Sculptor Guillermo Tolentino invented “hidden” meanings for all the letters of the baybayin, embellishing the fantasy of a 19th century author. (Wikipedia photo)
Last time, we were talking about the pre-colonial Filipino syllabic alphabet and about the ancient, secret meanings that are supposedly held within the shapes of its baybayin letters. These alleged revelations focus on the word bathala – the name of the pre-colonial Tagalog god of creation – which is said to contain the concepts of male, female and the divine because its baybayin spelling has letters that apparently look like a vagina, the wind and a penis.
According to Bathala Code believers, these three baybayin letters, , acquired their shapes because they represent the first syllables in the Tagalog words, babae, hangin and lalaki, respectively – though some speculate that the letters came first and the words came from the letters! Then, extending an already tenuous premise, they are somehow certain that, of all the Tagalog words that contain any of these syllables, it is these three that either came together to form Bathala, or were derived from Bathala. Conflicting theories about every other letter of the baybayin script have also been conjured from these improbable assumptions.
Whose idea was this, anyway?
So where did these purported revelations about Bathala and the baybayin come from and who is promoting them today? Although none of the current authors who cover the subject on the Internet cite an ultimate source for their information, their inspiration is most likely a coil-bound manual by the composer Bayani Mendoza de Leon, Baybayin, The Ancient Script of the Philippines. 1 It is currently the easiest book to find that contains these ideas, although it is more about de Leon’s own modernized baybayin than it is about the ancient script. Several phrases from it appear without citation at Mary Ann Ubaldo’s Urduja.com, 2 which was probably the earliest web site to promote the supposed spiritual aspects of baybayin writing.
Perla Daly, another Bathala Code believer who has influenced some baybayin enthusiasts, credits Ubaldo for her epiphany and has added her own embellishments to support her New Age theories about Filipino spirituality in an on-line document, Bahala Meditations. 3
Although Bayani de Leon is apparently the current source of these mystical theories, he did not invent them. In the preface to his manual, de Leon enthusiastically quoted from a 1972 article by Guillermo Tolentino, which he described as “an eye-opening exposition on the pictographic significance of each character in the Filipino ancient script.” In total, he presented Tolentino’s “illuminating insights” for ten of the 17 letters of the baybayin. 4 So how did Tolentino discover these secrets of the baybayin?
Guillermo Tolentino was a National Artist for Sculpture who passed away in 1976. He was famous for such works as the Bonifacio Monument in Caloocan, Metro Manila and the Oblation statue, symbol of the University of the Philippines. Among his many talents and interests, he was also considered a baybayin expert. He first published his ideas about hidden meanings in baybayin letters in his 1937 book, Ang Wika at Baybaying Tagalog (The Tagalog Language and Baybayin). Here, Tolentino expounded on diverse subjects ranging from astronomy to zoology in order to advance his belief in the superiority of the Tagalog language and culture.
For Tolentino, finding Tagalog words like babae, hangin and lalaki inside a Sanskrit-derived word like bathala, or claiming that they were the basis of letter shapes in an imported script, was not a logical problem at all because he believed that Tagalog culture predated most civilizations in Asia and the world. According to him, the Tagalog language and its script did not share a common source with any other culture, nor did it borrow from any other culture because Tagalog was 2000 years older than Sanskrit and was the source of this ancient, sacred language of India, as well as most of the other languages of Southeast Asia. 5 This would have made Tagalog about 5,500 years old and possibly the oldest living language in the world.
Tolentino made incredible claims like this throughout his book, supporting them with misused quotes from sources both reliable and dubious. Many of his theories were based on nothing more than coincidental similarities between Tagalog words and foreign words. In one attempt to demonstrate the far reaching influence of the Tagalog language, he casually maligned an entire nation:
Even the name of that island Madagascar is a stupid corruption (pagagong tawag) of the correct Tagalog “magdaragat” (mariner), and because of a natural fondness for drinking alcohol, the people are usually drunk (mga lasing), thus [they are called] Malagasi. 6
In some cases, Tolentino didn’t even bother to dig for phoney evidence. To explain the origin of baybayin writing itself, he simply conjured a fable about a Tagalog poet named Katalon who invented the script so that he could give his poems to Bai, the most beautiful lady in his town – in the year 600 BCE! 7
Spooky source of information
One source of Tolentino’s absurd theories, which he did not mention in his 1937 book, was the supernatural. He was an avid practitioner of the occult and one of the founders of the Unión Espiritista Cristiana de Filipinas Inc. He often hosted meetings of the group in his home, which included, faith healing, speaking in tongues and séances. On at least one occasion, he tapped this spooky source for information about the ancient script.
