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The Santo Niño de Cebu and it's Pagan Origins

Updated on November 30, 2017

When you visit Cebu and the rest of the Philippines, you will find that most homes, business establishments and even private or government offices keep a little baroque style statue of a boy king around somewhere. The image stands on top of a circular base pedestal, clothed with rich fabrics in red(symbol for blood) or sometimes green (for luck), wears golden jewelry such as a gilded neck chain and bears Spanish imperial regalia including a gold crown holding a scepter and a globus cruciger in his hands. This figure was brought by the Spaniards and is known as the Santo Niño.

But way back in pre-Spanish times, similar wooden idols were placed on multiple areas of the community by the early Filipinos and venerated as guardians, protectors and pagan deities.

The Lianito Idol

The Animist people of the Visayas region worshiped a time god known as Kanlaon/Laon, equivalent to the creator god Bathala of the Tagalogs. He was the supreme deity in the Visayan pantheon, but relatively distant. In order to bridge the gap, the ancient people replaced mediators such as nature-based minor deities, diwatas(fairies and elementals) and anitos(ancestral spirits) who are supposed to dispense blessings and abundance on a family or society. Sound familiar?

These "Anito" spirits are usually an old ancestor who was known to have lived a virtuous life when they were alive. Due to the fact that they were known in life, they were venerated after death much like the origins of household elves in many other cultures around the world. Each house in ancient Visayas was supposed to carry a "larawan"(image) or "tawu tawu"(idols) made out of wood, stone, gold or ivory whom the family pay honor in remembrance of the dead. They are offered with food or flowers and 'pag-anito'(worship) daily to ensure a continuous flow of blessings upon them.

pre-colonial lianito idol
pre-colonial lianito idol

When the head of the family dies(either mother of father), everyone in the village will help make an idol, they will carve out a child-like image, usually androgynous(to further symbolize gender-equality) and always smiling. They would call it "Lianito", the collective embodiment of the ancestor spirit of a family and territory. Then they would dress the doll and adorn it with gold and would place the image among the other idols. Some had a hundred idols, each representing a dead ancestor.

wooden "bulul" idols
wooden "bulul" idols

The Lianito idols today are mainly called "Bulul" by the Ifugao and Igorot people of northern Luzon and placed on farm fields to guard the rice crops. But nowadays they are commonly manufactured as souvenirs for tourist purposes. Bululs are used in ceremonies associated with rice production and healing, with fertility symbols such as the mortar for the female and pestle for the male, or sometimes depicted with loincloth for males and wrap skirts for females known as "tapis". Although the form varies, the bulul is commonly represented as seated on the ground, with arms crossed over his upraised knees.

Baptism and Betrayal

The original image of the Santo Niño de Cebu was a gift from Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian chronicler and one of the scribes of Ferdinand Magellan, given to Hara Humamay, the royal consort of Rajah Humabon, chieftain of Cebu in 1521 as a token of friendship and allegiance to Spain. The queen, known by another name as Amihan (Northeast Monsoon) converted to Catholicism and renounced her animist ways and was baptized with a new Christian name Juana (after Joane of Castille, mother of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V). She was the daughter of Rajamuda Lumaya a.k.a. Sri Lumay, originally a native prince of Sumatra sent by the ruling maharaja in Indonesia to establish a forward base in the Philippine islands who rebelled to build his own kingdom.

the baptism of Cebuanos
the baptism of Cebuanos

Queen Juana loved the image so much that it was even reported that as she received the figure, she was overjoyed and wept, bathing the statue with her tears as she is hugging it. After her baptism, eight hundred other Cebuanos were also baptized and were given an image of the Virgin Mary, a crucifix and Ecce Homo, a bust depiction of Jesus before Pontius Pilate.

painting of Queen Juana by artist Manuel Panares
painting of Queen Juana by artist Manuel Panares

The captain on that occasion approved of the gift which I had made to the queen of the image of the Infant Jesus, and recommended her to put it in the place of her idols, because it was a remembrance of the Son of God. She promised to do all this, and to keep it with much care.

