Spirituality among the Isnags is very evident even today. Just like other Igorots, the Isnags of Apayao are spirit-filled for they believe in spiritual powers of all sorts. The Isnags’ spirituality is manifested in their belief that God, referred as to Alawagan and other spirits all around, are factors in their abundant environmental resources. The spirits are acknowledged through a series of rituals performed at the appropriate time. Symbolic materials are used so that rituals will be effective and binding. Rituals are performed for their healing effect - be it physical, spiritual, or psychological. Of the many rituals among the Isnags, the most significant are the series related to their strong belief in the existence of spirits in the environment, which controls their way of life.
Specifically, in terms of the features and significance of the Isnag rituals, a comprehensive interview with a tribal leader referred as mengal was conducted on April 25-26, 2008. Interviewed was Sabina Abgao from Kumao, Kabugao, Apayao. The write-up was later presented for comments to the former Director of Agrarian Reform, Director Henry Aliten, who is a native of Calanasan, Apayao. A focus group discussion on Apayao was conducted for purposes of validation. It also validated the article, “Apayao: Home of the Isnag Tribe” by Miguel Vasquez, published in the Baguio Midland Courier on April 27, 2008. Part of the article discussed about Isnag rituals was specifically on Say-am and Pildap.
In this presentation, the series of five rituals in an agricultural ceremony are detailed for their features and significance. These five short individual rituals are performed before clearing the grassland for rice planting, before rice planting, before harvesting, before starting to eat the new harvested crop, and for abundance before a festivity. The procedures are described and prayers quoted for their significance. As a general guideline, after the performance of rituals related to agriculture and the environment, signs are always observed for the message they convey. For example, if after the ritual they observe that a colored bird crosses from left to right, it is a sign of good fortune; if the bird crosses from right to left, the probability is for the rice farm to be infested by rats.
The other two ceremonies described in Numbers 2 and 3 are two other important social community ceremonies, the Say-am and the Pildap. These rituals bind the Isnags as social beings. These are community ceremonies similar to other Igorots in the Cordillera where there is dancing, feasting on food, and chanting among the community people. These ceremonies are described for their purposes in general.
Rituals: Their Features and Significance
Agricultural and Environmental Rituals
1.1. Clearing the Grassland or Farm for Rice Planting
Significance in general: It is a belief that the ritual is a way of acknowledging and entrusting the farm to the Almighty known to the Isnags as Alawagan. If the ritual is performed correctly with sincerity and solemnity, the plants will outgrow the weeds.
1.1.1. On the first day before clearing the farm, an elder ritualist goes to the farm early in the morning to perform the ritual with betel nut leaf (gawed) and betel nut seed (bua).
Significance of betel nut plant: This is traced back to a folk story that there was once an unusual bird that carried a betel nut with a voice heard from nowhere such that the betel nut plant has to be used in sacred rituals. Until today, it is believed that the betel nut is the only designated plant for ritual purposes, which spirits of the land and plants accept.
1.1.2. The ritualist wraps the betel nut leaf and seed together with a paper and puts it at the base of a weed within the corner of the farm. He then uproots a single weed and recites a prayer such as this: “Apo Alawagan, tulungan nak nanguma, ta aduwam mo ya mangingi ya ammay o.”
Significance of prayer and the wrapped betel nut plants: To seek God’s help in controlling the weeds and in nurturing the plants. The wrapped betel nut plants left at the base of the weed is an indicator that a ritual was performed. So, when the spirits of the land and plant visit, they help maintain the farm by controlling the growth of weeds to something manageable.
1.1.3. The ritualist takes home the weeds he uprooted. He wraps the weeds in a paper and puts it atop a fireplace. The weeds will only be thrown by the next clearing period.
Significance of putting weeds atop a fireplace: It is kept away from moisture, and likened to the weeds in the farm where it was uprooted, it makes growth of other weeds impossible.
1.2. Ritual for Rice Planting in dry highland Riceland
1.2.1. An elder ritualist puts the rice seeds in a seed dispenser made of bamboo (tupang) tied to her waist then gets her long-handled planting trowel (sagwa) for planting.
1.2.2. On her way to the farm, she gets betel nut leaf and seed, and wraps it with paper then puts it in her tupang.
1.2.3. Upon reaching the farm that was cleared ready for planting, the ritualist performs a symbolic striking of the soil with her sagwa and followed with the symbolic dropping of the rice seeds while praying, “Our God Alawagan up above, look down on us and grant that this seed and all other seeds to be planted would all germinate and grow robust.”
1.2.4. Planting of the whole area follows.
1.2.5. After planting the area and before going home, the ritualist gets the wrapped betel nut leaf and seed and puts it at the entrance of the farm facing the river with his closing prayer: “Oh! God, we entrust the planted seeds to the spirits of the land and with God’s power, let no calamity pass. God, send your spirits to water the plants.”
