Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Scott Guggenheim, "Cock or Bull: Cockfighting, Social Structure, and Political Commentary in the Philippines," Pilipinas, 3 (1982)



Since man is a symbolical animal, he can use things like food, shelter and instruments to symbolize his communication. Thus when he a young Filipino gives three flowers to a young girl, the act is more than just giving flowers; it expresses his love. The same young man can become angry when a piece of cloth with red, blue, and white with the sun and stars (the Philippine flag) is trampled by a foreigner, which is interpreted as a national desecration. Man can coin new words to symbolize new meanings; he can give new perspectives to existing symbols.

Another aspect of symbolism is the microcosm. The dictionary defines microcosm as an organism or organization regarded as a world in miniature, usually considered to be mankind and considered to reflect or epitomize the universe.1 For example, Hindu philosophy considers the human body as a microcosm. Man can encounter the Absolute in one's inmost part. Hinduism and Buddhism consider the mandala (an elaborate circle) as a microcosm of the universe.2 The mandala has a special purpose in meditation and has an application in depth psychology. However, the mandala seems a universal symbol, or an archetype to use Jung's term. For instance, the Navajo Indians use the mandala for healing rites. Likewise the clan house among the Ata Lio Indonesians is a microcosm of the universe.3

We see aspects of the Filipino microcosm in his cuisine.4 The prison system may be another. But in this chapter we shall look philosophically at the sabong (cockfighting) and the jeepney as examples of the Filipino microcosm. In looking at these two symbols, we base ourselves on our previous works on Filipino philosophy.5


Sabong, the country's national sport, is the form of recreation which aficionados look forward to on the week-ends. Because of its central position in Philippine culture, many sabong words appear in everyday language. In Tagalog, for example, `magtandang-tandangan' (literally, to act like a `tandang' (rooster) means to act proudly. `Sisiw' (chick) is a beginner, a coward. One who can’t see in the dark has `chicken eyes' (`matang manok'). `Manok' (chicken, cock) applies to a protege. `Tuka' (food for chicken) humorously applies to human food. `Isang kahig, isang tuka' (one scratch, one peck) applies to a hand-to-mouth existence. In Cebuano Visayan, `bulang' (or sabong in Tagalog) refers to a man who wins several wives in succession after his previous wife died. `Birig', the rooster's courtship dance, applies to a man who makes a pass to a woman. `Birigbirig' is to court a woman. `Tari-un' (from tari, gaff) refers to a perfect match in marriage. `Ugis' (a completely white-feathered chicken) applies to whiteskinned people. `Kapaykapay' (to flap the wings) is also for a person who jumps up and down with joy. This sampling can continue and applies also to other Philippine languages.

While sabong may be a form of relaxation or of gambling, it also reflects the Filipino mind. Where cockfighting is a favorite recreation, it can be a microcosm of that society. Geertz has shown this point in the case of Bali.6 "The Balinese see in fighting cocks themselves , their social order, abstract hatred, masculinity, demonic power they also see the archetype of status, virtue, the arrogant, resolute, honor-mad player with real fire, the ksatria prince."7 Guggenhim followed the study of Geertz and applied it in the Philippines, with emphasis on social structure and politics.8 Guggenheim concludes that although Balinese and Filipino cockfights have many things in common, he finds limitations in the Balinese model of Geertz.

In the Philippines we can look at sabong from different perspectives: technical (how to breed, train, etc.), historical, sociological, anthropological, literary, and the like.9 Although much has been written on sabong, this study is the first attempt to see cockfighting from the viewpoint of philosophy.

The Filipino as Thinker

When a cocker says, `Talo ako' (I lost), or `Sasabong ako' (I'll go cockfighting), he identifies himself with the fighting cock. The cock is his sort of proxy in the fight. He can spend most of his time in grooming, feeding, gazing, and training his fighting cock, which then can be a projection of its owner or his alter ego. For example, since sabong is a male sport, aficionados believe that a ready-to-fight cock will lose if a menstruating women touches the animal. To conserve vital energy, cockers avoid sex before a fight.10 It is a form of non-dualistic thinking.

The memory of the kristo, the bookie, is phenomenal. He remembers all the bettors and their corresponding bets coming from all directions without the benefit of jotting them down. One expert kristo uses mnemonic aids like the dress and place of the bettors.11 The betting comes through a sign language which all the participants understand. Because he hardly makes a mistake, people trust him, even if he may have no formal education.

Social Philosophy and Sabong

Sabong reflects the Filipino social philosophy. It shows his sense of belonging and group orientation (sakop). Interpersonalism and hierarchy in a context of harmony are the two elements of sakop and find their application in the sabongan.

The sabongan is a place conducive to being with others: it breathes the air of equality. It is a place where one finds and makes new friends and relates to strangers. This place of belongingness is open to the rich and the poor, government officials and the common tao. Laborers, farmers, landlords, businessmen, bankers, lawyers, doctors rub elbows, and the cockpit seems to level social distinctions. Since it has no dress code, anyone can come in any attire.

While there is an air of equality, hierarchy still has its place in the sabongan. The ringside benches (the preferencia) are the reserved places for the rich, famous gamblers, other important persons, owners of the cocks, the concessionaire and the referee (sentenciador). The mayor, who is also an aficionado, has the highest authority. Under the mayor are the sentenciador (who manages the fight and keeps it fair), the mananahi (the `surgeon' who treats the wounded cocks), the mananara (who fits the bladed sharp spurs to the cocks), the kristo (who looks for bets), the takillera (who mans the entrance).

