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Da Bathala Code

Part 1: Do baybayin letters hold hidden meanings?
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Baybayin typeface c.1620This is the most common style of baybayin writing shown in some school history books. It was designed for a Spanish printing press in the early 1600s. Some baybayin enthusiasts have unknowingly used fonts like this to divine hidden meanings in the letter shapes, unaware that the shapes have been modified and influenced by the Roman alphabet. Note the distinctive V and 3 used for the letter SA.

For many people, their first acquaintance with the old Filipino script known as baybayin is like discovering a magic code that can unlock ancient secrets, as in so many fantasy movies. At least, that’s what it was like for me. For many of us, who only know the Roman alphabet, the letters do look strange and exotic, and it is often this mysterious quality that attracts us to the script.

However, baybayin writing is more significant – or at least, it should be – because it is not part of a mere fantasy; it is the heritage of the Filipino people. After centuries of being regarded as little more than savages under the Spanish regime, then as backward “little brown brothers” under the Americans, most Filipinos are proud, and rightly so, when they discover that their pre-colonial ancestors were, in fact, highly literate.

For some baybayin enthusiasts, however, this is not enough. A few Internet web sites promote theories that baybayin letters have deeper, mysterious meanings beyond being just graphic representations of the spoken word. Until recently, the lack of easy access to comprehensive factual information about baybayin writing has allowed several authors to embellish the known facts with alleged revelations of spiritual meanings held within the shapes of baybayin characters.

Bathala and the baybayin

The promoters of this idea – that there are hidden meanings in the shapes of baybayin letters – usually start their revelations with the word bathala (pronounced bat-hala), which is the name of the pre-colonial Tagalog god of creation. In baybayin writing, Bathala looks like this:

ba ha la - Bathala in baybayin script

The very nature of God is supposedly revealed in its baybayin spelling with the concepts of femininity, masculinity, creation and divine inspiration all contained in the shapes of the letters. The BA (ba) is said to represent the female aspect of creation because it is the first letter in the Tagalog word babae (woman) and its shape is supposed to mimic the genitals of a woman. Similarly, the LA (la) represents the male aspect because lalaki (man) starts with the letter L, which, apparently, is penis-shaped. These two concepts are united by the letter HA (ha), which represents the divine breath (hininga) or wind (hangin) that gives life to the spirits of women and men. If the letter TA (ta) is erroneously inserted into the baybayin spelling of Bathala, it symbolizes a spark or a bolt of lightning from God that ignites the human spirit – or something like that.

Like Dan Brown’s best-selling novel and blockbuster movie with a similar title, this “Bathala Code,” as I like to call it, is very enticing, pretty far-fetched and uses dubious scholarship to dress up what is basically a fantasy. The details can vary widely since each believer often likes to insert his or her own alleged discoveries based on superficial observations of unrelated religions and New Age philosophies.

Most Bathala Code believers, however, share at least two major assumptions in their theory. The first assumption is that the supposed Bathala-baybayin connection was a spiritual belief held by all pre-colonial Filipinos, even though it is based on three Tagalog words and the name of a deity that only the Tagalogs and Zambals worshiped as their creator god. 1 The other assumption, of course, is the very premise that baybayin letter shapes are really pictures that have meanings beyond the sounds they represent.

Letters as pictures

But are the shapes meaningless? It’s safe to say that almost all non-pictographic writing systems in the world have origins that can be traced back to predecessors that were pictographic. Our Roman letter A, for instance, is said to have descended from an Egyptian hieroglyph that was a picture of an ox. It doesn’t look much like an ox today and it’s not even used to spell “ox” in English – nor should it because our alphabet is not an invention of the English or even the ancient Romans. The current shapes of our letters are the result of an evolutionary process that took thousands of years and involved several intermediate writing systems and spoken languages including Latin, Ancient Greek, Etruscan, Phoenician, two Middle Eastern alphabets and a simplified form of the original Egyptian hieroglyphs. 2 But, the letter A just means “A” to us now. Similarly, predecessors of baybayin letters might have once had pictographic meanings, but they certainly had no relationship with any Tagalog words.

