For today’s generations, the moryonan of Marinduque may remind them of cosplay or costume play, a role-playing subculture that most likely started in 1990s, part of popular culture in Japan, in which participants wear costumes of characters from Japanese comics and cartoons as well as from other popular sources. But the moryonan is much older and focuses on just one type of the character, the Roman soldier during Biblical times. Additionally, it has more serious meanings for participants, at least in its early days.
This year marked my first encounter of the moryonan, which has become an iconic Philippine practice, and instantly I became enamored of it. The moryonan is unique to this island province, about 250 kilometers southeast of Metro Manila, at the southern edges of Tagalog country.
The Tagalogs of central Luzon most likely have the richest Lenten traditions among the Christianized ethnic groups of the Philippines. The capital and melting pot, Metro Manila, dramatically slows down and relatively quiet during Holy Week, but the surrounding and nearby provinces, predominantly Tagalog, such as Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Marinduque, become alive with different practices, rites and customs, many them shared and common among them and several are unqiue. Most of them a blend Western Catholic traditions, old folk practices and homegrown inventions.
The Holy Week celebration in Marinduque starts in the early morning of Palm Sunday with hosanahan, processions in which parishioners carry palaspas or palm fronds, commemorating Jesus Christ’s entry to Jerusalem, as narrated in the Bible. This is followed by a holy mass.
On Holy Monday, the moryons start showing up in the streets and plazas of all the six towns of Marinduque — Boac, Mogpog, Gasan, Santa Cruz, Torrijos and Buenavista. I arrived midweek, on Holy Wednesday, surrounded by moryons. At the town plaza of Mogpog, the masks and headresses were arrayed as moryons registered for the pagmomoryon.
Moryons are the townspeople who wear moryon costumes, portaying Roman centurions or soldiers during Biblical times, closely associated with reenactment of Roman soldier Longinus’s (locally called Longino) martyrdom. They march or roam the streets twice a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, during the oppressive of the summer. Like other Catholic practices and rituals, pagmomoryon is an act of penitence or penance, a show of gratitude or a way of asking for blessings, adding to several Lenten practices introduced by Spanish friars such as the sinakulo or passion play, and pabasa or the reading of the passion of Christ, which are said to have started in the early 1700s.
Many locals recognize that the moryonan started in 1870s in the town of Mogpog, then a barrio of Boac, by then parish priest Dionisio Santiago. Others say it started with a farmer in the village of San Isidro in Mogpog. They recall that in the early days, there were only three moryons. One was Longinus, with a mask depicting one eye blind, and another called Kapitan, who decapitates Longinus. Moryon is derived from the 16th century helmet morion, which has become iconic morion with popular depictions of early Spanish explorers and conquistadors. It is likely that morions were used as part of the costumes before they developed their own helmets and headresses.
Before long, other townspeople took up pagmomoryon. The original moryon characters had masks carved from wood, thus the term “moryong kahoy,” while the others were common soldiers, wore papier-mache masks and were called “moryong papel.” In those times, townspeople were not able to identify who the participants were behind the masks. Moryons were careful to hide their identity. Locals tell that they hid their masks and costumes in mountains and fields and returned them surreptitiously to don them when Holy Week arrives. Their arrival was announced by the beating of the kalutang, a native bamboo instument.
Friends from Marinduque remember childhoods spent with the moryons. They roamed the streets and were feared by children, who taunted them: “Moryon bungi,/may tae sa binti./Hinabol ng pari./Takbo pauwi.” The moryons would chase them off, and many children would cry from fear, but parents would let them be.
Now, children themselves are also participating as well as women when before only men do the moryon. Pagmomoryon is often passed down to children. Participants have been increasing through the years. In Boac on one Holy Wednesday, more than 300 people participated while in Mogpog there are about 200.
Over the years, different styles in the masks, which are now all made of wood, and costumes also developed. There is a difference in the headdresses between the moryons of Boac and Mogpog. The Mogpog moryons are more colorful, crowned with flowers made of palara or any shiny paper, which represent the number of years a moryon will carry on with the panata or vow. On the other hand, the Boac moryon costumes have the galea, the Roman centurion helmet which is marked by a crest, which made of horse hair, bird feathers or bristles of synthetic materials.
