Anito, also spelled anitu, refers to ancestor spirits, nature spirits, and deities (diwata) in the indigenous animistic religions of pre-colonial Philippines.

It can also refer to carved humanoid figures, the taotao, made of wood, stone, or ivory, that represent these spirits.

Pag-anito refers to a séance, often accompanied by other rituals or celebrations, in which a shaman acts as a medium to communicate directly with the spirits.

When a nature spirit or deity is specifically involved, the ritual is called pagdiwata. The act of worship or a religious sacrifice to a spirit is also sometimes simply referred to as anito.

The belief in anito is sometimes referred to as anitism in scholarly literature.

Ancestor spirits

The ninunò can be the spirits of actual ancestors or generalized guardian spirits of a family. Ancient Filipinos believed that upon death, the soul of a person travels to a spirit world, usually by boat.

There can be multiple locations in the spirit world, varying in different ethnic groups. Which place souls end up in depends on how they died, the age at death, or the conduct of the person when they were alive.

There was no concept of heaven or hell prior to the introduction of Christianity and Islam; rather, the spirit world is usually depicted as an otherworld that exists alongside the material world.

Souls reunite with deceased relatives in the spirit world and lead normal lives in the spirit world as they did in the material world.

In some cases, the souls of evil people undergo penance and cleansing before they are granted entrance into a particular spirit realm. Souls would eventually reincarnate after a period of time in the spirit world.

Souls in the spirit world still retain a degree of influence in the material world and vice versa. Pag-anito may be used to invoke good ancestor spirits for protection, intercession (kalara or kalda), or advice.

Ancestor spirits that become intercessors with deities are known as pintakasi or pitulon. Vengeful spirits of the dead can manifest as apparitions or ghosts and cause harm to living people. Pag-anito can be used to appease or banish them.

Ancestor spirits also figured prominently during illness or death, as they were believed to be the ones who call the soul to the spirit world, guide the soul (a psychopomp), or meet the soul upon arrival.

Ancestor spirits are also known as kalading among the Igorot, tonong among the Maguindanao and Maranao;umboh among the Sama-Bajau; nunò or umalagad among Tagalogs and Visayans; nonò among Bicolanos; umagad or umayad among the Manobo; and tiladmanin among the Tagbanwa.

Nature spirits and deities

The diwata are spirits who have never been human. These spirits can range from simple spirits like the diwata of a particular rock or place, to deities who personify abstract concepts and natural phenomena, to deities who are part of an actual pantheon.

They are also known as dewatu, divata, duwata, ruwata, dewa, dwata, diya, etc., in various Philippine languages; all of which are derived from syncretization with Sanskrit devata or devá, meaning “deity“.

In some ethnic groups like the B’laan and the Tagalogs, Diwata refers to the supreme being in their pantheon, in which case all the other spirits, whether human or not, are known generically as anito.

Like in ancestor spirits, diwata are referred to in polite kinship titles when addressed directly, like apo (“elder“) or nuno (“grandparent“).

There are three general types of non-human spirits. The first are the environmental or nature spirits “bound” to a particular location or natural phenomenon.

They “own” places and concepts like agricultural fields, forests, cliffs, seas, winds, lightning, or realms in the spirit world.

Some were also “keepers” or totems of various animals and plants. They have inhuman and abstract qualities, reflecting their particular dominions.

They do not normally appear in human form and are usually gender-less or androgynous. They rarely concern themselves with human affairs. Rituals involving these spirits are almost always conducted outdoors.

The second type of spirits are the “unbound” spirits which have an independent existence.

They appear in animal (usually as birds) or human-like forms, have gender differentiation and have personal names.

They are most similar to the fairies of European folklore. These are the most common types of spirits to become abyan (spirit guides of babaylan), as they are the most “sociable” and can take interest in human activities. These spirits are usually referred to as engkanto (from Spanish Encanto) in modern Filipino folklore.

Unlike the “bound” spirits, these spirits can be invited into human households, and their rituals can take place both outdoors and indoors.

The last is a class of malevolent spirits or demons.

As well as supernatural beings, generally collectively known as aswang, yawa, or mangalos (also mangalok, mangangalek, or magalos) among Tagalogs and Visayans.

There are numerous kinds of aswang with specific abilities, behavior, or appearance. Examples include sigbin, wakwak, tiyanak, and manananggal.

The first two categories of diwata can also be malevolent, what sets the third category apart is that they can not be appealed to with offerings and they are utterly pitiless. Most practices associated with them is to ward them off, banish them, or destroy them. They are never addressed nor worshiped in religious rituals.

Diwata are rarely spoken about openly for fear of attracting their attention. Instead, they are referred to with euphemisms like “those unlike us” or variable names, like banwaanon or taga-banwa, that translate literally to “dweller of a place“.

Among Tagalogs, non-human nature spirits are also euphemistically referred to as lamanglupa, depending on their domain.

