Consider the scuba diver pilgrimage to the underwater grotto of Mary near Bien Unido, Bohol. The underwater statue was dropped to the depths to stop dynamite fishing on the Bohol reefs, and it has worked.
These statues are sensitive to the plight of devotees. In Alcantara, Mary moved her head towards Bohol after the terrible 7.2 earthquake that hit Cebu and Bohol last October. Devotees speculate that she is concerned about those who lost homes, loved ones, and several century-old churches. She also appeared on the cement floor of an evacuation center in Barangay Sta Cruz in Calepe, Bohol. Rowena Mejia tried to wipe off the image of the Lady of Perpetual Help thinking it was a stain, but it seemed to be engraved in the floor.
In Cebu, consider the Santo Nino that three children found at the seashore January 24, during the annual “Hubo” of the Sto. Niño at Basilica del Sto. Niño. There are several versions of the story. The children first thought it was a doll. When the statue talked, they threw it into the sea in a panic, and then retrieved it. It spoke Bisayan, “Dad-a ko sa inyong balay kay dili ko daotan (Bring me to your home because I am not evil),” And now, petitioners line up for heart-felt requests of the holy child doll, adrift like them.
Most similar to the story of the my studies of Catholic statues recovered from Cambodian waters are legends of Cebu's Black Santo Niño and Obando's Nuestra Señora de Salambao. Both stories involve poor fishermen. In the first, the sad man keeps catching the same piece of wood. Three times he throws it back, three times it reappears in his net. Finally, he brings it home, and since his wife is drying palay (unhusked rice) on a mat outside the house, he throws the wood on the rice. If you are magic, let's see if you keep birds and chickens from the palay, he tells the wood. The wood obeys. But the fisherman didn't heed its power and carts it up to the house. That night, he dreams that the wood he had "caught" is a beautiful child. When he wakes, the wood has transformed into a little wooden child. Slowly over time, it transmogrifies into the image of the Santo Nino it is today.1 There is, however, a more mundane origin story of the oldest religious figure in the Philippines. It was a Flemish carving that Magellan presented as a baptismal gift to Queen Juana.
The sea-laden Mary conveys more willfulness. One night in 1770, three fishermen in Malabon, Bulacan were night fishing without much success until their boat reached near the town of Obando. Suddenly their salambao, fishing net, was thick with fish. The catch seemed miraculous. At midnight, the salambaw became so heavy it took all three of them to pull it up, and they found in it a wooden statue of Virgin Mary. They tried to return to Malabon, but the boat would not move. It drifted instead towards Obando. In the dark before dawn, they reached the shore of Bantilan near the church of Obando, and a crowd was eagerly awaiting them. How did they know? Everyone replied, "I was awakened by a women who asked me to meet her image in Bantilan."2 She is called Nuestra Señora de Salambao.
The Queen of the Sea chose for her destination the site of a powerful fertility dance led exclusively by women. The three statues of Obando: Nuestra Señora de Salambao, Sta. Clara, and San Pascual Baylon grant children to wives who danced before them in the fiesta.3
The Tadtarin is a pre-hispanic fertility festival that coincides with the June Feast of Saint John the Baptist. Even today, women lead a three-day procession, on the first, as a young woman, the second as mature, and the third day, coinciding with John the Baptist, the crone who ritually dies and returns to life.
I could go on, but it's late.
There are countless stories like these, statues lost, left standing in the rubble, statues contorted among bodies in a wreck, signaling the ambivalence of the sacred, its beneficence and terror. Beyond the photo op, these statues are actors, they ask to be seen, rescued, worshipped. Humans interpret their signs - a sense of comfort, a prop for requests. Most of us have a Protestant or just general irritation about religious objects that act up (Ganesh weeps milk, Mary tears, Jesus blood, or interjections on trees, glass buildings, toast, cement floors).
I am reading Marina Warner's Stranger Magic. Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, a thick treatise on the European reception of the The Thousand and One Nights. She echoes my concern for our contemporary loss of magic. She boldly states, "I want to look without squeamishness at the contemporary uses of enchantment, at the continuing vitality of magic in literature as well as its structural presence in the everyday culture, and the reasons for its persistent survival -- which is a source of perplexity, anxiety and even annoyance to some in a scientific secular society." (2012, 22) In it, she also reflects upon the "thing-world" of the Arabian Nights, a severed head that speaks, a book that kills, carpets that fly, enchanted flasks. There are many objects of the quotidian that have magical powers or are activated by their owners. Is this a primitive mode of thinking? Warner, in her usual style, takes us into our enchanted present referring to Stewart's On Longing that meditates on how objects gain power through attachment and memory, or Winnicott's work on the importance of imagination for the child and society. She considers her own attachment to talismans and then offers a fascinating discussion of the talismanic properties of paper money, not unlike Michael Taussig's provocative work on "The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in Latin America" where Colombian and Bolivian peasants believe one can strike a bargain with the devil through the fetish of money to increase their productivity and wages.
What do we do with these phenomena? The web is cluttered with iPhone evidence of apparitions gone viral, Jesus on toast. I've thumbed through edited scholarly collections and examined church criteria testing the efficacy of new appearances.
At Delphi, the Pythia interpreted the signs. We have too many oracles now. As Latour and advocates of onto politics claim, we are in an era when the object has its own voice. Consider Siri, Google glass, or FaceTime. But I am considering sacred, agential objects. And sometimes they seem ambivalent -- about us.
1. Philippine Folk Literature: An Anthology, UP Press, 2007
2. Ibid. This story, collected by Professor de los Reyes from her grandfather, who heard it from his mother who in turn heard it from her mother.
3.Nick Juaquin's short story, Summer Solstice, depicts the cult of the Tadtarin, in the 1800's in Paco. That festival has been revived on the second Sunday of December at the Paco parish church. There is another tadtarin on the second Sunday of November at the Nuersta Señora de Penafrancia enroute to Pandacan.