to them as Babaylan while the Tagalogs refer to them as Katalunan. Both the Babaylan and the Katalunan maybe male, female or male transvestites referred to as asog in Visayas and bayugin in Tagalog. The Katalunan is usually from a wealthy or prominent family. Both the Babaylan and Katalunan are richly remunerated in their practices. If their performance is sponsored by prominent datus, they are often gifted with heirloom valuables such as porcelain and gold (Scott 84, 239). The role of this dominantly female character in society was highly valued by the pre-colonial Filipinos.

Babaylan and Katalunan perform both privately and publicly. Though they do not have a central worship area, there are areas considered sacred to the community. The Babaylan and Katalunan were also considered as a daitan or befriended, in recognition of the patronage of their particular diwata. The paganito, or invocation of the diwata may be done for individuals or families, seasonal or for the whole community especially at times of crisis. They were trained to perform these functions by their kindred and older Babaylans and Katalunans of the community (Scott 84, 85, 239, 240).

Aside from practitioners, the female is also well-represented in the anito or the religious figures of pre-colonial Filipinos. Pre-colonial Filipinos do not have a central religious area. Instead, they kept their religious figures inside their homes. Such figures represent their ancestors or a particular deity that they look for in patronage. Such practice is not as prominent in Visayas as it is in Tagalog. Likha or larawan of the Tagalogs were adorned with real food and decked with gold (Scott 86, 236).

Roman Catholicism and Guardia de Honor de Maria

These pre-colonial practices were mainly suppressed upon the arrival of colonial power. For almost 300 years, Spaniards in the Philippines tried to inculcate their religious beliefs and values on the Filipinos. Roman Catholicism became their primary tool in the subjugation of Filipinos. Pre-colonial beliefs were stamped out of the Filipino consciousness. The polytheistic religious practices of the Filipinos were replaced with monotheistic Roman Catholicism brought by Spaniards. The primitive Filipinos were civilized. The Babaylans and Katalunans were no more.

Such image is the usual and typical portrayal of the colonial Philippines. Filipinos, particularly the lowland Tagalogs were in fact converted into Roman Catholicism. Images such as the anitos and the likhas were considered taboo. The numerous deities were replaced by Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the innumerable Catholic Saints. The practices of the Babaylans and Katalunans were stamped out and were replaced by the priests, exclusive male religious practitioners. Various practices and performances were centrally performed in a religious structure—the Churches. On the surface, the female, once the central, powerful religious image and performer, was replaced by a prominently masculine image and an exclusive male performer.

The female was not totally absent in the imagery of the Roman Catholicism that reached the Philippines. The dominating female image in the Roman Catholic religion is the image of the Virgin Mary, the mother of the Savior Jesus Christ. The image of meekness, obedience, and purity were inculcated into the once dominant female religious practitioners. Perhaps there was a struggle to reclaim the women’s space in the image and performance within the colonial power. Admittedly, there is a lack in the documentation and historicism of the role and image of women in the religious sphere of the colonial times.

Reynaldo Ileto cites Juan Alvarez Guerra’s observation of the cofradias. The Cofradia de San Jose founded by Apolinario de la Cruz of Lucban, Tayabas (Quezon) is the most popular in historical writings of the Philippines as a revolutionary tool. There were in fact numerous cofradias, one of which is a cofradia named Guardia de Honor de Maria, “a women’s associations ‘which entertains no distinction of class or age.’ Its members were distinguished by a silver medal hanging on a blue band or belt. The basis for its organization was the perpetual veneration of the Virgin, for which the hermana mayor assigned three sisters at a time praying in shifts throughout the day and night” (Ileto 32). Clearly, aside from the popularly known male dominated movements, the female also played various roles in imagery and performance, though not as commonly depicted in popular histories. Nelmida-Flores cites that some Guardia de Honor de Maria, after gaining much popularity and following were dissolved by the church authorities due to the threat the numerous members pose (Daluyan 73).
Santo and Poon

Roman Catholicism also introduced the different saints to the Filipinos. Similar to the functions of the different pre-colonial deities, saints also have their own functions for different aspects of Filipino life and society. If there was a diwata for different aspects of life, then there is also a saint for such aspects. This kind of consciousness, present in the Filipinos since pre-colonial times, made it easier to accept the various saints of the Roman Catholic religion.

