In Filipino folklore, the belief that the sight of a bangka (Tagalog for boat) in a dream foretells the impending death of a relative is intricately linked to the animist concept of the soul and the afterlife.
For indigenous and pre-colonial Filipinos, the bangka transcends mere utility. Its construction involves practices that emphasize reverence for nature during the tree cutting and log shaping process. Offerings are made to the spirit dwelling within the tree to ensure its preservation as it undergoes its transformation into a boat, with the belief that the soul of the tree imparts strength to the vessel. Boats often bear carvings resembling facial features, such as the prow of lipa (houseboats) in Sulu, known as sampong (face). In the Sulod epic of “Labaw Donggon,” the hero’s boat possesses magical powers, including the ability to communicate and transport its occupants to extraordinary places like the land of darkness and the land of the morning sun.
Boats assume pivotal roles in various rituals, particularly those associated with death and mourning. In a recorded 17th-century account of the bacalag, a Visayan boat-launching ritual, captives were sacrificed to bestow good fortune upon the mangaiao (raiding boat) or to heal an ailing datu (chief). “Calag” signifies “soul” in Bicol and Visayan. In the morotal mourning ritual, women gathered on a barangay boat, accompanied by women and warriors, and subsequently partook in a feast at their destination. Archaeological evidence reveals boat-shaped coffins scattered throughout the archipelago. The Tagalog term for coffin, kabaong, can be interpreted as a “boathouse for the dead,” while numerous ethnolinguistic groups refer to boats as “kabang.” Burial jars are predominantly located near shorelines and coastal areas, symbolizing the path to the afterlife, with boats serving as vessels to transport the deceased.
In the mourning ritual of marabay, the departed is accompanied by a mourning relative. The root word “abay” in Bikol and the Visayas denotes boats traveling together. In Tagalog, it signifies accompaniment, a revered person brought to a gathering, and a person’s soul as a companion. Consequently, within the context of the ritual, the souls of the deceased travel with companions.
These boat rituals and the meticulous craftsmanship behind them reflect the animist belief that inanimate objects possess souls, referred to as “alimaduan,” which dictate their characteristics and capabilities. Essentially, the presence of a boat in a dream was deemed a forewarning of a relative’s impending death, symbolizing the transition from the physical realm to the afterlife, where the departed embarked on a journey escorted by their companions and guided by the boat’s spiritual significance. This belief not only mirrors the indigenous comprehension of the soul but also underscores the profound cultural connection between the Filipino people and the sea, where life and death are intricately interwoven.