Agta - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Agta are animists, although some of their beliefs have been modified by Roman Catholicism and, more recently, by Protestant missionaries. In contrast to most traditional animists, however, the Agta do not take their religion very seriously. There is a lack of systematic beliefs in their religion, and it takes a secondary place in their ideology, exerting less control over their daily lives than is usual among tribal peoples. Agta hold to a strong belief in a spirit world containing many classes of supernatural beings. Depending on the class of spirit, these beings are said to reside in trees, underground, on rocky headlands, or in caves. There are two general classes of these beings: hayup (creature) and belet 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 types of hayup. These nonhumans are bipedal, and may appear in human form. Agta view these as having some influence over processes of nature, health, and the economic success or failure of humans. Most hayup are malignant, others are neutral, and a few can be called upon for help in curing disease.

Religious Practitioners. In northern Aurora, 8 percent of the Casiguran Agta adults are shamans, of whom one in five is a woman. These religious practitioners do 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 sorcery.

Ceremonies. 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 sung in a form of glossolalia, not in the normal Agta language. They do not have a sacrificial system, as do other Philippine animistic societies, but they do sometimes 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 drops of honey, or 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 and food. Herbal medicinal treatments, séances, and simple sacrifices are the only religious ceremonies.

Arts. Agta women weave baskets and sleeping mats, and men make many types of fine arrow. Permanent body decorations consist of designed scarring on the back (and sometimes the chest) and teeth filing. Their traditional music consists of singing solos, using a three-tone scale, and the use of three types of simple musical instruments: a simple stringed instrument, a bamboo Jew's harp, and hunting bows, which they sometimes strum. They have no custom of dancing.

Death and Afterlife. Agta have only a vague and casual interest in the afterlife, the realm of the dead, immortality, or the future; nor do they seek religious experiences. They do have a great fear of death, and it is the fear of sickness and death that activates Agta religious behavior.

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