Santonilyo: The Pagan Origins of Santo Nino

In Cebu, some, if not most, establishments or residences have always kept an altar or a pedestal with a carved wooden statue of a little king, clothed in rich fabric of red or green, wearing a golden necklace and bearing a scepter and a globus cruciger in his hands. This figure was brought by the Spaniards and is known as Santo Niño. This image is revered by Cebuanos,  holding festivities in honor of the miraculous child Jesus.

During the pre-Spanish colonial era, our ancestors had similar wooden idols named as guardians, protectors and pagan deities. This brought a similar legend about a piece of drift wood that turned out to be miraculous, and scared away creatures when placed on the farms. Let’s take a look at the origins of the religious image that once was said to be a pagan god and converted to the catholic path to many of us believe in.

Ifugao “Bulul” Pair Rice God Statue with Inlaid bead eyes considered as a Lianito credits to www.tribalasia.com

 The Lianito Idol

The Animist people of the Visayas region worshipped a time god known as Kaptan, equivalent to the creator god Bathala of the Tagalogs. He was the supreme deity in the Visayan pantheon, but relatively distant. To bridge the gap of the activities of heaven and the mortals, the ancient people replaced mediators such nature-based deities known as diwatas (fairies and elementals) and anitos (ancestral spirits) who supposed to give blessings and abundance on a family or a society.

Furthermore, these “Anito” spirits are usually old ancestors who have lived a virtuous life when they were alive. Each house in the ancient Visayas was supposed to carry a “tawu tawu”(idols) made out of wood, stone, gold or ivory whom the family pay honor in resemblance of offering food or flowers and “pag-anito”(worship) to ensure and continue daily blessings upon them. When the head of a family dies, everyone in the village help make the statue, they would carve out an androgynous (to further symbolize gender-equality), child-like image, and always smiling to what they would call the “Lianito”, the collective embodiment of the ancestor spirit of a family and territory and they would dress the doll with gold and would place the image among the other idols.

Painting of Queen Juana (Hara Humamay) by Filipino artist Manuel Panares

The Baptism

The birth of Catholicism in Cebu was through the image of Santo Niño de Cebu, brought by the Spanish Occupation through Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian scribe of Ferdinand Magellan, given as a gift to Hara Humamay the royal consort of the chieftain of Cebu of 1521, Rajah Humabon, as token of good relations and allegiance to Spain. The queen was baptized to Catholicism and renounced her animist beliefs and dubbed a new Christian name, “Juana”.

Queen Juana loved the image so much that according to the account of Pigafetta upon receiving, she bathed the statue with her tears of joy as she is hugging it. Eight hundred Cebuanos were baptized as well and were given an image of the Virgin Mary, a crucifix and a bust depiction of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. The Spaniards underestimated the animist faith that Magellan discovered that the king and queen still keep their Lianitos. The queen perhaps readily accepted the Santo Niño because it looked more regal and refined. Rest of the history follows of another chieftain’s refusal of conquering the land and instilling tradition that was Datu Lapu-Lapu and had a violent conflict which caused Magellan’s death.

Moving on its dark past of the conquest through religion, 44 years after Magellan came Miguel Lopez De Legazpi, arrived Cebu and found the native’s hostility and fearing the retribution for Magellan’s death. The villages were burned during the progressing conflict. Juan Camus, a Spanish mariner found the image of the Santo Nino in a pine box amidst the ruins of a burned-down hut. Presented the image to Legazpi and the Augustinian priests; the natives denied the gift was associated to Magellan and claimed it have been there for a long time. A church was built on the spot to where the image was found that was originally in bamboo and mangrove palms then was reconstructed later and claims to be the oldest parish in the Philippines.

The Youthful Deity of the Rain

Visayan natives submerse the Santo Nino image to venerate with and call out for the rain.

Filipino Historian Nico Marquez Joaquin’s workes in 1980 state that it was also within the time gap of those 44 years since Magellan that the natives discovered a new god in the pantheon of the Visayas. The new deity in the form of a child they call Santonilyo. Influenced in its Spanish title, they recognized the statue as a lianito describing both an old and a new god to the Visayans.

Santonilyo is the child deity of good graces who was worshiped as a rain god for four decades since the Spanish first arrived. Fray Gaspar de San Agustin wrote about it in 1565 book “Conquistas de las Islas Filipinas”, that during drought, the ancient Cebuanos would bathe the image in the sea.

“Cun ulan ang pangayoon, ug imong pagadugayon. Dadad-on ca sa baybayon, ug sa dagat pasalomon. Ug dayon nila macuha ang guitinguha.”

Which translates: “If they seek rain and you delay it, you’d be brought to the shore and bathed in the sea. They then obtain the rain they desire.” The practice of immersing the sacred image is also mentioned in the Sto. Niño’s Gozos (prayer hymn) published in an 1888 novena.

However, Santonilyo’s popularity was already widespread among the Visayan islands reaching the Panay, Mindoro, Negros, Bohol, Siquijor, Samar and Leyte. The Santonilyo as mentioned by Felipe Landa Jocano, an anthropologist and author of “Filipino Value System”, as one of the supporting Upper world deities along with Ribung Linti (god of thunder and lightning) who assisted Tungkung Langit (the creator god of Panay Islands) in the creation myth known as the “Sulod” Epics.

In its connection of the legend of Panay that Santonilyo was said to have reached the islands as a fisherman caught a piece of “agipo” (or a driftwood) but couldn’t catch fish the whole day. Dismayed, he threw it back soon after, felt another tug to his net and realized it’s the same driftwood and over and over again would dump it on the sea, known only to catch the same agipo again.

Tired and frustrated, the fisherman decided to keep the driftwood in his boat, and like a miracle, fish flocked towards his boat and returned to the village with a bountiful catch. The villagers soon discovered that the piece of wood had other magical powers used as a scarecrow to keep the birds and animals away in drying the grains and in times of drought, only had to immerse the driftwood in the sea to produce rains.

This agipo became an idol in their pantheon, and like the venerated Holy Child, Santonilyo is also prayed for graces. The Lianito idol then on was called Lisantonilyo. As Santo Nino has been honored and prayed in Cebu, we are able to peak in the origins of our faith based on discovery and documents not diminishing the fact on what we truly believe in which is God represented as a sweet, youthful child that would save the whole world from sin.

Shawnn Villaflor

The geek videographer who loves anything from toy collections and niche hobbies like cosplay and boardgames, but can still switch out to be social when needed. When not busy, he usually does lightsaber sports or goes cafe hopping.

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