— Antonio Pigafetta

But the Spaniards underestimated the power of the animist faith, as it is deeply ingrained within the people. A few days later after the conversion of the tribe, Magellan was shocked to discover that the king and queen still kept their pagan idols and was astounded to realize that not only animist shrines present in every homes but can also be found in fields and even in grave sites. The queen perhaps readily accepted the Santo Niño because it looked more regal and refined unlike the wooden larawans with tusks that looked old and grimy.

Magellan went on to become Humabon's champion and battled against Datu Lapu-Lapu of Mactan island and got himself killed. The Spanish forces retreated back to Humabon, unaware that the repudiation of the newfound faith has already started among the Cebuanos, abandoning Catholicism in favor of the old religion. On May 1, 1521, Humabon ordered the massacre of the Spanish survivors by poison during a banquet feast, and some of them--Pigafetta included, escaped back to Europe and nothing was documented about what happened to the Santo Niño image.

The Rediscovery

The next Spanish expedition arrived on April 27, 1565, again to gain foothold for a colony to trade spices, and this was led by Miguel López de Legazpi. He found the natives hostile and fearing retribution for Magellan’s death. After a failed attempt for peaceful colonization, he opened fire on Cebu and burnt the coastal town down destroying 1500 homes and possibly killing five hundred people. The village was burned to the ground during the ensuing conflict. In the ruins of this destruction, a Spanish mariner named Juan de Camuz, who was also a soldier in Legazpi's fleet found the image of the Santo Niño in a pine box of a burnt nipa hut(which is where the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño now stands).

The anniversary commemorating the rediscovery of the Santo Nino of Cebu is known as "kaplag"(finding).
The anniversary commemorating the rediscovery of the Santo Nino of Cebu is known as "kaplag"(finding).

The survival of the statue was seen as a sign of miracle by the colonizers, and ever since it has been believed to have miraculous powers. Camus presented the image to Legazpi and the Augustinian priests but the natives refused to associate it with the gift of Magellan, claiming it had existed there since ancient times.

A possible explanation has been hypothesized that the image of the Sto. Niño may have been introduced through traders from China. The theory branches into speculation when it suggests that a Chinese artisan may have reproduced the images brought from Franciscans who visited during, and after the time of Marco Polo in the late 13th to early 14th century. There is no disputing there were Chinese traders but somehow this image made its way to Cebu.

It's rediscovery was later construed as an auspicious sign by Legazpi to continue subjugating Cebu and the entire archipelago for the Spanish crown. A church to house the Santo Niño was built on the spot where the image was found, originally made out of bamboo and mangrove palm. It was reconstructed later and claims to be the oldest parish in the Philippines.

the Santo Nino Church in the 1800's
the Santo Nino Church in the 1800's

At about two arquebus-shots from the Spanish town of Santisimo Nombre de Jesus,(thus called because an image of the child Jesus, of the time of Magallanes(Magellan) had been found there, and was held in great reverence by the Indians), is a village of the natives belonging to the royal crown, with about eight hundred Indians. The commander Miguel Lopez de Legazpi exempted this community from paying tribute; for they had always taken sides with the Spaniards, and had helped them.

— Miguel de Loarca, Relacion de las Yslas Filipinas 1582

The New Rain Deity

According to Filipino historian Nicomedes Marquez Joaquin as stated in his works in 1980; when the Spanish conquistadores came once more 44 years later, they discovered that there was a new god in the pantheon of the Visayans. The new deity is in the form of a child whom they call Santonilyo, obviously a corruption of the Spanish title. Santonilyo is both an old god 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 his 1565 book “Conquistas de las Islas Filipinas", that during drought, the ancient Cebuanos would bathe the image in the sea. The practice of immersing the sacred image is also mentioned in the Sto. Niño’s Gozos (prayer hymn) published in an 1888 novena.

“Cun ulan ang pangayoon, Ug imong pagadugayon. Dadad-on ca sa baybayon, Ug sa dagat pasalomon. Ug dayon nila macuha Ang ulan nga 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."