De la Paz points out that the Spaniards introduced the different images to the Filipinos to serve as a virtuous example of an ideal person. Such saints were didactic in their intention to serve as a model of humility and martyrdom (110). This made the values demanded by the church more potent to the Filipinos, but at the same time, it is these images that the Filipinos used to Filipinize the culture being forced upon them.

Saints in Tagalog have two translations with different contexts. De la Paz points out that a Santo is the religious image owned and managed by the church. The Poon on the other hand is the image owned and used by families with strong beliefs or panata, outside the control and supervision of the church (111). In these two contexts, Filipinos placed the religious imagery forced upon them into a part of everyday life and culture. They reclaimed a culture and belief stolen from them by a colonial power using the very tools that the colonial power used to inculcate them.

Reclaiming of the Female Performance

The Babaylan and Katalunan were robbed of their dominant role in the religious and cultural practices. The women reclaimed their role, though no longer in the public eye. The preparations of the santo and poon are particularly done by women, except the mass that are performed by priests. Families also reclaimed their own religious spaces outside of the churches as they created their altars. Stigma of the earlier ancestor worship was combined with the keeping of the religious figures. The appearance from wood carved anthropomorphic figures of pre-colonial times became the colonial white poon and eventually the white poon decked once again in gold and surrounded by precious objects, similar to pre-colonial practices.

During the colonial times, female manghuhula (fortune tellers) and manggagamot (soothsayers) would be referred to as witches. Today, such profession, once again dominantly female, though not accepted by the church, are accepted largely by society. They continue the practices of the Babaylan and Katalunan in blessing and healing. The key difference is that instead of the diwata, these healers look into the patronage of their own poon, a representative of the Roman Catholic belief. Often such manghuhula would have their poon that they would pray to and that they believe speak to them as the blessed and heal those that come to them. They would have their exclusive beliefs and ceremonies to their patron saint that would empower them to perform healings and blessings. The female, once again, are present and active in the religious performance, though no longer central in the generally accepted canon.

One of the most significant Filipino adaptations of religious performance is done during the Semana Santa (Holy Week), particularly in the various recitations and performances of the Pasyon. This week is also the highlight of the performance of the families who owns poon. The poon participates in the week long commemoration of the Passion of Jesus Christ. Though some practices and performances would vary from family to family, they somewhat follow similar constructs. The culmination of the event will happen on Good Friday when a procession of the Pasyon is performed. Beforehand, various ceremonies are done for the poon, all of which are outside the church control and supervision. The religious image, usually unavailable for public viewing, will need to be prepared for a week-long performance in the public space.

As the Holy Week or Santong Araw begins on Palm Sunday or Linggo ng Palaspas, the poon must be prepared for the week. The family responsible for the poon would sponsor the performance a number of mass through the church. It would involve gifts—monetary and otherwise to the church. The poon will also need to be dressed in preparation for the Santong Araw. Usually, the poon will have an ordinary “pambahay” vestment and a vestment for special occasions. The elder women, the balo (widow) and the soltera (unmarried women) are the usual participants in the washing, anointing and dressing of the poon. The pagbibihis (changing of clothes) of the poon is part of a performative ritual to start the week-long commemoration. Respected women of the family are central to this private performance.

Mass will once again be sponsored at various times of the week by the family. There would also be a feast for all the people who would help in the preparation of the poon. Central to this performance, particularly before the Good Friday Procession or the Prusisyon is the pagbasa ng Pasyon. The Pabasa or the recitation of the Pasyon is done in public by the family, wherein everyone is welcome to participate. The leading performers once again are elderly women who are learned in the Pabasa. This learning is oftentimes passed on from an elderly woman to a younger woman within the same family. This group of elderly women, learned in the Pabasa would go from family to family who owns a poon and perform the Pabasa. This function is reminiscent of the functions of the Babaylan and Katalunan and is once again outside the control and supervision of the church.

