Saturday, June 23, 2007

The "ORASYON" Tattoo

YUNAL: Magico-Religious Prayer Tattoos in Leyte

Presented by: Prof. Dulce C. Anacion, UPV Tacloban

I’m here to talk about YUNAL. To the Waray tribe, the term “yunal” or “ginyunalan” means “to mark” or “to brand permanently”. “Yunal” could also be a general term for a birthmark or tattoo. The inclusion of the prefix “gin”, describes the past action done on the object. This particular brand I have in mind is the Orasyon Tattoo. It is termed generally by the respondents of my study as “yunal”.

What do we mean by the “Magico-Religious”?

Before Man learned to define his beliefs as Religion, its simplistic form was Magic. It was commonly defined as a practice, a rite, of attaining objectives, acquiring knowledge, through feats of wonder through supernatural or nonrational means. The early cave man acted out gestures of a reindeer or dressed in the skins of one so he could be successful when he hunts it down later. The early cave man artist depicted bulls and bisons as symbols in cave art paintings in order to kill the real animals in some way, and painting them on the walls could have been a symbolic act or rite. When civilization encroached and man started connecting more to his mortality, his earlier instinctual self evolved into the acknowledgement of a Power larger than himself. His rituals, acts, and symbols evolved into the belief of an omnipresent Spirit where all things in this universe were engaged. This sacred engagement to this Spiritual Reality that forms part of human life was called Religion. Yet, a thin line is drawn between Magic and Religion. Magic is widely practiced in primal and traditional societies. In such context magic is not simply a prescientific way of attaining practical ends—it may also involve at least a partial symbolic recognition of the society’s spiritual world view and of its gods and myths. In this respect magic often merges with religion. Religion, however, is usually regarded as the public acknowledgment of spirituality, while magic tends to be private and oriented toward power and gain by supernatural means rather than toward worship. A distinction can also be drawn between white and black magic: White magic is employed for benign ends, and black magic is used to harm others. Black magic is sometimes referred to as witchcraft or sorcery, although many people who practice witchcraft do not seek to cause harm.

With these in mind, we now situate the Yunal in this process: Where does the magic of these prayer tattoo end and the religion start? Are there hidden correspondences or mystical relationships between these tattoos in magic and religion? What is the role of the Yunal in Art?

What is tattooing?

Generally we know what tattoos are and how they look like. The Dictionary of World Origins traces the term “tattoo” to an east island origin: Maori “ta” meaning “to scar” and Tahitian “tatu”-pricking. It could be well described as a painful process of skin decoration or “flesh carving” with a sharp instrument and in which plant dyes or ink are “tapped” or rubbed on the skin wounds to embed permanently like a scar. The effect is a virtual body decoration or haberdashery. Tattooing in the some cultures was considered to be a rite of passage, symbol of status or mark of belongingness to a certain tribe or group.

What are Orasyones?

Ordinarily, an “orasyon” or “orasyones”(plu.) is prayer in the Spanish-Christian context.

Fr. Francisco Demetrio on his treatise “On Magical Prayers and Living Christianity” in the book Myths and Symbols Philippines described Orasyones as “a mishmash of lines lifted from the Roman Missal, the Latin Vulgate, and a dash of Visayan and Spanish prayers mixed with gibberish and “lam-lam” (cebuano colloquial term for nonsense).”

What do these prayers mean?