Moreover, the Boac moryon masks are said to be more handsome, while those in Mogpog are fiercer. In Gasan, they can be grotesque, almost like the face of the devil.
Costumes have become elaborate over the years with the coming in of new materials and styles inspired by Hollywood movies of Biblical stories. The additions of embellishments are reminiscent of the adornments of the Philippine jeepney, showing the floridness of folk sense of designs. There are now brestplates, most of them shiny, made from metals or fiberglass, showing well-defined torsos with visible abs and chests.
War skirts and sandals are made of strips of leather or leatherette. Capes range from velvety to furry.
Moryons have become fixture during Holy Week, participating in many events such as processions, passion plays and reenactments.
The Sinakulo in Boac
The sinakulo, the folk dramatization of the passion of Jesus, mounted during the Holy Week in many parts of the country, usually starts on Holy Wednesday in many towns of Marinduque.
In the capital town of Boac, it was mounted at the Boac Morion Arena, constructed on the bed of the Boac River, reclaimed for the sinakulo and other activities. It was an expansive stage, taking up half of the open-air theater’s periphery. Half of the stage is of natural geologic formations such as a low hill with grass growing, used for outdoor scenes. The main stage was meant to look like a palace. An artifial cave was put up beside the hill.
The sinakulo started with the story of Adam and Eve, who are the first ones to have sinned, and Old Testament prophesies, tracing the history of salvation. On the second night, the play included scenes such as Jesus’s miracles, His betrayal, the Last Supper and the suicide of Judas. Dialogues were recorded and the actors lip-synced.
While the sinakulo is ongoing at the arena, there was a trade fair and tiangge at the adjacent area and next to it an entertainment area where people can eat and drink while watching live band performances. I felt ambivalent about the drinking and live entertainement because they destroy the solemn mood and traditions of the Holy Week.
According to Jing-Jing Garcia Loto, tourism officer of Boac, these were run by the “local association of business owners in Marinduque for the benefit of the local business and to provide another entertainment for tourists visiting Marinduque.”
The Church requested a suspension of the entertainment at least for two days, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
The Via Crucis
The Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) reenacts Jesus Christ’s carrying of the cross to Calvary, going through fourteen “stations.” In Boac, it continued the story of the sinakulo via a street processsion. It started at half pass ten in the morning at the Morion Arena. In last night’s episode of the sinakulo, Jesus was brought to Pontius Pilate, who let the people decide on his fate. They wanted him crucified. On Good Friday morning, he was dragged out into the streets by the moryons together with two criminals, whipping them while they carried their crosses. Spectators who had waited for them on the streets heckled and goaded the moryons to hit them more and more vigorously. At this point, the townspeople became part of the reenactment. It must have been a purgative experience for them, this crying out for more pain.
Trailing the Via Crucis were several flagellants, locally called antipo, who whipped themselves with pieces of wood and bamboo until their backs, arms and legs bled. They went around the streets and cemeteries. They also cut themselves with blades to let out more blood. At the end, they washed themselves in the river and claimed their wounds are healed.
The Via Crucis ended at the Morion Arena where Jesus was curcified on a small hill, which is part of the sinakulo stage. One of the Roman centurions, Longinus (Longino), who was half-blind, stabbed Jesus at the side with his spear. A drop of his blood went to Longinus’s blind eye and suddenly this blind eye was able to see. This Chistian legend of St. Longinus is only hinted in the Bible, and the moryonan of Marinduque is notable for its retelling of the story. Longinus’s story would be told in the evening in the last part of the sinakulo called “pugutan” or “the beheading.”
Meanwhile on the streets, more moryons were going around. A group caught the attention of many people. It was a family of moryons, sporting identical design themes. One of them, Eric Morales, was a carver of moryon masks as well as a maker of moryon costumes from Sibukaw, Mogpog.