Diwata exist in both the material world and the spirit world.

They can be formless or have a material body. They can also take over a body through spirit possession, an ability essential for the séances in pag-anito.

They are believed to be capable of shapeshifting (baliw or baylo), becoming invisible, or creating visions or illusions.

Their powers, however, are limited to their particular domain. A diwata of a forest, for instance, has no dominion over the sea. Most are generally benevolent or capriciously neutral, although they can cause misfortunes and illnesses if angered, disrespected, or mistakenly encountered.

Other common characteristics of diwata are that they are “cold” (in contrast to “hot” humans); that they leave no footprints (unlike human spirits); and that they sense the world and “eat” by means of smell.

Diwata are often depicted as appearing to unsuspecting people in human or animal form, sometimes causing unintentional harm. They can also deliberately play tricks on mortals, like seducing or abducting beautiful men and women into the spirit world.

Diwata who take human form is said to be pale-skinned and could be distinguished from humans by the absence of a philtrum on the upper lip.

Certain places are believed to be owned by diwata or are borders to the spirit world. These are normally avoided or only entered with precautions, especially during twilight when diwata are believed to cross over from the spirit world into the material world. Harm or illness caused by diwata are known as buyag in Visayan and usog in Tagalog.

People who were harmed by interactions with diwata are euphemistically described as having been “greeted” or “played with” by diwata.

During the Spanish period, diwata were syncretized with elves and fairies in European mythology and folklore, and were given names like duende (goblin or dwarf), encantador or encanto, hechicero (“sorcerer“), sirena (“mermaid“), or maligno (“evil spirit“).In Islamized ethnic groups of the Philippines, these nature spirits are usually called jinn or seitan.

Spirit animals

Some animals like crocodiles, snakes, monitor lizards, tokay geckos, and various birds were also venerated as servants or manifestations of diwata, or as powerful spirits themselves.

These include legendary creatures like the dragon or serpent Bakunawa, the giant bird Minokawa of the Bagobo, and the colorful Sarimanok of the Maranao.

Omen birds were particularly important. The most common omen birds were doves with green or blue iridescent feathers called limokon (usually the common emerald dove, imperial pigeons, or brown doves).

Rituals and shamans

Anitism was not a religion about worship. Aside from good ancestor spirits and the few benevolent diwata, most anito were feared, not venerated.

To an ordinary person, diwata were regarded as dangerous beings to be avoided or appeased. When the interaction was necessary, they performed a ritual known as pag-anito.

These are usually directed at ancestor spirits. When the pag-anito ceremony is for a diwata, the ritual is known as pagdiwata.

Minor pag-anito rituals like praying for better weather or banishing minor ill luck can be performed by any householder. However, major pag-anito rituals required the services of the community shaman.

These shamans were believed to have been “chosen” by a specific diwata who become their spirit guides.

This was presumed to happen after they pass the initiation rites of an older shaman they were apprenticed to (usually a relative). In some cases, some shamans acquire their status after they recover from a serious illness or a bout of insanity.

In most Filipino ethnic groups, shamans were almost always female. The few males who gain shaman status were usually asog or bayok, men who dressed as women and lived as women.

Major pag-anito rituals are centered around a séance. Because of their special relationship with their companion spirits, shamans can act as mediums for other anito, allowing spirits to temporarily possess their bodies.

This possession happens after the shaman goes into a trance-like state. This allows the spirit to communicate verbally with the participants as well as physically act out events in the spirit world. At the moment of possession, shamans display a change in behavior and voice.

They can sometimes go into seizures and become violent enough that restraints are required. The ritual ends when the spirit leaves and the shaman is awakened.

Spirits were invited into the ritual through offerings and sacrifices during and after the ceremonies.

These depended on what spirit was being summoned, but offerings are usually a small portion of the harvests, cooked food, wine, gold ornaments, and betel nut.

Blood from an animal was also usually part of the offerings, poured directly on the taotao or in a bowl before them. These commonly come from chickens or pigs, but can also be from carabaos or dogs.

Salt and spices are usually avoided, as they are believed to be distasteful to anito. There is no record of human sacrifices being offered to anito during the Spanish period of the Philippines, except among the Bagobo people in southern Mindanao where it was prevalent until the early 20th century.

Another common pag-anito ritual throughout most of the Philippine ethnic groups involves the use of spirit boats. These were usually miniature boats laden with offerings set adrift from riverbanks and shorelines.

Pag-anito can be conducted on its own or in conjunction with other rituals and celebrations.

They can be personal or family rituals or seasonal community events. They can vary considerably between different ethnic groups.

The most common pag-anito were entreaties for bountiful harvests, cures for illnesses, victory in battle, prayers for the dead, or blessings.

Different ethnic groups had different diwata pantheons and rituals associated with them, though sometimes deities are shared in neighboring ethnic groups. Moreover, different communities also each have their own local patron diwata.

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