The Concept of Time According to Pre-Colonial Filipinos

The importance of time remains a constant – from the older ages when clocks were still unknown, to our current period where time itself literally runs our lives. From the beginning of our life, we are taught how to use our time wisely and treat it like “gold” because of its irreplaceable value. However, there is a common trait that seems to be prevalent in every Filipino that can be both a source of humor and annoyance: our chronic inability to be on time – commonly dubbed “Filipino Time”. Perhaps different cultures have their own concepts of time that vary depending on how they define and interpret it.

The real definition of time for our ancestors did not involve anything about being late. Pedro Serrano Laktaw,  a philologist , journalist, and a teacher, even noted that “Filipino Time” historically speaking, was “exceptionally original and interesting”. You might be asking what made Laktaw say this? What’s so special about time when our ‘ninuno’ still exists? The answer might be surprising enough that you will never see time the same way again.

Dissecting Time Itself

As stated earlier, pre-colonial Filipinos has no clocks to show the hours or minute. Our ancestors had no word for time itself, or tiempo (later altered to tiyempo) in the Spanish language,  as observed by Juan Francisco de San Antonio. However, they still had units and measurable changes that helped them label or name each period of events known as “taon”. Though today taon is immediately define as “year”, San Antonio stated that taon is a metaphor which means “assembling of many” . Thus it does not exactly pertain to a unit of time but refers to a collection of cosmological, environmental, agricultural and religious elements that come together to mark the beginning of a season.

The depth of this concept of time was further explained by Ricardo Manapat in his posthumous published essay “ Mathematical Ideas In Early Philippine Society”. Other words from the Tagalog dialect provide the subtler meaning of the word “taon” where words such “pagkakataon” (oppurtunity), “nagkataon” (by chance), “nataon” (occur at the same time),“itinaon” (to set a schedule) and “panahon” (weather) all came from.

The Visayans,when it comes to “years”, have three known terms: one is also “taon” which pertains to the harvest period (‘Taon na didto dile’ which means “it’s already harvest”), “tuig” which also means harvest can also refer to the coming of periodic events –  like rains and even the process of menstruation. Lastly is “dag-on” which is akin to “spring” or time for the blooming of trees and plants.

The phases of the moon is one of the basis of how Filipino manage to tell their current season

The Moon Is Our Clock

Another unit of time used before the arrival of Spaniards is “buan”, which again does not entirely mean “months” but rather defines the waxing and waning of the moon. According to Miguel De Loarca, only eight out of 12 months, or buan, had been given name by the natives on Panay and each of these months corresponds to the stages or phases in agriculture. First is the Ulalen where the constellation Pleiades becomes visible which prompts them to start preparing the seedlings. Second is Dagancahuy where grounds are cleared and trees are cut down to sow the ground. Next is Dagananen Bulan or the month where the woods from the fallen trees are collected. Elquilin comes next when the native burn over the fields and proceeded by Ynabuyan where Bonancas (fair winds) blow. Cavay is when they will weed their fields followed by the harvest month or Yrarapun and then Manalulsul marks the end the harvesting period. These months or Buan are interconnected together with the moon and thus making the calendar we use a lunar one similar to the Chinese.

Bakunawa origin

Possible origin of Bakunawa and the 7 moons folklore

Moon phases act as “time markers” that display the shifting of one month to another. Some of these phases with their native names includes Gimata, or when the moons seems to open its eyes, Katin for the third quarter and the new moon phase which it was called Malasumbang.

Faces of Day and Night

The lunar calendar was typically utilized in the Visayan region but in northern part of the Philippines, particularly in the Tagalogs region, it was the sun which acted as the more dominant time provider. Still, both celestial objects are valuable when it comes to both ethnic groups since the sun and moon plays a big role in the next units of early Filipino’s time: Arao (Araw) which obviously comes from the native name for “sun” and pertains to day while Gab-i (Gabi) stands for night.

The Visayans divided each day or arao (araw) in relation to the position of the sun. When dawn starts to let the light of the sun came, they call it “nasirakna”. As it ascend in the sky, this is what they named as “nabahadna” .When hens start to lay eggs , it is known as the period of “iguritlogna.” When their bracelets slide down to their raised arm as they point to the sun, this is known as “makalululu.” Noon is known as “odto na an adlaw” . Then came the points of the sun’s descent into the horizon called “palisna” and “ligasna” until it reached the midway of its setting or “tungana.” Sunset was named “apuna” , and the arrival of darkness as night fell was called “igsirinto.”

