Before the Japanese Imperial Army brought their war loots in the Philippines or even before the Spaniards came to colonize the country, you might be surprised to know that Philippines in the ancient times had plenty of gold resources. One among the evidences that got discovered are the death masks artifacts which we are going to discuss on this post.

So what exactly is the use of a death mask?

No one can really provide the answer to this question because there is no documentation that can prove the real purpose of a death mask in the ancient Philippine culture. Take note, it is quite strange that the earliest historical records of the Philippines available only started during the arrival of the Spaniards.

Worst, the Spaniards colonized the country where a lot of the ancient Philippine cultures were lost.

Anyway, researchers have made an effort to derive their best theories about the use of the death masks.

Evil Spirits won’t enter the Dead Body

One of the common theories about death masks is that the ancient people of the Philippines use it to cover the face of their dead. The reason is to protect the dead body from any evil spirits attempting to enter it.

It does sound like that the dead in the past can come back to life when an evil spirit can gain control of it. Maybe we can imagine the revived dead as a zombie.

But why do they only cover the face? Does this mean that the face is the only doorway for the evil spirit in trying to take hold of the dead body? Well, nobody knows.

Amulet against Evil Spirits

This second theory about the use of a death mask is a lot more acceptable than the one above. Ancient people of the Philippines believed that by putting masks on the face of their dead will serve as an amulet that drives away the evil spirits.

But if it is considered as an amulet then why does it have to be in the form of a face mask? Amulets do actually come in different forms of accessories such as bracelets, necklaces, and etc… Again, no one can tell about why.

Protection of the Soul

The purpose of the face mask will serve as a protection of the dead person’s soul particularly against evil entities. Interestingly, pre-Hispanic Filipinos had slight similarities to the ancient Egyptian cultures. Egyptians also believed that by burying their dead along with gold or any other valuables will greatly help them on their journey in the afterlife – it doesn’t need to be a face mask.

To be accepted by their Ancestor and Deities

According to the ancient belief of the pre-Hispanic Filipino people, the death masks made out of gold will be worn by their dead in their afterlife. As they get ferried over the spiritual river of the afterlife, those who wore gold with tattoos are known to be recognized by their ancestors and deities.

In short, their tattoos and items made of gold that they wore particularly their death masks served as their ticket in order to be accepted.  

Origin of the Death Mask Burial Practice

Historians claim that the origin of the death mask burial practice was introduced by the Southern Chinese to the ancient Filipino people. Did the Chinese really introduce it to the ancient Filipino people or the other way around?

In my own opinion, it is the other way around. China was really not that rich in gold as compared to the Philippines during the ancient times. This was the reason why the Chinese people came to trade their products such as silks, porcelains, and many of their crafts in exchange for gold in the Philippines. Thus, it is the reason why they can’t be the one who introduced the practice of the death mask burial to the ancient Filipino people. Not unless the masks doesn’t need to be made out of gold.

Perhaps the main reason why the death masks has to be made out of gold is that, gold material do not really degrade throughout time unlike other types of metals that gets consumed by rusts. It will be a lot worst when the mask is to be made out of wooden materials.

Due to this reason, death masks had to be made out of gold because it can stay on the face of the dead for the longest possible time. This ensures their protection against evil spirits unless someone or something causes it to be removed.

The Golden Death Mask of Oton

The very first death masks made out of gold is known as the “Oton Death Mask”. It is a very simple mask which consists of a nose-disk and an eye-mask. Thus, it only covers those parts of the face. But interestingly, the design is quite amazingly artistic.

According to some experts, the delicate decoration of the mask depends on social status.

What’s Oton?

Oton is taken from the place where the ancient artifact was discovered. It was uncovered by Alfredo Evangelista and F. Landa Jocan at the grave site in San Antonio, Oton, Iloilo (pre-Hispanic port settlement of Katagman) back in 1973.

As researchers conducted further study with the artifact, they made an estimate that the item belonged to the late 14th to the early 15th century A.D.

Katagman is the term referred to the ancient settlers of Western Panay. Their place Oton used to be the trade routes of Panay Islands which made the place so prosperous at that time.

Oton was also influenced by the Chinese ancient people where they introduced their crafts and cultures to the Katagmans. This is the main reason where historians have derived their conclusion that the Chinese probably were the ones who introduced their burial culture practices.

Further excavation of Oton revealed a lot of ancient artifacts. Aside from the golden death mask, other valuable items include gold artifacts, porcelain, and carnelian beads.

When the Spaniards came, they took over Oton in 1572 where they established their center of Spanish administration in Iloilo as ordered by the Augustinian Friars. Oton was actually the Spaniard’s missionary base with the sole purpose of converting the entire region to Christianity. As a result, the Katagmans got Christianized where they stopped their old ways of burial practice.

Gold Death Masks of Cebu

Another set of gold death masks were discovered in 2008 excavated at the Plaza Independencia. In comparison to the Oton death mask, the Cebu version has very simplistic design. But the difference is that, aside from the nose and eye masks, there is a third disk for covering the mouth.  

According to the archaeologists, the gold death masks of Cebu belonged to a chieftain or head of a tribe. It was because the remains were found inside a buried large ceramic container along with its gold masks and dagger.

Cebuanos do claim that it is their ancient tradition practice to put their dead inside ceramic containers especially someone whom they treated with so much honor and reputation.

Death Funerary Masks Northeastern Mindanao and Butuan

There are also two ancient death funerary golden masks that were discovered in the Northeastern region of Mindanao and the other at Butuan, Agusan del Norte province. But unlike the death mask version of Oton and Cebu, these masks were designed to cover the entire face of the dead.

Recent studies show that both death mask dates back to Ca. 10th to 13th century. And currently, they are being kept at the Ayala Museum.

Do Some Filipino Natives Still Practice Burial with Death Masks Today

The Spaniards took over the Philippines for 333 years and colonized it for such a long period of time. They also introduced Christianity which is the main reason why such ancient Filipino culture of burying their death with golden death masks got forgotten.

But interestingly, you might be surprised to know that the former president Ninoy Aquino and FPJ (Fernando Po Jr.) do have their own death masks. However, their masks aren’t placed on their faces just like the old ancient practice before their bodies goes into the grave.

Recent reports claim that the two death masks of both public figures are currently on display at the Holy Angel University’s Center for Kapampangan Studies in Angeles City.

But here’s what you might not want to know. In order for the artist to craft their death masks, the artist needs to cast the mask on the face dead person in order to acquire a perfect copy. The person who made Ninoy’s death mask is the National artist Napolean Abueva.

Abueva started casting Ninoy’s mask six hours after his death. It was such a challenge to him since Ninoy’s face had a lot of blood but still, he was able to successfully craft it.

FPJ’s mask was also crafted by the same artist with far much better result than Ninoy’s mask. It’s because Abueva did not went through the trouble like on Ninoy’s situation.

Final Thoughts about the Philippine Death Masks Artifacts

Recoveries of these ancient death masks artifacts on different parts of the Philippines is one strong evidence that the pre-Hispanic Filipinos were already rich in culture. Unfortunately, all those cultures were gone where the only possible means of knowing them back are through studying various Philippine artifacts.

So to all of my fellow treasure hunters out there, it would be best if you turn over any ancient Philippine artifacts you recovered (also considered as Philippine National Treasure) to the Philippine Museum. You may be given a small amount of monetary reward but the best part is that, you name will always be known in the historical record as the one who discovered it.


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