Isla, Lorenzo

The Voice of the Other[1]

By Lorenzo B. Isla for ACA 081 and ACA 084


The beginning of the third millennium marks the over-arching and dominating force of globalization.  It uses its political, economic, and cultural (ideological) machineries to rule the world. It moves ahead to the future by accommodating those who bow down, topple and destroy those who oppose, and leave to oblivion those who cannot go along with its set momentum. The force of globalization is totalitarian in nature and operates from the narrowest ideology marked by materialism and scientific determinism. It has provided the moral, technological, and ideological powers to subjugate all life-forms and the whole of creation. Globalization is a force leading to total annihilation.

However, the hope for a better tomorrow refuses to die. At the fringes of the global force are those who refuse to become part of the bandwagon and clamor instead for genuine freedom. Some of them are the indigenous peoples (IPs).  They are found all over the world. “Recent source estimates range from 300 million to 350 million as of the start of the 21st century. This would equate to just fewer than 6% of the total world population. This includes at least 5000 distinct peoples in over 72 countries.”[2] Interestingly, “almost 70% of the IPs are in the Asian and Pacific region.”[3]  Mercado describes the IPs as:

minority communities which are culturally and socially distinct from the mainstream societies by being closely attached to their territories, by the desire to preserve their cultural identity, by their own languages, beliefs and practices, by their distinct social and judicial systems.[4]

Neatly woven into these traits is the IPs’ prevalent notion of wisdom as life-giving. [5] Sad to say, the IPs’ efforts to live wisdom make them pay the price of living in economic poverty.[6]  Mainstream societies systematically impoverish and annihilate the IPs. Ironically, the IPs and their wisdom is what the modern world needs today in order to have a future. 

The need to revisit the world of the IPs and to learn from their wisdom is a fundamental step to ensure sustainable development and a meaningful future. As a response, this short paper will explore relevant elements of the IPs through a presentation of the atang [7] ritual with the hope that it will “contribute to the formation of a worldview and global ethic for sustainable future.”[8]  The study will take the first person perspective for the presenter himself belongs to an IP group and is a witness-participant of the subject matter. An exploration of the atang practice in the Philippines will be presented first followed by the exposition of the personal experience of the presenter. The third part will present elements of the atang that could help develop a cosmic consciousness for the integrity of all creation.

Atang in the Philippines

Atang, a food offering to the spirits, marks important events (among others) like birthday, marriage, burial,[9] in several ethnic groupings in the Philippines. It is a common practice of the Ilocano speaking people located in the northern part of the island of Luzon. Dumagat affirms this by saying that the Ilocanos offer atang for nine days after burial.[10] In similar manner, the Bicolanos at the southern part of the same island practice atang. “The baliana (priestess)…perform(ed) the atang for Gugurang (Supreme Bikol god) with the soraque or sorake as religious hymn during the tinagba, a ceremony wherein the community’s first fruits and harvests are being offered.”[11]  The practice of atang by these two great IP aggrupations in the Philippines manifest a life-way that sets a mode of awareness shared among themselves and to other people in the geographic areas of influence.

A Personal Encounter

I had several actual experiences of atang with my father during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. I was an adolescent then, and understanding it by hindsight, my father was actually initiating me into a long standing tradition of the Bago Tribe.[12]  I always accompanied my father to do the atang every late afternoon of the day before the actual rice harvest. With the usual materials such as a small table, several cooking utensils, cooked rice, rice wine, tobacco, water, candle, and a live chicken, we would position ourselves in a corner of the rice field for the atang. We first put a bamboo pole of about 1.5 meters at the chosen spot and tie rice stalks to it. The act creates a small clearing just enough to place the small table beside the pole. With their proper containers, we would put on the table water, tobacco, and rice wine. After this, we would sit in front of the table and keep silent for few moments. This would be followed by the invocation of the spirits to come and partake of the event (see Appendix).  Those spirits called are those of the departed relatives (elders, brothers and sisters, and all relatives) and the spirits of everything around like water, air, soil, rice etc. They are invited to enjoy the food offering and be one with the rest of creation. The atang experience momentarily placed me in a different dimension overwhelmed by the sense of communion with the rest of creation. Though the atang experience was momentary, its meaning lasts forever. The atang for me is a potent material in developing a planetary ethic.

Atang and the Development of a Planetary Ethic

Atang is a constitutive component of several IP cultures in the Philippines and carries with it a consciousness helpful in the development, promotion, and nurturance of a planetary ethic. To articulate this consciousness, the following discussion will present some of the characteristic elements of atang and their possible contributions in the planetary ethic project.

