Marking the Unknown: tattooing, marriage, and the story of the Ologasi among the Pantaron Manobo of the Philippines
The Pantaron Manobo tell stories of a giant called the Ologasi. Besides being a mythic figure, the Ologasi acts to mark a limit to what is known in crucial domains of their society. This blog explores how Manobo tattooing and marriage practices are ways by which life’s uncertainties can be faced.
It was my aunt who tattooed me. People said that, if you weren’t tattooed, the Ologasi will eat you. The Ologasi was a huge person. They said that if he came to our place, he’d bring his dog with him. Then they said that the Ologasi will look at our bellies, or here at our arms, to see if you have your tattoos.
It was a humid afternoon in the Haran evacuation center in Davao City, and Indang* (in her late teens) and I were sitting on a makeshift porch when she told me the story about how she was tattooed. I had initially planned to continue my study of Pantaron Manobo tattooing in their highland communities in southern Mindanao in the Philippines, but recent political events had overtaken me and my interlocutors: at the time of my fieldwork they had again become bakwit (a vernacular term derived from “evacuate”), or internally-displaced people. In the evacuation center, survival was the immediate daily concern, and practices like tattooing had been sidelined. Making the best of the unusual situation, I set out instead to learn more about tattooing through discussing personal experiences and memories.
Like many of her fellow Manobo, Indang explained why she was tattooed by telling me about the giant called Ologasi that would eat you if you weren’t tattooed. In her early teens when she first heard the tale, Indang had been sufficiently frightened so that she—along with her other age-mates who had also heard the story—decided the very next day to get tattooed. For girls it was horizontal bands around the belly, and for boys it was lines across the forearms, like bracelets. The process was painful, and some of them cried. But her aunt made jokes and teased them through it, cajoling them to get a few inked strokes more, and complimenting them afterwards. When they were all finished, Indang and her friends marveled at themselves and compared their tattoos. Some had a few more lines than others, but they all went away with a sense of pride at what they had achieved. They prevailed over their fear by making a decision about their bodies and enduring the pain of being marked.
It was the sister of the epic hero Tolalang who said to the Ologasi, “if the person is tattooed, don’t you touch her because she is my companion, she is my sister.” Tolalang’s sister and the Ologasi were married, you see, and they have an agreement. She told the Ologasi, “if you ever come to the world below the skies, if you ever kill someone with tattoos, I will leave this marriage because it’s like you have killed me as well, because I too, am tattooed.” That’s what Tolalang’s sister said.
Indang continued the story she had heard from her elders. The reason why the Ologasi does not eat tattooed persons was because he was married to the sister of Tolalang, a Manobo epic hero. In Manobo epic tradition, female characters do not have names. But that did not stop them from being major players in narratives, as with Tolalang’s sister who is not only able to make demands on a creature as fearsome as the Ologasi, but even threatens to leave him should his behaviour displease her.
In his classic study of Polynesian tattooing, Alfred Gell stated that “the description of tattooing practices becomes, inevitably, a description of the wider institutional forms within which tattooing was embedded.” Keeping this in mind helped assuage my anxiety at the start of fieldwork when it became clear that I could not wholly stick to my original plan. Through firsthand documentation of tattooing was no longer possible, I expanded the inquiry to include what such Manobo “institutional forms” were. Could the marriage between the Ologasi and Tolalang’s sister be a clue?
‘The Land With No Death’
Tolalang’s sister got married to the Ologasi when Tolalang and his kin went on the journey to “the land with no death.” At the portal, the Ologasi told Tolalang, you may only pass if you leave your younger sister behind with me. And that’s why Tolalang left her behind so that the rest can continue with their journey.
Like the marriage between the Ologasi and Tolalang’s sister, most Manobo adults told me that their marriages were arranged by elders. This was done through marriage negotiations and the giving of gifts between kin members in a process that could extend well beyond the actual wedding day. Though both getting tattooed and getting married were periods of tension and anxiety, unlike tattooing marriage left some Manobo adults (especially women) with the feeling of having lost the ability to decide for oneself. Some expressed resignation at their parents’ decision, a few were even scared of their new partners.
How can we then explain this seeming paradox of how tattooing at youth would inculcate a sense of autonomy, only to remove it at marriage later on? Could it be that, as in the story of Tolalang and the rest of his kin being able to journey to “the land with no death,” marriage was a matter of family and community welfare?
The Ologasi and the Unknown
Well, my grandfather told us that the Ologasi, this giant, is really the government. So you need to be marked, and if you had this symbol that you were a Manobo, you had to be respected.
Most tattooing stories I exchanged with my interlocutors began with the Ologasi, and it is here where I return in the end. Though the Ologasi seemed at first to only be a fictional character, talking more about it revealed that it became associated with different things at different times. Older Manobo were warned against attending school because that was where the Ologasi lay in wait with a pot to cook you in. They were also discouraged from learning Bisaya, the vernacular of southern Mindanao, because Bisaya-speaking lowlanders were said to be in league with the Ologasi. And more recently, another Manobo teen named Samin* told me that according to her grandfather, the giant was actually the government.
Adhering closely to the stories they share, these iterations of the Ologasi did evoke properties of a gigantic creature: powerful, overwhelming, potentially dangerous. They marked the unknown for Manobo society in particular historical moments. But, if handled well, they could also mark what is possibly adaptive and enriching. My interlocutors today are ardent about acquiring formal education, and they are enthusiastic to learn not just Bisaya, but also the national language Filipino, as well as English. Following the story of Tolalang’s sister, the practice of tattooing – which inculcated a sense of personal pride and autonomy, and marriage – which emphasized community, indicated ways by which the Ologasi can be domesticated, negotiated with, and even integrated and brought over to one’s side.
Back in the evacuation center, there were no guarantees about the results of evacuees’ engagement with the Philippine government. But then again, the Ologasi (as the marker of the unknown) is not about naming guarantees. Thoughtful, epic-inspired narratives from Indang and her peers helped me glimpse such a design in life. In the intimate experiences of undergoing painful body markings (tattooing), and in acquiring strange partners (marrying), the Ologasi worked to simply mark, concretely as an image, such potential lines of existential pivots – points where one faces a demand to bravely think for one’s own self and one’s community.
*Names are pseudonyms
Acknowledgement: This research is is under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Pieter ter Keurs and Dr. Erik de Maaker, and is supported by the National Geographic Society’s Early Career Grant (Grant No. EC-KOR-45049R-18) and the Faculty, REPS and Administrative Staff Development Program (FRASDP) of the University of the Philippines-System.