A person goes to the cockpit not just to bet, but also in order to be in harmony with others. The whole barrio may accompany their member to the sabongan and bet for their common fighting cock. A tricycle driver who raises a fighting cock and enters it for sabong may have the backing of his friends and relatives who pool their money for a common effort. The joy of winning can be contagious and has a sakop orientation.

The bettor considers especially whether the fighting cock belongs to his friend or neighbor. Not to support a close relative is a serious offense. Even if he prefers the other cock, he will usually bet on the cock of his compadre and close friend. This act relates to future relationships. When he is torn between his allegiance to two sakops, he will prefer to stay neutral by wandering outside for a drink.

While the tari is being tied, the owner and all his supporters cluster around the cock except for one friend who is off spying on the opponent. The owner, or a very close friend, writes down what will become the parada (inside bet). If the owner is low status, he will usually send a companion off to the revelevant high status people at the cockpit that day, his barrio captain, the mayor, perhaps his employer, a judge who once did him a favor, to ask for theirbets. This is important. If he fails to do this and the cock wins, the high status people become quite indignant, complaining that they did not know that their "friend's" cock was being fought.12

Betting therefore reflects the hierarchic nature of society.

The cockfight can be a symbolic fight between two sakops with the cocks as their representatives.

If a mayor, for example, fights a cock, he can expect everyone in his municipality to bet on his cock if he is visiting another cockpit and at least everyone in his faction if he is fighting within the municipality. Similarly, a barrio captain can expect everyone in his barrio to support his cock. Thus, betting lines are pyramidical: councilmen support barrio captains, barrio captains support mayors, and mayors support governors. The converse is also true. The mayor will always support a barrio captain from his municipality against an opponent from another municipality; for him not to do so is a sure sign of political infighting.13

Sakop and Private Property

The fighting cocks practically become communal through the betting system. In rural areas, one aficionados' fighting cock is implicitly owned by the whole village. The villagers (who belong to one sakop) will bet for their cock. To bet on the other side's cock would be against sakop mentality. The members of the group give up their personal preferences and prejudices for the sake of the group.

`Balato' is the winning share which the winner gives out to those close to him and to his neighbors. The mere proximity to the winner is chance of getting a share in the prize. This shows that property is communal.

If one loses, the sakop (the owner and friends) share the meat of the losing cock as `pulutan' for their drinking spree.

Space and Time

Space may either be cosmic or human. In cosmic space the measure is the world; the measure of the latter is human. Human space is more the norm in Filipino thought. Just as the space in the nipa hut (which has no partition) is shared for most purposes, so is the space in the sabongan.

In rural areas, if one asks where the cockfight will take place, the answer may be `Sa lote ni Mang Kadio' (in the lot of Mang Kadio), or `malapit sa may sapa' (near the river).

As a sakop application of space, the sabongan has also its hierarchy. That means the VIPs and the common tao have their respective places. The VIP place has privileges, e.g., while nobody can go out at fixed times, there are exceptions for the VIPs.

The circular design of the cockpit fosters the harmonizing of the audience.

Like space, time may either be cosmic or human. The Filipino stress is more on the human. While informal sabong between two parties can occur any time and place, Sundays, fiestas or special events are occasions for big sabongs. When somebody asks when will sabong be, the answer in rural areas have human time references: `bukas pagkatapos mananghalian' (tomorrow after lunch), `sa hapon ng kapistahan' (in the afternoon of the town fiesta). When is the sabongero coming back? `Pagnapanalo ako' (when I win).

People reckon the duration of the sabong not by the number of hours, but by the number of bouts (saltadas). There is not fixed schedule. Each fight (saltada) begins after the betting is over and ends after the referee declares the winner.


As mentioned in Chapter V, Filipino philosophy stresses becoming. In sabong the philosophy of becoming is in the process of winning and losing, in the process of the joy of winning and the pain of losing. `Malas tayo ngayon, sa susunod, babawi tayo' (we lose now; but we will make up next time). The aficionado believes that if there is loss, there will still be gain.

Expressions related to becoming are `malas', (bad luck), `buenas' or suwerte (good luck), `palad' (fate). He justifies losing as his fate.

Legal Philosophy and Ethics

In Filipino legal philosophy, the law is personal, concrete, interior, and holistic. We see these features also in sabong.

The sabong laws are quite concrete because determining the winning fighting cock is simple: the loser is one which no longer pecks, runs, or cannot stand.

The law as interior shows itself in the bets which are based on word of honor. Instead of written contracts, a sign of a finger, a nod of the head can be a binding pledge. In spite of this lack of written records, honesty reigns in general. While no money is laid down before the fight, the losers faithfully pay after the bout.

Sabong laws therefore rest on honesty, confidence, and trust. Although honesty prevails, in a few exceptions cheating does take place. Some run away (`igtad') after the bout. Others try to fool the kristo by changing the color of their shirts.14 A welsher is sure of terrible punishment. "He is usually beaten, sometimes killed, and what for many people is far worse, dragged into the arena where is paraded around, insulted, kicked, and humiliated by policemen and fans before being hauled off to jail."15 Amicable settlements resolve broken rules.

Because sabong knits people into a community, it has a positive value. Furthermore, sabong occasions the practice of trust and honesty. Sabong as recreation serves as a vicarious outlet for pent-up or violent feelings. The joy and excitement it brings have positive values.

Is sabong sadistic or cruel to animals? Bull-fighting is more sadistic and all the more is boxing. The suffering and death of the fighting cocks may be a lesser evil than the catharsis that sabong effects.

However, sabong can also become big-time gambling. A man can gamble away his savings through sabong; his family can suffer from his indiscretion. Then it becomes ethically problematic.

Besides sabong, another philosophical microcosm is the jeepney.

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