Characteristic of the atang ritual is its capacity to attune the human being into an “awareness of the integral and whole relationship of symbolic and material life”[13] in the universe. During the ritual, I had the sense that everything around was vibrantly alive. And even after the rite, it has made me aware of the sense of communion with the rest of creation. The rite evokes a consciousness aware of the interrelatedness between and among those that constitute the bioregion. Specifically, the whole rite (cf. Appendix) emphasizes the relatedness and communion of the human being not only with the spirits of the deceased relatives but also with the elemental spirits of the earth. Atang beacons what the globalized world needs to realize today: the “integrity of all reality as well as the intimate relations maintained with the natural world.”[14]

Another interesting element in atang as manifested in my actual experience and by the Bicolanos is its potential to effectively connect the human being with the Supreme Being. This is typically an oriental phenomenon. Fritjof Capra states:

The central aim of Eastern mysticism is to experience all the phenomena in the world as manifestations of the same ultimate reality. This reality is seen as the essence of the universe, underlying and unifying the multitude of things and events we observe. The Hindus call it Brahman, the Buddhists Dharmakaya (the body of Being) or Tathata (Suchness) and the Taoists Tao; each affirming that it transcends our intellectual concepts and defies further explanation. This ultimate essence however cannot be separated from its multiple manifestations. It is central to the very nature to manifest itself in myriad forms which come into being and disintegrate, transforming themselves into one another without end.[15]

Atang, as one of the many oriental rituals, ushers a sense of the Supreme Being who is completely immanent in creation yet beyond full comprehension. I had the sense that the Supreme Being presents itself with a distinct identity and at the same time express itself in and through other spirits and elements of the earth as they together partake of the atang banquet. The event could be conceived of as a celebration of communion and unity – a cosmic banquet that highlights the beauty, life, and integrity of the creator and the creature. The atang offers to the modern world a perspective to break the walls of anthropocentrism and rigid scientific determinism to a plethora of open meaning systems where the spirit of life flows freely towards endless possibilities. 

A third characteristic element of the atang comes from itself as an expression of a life-way with reverence to nature. From the form of the ritual, it conveys the notion of supernatural beings believed by many Filipinos “to be in trees, in mounds, and even inside their homes.”[16]  The recognition of the presence of spirits in all biotic and abiotic elements of the earth engenders reverence of creation by the human being.  This psyche which forms part of the culture could foster friendship and offer a counter discourse to the subject-object relation between nature and the human being.

Ultimately, all the presented elements of atang and other elements not mentioned in this paper, form part of the noosphere[17] as the noogenesis of the cosmos continues a manifold expression and life-giving possibilities for the present and the future. The atang is a voice of the other that could help produce rhythm and music to realize a real display of the cosmic dance.[18] 

[1] Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1997) 93.

[2] Indigenous Peoples, Wikipedia 15 Sep.

[3] Leonardo N. Mercado, Spirituality in Creation: According to Selected Philippine Indigenous Peoples 

  (Philippines: Logos Publications, Inc., 1998) 2.

[4] Mercado 1-2.

[5] Mathew Fox, Original Blessing: A Primer in Christian Spirituality Presented in Four Paths, Twenty-six Themes and

   Two Questions (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bear and Company, 1983) 9.

[6] Mercado 6.

[7] Atang is a food offering to the spirits.

[8] Sr. Ann Braudis, “Asian Values and Creation Spirituality”. Course Outline. 1st Sem. A.Y. 2006-2007.

[9] Dominic, Neil, “Ilocano Beliefs” 15 Sep. 1999


[10] Fay Dumagat, “Soul and Spirits” 15 Sep. 2006

[11] The Daily Tribune, “Atang” 15 Sep. 2006

[12] Bago Tribe is considered the Igorots of the Ilocanos. Distinctive of their culture is the combination of the

    cultures of the  Ilocanos and Igorots. The presenter belongs to the Bago Tribe.

[13] Grim, John A, “Indigenous Traditions and Ecology”, Earth Ethics, Fall 1998, Vol. 10 No.1, 12.

[14] Grim 12.

[15] Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern

    Mysticism (Berkeley, California: Shambhala Publications, 1975) 210.

[16] Provincial Government of Ilocos Sur, “Belifs and Practices” 15 Sep. 2003

[17] Ursula King, Spirit of Fire: The Life and Vision of Teilhard de Chardin (Maryknol, New York: Orbis

    Books, 1996) 88-89.

[18] Joyce Rupp and Mary Southard, The Cosmic Dance: An Invitation to Experience Our Oneness (New York:

    Orbis Books, 2002) 21.