Further north, Tagalogs had more elaborate descriptions of the division of night and day. Some of these descriptions are still being used today. For example “bukang liwayway” was generally known by both old and young generations as the breaking of dawn. “Katanghalian” was collectively understood as high noon or midday. In addition to these are the following periods: “pagsikat ng talang baquero” which begins around 3:30 in the morning. When the light first appears on the horizon it was called “pagsikat ng talang batugan”. During afternoon around two o’clock, it is the period where the sun is viewed as “mababa na” (low) and four o’clock usually begins the setting of the sun which they called “lulunod na”.

As for the division of the night (gabi), the terms are more common such as “takipsilim” for dusk, “malalim na ang gabi” when it was around ten or eleven in the evening , and midnight was called “hatinggabi”.

(Right) The Povedano Calendar of Pre-colonial Filipino which is now considered as a hoax (Left) Modern Calendar commonly found in Filipino household

Masters of Time and Their Device

H.Otley Beyer and Laurence Wilson are among the scholars who dove deeper into the concept of time by our ancestors. Some of the interesting discoveries they unveiled include the devices which were used by different ethnic groups to measure their time.  One such device is known as a “gadagad” – a stone platform with notches cut into its body that acted as the teller of time through the sun rays that aligned with the said notches.

The Ifugao had an official timekeeper in their village known as “Manomnoman” who tied knots in string that represented the beginning of a day. For special events or days  a colored stick or bead was added to the tied knot. Once the Manomnoman completed 28 knots ,which is equivalent to a month, he would secure the said string and begins to knot another one. The village timekeeper was an important figure,  not just because of his function but because of his knowledge in reading and calculating the position of the stars and the angle of the sun.  They would often measure in a specific ravine where plants were known to bloom and change their leaves on same day each year.

Furthermore, Beyer even relayed information about a solar calendar used by Ifugao tribes which he described as the “the world’s most perfect calendar”. The said calendar was comprised of 13 months per year, containing 28 days each. There is also an ‘extra day’ that the village timekeeper kept to himself and remained unknown to his people (this extra day theory has not been verified).

In addition to this is the celestial calendar of the Tiruray from Southwestern Mindanao which was observed by Stuart Schlegel as both constellation and mythical base. The six groups of stars in the said calendar –  namely Kufukufu, Baka, Seretar, Fegeferafad, Singkon and Kenogon  – are the six followers of the mythical hero Lagey Lingkuwos whose charge it is to guide the Tiruray people on when to start their agricultural activities.


Sudden Shift Of Time and Life

Time for our ancestors was defined by nature itself. Everything that surrounded them –  from chirping bird, movement of stars and the growth of plants  – was sufficient enough to give signs and timing on when they will conduct specific activities and celebrate events. It made the early Filipino sensitive to the language of nature and how they could respond to it.  This natural process can seem confusing to some modern Filipinos and is therefor usually brushed off as unreliable. The moment colonization began, time has never been the same for us as the Gregorian calendar system was integrated in the Philippines on October 5, 1582. Since then Spanish terms like “Ano” (Year), “Linggo or Domingo” (Week) replaced our native time markers. The introduction of clocks (horasan and later coined as orasan) and watches widen our units of time with hours, minutes and seconds. Ultimately this led to the vanishing of our own system of time as we immersed ourselves in the European methods of time.

The changes made in our time had a significant impact on our culture. Rituals that bore an important aspect to both agriculture and religious facets of our lives and were conducted in accordance with our native time began to disappear one by one. Soon we were given new schedules to conduct new rituals and traditions which were all imparted by Catholicism. What happened to the Philippines as it adopted the “time” of a different culture proves a common notion that time can change people.  Even if we view it as nothing more than the numbering and counting of our days, culturally, it is more complex than the gears of even the most intricate clock.


Isabelo’s Archive by Resil B. Mojares
Mathematical Ideas In Early Philippine Society by Ricardo Manapat


ALSO READ: BAKUNAWA: The Moon Eating Dragon of Philippine Mythology


The following two tabs change content below.

Book Worm and Frustrated Writer. Currently working as a clerk in a university somewhere in Luzon. Starting to be in love with Filipino Myths:-)