Friday, January 14, 2011
The Myth of Lapu-Lapu
In Rizal Park, in downtown Manila, stands an enormous statue has been raised to honor the Philippine hero Lapu-Lapu. He, according to local history, was responsible for the death of the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. The statue, as I stood next to it, appeared to be over 40 feet tall. Lapu-Lapu, is depicted as young, extremely muscular, and with a grave, authoritative expression, as he rested on a massive broadsword, of a type that I am almost certain did not exist on the Philippine Islands before the arrival of the Spaniards. Surrounding the reflecting pool adjacent to Lapu-Lapu, were busts of dozens of other Philippine heroes from decades and centuries past.
Poor Magellan was nowhere in sight.
Not that there isn’t one. I know that Manila once had a large monument to Magellan during the American colonial period. But I never saw one while I was there.
But the monument to Lapu-Lapu? Stand in Rizal Park, and you cannot miss it. It towers over everything.
I asked RoseMary why Lapu-Lapu, known primarily as the man who killed Ferdinand Magellan, was so revered in Philippines. She said that Lapu-Lapu represents the Philippine Spirit, the spirit that keeps outside influences from imposing their will on the strong Philippine people.
As she said this, I read the placard on Lapu-Lapu’s statue. It claimed he was Muslim. I had to remember that not only is Philippines one of the most devoutly Catholic countries on the planet, about 1/3 of them are just as devoutly Muslim. They are a divided nation.
Magellan, captain of a fleet of five ships, and desperate to find a Western sea route to the Orient, sailed from the city of Seville, Spain in September, 1519. It was not until March, 1521, after having suffered storms, savages, mutiny, and starvation that they landed on what would later be christened the Philippine Islands (after King Philip II of Spain). The sea-worn expedition first saw the native people on a small island that is known today as Homonhon or Jomonjol. According to the accounts written at the time, the natives shared with the explorers what they had – coconuts, chickens, and palm wine.
From here, Magellan again sailed through the Philippine Archipelago and eventually made his way near the south end of Leyte on the island of Limasaua, where they met the local cheiftans who, at the time, were at war with each other. Magellan and his crew were desparately in need of food, but the food on Limasaua was limited, I assume because it was a time of war. Magellan, in a desperate search, set sail again, this time reaching present day Cebu in April 1521.
Cebu, at the time, appears to have been a large trading center, as junks from Siam and China were present at the time Magellan landed there. Trade appears to have been heavy, even at that time. Magellan and his crew of Spaniard mariners were initially resisted by the Cebu warriors, but Magellan eventually found himself in the court, and in the favor, of the local Cebu warlord Humabon.
Humabon, also involved in current tribal warfare, appears to have been able to see the advantage of having seemingly powerful ocean voyagers as allies. He invited Magellan to seal a compact of friendship with a ritual that was common at the time. The two chiefs would wound themselves in the chest, then suck and drink each other’s blood, as a blood contract. It is uncertain whether Magellan participated in this ritual, but this type of ritual had been observed and recorded many times by subsequent Spanish settlers.
In return, the ritually minded Humabon was much impressed with the celebration of the Catholic Mass – also a ritual of blood drinking. All records indicate that the Cebu warriors were eager to accept the Catholic faith, if only as a means of making themselves more powerful warriors against their adversaries. More than 800 Cebu warriors were baptized, including their chief Humabon. Magellan also left a small gift for Humabon, or as he was now called, Carlos, the Christian King of Cebu. I will talk more about this gift in a future article.
It appears that both sides got what they wanted out of the deal. The Spaniards under Magellan received food and provisions. The Warriors of Cebu under Humabon learned of powerful new ceremonies, and Spanish allies, both of which would help them overcome enemies.
Those enemies were the warriors from the island of Mactan. Humabon, the Christian King of Cebu, now considered Magellan and his Spanish sailors as warrior allies, and depended on them to help fight. After sailing to the island of Mactan with about 50 men, Magellan was killed, according to local legend, by Lapu-Lapu, the Mactan warrior, by a wound to the arm and spear thrusts to the chest. Apparantly, Magellan had ordered Lapu-Lapu to convert to Christianity and pay obeisance to the Christian King (Humabon), but I did not learn enough of those details while in Philippines, so I will not elaborate on any supposed attempts at forced conversion.
Here is the irony in all this. Lapu-Lapu has come to symbolize Philippine resistance against Spanish occupation. As I said earlier in this article, RoseMary says that he represents the Philippine spirit of resisting foreign influence. But this left me very puzzled. Spain occupied the Philippine Islands for centuries. Philippines adopted their religion, and the influence of the Spanish language permeates the Tagalog language. I asked RoseMary if Lapu-Lapu was raised to such mythic status after Spanish occupation ended around 1898? Where was Lapu-Lapu before that? Had Lapu-Lapu become a symbol of resistance during their war with Spain? But Lapu-Lapu, according to other local customs, has also come to symbolize resistance of the Spanish faith, that is Catholicism. Lapu-Lapu was, according to tradition, Muslim. I have to suspect that this part of the myth arose in the Muslim regions of Philippines, a faith which reached the Philippine Islands centuries before Spain brought Catholicism.
What am I saying in all this? I guess it is my clumsy way of expressing the power that Myth holds on all of us. A huge part of history is myth. Myth is made of symbols. Myth is what empowers people, emboldens them to change their own perceived history. I am slowly learning that, and slowly believing to be true, that we all work on myth. Myth is a large component of what each and every one of us forms our own reality out of.
I don’t have any way of knowing if Lapu-Lapu really resisted the Catholic religion in favor of his own fervently held Islamic religion. I don’t know if Magellan struck the first blow by burning down the houses on the island of Mactan. I don’t know if Magellan ordered a conversion of Lapu-Lapu and the Mactan people. I don’t know if Humabon and his Cebu warriors really converted to Catholicism peacefully or if they were coerced. Based on the evidence that I have seen, I suspect it really was a peaceful conversion, but in the end I really don’t know for sure. Nobody knows what Lapu-Lapu really looked like. He may have been tall and muscular, or short and skinny. He may have been young, middle aged or old. But the myth dictates that he was strong, vibrant, and stands in a pose to seemingly challenge the entire world. So the myth betrays him in the way the Philippine people need him to be portrayed.
So there he stands in Rizal Park, the Lapu-Lapu of the Philippine people, the Lapu-Lapu that you need in your life, your history, your culture. There stands Lapu-Lapu, sword drawn, guarding Rizal Park, guarding the Philippine Islands from unknown future invaders. There stands Lapu-Lapu, to give the Philippine people personal strength, pride and a glorious past.
Behold – not the Lapu-Lapu of History, but the Lapu-Lapu of Faith.