The seemingly puzzling “orasyon” text can actually be partly or totally deciphered and understood through simple educated guesswork—that is, getting the Spanish and Latin meanings for Spanish/Latin derived words and the original signification for those appearing to be corrupted vernacular terms. The following orasyon, for instance, may appear perplexing at first blush:


Los todos Piligros eko Pedera Deyom Jesus Magnem

Espirito Salbame Egusom Amen

It is possible to uncover the hidden message. “Los todos Piligros” is a misspelling of the
Spanish equivalent for “all dangers.” “Eko” is possible a corruption of “ako” or “Me” or a Celtic/Gaelic term of ancient origin, while “pedera” comes close to the Spanish “perder” or to lose. “Deyom is a vernacularized spelling of the accusative case (Deum) of Deus—God. “Magnem Espirito” is most likely taken from the Latin Spiritum Magnum, Great Spirit or Holy Spirit. Salbame is a misspelling of “salvar”-to save. And “Ego Sum is the Latin for “I am” or “I exist”, and this variant is very common in the formulaic prayers of the orasyones. The orasyon above may then be translated in this wise:


Lose me and Save me Lord Jesus Holy Spirit from all Dangers.

Therefore, I am, Amen.

These prayers, in the Leyte folk belief are considered to be a type of “Anting-anting” or talisman, or amulet that has a preventive force against malevolent attacks and aggression from other-worldly beings like demons and untoward supernatural forces. It could also be used to guard against sickness, accidents and the like-- the overall function which is to bring good luck or transmit new qualities.

So, when these prayers transform from text or verse to tattoo in human skin they become some sort of a brand, a mark or YUNAL, its purpose we will discuss later.

Who does these tattoos? Who is the tattooer?

In this particular tattoo, the tattooer, ist, has a multi-faceted role. He is High Priest, Artist, Shaman, Healer or Witch Doctor…The ranking of these roles are ambivalent and usually in a case-to-case basis.

As High Priest or Prayer Shaman- the common term for them in Leyte is “Parapamatbat” from the dialect “sabat” or “to pray”. The parapamatbat is a keeper of the orasyones or magical prayers in a “librito” (a small book of potent orasyones kept secretly and closely guarded). These prayers as I reiterate could have been “lam-lam” or “hudim-hudim” (waray.) with texts lifted from religious medallions or estampitas. Some parapamatbats disclose that their prayers were “original” and “concocted” and could not be found anywhere (Fermin Sevillano of Javier Leyte).Others state that their prayers come in dreams or “dictated by Jesus, Mama Mary, etc.” The Parapamatbat as compared to the Tagalog “Espiritista” is cross-current since the latter, also with the parapamatbat makes use of prayers as a method of mediation with the natural and supernatural world.

As Shaman, Healer or Witch Doctor – the common term for this personage is “Mananambal”. The Mananambal is aware that sickness and ailments are not due to physical or organic causes. They believe that illnesses may be caused by the onslaught of the supernatural where beings wreak havoc on the human Soma…(soul).The common phrase “ginsangkayan hit dire sugad ha aton” (befriended by beings not like us) concludes that the person affected is sick with some sort of malady and usually attributed to the supernatural world or was bewitched by a “mambabarang” (sorcerer). Thus he consults a mananambal who goes thru the pageant of healing methods: “lo-on” (fumigation), “paspas” (fanning) or better still, utter orasyones or incantations to put the patient in hypnotic trance, or render the “mambabarang” paralyzed.

As Artist- When a diagnoses has been made, when the malady has been identified, and the potent prayers selected from a librito to cure a malady; the parapamatbat/mananambal gives to the patient the orasyones to be recited by him in specified time or day. It could be a certain period or for the rest of his life..But yet there is the common worry of forgetfulness or losing the paper where the orasyon is written, so the parapamatbat opts to tattoo the prayer on his body so he could carry it everywhere he goes without the danger of losing the potent prayer. Furthermore, once the prayer is embedded on his skin and pain and drawing of blood has been done; the mark, the orasyon becomes more potent. I would like to add the conception that in most cases, the wearer of the permanent mark of the orasyon tattoo is believed to be invincible, invulnerable after the tattoo “operation”.

Now where does the Artistry come in?