In the early 1960s, the National Museum of the Philippines asked Tolentino to decipher the writing on a pot discovered in Calatagan, Batangas. Nobody could figure out the meaning of its possibly pre-colonial inscription but Tolentino managed to divine its secret. When asked how he did it, he said that he contacted the spirit of the long-departed potter in a séance and simply asked him what he wrote on the now-famous Calatagan Pot. 8 Needless to say, Tolentino's interpretation was ignored and that inscription is still considered undeciphered to this day.
Guillermo Tolentino invented meanings for all the baybayin letters, but even with his supernatural connections, he was not the first to “discover” the Bathala Code. In his introduction to that section of the book, Tolentino revealed that he had no real source for most of his information, but he did acknowledge the originator of the Bathala-baybayin notion. He wrote:
…why the shapes [of the letters] became like that, not even one historian, linguist or palaeographer has been able to give a certain or even superficial explanation. Nobody has even been able to write about the meaning and form that was imitated by the various shapes of the letters of the Tagalog baybayin other than the late Pedro A. Paterno and Lope K. Santos. Even these two gentlemen described nothing except B H L of Bathala, by the former, and U H A, or the cry of a newborn child, by the latter. That’s it – just three letters from each and nothing more. To put it simply, where the previous writers finished is where we begin with other things that are connected but hidden from the awareness of the general public. 9
In the next part of this series, we’ll meet the real inventor of the Bathala Code – the notorious Pedro Alexandro Molo Agustin Paterno y de Vera Ignacio, Maguinoo [Lord] Paterno.
Tolentino’s chart showing his “original meanings” of all the baybayin letters – from Ang Wika at Baybaying Tagalog (1937)
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Sources & notes
1. de Leon, Bayani Mendoza. Baybayin, the Ancient Script of the Philippines: A Concise Manual. 1992
2. Ubaldo, Mary Ann. Baybayin’s Eye-Opening Exposition. http://urduja.com/exposition/eyesopen.html
3. Daly, Perla Paredes. Bahala Meditation, A Personal Renewal of Filipino Spiritual Practice. Originally published 06.27.03 at www.babaylan.com.
4. de Leon, Bayani Mendoza. 1992 p. ix - x
5. Tolentino, Guillermo. Ang Wika at Baybaying Tagalog. 1937. p. 57
6. ibid p. 67
Maging ang ngalang Madagaskar ng pulong yaon ay pagagong tawag sa matuwid na Tagalog na MAGDARAGAT, at ang mga tao dahil sa katutubong hilig sa pag-inom ng alak ay parating MGA LASING kata’t MALAGASI. [English transaltion by P. Morrow.]
7. ibid. p.92
8. Ocampo, Ambeth R. “Tolentino and the Calatagan Pot,” Inquirer.net. April 27, 2007.
9. Tolentino, Guillermo E. 1937. p.73
...kung bakit naging gayon ang mga hugis ay wala isa mang mananalaysay, dalubwika o dalubtitik ang nakapagsabi ng tiyak o pahapyaw mang paliwanag. Wala rin naman nakasulat ng tungkol sa diwa at hubog na pinagtularan ng iba’t ibang hugis ng mga titik ng BAYBAYING TAGALOG maliban sa nasirang Pedro A. Paterno at Lope K. Santos. Maging ang dalawang Ginoong ito’y wala rin namang nailarawan maliban sa B H L ng Bathala noong una at ang U H A o uha ng bata ang ikalawa. Ano pa’t tigatlong titik lamang sila at wala na. Sa isang sabi’y kung saan nagwakas ang mga naunang nagsisulat ay doon naman kami nagsimula ng ibang bagay na karugtong nguni’t lingid pa sa kaalaman ng madla. [English translation by P. Morrow]
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