That medallion you might spot around the neck of a Filipino seafarer isn’t a demonstration of how much he liked Saturday Night Fever and it’s much more important than the St. Christopher often seen around the necks of westerners, and so many Filipinos are getting into trouble because of it that the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs has issued a warning about them.
The object is called an anting-anting and is supposed to protect the wearer from harm. It has its origins in the dim bits of history before the Spanish colonized the islands in the 16th and 17th centuries. Traditionally they were prepared by babaylans, holy women or transgender males in a process that, for the most powerful anting-anting, involved a rotting fetus in a bamboo tube in a process I’m not going to write about over breakfast.
They were widely used during the Philippine War of Independence from 1898 to 1902, first against the Spanish, against whom there was some success, then against the Americans, where the Krag-Jorgensen rifle somewhat outgunned the modest anting-anting.
Today they are more likely to be made of metal and brought from vendors around the beautiful Quiapo church in Manila. Local informal healers in the provinces, however, use squares of paper with a special design drawn on them – something that was prescribed to me having fallen with some kind of fever in La Union, Luzon, back in the 1980s.
They can also be made of live bullets, which is why, very recently, a Filipino seafarer found himself in trouble at Changi Airport and is now on the Singapore authority’s watchlist. It is the seocnd known incident at Changi, and another seafarer fell afoul of the Brunei authorities.
The DFA warns seafarers: “against bringing live bullets or items made from prohibited, illegal, or controlled materials “