In Isnag: “Apo, mabalinna in na nagmula ya uman ko. Iddi alla ikaw ya mangbantayin kagina.”
Significance of putting the wrapped betel nut leaf and seed and why facing the river: It is an indicator that God is acknowledged to help. By putting the wrapped betel nut leaf and seed facing the river, it indicates that the river was created by God for the plants to depend on for their survival.
1.3. Ritual of Rice Harvest
Significance of ritual in general: By performing this ritual, it is believed that with God’s blessings for abundance, the harvested rice will be enough to feed the family and even the community, when a community festivity is hosted.
1.3.1. An elder gets a takkad vine (like an ampalaya vine), rakem (palm-held gadget for harvesting rice panicles), aring (utility basket dispenser made of bamboo tied on the waist), thin bamboo binding strips, then betel nut leaf and seed.
1.3.2. Upon reaching the rice farm, the ritual is performed before all others start the harvesting. The elder ritualist ties three panicles of rice together with the takkad, puts the wrapped betel nut at the base of the tied panicles, then prays: “Apo Alawagan, ikaw babayahin bangosan, nga agam ammuhan, mangted makmakan. Id mo kada kami kaaduan, nga bagka ayayan.”
1.4. Ritual in Pounding Rice of the Newly Harvested Rice
1.4.1. The elder, who performs the ritual, brings out his bakuba (indigenous rice dispenser made out of matured gourd fruit). S/he pounds rice and puts it in the rice dispenser with an accompanying prayer: “God, bless this rice that it multiplies to feed the family and thousands from the community who come to attend any festivity.”
1.4.2. The rice in the dispenser is kept in a corner of the house. A small amount for cooking is taken from the dispenser. It should not be completely emptied until the next harvest when there will be a refill.
1.5. Ritual for Abundance before a Festivity
1.5.1. A little of the rice kept in the bakuba is cooked in a small pot during any celebration where visitors come to join in the eating.
1.5.2. Before the start of the festivity, a little of the cooked rice is scooped out and a small piece of cooked meat is wrapped with it. A prayer is said before it is placed above the fireplace. The prayer is: “Bless, Oh! Lord this food that it may be enough to feed many. We believe in your miracle that as we feast today, you make the food abundant for the hungry and may they go home filled and satisfied.”
Say-am is a significant religious ritual among the Isnags. It is a community affair attended by the villagers and those from nearby villages.
The say-am ceremony is performed as a cleansing ritual, if hosted by those who went for a period of mourning. At this point, the plants that were considered taboo for the mourners during the mourning period could now be harvested and eaten. In the prayers, it corroborates the Biblical phrases that there is a time for everything. While one mourns, there is an end to it.
Say-am ceremony, as a thanksgiving ritual, could also be hosted by a wealthy Isnag. It is highlighted with thanksgiving prayers as evidenced in the message of the given prayers. For this specific reason of the say-am, it highlights the essence of sharing one’s blessings. The host believes that in sharing, it returns a thousand fold or it advocates the idea that the more one shares, the more she is blessed.
The say-am is celebrated with dancing, reciting or chanting a prayer, eating, and wine drinking. Large animals like cattle and pigs are butchered for this purpose.
This is a community affair too and referred as say-am among the poor. Pildap is not as grand as the say-am described earlier. Smaller animals like dog or chicken are butchered for this celebration.
Pildap is performed to give significance to an event or for its healing effect. It is also performed by a family as a means to request prayers for good health, abundance and prosperity as they live in a new abode or house that a family is to occupy. Pildap is performed to give significance to the first haircut of a man as an adult.
When a member of the family is seriously ill and pildap is performed, it is a healing ritual.
More often, a pildap is performed as a reason to butcher a chicken or a dog for food of the community people, who volunteer to help in the farm - especially during house construction, rice planting, or rice harvesting. The practice is referred to as Bayanihan among the Filipinos in general. The volunteers are not paid but they have to be fed.
Significance of Say-am and Pildap
The people significantly perform the say-am or pildap, to acknowledge the Almighty for their health, their resources, and their life as they share food and resources. Say-am or pildap is adhered to among the Isnags as a venue to bind the community people in sickness or in health, in good times or bad times. With the say-am and pildap, it is an opportunity to rekindle friendship, unity and cooperation among the people as they dance, dine, and pray together.
This article appeared in the magazine, “Cordillera Rituals as A Way of Life” published by Igorot Cordillera BIMAAK Europe (ICBE). The magazine was presented during the 5th ICBE Consultation held in Valendar, Germany from 10-13 April 2009.