By noon, many people were drinking tawak, a dark potion concocted out of about 60 ingredients known only by its makers, and these included roots, barks and leaves. Described as bitter and spicy, tawak only acquires potency when drank on Good Friday and is said to be bestow drinkers protection from snake venom and other animal poisons for a year.
The Good Friday Procession and the Women Who Wear the Pupuwa in Gasan
Religious images on carrozas or floats bedecked with flowers, ribbons, lights and other adorments are wheeled into the streets on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in many parts of the country, including Marinduque. On Maundy Thursday, the procession depicts the agony and passion of Jesus Christ, while the procession on Good Friday, the gieving Mater Dolorosa and Santo Sepulkro or the dead Christ are included.
After the Via Crucis in Boac, we went to the next town of Gasan for its Good Friday procession, which is said to be the most popular one in the island. Starting late afternoon, just before sundown, the procession was led by men and boys in purple and black hooded robes rattling the pataraka, a bamboo rattler. They were followed by altar boys, religious icons on carrozas and parishioners. The procession was big but not as dramatic and spectacular as the one in Paete, Laguna. A curious part of procession is the “pagsusunong ng pupuwa,” a unique Gasan ritual done by the women. While men do the antipo or flagellation, and the pagmomoryon, the women do the “pagsusunong ng pupuwa” as penitence. They wore long black robes or gowns, a black veil and a thick crown of pupuwa leaves, a plant thriving in the forests of the Tagalog provinces. It is considered medicinal in Marinduque. They walked barefoot in the streets of Gasan.
The Boac sinakulo concluded on Black Saturday, culminating not only in the resurrection of Jesus Christ but with the transformation and martyrdom of Longinus by beheading. In other towns of the southern Tagalog province, “pugutan” happens on Easter Sunday. Moryons chase after Longinus around town all morning, making the whole town the stage for the reenactment and the real townspeople playing the townspeople who either aid or mislead the moryons. Longinus will do his antics, and he will be captured and escape several times, but the chase will end at noon with the beheading.
The moryonan of Marinduque is unique in the country for its emphasis on Longinus, and the pagmomoryon is most likely a tribute to him.
The Maker of Masks
Most agree that good mask carvers are found in Mogpog. On Easter morning, we went to Sibukaw to find Eric Morales. His working shed was open and littered with pieces of wood and tools for carving. There were a couple more houses in the area. One is where his parents live. His mother is a maker kakanin, native rice sweets, which she sells early morming in the market. His father is well-known moryon mask carver, but is now an invalid, unable to create masks.
Sitting on a wheelchair, Renato “Atong” Morales is 72 years old and has suffered from stroke 13 years ago. Thirty-seven-year-old Eric learned how to carve moryon masks from his father, who learned it from his father and started making masks since 1960s. Mang Atong did not really teach Eric the craft but Eric learned it by observing and assisting his father. Of Mang Atong’s eight children, five of which are boys, only Eric is interested in wood mask carving. After high school, he went on to study drafting but dropped out to go into wood carving full time. He has been making masks as well as whole moryon costumes for 20 years now. He makes an average of 20 to 25 masks a year. He is also into tattooing and T-shirt printing, also requiring creative skills, to augment income.
Moryon masks are made of santol wood or sometimes dapdap (Indian coral tree) wood, or a combination both, santol for the face mask and dapdap for the helmet. A mask, together with the helmet, sells for about P5,000. Mask only, like the ones in Mogpog, is about P2,000. A whole costume, down to the gladiator sandals, costs about P15,000. The chest armor is wrought out of “lata.” Tin or maybe aluminum, I presume. Moryon masks are made-to-order and are rarely redily available for tourists to buy instantly.
According to Eric, there are only three mask makers in Mogpog. One is an assistant and student of Mang Atong in the same barangay. Another is in the adjacent barangay of Jamagdo, who I met five years ago.
Eric said he will continue doing moryon masks as long as he can. Asked why he wants to make masks, he said he is just “interested” in it and “ayaw kong mamatay ang tradisyon.” (I don’t want the tradition to die out)