Kalasag: The Filipino War Shield
A Kalinga warrior armed with spear and shield (from the book “The Tinguian Social, Religious, and Economic Life of a Philippine Tribe” by Fay-Cooper Cole, assistant curator of Malayan ethnology, 1922).
The shield is an important implement of warfare of pre-colonial Filipino warriors. The general term for shield in the Philippines is “kalasag” but given the ethnic diversity of the country, it is also known by other names. The shield was used as a graphic element in various Philippine insignias; the First Filipino Infantry regiment of World War II coat of arms and the Philippine National Police logo among them. On the former, Dan Inosanto, in his book “The Filipino Martial Arts,” wrote, “Always First [Laging Una], was the saying on the regiment’s coat of arms. The crossed kris and the Igorot war shield represented the two dominant war-like pagan tribes and the 3 stars symbolize the 3 principal islands – Luzon, Visaya and Mindanao.” Inosanto is among the handful of Filipino martial arts masters who have integrated the use of the kalasag in traditional weapons training.
Antonio de Morga Sánchez Garay mentioned the Philippine war shield in his writings referring to it as “carasas.” In Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas (1609), he wrote, “The weapons of this people are, in some provinces, bow and arrows. But those generally used throughout the islands are moderate-sized spears with well-made points; and certain shields of light wood, with their armholes fastened on the inside. These cover them from top to toe, and are called carasas [kalasag].”
In terms of materials, Philippine war shields come in three varieties: wood, metal and woven material. Rectangular shields with elaborate projections are more commonly associated with the highland tribes of northern Philippines while circular shields are identified with the Muslims of the southern part. Besides warfare, the shield is also employed for ceremonial purposes like in the performance of war dances.
Fay-Cooper Cole, an assistant curator of Malayan ethnology, in 1922 wrote a detailed description of the physical appearance and practical use of the war shield of the highland tribes of northern Luzon. A part of his book “The Tinguian: Social, Religious, and Economic Life of a Philippine Tribe,” reads, “Shields, kalásag.—Mention has already been made of the typical Tinguian-Kalinga shield. While this is the common type of the region, others, which approach those of the Bontoc Igorot, are frequently used. As a rule, these come from Balatok, Lubuagan, Guinaan and the villages along the Malokbot river, all of which are strongly influenced in blood and culture by the Igorot. In the latter shields we find the prongs at the top and bottom, but they are no longer of sufficient size and opening to be of practical value. The clue to their origin is probably afforded us in their use by the Tinguian. Across the top and bottom of each shield, near to the prongs, are two or three braided bands which appear to be ornamental, or to strengthen the weapon. Their real use, however, is to hold the soga, the pointed bamboo sticks which are planted in the grass to delay pursuers. A half dozen or more of these are usually to be found under the braiding at the back of the shield. All shields are of very light wood, and can easily be pierced by a spear. They are intended to be used in deflecting missiles rather than actually to stop them. To aid in this purpose, there is a hand grip cut into the center of the back. This is large enough to admit the first three fingers, while the thumb and little finger are left outside to tilt the shield to the proper angle.”
Another good description of the Kalinga shield was offered by Cornelis De Witt Willcox. In his 1912 book “The Head Hunters of Northern Luzon From Ifugao to Kalinga, A Ride Through the Mountains of Northern Luzon With an Appendix on the Independence of the Philippines,” he wrote, “With it goes the Kalinga shield of soft wood, made in one piece, with the usual three horns or projections at the top and two at the bottom. These projections, however, are cylindrical, and the outside ones are continued down the edge of the shield and so form ribs. In the ordinary Igorot shield the horns are flat, merely prolonging the surface of the shield, or else presenting only a very small relief. As usual, a lacing of bejuco across top and bottom protects the shield against a separation in the event of an unlucky stroke splitting it in two.”
The “taming,” a round shield of the Moros, made of tightly woven rattan was common in Sulu and Basilan. Scholars have differing opinions on the source of the taming with some suggesting that it may have come from the Maranaos while other postulated it could be Chinese, Moluccan or Spanish in origin.
Tausug warriors in Sulu with round shields circa 1900 (from philippineamericanwar.webs.com).
Cole in another book, “The Wild Tribes of Davao District, Mindanao” wrote of the shield of the Bagobos, a non-Muslim but warlike tribe, “For defense they carry shields, either round or oblong, and cover the body with so many strips of hemp cloth that a knife thrust is warded off. Turning his body sideways to the enemy, the warrior crouches behind his shield, keeping up a continuous capering, rushing forward or dancing backward, seeking for an opening but seldom coming to close quarters. Arrows and spears are glanced off with the shield.”
While round shields are generally associated with the Muslim and pagan tribes of Mindanao, William Henry Scott mentioned in Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society (1994), of a round buckler called “palisay” used by the Tagalogs of Luzon.