However, Santonilyo's fame is already widespread among the other islands of the Visayas, reaching as far as Mindoro, Panay, Negros, Bohol, Siquijor, Samar and Leyte. The name Santonilyo is also mentioned by Felipe Landa Jocano, anthropologist and author of "Filipino Value System", as one of the Upper world deities along with Ribung Linti (the god of thunder and lightning) who assisted Tungkung Langit (the creator god of Panay) in the creation myth known as the "Sulod" Epics.

"santonilyo" by James Squeegool on deviantart
"santonilyo" by James Squeegool on deviantart
Santonilyo also appeared as one of the characters in the TV show "Indio", played by child actor Kyle Jimenez
Santonilyo also appeared as one of the characters in the TV show "Indio", played by child actor Kyle Jimenez

The Legend of Santonilyo Agipo

In connection, there is also an existing local legend that Santonilyo was said to have reached the islands when a fisherman caught a piece of "agipo" (a stump or driftwood). It is told, long before the coming of the Spaniards, a native went out to sea but could not catch any fish the whole day.

Finally he felt a weight in his net and brought it in only to discover that it caught nothing but a piece of driftwood. Dismayed, he threw it back into the sea. Soon after, he felt another tug in his line but realized it was the same piece of wood. Over and over he would catch the agipo and then dump it back to sea only to catch it again.

Tired and angry, he decided to keep the driftwood in his boat. Like magic, fish flocked towards his boat and he returned to his village with a bountiful catch. The natives soon discovered that this piece of wood had other magical powers. They could use it as a scarecrow to keep the birds and animals away from drying grains. In times of drought they only had to immerse it in the sea and the rains would come.

It was then that this agipo became an idol in their pantheon, and like the venerated Holy Child, Santonilyo is also prayed for graces. And so the Lianito idol also became called Lisantonilyo.

Santo Niño, Patron of Cebu

This little figure made of dark wood with the Roman Catholic title Santo Niño(Holy Child) is the image of Jesus as a little boy venerated as miraculous by many Filipino Catholics and considered to be the oldest Christian relic of the country. Today it is housed in the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu, after receiving papal recognition on April 28, 1965 by Pope Paul VI and Canonical Coronation of the statue that raised the church to a minor basilica status on it's 400th anniversary in the place where it was rediscovered a few feet away from the cross erected by Magellan himself as a sign of Spanish conquest. The image has historically attracted devotional worship in the Philippines. Processions are made, with numerous Filipino pilgrims touching or kissing the foot of the image's stand.

This is the scenario during the "Fiesta Senor"
This is the scenario during the "Fiesta Senor"

There is an annual feast every third Sunday of January, followed by dancing in the streets known as Sinulog Festival. Sinulog is a type of traditional ritualistic dance performed during processions in ancient times by the natives in honor of the figurine while carrying torches known locally as "sulog", hence the name comes from. Today, it is the grandest and the most well-known festival in the Philippines.

According to Alonso de Mentrida who wrote the "Vocabulario de la Lengua Bisaya-Hiligueina y Haraya de las Isla de Panay",1637 and Juan Felix de la Encarnacion, the author of "Diccionario Bisaya-Español" in 1851, this particular icon was given the name "bathala", the general name for icons of animistic spirits. Bathala is of course a name known to be rooted in deep Philippine animism: compare 'bathala' of the Tagalog and the Bicolanos, 'batala' of the Pampangos, and 'badla' of the Mandayas. But the modern Cebuanos call him simply as Señor Santo Niño.

There are few other images around the world considered to be similar with the Santo Niño of Cebu, such as the Infant Jesus of Prague in Czech Republic, the Santo Niño de Atocha in Madrid, Spain, the stolen Santo Bambino di Ara Coeli in Rome, Italy and the Santo Niño de Palaboy of Mexico. But the most popular theory is that it has an identical twin known as the Santissimo Gesu de Malines a.k.a. the Infant Jesus of Mechelen (a former part of Southern Netherlands) now displayed in the infamous Louvre Museum in France. It is believed that both statues originated from the same European source: Belgium. And according to a hagiography based on a vision of Teresa of Avila, a 16th century mystic and saint, the Santo Niño de Cebu image was originally produced particularly by Flemish artisans.