What if Tagalog people really did design the baybayin letter shapes?

Many pictographic interpretations rely on very specific details of how baybayin letters are drawn, but these details can vary greatly, or even disappear, depending on which specimen of baybayin writing is examined. The letter BA (ba) for example was often written as an ordinary circle. The LA (la) often had straight lines and looked like a T. The modern Bathala theories are not based on interpretations of the way that the people of Luzon or the Visayas actually wrote five centuries ago. Most of the common historic styles of the baybayin that we know today were actually typefaces that were originally designed for Spanish printing presses. Nobody knows exactly what the earliest baybayin looked like because the letter shapes were not standardized and the oldest surviving specimen was made on a Spanish printing press in 1593. This begs the question, how do Bathala Code believers know that they are interpreting the correct shapes?

Even if the baybayin letter shapes that we know today were 100% faithful to a pre-colonial Tagalog model, there is no evidence that the Tagalog designers based them on the things we might think they did. The letter BA could stand for bato (stone) as well as for babae or any of a hundred other B-words. Even if we grant that the letters of Bathala look vaguely like a vagina, the wind and a penis, is this really any more significant than noticing that dog spelled backwards is god?

While it is highly improbable that the words babae, hangin and lalaki were derived from Bathala, it is even more absurd to claim that Bathala was formed from those Tagalog words since the name Bathala is derived from the Indian Sanskrit word bhattara, meaning “lord,” 3 which has derivatives in many languages throughout India, Malaysia and Indonesia.

On a more practical level – if some pre-colonial people in the Philippines really did design the baybayin with a profound metaphysical meaning in mind for every single letter shape, then why did they not also think of a way to write consonants without vowels? Even the word bathala must lose the letter T in its baybayin spelling – otherwise it would be mispronounced as ba-ta-ha-la. This “lone consonant” problem is one of the best clues (along with some anecdotal evidence) 4 that the baybayin was imported to the Philippines and not invented there. Had the Roman alphabet not come along so soon, it is quite likely that Filipinos would have eventually adapted the baybayin better for their own languages. Since the baybayin script and the word bathala did not originate in the Philippines, there is no reason to believe that the letter shapes should be based on any Tagalog words.

What is the documentary evidence?

As we’ll see later in this series, there is no solid evidence for the Bathala Code. Neither is there any circumstantial evidence for it, such as the popular myth that foreigners maliciously destroyed masses of baybayin documents and consequently erased the bathala-baybayin connection. 5 Early colonial Spanish authors wrote much about the baybayin script. They even used it to print books that would serve to convert Filipinos to Christianity. They also studied the religions of the various cultures under their control and they knew the names of the local deities. None of these things were kept secret from them and yet, they never reported anything about special meanings in the shapes of baybayin letters. Certainly, if any Spanish friar had thought for a second that he was duped into drawing “smutty” pictures in his religious texts, there would have been hell to pay and perhaps the wholesale burning of baybayin documents would have really happened.

So where did all these alleged revelations about Bathala and the baybayin come from? We’ll talk about some of the contributors to the Bathala Code and meet its creator in the next three parts of this series.

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Sources & notes

1 Scott, William Henry. Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society. Quezon City. ADMU Press 1994 p. 252

Included among their [the Zambals’] deities, perhaps because of Tagalog influence, was Bathala Mey Kapal, “whose false genealogies and fabulous deeds they celebrated in certain tunes and verses like hymns.” (San Nicolás, 1664, 420)

2 Sacks, David. Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet from A to Z. Broadway Books, New York, 2003

3 See bhattara, meaning noble lord.

4 Alcina, Francisco Ignacio. Historia de las islas e indios de Bisayas, 1668 3:35-37. Victor Baltazar transcription. University of Chicago Philippine Studies Program 1962. In W.H. Scott, Baranggay 1994

From these Borneans the Tagalogs learned their characters, and from them the Visayans, so they call them Moro characters or letters because the Moros taught them...

5 Morrow, Paul. Ang Baybayin: The Ancient Script of the Philippines. 1999, revised 2002

Part 2 →