If you've followed Una Artesana for a while you might know me as someone who's passionate about Filipino history and culture. But that wasn't always the case.
I’ll be the first to admit that up until a few years ago (2020 to be exact), I only knew a handful of facts about our precolonial history. I grew up completely obsessed with ancient cultures, yet I never knew the Philippines had its own rich traditions until I started researching during lockdown.
Through the jewelry I create, I tell the stories of the Filipino people – our myths and legends, and how our ancestors saw the world. It is very important to me to be able to tell these stories with care, so research is a key part of my design process. Over the years I've collected books on Filipino culture, from myths and folklore to indigenous tattoos to precolonial history. Here are some of my favorites: The Boxer Codex
The Boxer Codex is a 16th century manuscript that describes the peoples and customs of Asia with a significant portion dedicated to the Philippines. It was believed to be commissioned by a high-ranking Spanish official, while the watercolor illustrations were believed to have been done by a Chinese artist. The illustrations show our ancestors' dress and ornamentation in wonderful detail, with their gold jewelry highlighted in gold leaf, a notable addition to such a document at the time.
Bear in mind that this manuscript was written by Spaniards, so take what you read with a grain of salt as they did not understand nor appreciate the ways of our ancestors. I found the tone to be condescending in parts, which I sometimes found uncomfortable to read. Still it's worth reading because it offers a tantalizing glimpse at precolonial Philippine culture, and the illustrations really are beautifully detailed.
Barangay: 16th Century Philippine Culture and Society by William Henry Scott
If you're looking for something more concise, William Henry Scott's Barangay is for you. The book gives a comprehensive look at the culture of the Visayans – their dress (including jewelry!), societal structures, warfare, and religion, among others. The last few chapters of the book also discuss the peoples of Luzon and Mindanao, although these are not as extensive.
Paths of Origins: The Austronesian Heritage
To have a better understanding of our precolonial history and culture, you also need to look at what was happening outside the country. It is unfortunately easy to imagine that the Philippines prior to colonization was some cultural backwater isolated from the rest of the world, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
Paths of Origins traces our Austronesian heritage from its beginnings in Taiwan, to how it spread throughout Southeast Asia. This is illustrated through a selection of artifacts from throughout the region, including our very own jade lingling-o. It's fascinating to see how our ancestors moved and interacted with the world, and how much of our culture we share with our Southeast Asian and Pacific neighbors.
Philippine Ancestral Gold
This book is a companion to the Gold of Ancestors exhibit in the Ayala Musuem. The gold artifacts in the museum date back to the 10th and 12th centuries CE and come from all over the Philippines. While we've lost trace of any written precolonial documents, our gold relics can still tell us so much about our ancestors.
Philippine Ancestral Gold talks about these gold relics in stunning detail. Closeup photos show the intricacies of ancient Filipino gold smithing, telling us just how knowledgeable and creative our ancestors were with their craft. The book also goes into detail about the motifs of each piece, telling us much about the Hindu-Buddhist substrata of precolonial culture.
Filipino Tattoos: Ancient to Modern by Lane Wilcken
Much like our ancient gold, our tattoos can also shed light on precolonial Filipino history and culture. Filipino Tattoos discusses the tattoo culture of the Philippines, from the ancient practices of the Visayan Pintados, to today’s modern interpretations.
Each motif found in precolonial and indigenous sources is explained in detail, including their meaning and the stories behind them. These are also compared to the customs and practices of cultures around Southeast Asia and the Pacific, showing us just how much we share with our fellow Austronesian descendants.
Myths and Legends of the Philippines by Marlene Aguilar
Myths and Legends is a collection of folktales and stories from mythology gathered from around the country, with each story accompanied by lavish watercolor paintings. This would make a wonderful addition to any fairytale library, especially for children. As someone who grew up devouring stories by the Brothers Grimm, this is something I would’ve appreciated growing up.
There are three volumes in this set of stories. The one pictured here is Volume 2.
A Lolong Time Ago: A Prehistory of the Philippines and Ang Unang Barangay
These are for the kids (and kids at heart)!
A Lolong Time Ago is a surprisingly comprehensive book about precolonial Philippines. It's loaded with facts about early Filipino culture, and it keeps things interesting with little jokes and drawings. It reminds me a bit of those 'did you know' books I used to read growing up, so it's very fun to read. Think of it as Barangay for kids.
Ang Unang Barangay offers a beautiful glimpse into the everyday lives of our ancestors, telling the story of the rich cultures and societies that existed long before the Spanish arrived on our shores. This is accompanied by lush illustrations that make the world of precolonial Philippines come alive. The book is written in Filipino, but even if you don't understand the language, the book is still very much worth getting for the illustrations alone.
Filipiniana titles can be notoriously hard to find, even here in the Philippines, but don't worry I've got you! Here's a list of places where you can find these and many other titles: Bookstores:
Shopee and Lazada are also worth a look, and many publishing houses have shops there. If you're abroad sometimes you'll find titles on Amazon. If all else fails, a handy Google search will do the trick! There are still more books in my growing Filipiniana library that I'd love to share, so let me know if you want a part two!