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Negrito Religions: Negritos of the Philippine Islands


The Negritos of the Philippines comprise approximately twenty-five widely scattered ethnolinguistic groups totaling an estimated fifteen thousand people. They are assumed to be the aboriginal inhabitants of the archipelago. Many of these Negrito groups still live by hunting and gathering, trading wild meat and forest products to the Filipino farmers around them in exchange for rice or corn. They also practice some marginal cultivation.

The traditional religion of all Philippine Negritos is animism. Today, most of them remain animists, although some of their beliefs have been modified by Roman Catholic Christianity.

One salient feature of Negrito religion is its noticeable lack of systematization. Consequently, it has a secondary place in Negrito ideology. Because the animistic beliefs and practices of Philippine Negritos are individualistic and sporadic, they exert less control over the people's daily lives than do the religious systems of other, non-Negrito animistic societies in the Philippines. Likewise, the minor function of religion in most Philippine Negrito cultures contrasts markedly with the important role of religion among the Negritos of Malaysia, which is reported by Kirk Endicott in Batek Negrito Religion (Oxford, 1979).

Nevertheless, there is a universal belief among Philippine Negritos in a spirit world, containing many classes of supernatural beings. These beings are seen to have some influence over processes of nature, as well as over the health and economic success of humans. Negritos especially have a preoccupation with malignant ghosts of deceased humans. Most Negritos also hold to a belief in a supreme deity. Scholars have debated the question of whether this "monotheism" is of pre-Hispanic origin or is merely the result of Christian influences.

Agta Religion

The Agta, or Dumagat, of northeastern Luzon are typical of the least acculturated Philippine Negrito societies. They show little inclination to adapt to the dominant Roman Catholic religion of their peasant Filipino neighbors. The Agta believe in a single high god and in a large number of supernatural spirit beings that inhabit their surrounding natural environment. Depending on the class of spirit, these various beings live in trees, underground, on rocky headlands, or in caves.

There are two general classes of spirit beings in the Agta worldview: hayup ("creature") and bélet or anito ("ghost"). The latter are always malignant. Ghosts are wandering disembodied souls of deceased humans. The ghosts of recently deceased adult relatives are especially feared, as they are prone to return to the abode of their family during the night, causing sickness and death.

There are several varieties of hayup creatures. Although these are nonhuman, they are bipedal and may appear in human form. Most varieties of hayup beings are malignant; others are neutral, and a few can be called upon for help in curing disease.

Agta Shamans

In Aurora province, 8 percent of Agta adults are shamans, of whom two out of ten are women. They practice only white magic. A shaman (bunogen ) is defined by the Agta as an individual who has a familiar spirit "friend" (bunog ) who aids him or her in diagnosing and treating disease. The primary role of shamans is curing. They do not practice black magic. (Agta do not practice sorcery, although they are aware of the custom among other Filipino societies.) Shamans may treat their patients with herbal medicines and simple prayers to their spirit "friends." For difficult cases, they may conduct a séance. In such cases, shamans will enter into a trance state, chanting prayers over the patient until they are possessed by their familiar spirits. These chants are not in the normal Agta language but are sung in a form of glossolalia.

It would be incorrect to say that Agta worship the spirits in their environment. Rather, they fear them, and placate them. The Agta do not have a sacrifical system as do other Philippine tribal groups, but they do occasionally offer small gifts to the hayup spirits if they are taking something from the forest. These gifts may consist of a few grains of rice, a few ounces of honey, or just a piece of thread from a man's G-string. In some areas, when a new garden is cleared a shaman may set up a small table with spirit offerings of betel quid or food.

Agta religious practices are done haphazardly, when it is convenient, and usually on an individual basis. Most such practices revolve around the prevention or treatment of illness. Agta have only a vague interest in the afterlife, the realm of the dead, creation of the world, immortality, or the future. They do not seek religious experiences. Rather, it is the chronic fear of sickness and death that activates Agta religious behavior. While it would be wrong to say that religion is unimportant to the Agta, it does play a lesser role in their culture than it does in other animistic groups.


There are to date no complete studies on any of the religious systems of any Philippine Negrito society. Brief sketches appear, however, in many of the more general descriptions of such groups. Much of this material on such religious systems is reviewed in A Primer on the Negritos of the Philippines, compiled by Daisy Y. Noval-Morales and James Monan (Manila, 1979).

Three other important sources, which attempt to generalize on Philippine Negrito religions, are John M. Garvan's The Negritos of the Philippines (Vienna, 1964), edited by Hermann Hochegger; Marcelino N. Maceda's The Culture of the Mamanua (Northeast Mindanao) as Compared with That of the Other Negritos of Southeast Asia, 2d ed. (Cebu City, Philippines, 1975); and a three-volume work in German by Paul Schebesta, Die Negrito Asiens (Vienna, 19521957).

New Sources

Rae, Navin K. Living in a Lean-To: Philippine Negrito Foragers in Transition. Ann Arbor, 1990.

Rahman, Rudolf. "The Nocturnal Prayer Ceremonies of the Negritos of the Philippines." Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society (Cebu City) 26, nos. 12 (1998): 192211.

Shimizu, Hiromu. "Communicating with Spirits: A Study of the Manganito Seance among the Southwestern Pinatubo Negritos." East Asian Cultural Studies (Tokyo) 22, nos. 14 (1983): 129167.

Thomas N. Headland (1987)

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