It's a tradition called the Moriones, a colorful and dramatic affirmation of faith in Catholicism. It is a blend of many histories that make Moriones undeniably Filipino.
The week-long festival's Mexican origin is visible through the masks. It was introduced by the Spanish sailors who landed on Mogpog in 1807 to repair their galleons. Today, Moriones is celebrated in the towns of Boac, Gasan and Mogpog.
Morion means mask or visor, which refers to the medieval Roman warrior's helmet. The Moriones Festival is a depiction of the legend of Longinus, the Roman centurion who speared Jesus Christ on the cross at Mount Calvary. When blood spurted into the soldier's blind left eye, his eyesight was restored. This miracle and witnessing Christ's resurrection led Longinus to believe in Jesus Christ. He proclaimed his faith all over Jerusalem, but the Roman officials did not approve of his conversion so they searched for him. Upon his capture, he was beheaded.
Beginning on Holy Monday, moriones, the men wearing bright masks who act as Roman soldiers, roam the streets. To these Filipino men, the Moriones Festival is an act of penance or a thanksgiving for answered prayers, a good harvest, or a cured illness. The participants devote long hours of preparation, handcarving and painting blocks of dapdap wood to make their masks.
By the middle of Holy Week, the moriones wander around town rhythmically beating two sticks called kalutang. They parade on the streets to the amusement of many. Basking in the heat of the sun and mimicking the Roman soldiers, they chase children, tourists and onlookers with their spears.
On Good Friday, the evangelical theatrics of self-infliction by bloodied flagellants or antipos precede the reenactment of the crucifixion, which takes place at three o'clock in the afternoon. From this time on, “everything stops in the Philippines” as everyone mourns the death of Christ.
But on Easter Sunday, the action resumes. In habulan or the chase, Longinus, who refuses to renounce his faith, runs for his life through the fields. In Boac, the local resident chosen to play Longinus runs over rocks and boulders on a dried riverbed, where this part takes place. He is captured three times but escapes each time, until his final capture when he is brought to trial before Pontius Pilate. The inquisition is held on an open stage in the evening, with the dialogue in Tagalog verse. For his final words, Longinus professes his devotion to Christ. Thereafter, he is beheaded. This is the climax of the ceremony called pugutan or beheading.
Longinus' one-eyed mask is held up at the end of a sword for everyone to see. The moriones moan and sob while they carry Longinus' body on a shield and bring it to the town church.
For the festival guests of honor, there is the ceremony called putong or crowning, where they are seated on a throne and given floral crowns while local women sing, dance and throw flowers. At the end of the festival, the moriones' masks are sold as souvenirs. While the Marinduqueño townsfolk return home, the visitors leave the island with a unique impression of Lenten season that is truly Filipino.
Wilma B. Consul was assistant editor when she wrote this piece for Filipinas Magazine’s April 1993 issue.