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I. Reconstructing perception using the Carpio legend

[This is part of a collection of posts serializing the second chapter of Pasyon, Awit, Legend.]

If the approach to awit and pasyon in Pasyon and Revolution is deeply flawed and fails to achieve its goal of understanding the consciousness of the masses, where can we look if we wish to find a source which can achieve this goal? In the legend of Bernardo Carpio, Ileto located a source with great potential for analyzing actual lower class categories of perception. How did he read this legend?

As mentioned above, Pasyon and Revolution, like all other scholarly work written on the subject, treats the legend and the awit as intimately connected; the legend is seen as the popular continuation of the Historia Famosa. This approach extends to the legend the elite, textual hermeneutic employed in reading the awit. It also undermines recognition of the legend as a ‘hidden transcript’ of opposition to the urban elite who produced, and read, the awit.1

Historia Famosa ni Bernardo Carpio

Historia Famosa ni Bernardo Carpio

Like other scholars, Ileto not only conflated awit and legend, but he also combined multiple separate legends and variations of legends into an admixture from which little historical insight can be gained. We must disambiguate and analyze the various sources of the Carpio legend, situate them in their original contexts, and recreate how they would have been performed.

To be clear, the narrative of Bernardo Carpio chasing lightning into the colliding mountains is not a legend. This is part of an urban literary tradition, and was an integral aspect of the original 1860 composition. It represented an attempt to proselytize irredentist native beliefs, which were identified with the nag-uumpugang bato, the colliding rocks. The nag-uumpugang bato, two sheer cliff faces separated by a narrow canyon, are a comparatively common geographic feature in the karst topography of the Sierra Madre massif. They feature prominently in many legends and would thus have been identified by the author of the awit with traditional native beliefs.

The earliest version of the legend which I have been able to locate tells of an ‘old man in the cave.’ Ileto and others treat later fragments of this story as part of the Carpio liberator legend. It is a separate legend entirely. Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines is a source to which we shall return in much detail. It contains an appendix written in English in 1853 by the British explorer H. Hamilton Lindsay. In this appendix Lindsay told of his journey with Gironiere to the cave of San Mateo. He concluded his account by summarizing a legend. No previous scholar has drawn attention to this text, so I shall quote it in its entirety:

They have a curious legend respecting the cavern, which has a singular resemblance to the German tale of the “Three Brothers,” in the Hartz Mountains.

An Indian one day entered the cave to catch bats, with the wings of which they compound some sort of medicine. On arriving at the stream of water he saw a venerable old man on the other side, who offered his hand to help him across the stream. The Indian was rather shy of his new acquaintance, and held out the end of his stick, which the old man took, and it instantly turned into charcoal. Upon this the Indian became anxious to return, and thanking the old man for his politeness, told him he did not mean to go any further that day.

The old man then offered him three stones, and, to remove any fear of their burning his fingers, deposited them in the stream. The Indian took them, and retreated as quick as he could, without looking behind him; and, on examining the stones at the mouth of the cave, to his surprise he found them to be three masses of pure gold. The story did not go any further, as to what use he made of his riches. The old Indian who told me this story said it happened long before the arrival of the Spaniards.2

Lindsay would have heard this legend through an interpreter. We do not have the actual text of the legend, evidence of the texture of its performance, or the context in which it was traditionally performed. What we have is a legend summary. It is nonetheless quite useful. It will allow us to separate the various elements which later became identified with the Carpio legend. As Lindsay’s account was published seven years before Bernardo Carpio entered Philippine literature in the 1860 Historia Famosa ni Bernardo Carpio, we can safely say that the original San Mateo cave legend had nothing to do with him.