Santa as the Poon and Patron

During the Prusisyon, members of the family would join their poon in the procession around the town. This public performance is participated in by the immediate family and the extended family in possession of the poon. This part of the religious performance is the only one supervised by the Catholic Church. The procession will begin and end at the church. After the public performance of the Semana Santa (Holy Week), the poon once again will be kept in houses or storage areas. The ceremonies done by the elder women, balo and soltera will be repeated. The pagbibihis of the poon will be performed again. The poon will be washed, anointed and dressed back into their pambahay and be kept in their usual place. Prayers, veneration and ceremonies would be repeated as their family keep them in their homes.

The female reclaims her role in this religious performance. Unlike the earlier intention of the Spanish colonial regime, the female managed to break out of the strict bonds. Much of the religious performance is exclusive and done within the private space. Though it may rob the female performer of the public space, such secrecy in the performance makes it more potent. The participating women in the pagbibihis are the most respected within the family, and the family who owns a poon is a wealthy and prominent family within the town. The female public performer in the Pabasa leads the audience in prayer and veneration. The female reclaims her role in performative leading outside the control and authority of the dominant male canon.

The prusisyon, though about the Pasyon of Jesus Christ is not necessarily male exclusive in its imagery. The presence of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ is inevitable. Aside from the Virgin, there are also some family which has other female poon such as Maria Magdalena, Maria Salome and Veronica. Though scarcely mentioned in the Scriptures, these female saints caught the imagination of the Filipinos, particularly the families in which they have patronage. These poon receive as much if not more attention than the different Jesus Christ images. Prominent in the prusisyon is the Mahal na Senyor, the image of the dead Christ. The female poon, though much less than the male poon, is still noteworthy to study.

The Poon of Santa Veronica is currently owned by the Valdes family. The original sculpture was commissioned by a certain G. Ignacio from a sculptor in Paete, Laguna around the 1800s. Its andas (stand) and kandelero (light stand) were completed in 1883 as commissioned by Clemente Cadornigara. During the fire at Paete in 1959, the original sculpture burned and Froilan Madrinan Sr. was commissioned to make a new one. In 1965, a new head and set of hands were made by Rufino Bagabaldo. The “pang-araw-araw” or everyday look of the poon is the sculpture made in 1959. This is also the sculpture displayed on Miyerkules Santo. During the Biyernes Santo or Good Friday, the head and hands are replaced with the ones made on 1965 as it is the more beautiful face of Santa Veronica. Aside from the usual pagbibihis ng poon, the Poon of Santa Veronica also gets a more beautiful face for the Prusisyon. The current family owner, the Valdes family, also a restaurant owner of Lucban treats Veronica as their patron and the one who continually blesses them and enrich their business. Scripturally, Veronica followed Jesus Christ on his way to the cavalry and wiped his face on a cloth. Legend has it that the cloth was imprinted with the face of Jesus Christ and was used by Veronica to heal as she spreads the good news of Jesus.

The Poon of Maria Magdalena or Mary Magdalene is currently owned by Marbie Torres Contreras and Judge Domingo Nantes along with their family. They cannot provide a particular year in which the poon was made, as it was believed that the poon was owed by their family since the colonial times and that it has been their family patron ever since. Aside from the mass, feast and celebration during the Semana Santa, they also celebrate the poon every year on July 22 as it is believed to be Maria Magdalena’s birthday. Maria Magdalena is dressed in red until Miyerkules Santo (Wednesday) and was dressed black in other occasions. It is the family’s belief that the poon is part of their family and that it helps them prosper in this life. Scripturally, Maria Magdalena is one of the followers of Jesus Christ and saw Him first when He came back from the dead. She is also believed to be a sister of Martha and Lazarus. Numerous legends and Gnostic texts surround Maria Magdalena including her as one of the apostles and the wife of Jesus Christ, though such alternate history is not considered in this context. The common belief manifests that Maria Magdalena was a sinner until she found an error in her ways and went back to Jesus Christ.