As I have observed and gathered, certain orasyon tattoo shamans resort to motifs and mnemonics to embellish the desired prayers, Here are Samples of the popular Motifs:

(Slide presentation)

Abbreviated prayers

The Cross

Geometric Figures

The Eye:

The Sun:

Babayin or Alibata

Letters,Vowels and Numbers

Icons: Madonna


Face of Christ

It is uncanny to note however that these motifs and symbols have deep hidden meanings or transcribed to ancient knowledge to which the Parapamatbat could not have tapped or acquired through nonliterate means. It is amazing how their coincidental associations to occultic knowledge seem accurate.

What happens to the Tattooed Person (Ginyunalan)?

Unlike our tattooed forebears, wherein their tattoos were haberdashery, decoration of rank and order; the orasyon tattoo becomes a talisman or “anting-anting” to the wearer.

Donned with the nature of the anting-anting, I have observed two facets of the yunal:

a) As “orasyones pangontra” (protective talisman): Usually worn by people who have been exposed to or wary of the malevolent force of supernatural beings and of the “Panulay” (devil). Women, children aside from men sported these tattoos.

b) As “orasyones panlalaki” (talisman for invincibility or prowess): Worn by people who are
at war against elements in the natural and the supernatural world. It means rendering
invincibility to bullets, blades, bolo hacks, stakes, etc; or doing magical feats like becoming
invisible, flying thru the air or levitation. Many respondents of these tattoos were Alsa
Masa members and other nativistic cults, and some inmates of the provincial and city
jail. Historically, Pulahanes of Samar sported tattooed crosses in their face.

How were these tattoos executed? What was the so-called tattoo operation?

Since these were special kind of tattoos, there is a special process in executing them. It consists of a full participation of patient or seeker (as in the case of the orasyones panlalaki) and the witch doctor. Before the “operation”, the Parapamatbat instructs the seeker, to do certain preparations like fasting, some basic prayers or be placed in a trance. If patient is able, he could do the same else he/she could be too sick to take part in the preparation. The Parapamatbat himself prepares his tools to execute the operation, the main instrument which is a tattooing wand, a bundle of twenty-four big needles joined permanently with wax. The pointed tips partly show and form a slight arc. A bottle of permanent ink called “indelible”, a couple of towels, and minimal sterilization procedures like the use of alcohol and cotton. It is given that the parapamatbat himself has done his share of “tahas” (feat of daring). The session takes place for an hour or more depending on the intricacies of the prayer itself. It may be rendered abbreviated, written in full, or embellished with meaningful designs.


Here then I can conclude the following on the Yunal:

1.) The orasyon tattoo is a synthesis of magical and religious elements which effect
social control.

2.) The orasyon tattoo is a symbolic phenomenon: It is an expression of Cosmic

In all major aspects in folk life in Leyte, the supernatural takes a part, the belief that otherwordly elements participate in the whys and wherfores of life is strongly observed. Fr. Leonardo Mercado SVD has explained a reason to that of Filipino worldview. His point of departure is in the people’s existential postulates to looking at the world. He talks about the Leyteno’s (or in the whole, the Filipino) non-dualistic way of looking at the world. That he does not dichotomize between mind and matter, body and soul, between one and many, thought and reality or the objective and the subjective.

The Tattoo as an expression of cosmic activity is explained by the following:

a) It is a Sacrifice: The mystical and the magical. The mystical as seen in the shedding of blood and the concept of pain. To the Waray, when blood is involved, it could mean raw feelings, for example the colloquial phrase: “Mabug-at it dugo” The act of sacrifice guarantees and equally latent force to invert a given situation. The tattoo is expected to “reciprocate” the amount of sacrifice done by the wearer.

b) It is symbolic: We could theorize that the tattoo evidences representations of earlier practices and experiences. Although there is not much to work on the anthropological connection to the Pintado tattoo, which is the closest frame of reference, we aver that the Yunal still remains culture bound to practices of the past through form and intent.

Paper delivered at the 2nd Sunrise Festival:

Maharlika Artists and Writers Federation (MaharlikaSamaj)


Black Magic said...

Thank you for posting this paper! It's been a long time since the first time. I can't wait to return to your Leyte!