The Carpio liberator legend was first summarized by Jose Rizal in his second novel, El Filibusterismo, which he published in 1891. The fifth chapter, A Cochero’s Christmas Eve, tells of a calesa driver, a cochero, who has been detained by the guardía civil because he was missing his cedula, the obligatory identification card of Spanish colonialism. As he is driving his passenger Basilio to the town of San Diego, they encounter a Christmas procession. The cochero sees the Three Kings in the procession,

And, observing that the black was wearing a crown and was a king like the other two Spaniards, he naturally thought of the King of the Indios and sighed.

“Do you know, Señor,” he asked Basilio respectfully, “if the right foot is free by now?”

Basilio repeated the question.

“The right foot? Whose?”

“The King’s!” answered the cocheroin a low voice with much mystery.

“Which King?”

“Our King, the King of the Indios… ”

Basilio smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

The cochero sighed again. The Indios in the countryside treasure a legend that their king, imprisoned and chained in the cave of San Mateo, will one day come to deliver them from oppression. Every hundred years he breaks one of his chains and he already has his hands and his left foot loose; only the right foot remains chained. This king causes earthquakes and tremors when he struggles or is agitated. He is so strong that one can shake his hand only by holding out a bone, which upon contact with him is reduced to powder. For no explainable reason, the natives call him King Bernardo, perhaps confusing him with Bernardo Carpio.

“When the right foot is free,” murmured the cochero, letting out a sigh, “I will give him my horses. I will place myself at his service and die for him… He will free us from the civiles.”3

Here we find preserved in Rizal’s work a legend about an imprisoned liberator in the ‘cave of San Mateo.’ Aspects of the legend derive from the Old Man in the Cave legend, namely holding out the bone which upon contact is ‘reduced to powder,’ which corresponds to the stick turning to charcoal in Lindsay’s version of the legend. We are still dealing with a legend summary, however; we do not have the actual text of the legend. Rizal accurately placed the legend on the lips of a member of the working class, a cochero, the driver of a horse-drawn calesa.

Claudio Miranda, in a 1911 work on Philippine customs, provides us with additional insight into the legend.

Popular credulity has gone so far as to hope for the liberation of Bernardo del Carpio, one of the fantastic characters of Tagalog legend, imprisoned, according to the imagination of the commoners, between the two enormous rocks of Biaknabató, so that he might exterminate the hunters who defend the Spanish forces. Nothing more is lacking but to free a single foot (paa na lamang ang culang) in order to escape – they assure us – and when he is free, the war will be over, for Bernardo del Carpio can do anything.4

Miranda’s version of the legend is problematic on many levels. He was at a greater historical remove from the context of the performance of the legend. He was a much less sensitive observer of Philippine society than José Rizal. He refers to Carpio as Bernardo del Carpio, the name used in the Spanish version of Lope de Vega; in Philippine literature he is known simply as Bernardo Carpio, the locative has become a surname.

Miranda places Carpio not at San Mateo, but at Biaknabató;, another location famed for its nag-uumpugang bato.5 It seems unlikely that Miranda is recording a geographical variant of the legend; rather, he is simply erring in his summary. He does, however, provide us with an invaluable fragment of an actual performance of the legend: “Paa na lamang ang kulang/only the foot is lacking.”

A version of the legend recorded in 1917 has Rizal visiting the old man in the cave of San Mateo who is revealed to be Bernardo Carpio. Rizal extends a bone to Carpio and it crumbles to dust when he touches it. Rizal returns and informs others that Carpio has only one foot still chained.6 In a version of the legend documented in 1940, Carpio is no longer chained, but imprisoned by God “for his sins” and is lying among the dead. A bone is extended to him and he crumbles it to dust. He tells his visitor to devoutly say “Christum” to ward off danger, adding that he would soon rise to save the ‘oppressed people,’ in keeping with the reasons of Almighty God (100).

By the time these last two legends were summarized, Bernardo Carpio had become a residual tradition. Idiolect had come to dominate performance. Elements persist: the bone, San Mateo, etc., but the legend was no longer anchored in a community. These later summaries are of dubious value for recreating legend performance at the time of the Philippine revolution.