Unlike the two previously mentioned poon that has been in the family for many generations, the Poon of Santa Maria Salome, owned by Benedict Abuso, was commissioned by him on March 28, 2008 from a sculptor in Paete, Laguna. It was included in the Prusisyon of that same year. Abuso states that Santa Maria Salome came to him in a dream while he was working as a sea man. After waking, he saw a photograph of the Maria Salome in a National Geographic magazine. Upon coming home to Lucban, he immediately commissioned the making of the poon. The poon is believed to have healed him and his family of various illnesses. The family considers the poon as a blessing and that it gives them protection from illness. Scripturally, Maria Salome is one of the three Mary’s that was with Jesus Christ during his ministry and during his death at the Cavalry. She is also considered as the sister of the Virgin Mary and the mother of John the Baptist and James the Great.

The three female poon are surrounded by the colonial construct in which they came from. At the same time, these colonial constructs are completely changed with the interpretation of the Filipino panata. The families that own and maintain the poon truly believe that they are blessed because of their ownership and maintenance of the poon. The function of the female poon is not very different from the male poon. It gives blessings and prosperity for the owners. The more recent poon is very particular for healing and protection from illness. Just like the anthropomorphic figures of pre-colonial Filipinos, these colonial figures are gives blessing, healing and protection. Such colonial figures are mostly removed of their colonial context and are placed in the Filipino consciousness and sensibilities. They are displaced from the colonial context of church authorities and are once again placed in family homes and communities. The church does not have control or authority over the privately owned poon that empowers the Filipino.


Pre-colonial Filipino women have powerful roles in religious imagery and performance. They perform dominantly in both the public and the private spheres—in both the home and the community. The diwata, anito, likha are represented in both the male and female anthropomorphic forms. This was initially deconstructed in placing the Filipinos under a colonial power. The performer dominantly female became exclusively male. The numerous diwata of either sex became one divine male god. Such influence of the colonial power remain dominant in the Philippine society today, particularly of the lowland Christians. Yet, the pre-colonial culture of the Filipinos is deeply rooted in their realities and consciousness. The Catholic images and practices were deconstructed to fit into the Filipino belief and culture. The diwata, anito and likha did not disappear, they merely changed in form. Instead of the rough anthropomorphic sculptures, they became polished, white and representational. But the functions remain similar. The religious practices of women did not disappear. They just changed their appearance, but their construct remain the same. Though majority of the female religious performance is done privately or at least outside the control and authority of the church, such performances are still as important in the post-colonial Philippines as it was in the pre-colonial times.


Abuso Family. Personal Interview. 1 Sept. 2010.

Cada, Danilo, ed. Lucban: Founded 1578. Quezon: Sanggunian Bayan ng Lucban, 1978.

Contreras and Nantes Family. Personal Interview. 1 Sept. 2010.

De La Paz, Cecilia. “Poon at Panata: Sining at Paniniwala sa Mahal na Senyor ng Lucban Quezon.” Philippine Humanities Review: Special Issue on Theatre and Performance Studies. 10 (2008): 105-120.

Ileto, Reynaldo C. Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840-1910. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1997.

Macia-Lees, Frances and Patricia Sharpe. Taking a Stand in a Postfeminist World: Toward an Engaged Cultural Criticism. New York: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Nelmida-Flores, Ma. Crisanta. “Birhen ng Manaoag at ang tradisyong manag-anito” Daluyan. 12.2 (2004): 51-102.

Rafael, Vicente. Contracting Colonialism. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1988.

Scott, William Henry. Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1994.

Valdez Family. Personal Interview. 1 Sept. 2010.

Zobel de Ayala, Fernando. Philippine Religious Imagery. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1963.


One thought on “Beyond Virgin Mary: Reclaiming the Female Role in Religious Performance and Imagery

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  1. Mary Magdalene is the one who committed adultery and is different from Mary who is the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Also, Maria Salome is not the mother of John the Baptist. It’s Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary.

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