PARTLY to escape the streets, which now shimmer from the heat, I stepped inside the Cebuano Studies Center at the University of San Carlos. For this assignment on prehistoric Visayans, I wondered if I could last an hour, as catatonia from siesta habits or bemusement with 17th century documentation seemed preordained.
I was wrong. From the shimmering streets, I found myself lost for hours in the simmering pages of a chronicle written in 1668 by a Jesuit priest.
Ignacio Francisco Alcina, SJ, took down voluminous notes from his observations of and interactions with the local people that he met in his travels around Samar, Leyte, Cebu, Panay, Bohol and Negros.
The product of 36 years of life among the Bisayans, “Historia de las Islas e Indios de Bisayas (History of the Bisayan People in the Philippine Islands)” runs to four volumes and covers every subject, including those that seem unlikely to engage the religious.
In chapter 4 of volume 1, which tackles the local custom of tattooing, Alcina writes of “a certain practice which the Bisayans cultivated.”
This was the piercing of the male organ and suspension of a “sakra,” “sagra” or “sagka” (a wooden peg whose ends protruded on both sides and from which hang rings of lead or gold, if the person belonged to the principales).
“Sakraan” referred to a man who had this device. This term may have been superfluous as the practice was common. Alcina writes, “In ancient times, they mocked those without it.”
But it was not the barbarity of self-mutilation nor its high cost (“most excruciating pain” and “virulent cancer”) that made the Spaniards punish with a beating any Bisayan caught wearing a sakra, an ironic twist since, for the clergy, it was a “word so holy among us but extremely obscene among them.”
Alcina writes that the practice was resorted to “for a greater incitement to carnal pleasure, not only on the part of the men but especially the women.” According to the annotation accompanying his text, “there were some 20-30 different versions of the device.”
What reduced me to greater stupefaction: the realization that there is a personal dimension to history or that these “cracks in the parchment curtain” were made possible through the efforts of a 17th-century religious?
From the rote learning of facts in elementary and high school to the politicized deconstruction of colonial history in college, I had the impression that history was all about war, religious, political or armed.
Who would have thought that a prehispanic sexuality thrived until the Spaniards came and conquered with their version of the yoke?
In popular history, women are figureheads, if mentioned at all. Who was Hara Amihan before she was renamed Queen Juana after receiving the Sto. Niño from Ferdinand Magellan?
Alcina parts the curtains to show that women—not the Spanish stereotypes of virgin and whore but real women of flesh and spirit—existed before the natives embraced straitlaced Christianity: “(The men) say that their women wish it so, and that if they did otherwise, they would not have communication with them.”
In prehispanic relations, what was the sexual politics? Alcina’s notes imply that domestic abuse existed long before the age of gender and development: “Many women paid for (sexual gratification) dearly when the paramour, or a husband resenting the woman’s lack of fidelity, or for some other disappointment which they wished to avenge, placed the said peg not of wood but of iron with its ends sharpened. Thus, they either wounded or killed many a woman…”
Would these accounts be extant if early documentors had followed the sway of their biases? Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler of the voyages of Magellan and Juan Sebastian Elcano, wrote, “These people make use of that device because they are of a weak nature.”
Another explorer, Miguel Lopez de Loarca, also documented the practice but judged it as an “abominable custom… modesty forbids us to speak of them.”
In his age and in his vocation, Alcina was uncommon: “No matter how vile and diabolic this may be, history must not hide anything, especially since it was a common practice in this nation.”
In the 21st century, as it was in the 17th, an unsparing eye and pen is a virtue without parallel.
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* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 13, 2008 issue