We see a dynamic and evolving legend with multiple variants. Ileto, like all other scholars on this subject, collapsed these variants together as a single narrative. Having conflated these variants, what use does Ileto make of the legend? He connected the legend with Bonifacio, telling of Bonifacio’s journey in 1895 to the cave of San Mateo. Bonifacio and his katipunero associates traveled to the cave during Holy Week. “Could it be merely coincidental … that the group chose the Holy Week of April, from Holy Tuesday to Holy Saturday, to make the climb?” (99) Pasyon and Revolution inquired. The question implies that the trek of the Katipunan leaders should be linked with religious journeys and pilgrimages, and the collection of anting-anting. But Bonifacio and his companions traveled during Holy Week for a more mundane reason, one which any worker would understand. During Holy Week all business shuts down. This would have been the only opportunity for a group of eight wage laborers to travel together and to do so without raising suspicion.7

It does not matter that the leaders of the Katipunan traveled during Holy Week for purely pragmatic reasons, that there was no “pilgrimage,” that Bonifacio did not write on the wall — what is important, according to Ileto, is how the ‘masses’ would have perceived the event. What do we learn in Pasyon and Revolution from the Carpio legend, and Bonifacio’s visit to the cave of San Mateo? Sadly, little. According to Ileto, the masses actually believe in existence of Bernardo Carpio. The masses inhabit “a society where King Bernardo Carpio was no less real than the Spanish governor-general.”8 Bonifacio, by traveling to the cave, was perceived as identifying with this real king, he was seen as trying to awaken him. Bonifacio thus inspired the devotion of the masses. Ileto treated the legend of Bernardo Carpio as a counter-rational, messianic means of mobilizing dissent.

To read legends as embodiments of the actual beliefs of the ‘masses’ is to read in a manner that is both elite and naïve.

How should we read legend?


  1. On the idea of hidden transcripts see James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990)
  2. H. Hamilton Lindsay, “Testimony of H. Hamilton Lindsay, Esq.,” chap. Appendix II in Twenty Years in the Philippines, by Paul Proust de la Gironiere (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1854), 353-4.
  3. José Rizal, El Filibusterismo, trans. Soledad Lacson-Locsin (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007), 36.
  4. “A tanto había llegado la credulidad popular, que, hasta esperaban la liberación de Bernardo del Carpio,
    uno de los personajes fantásticos de una leyenda tagala, preso, según la imaginación del vulgo, entre las dos enormes rocas de Biaknabató, para exterminar á los cazadores que defendían las avanzadas españolas. No le falta más que soltarse un solo pie (paa na lamang ang culang) para escaparse – aseguraban – y cuando esté libre, la guerra habrá terminado, porque Bernardo del Carpio todo lo puede.” (Claudio R. Miranda, Costumbres populares [Manila: Cultura Filipina, 1911], 62-3).
  5. Biaknabató achieved infamy during the Revolution, after the death of Bonifacio, for the conclusion of a treaty of peace between the Spanish government and the forces of Emilio Aguinaldo. Aguinaldo and his coterie of leaders received 800,000 Mexican dollars for the cessation of hostilities and went into exile in Hong Kong. The rank-and-file continued the revolution against Spain in their absence.
  6. Ileto, “Rizal and the Underside of Philippine History,” 41.
  7. A British businessman, living in Manila at the time, wrote: “To-day is the beginning of Easter Week, nearly all of whose days are holidays or holy days. This is one of the closest-observed seasons of the year, and on next Thursday and Friday, if you will believe it, no carriages are allowed to appear in the streets either of Manila or the other cities … It seems the proper thing to do to make arrangements with some of the English colony (i.e., the other English residents of Manila) to take a trip off into the mountains… ” (Joseph Earle Stevens, Yesterdays in the Philippines [London: Sampson Low, Marston, & Co., 1898], 58-9).
  8. Ileto, “Rizal and the Underside of Philippine History,” 63.
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