the Infant Jesus of Mechelen
the Infant Jesus of Mechelen

Both the Mechelen statue and the Santo Niño de Cebu are the same height at approximately 30 cm (12 inches) tall, while having similar characteristics such as the standing pose, naked body, hand blessing gesture and golden globes. The facial structures and expressions are almost exactly similar to one another with the following exceptions:

  • In published photographs, the Mechelen statue looks frontal and towards in a direct line, while the Cebu statue looks in a downward direction to the devotee.
  • The Cebu statue's fingers lean to the left, while that of the Mechelen statue points to the right. The original wooden fingers however point upwards when the golden glove is removed.
  • The Mechelen statue's hair is sculpted all the way to the knape or close to the neckline, while the Cebu statue looks like it is only up to the earlobes.

the original Santo Nino de Cebu given by Magellan
the original Santo Nino de Cebu given by Magellan

Heritage worker Ernesto Chua tried to ascertain if the image venerated at the Basilica shrine is the original one by interviewing different personalities. The research revealed that during the colonial period, the image of the Santo Niño was painted black, like the many darkly hued icons in many parts of the country such as the Black Nazarene of Quiapo, Our Lady of Good Voyage in Antipolo, and the Virgen de la Regla in Lapu-Lapu City in Mactan. Even in Europe, dark Marian images are venerated as well. Perhaps this was a way to make the natives relate with the image and to draw it more closer to the people.

According to writer Rosa Tenazas in her book published by the University of San Carlos in Cebu City, it was a certain friar of the convent of Santisimo Nombre de Jesus who painted the image black in the early 19th century.

During World War II when the Philippines was occupied by Japanese and American troops, a bomb fell on the Santo Niño church(before it was a basilica) but did not explode. The image was found unscathed, hanging near the altar. The Augustinians then brought the image to the Redemptorist convent for safekeeping.

By the end of the second World War, the image was restored to its original color. An Augustinian priest asked a Belgian nun of St. Theresa’s College to wipe clean the face of the image. Part of the black paint was scraped off, revealing the original fair complexion. When the image was returned to the church after the war, the Augustinians commissioned anthropologist Dr. Mimi Trosdal to restore the image to its original color and scraped off the black paint between 1948 and 1949.

Because of the original icon’s antiquity, only replicas are used during the fluvial parade and the foot procession held a day before the Sinulog Mardi Gras. Security also comes to play as the original image is adorned with precious stones and real golden jewelry which is why the shrine is enclosed in bulletproof glass.

Pagan or Christian?

The pagan legacy of the icon is on full display and the Santo Niño may also have taken on mythical status by this time. The Santo Niño became the official patron of Cebu, much like Santonilyo was the idol and deity of graces before the mass conversion to Catholicism. So strong that the Church in the Philippines needed to suppress it and clarify that it is not a representation of a saint that intercedes to God but rather of God himself (specifically, Jesus Christ). Regardless, the vendors outside the Basilica del Santo Niño will readily tell you that the Sto. Niño is a patron and will bring good fortune.

The name Santonilyo may have been clear from the start as evidence of the influence of the Catholic religion had on pagan beliefs, but I think it is more a study on how pagan beliefs influenced Catholicism in the Philippines. Catholicism after all, as most people refused to accept, is a remnant of Pagan worship. In fact, those who are untouched by Spanish influence still offer pag-anito despite the country having the largest Christian percentage among the nations in the Southeast Asia.

Being raised in the Roman Catholic faith myself, I don't think its an issue whether the Santo Niño owes its popularity to the pagan idols or the rain deity of the early polytheist Filipinos. What mattered to me is that it strengthened the faith of the people and helped build our own national identity, which is why the image is easily accepted and loved by the natives still to this day. Similarly, I see no good reason why the appropriation of Santo Niño from Santonilyo should be seen as anything other than a Native development.


Philippines of Old: Santonilyo

Santonilyo: God of Blessings

Santonilyo and the Cultural Appropriation of Santo Nino


Santo Nino de Cebu: The Eternal King of the Philippines

The Story of Parian sa Sugbu

Paganism in Cebu


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