Place name explanations often border on the fantastic and the comical. Intramuros, for instance, was said to have been named “so that the Moros will not entra.” Arnold Azurin (1995) calls this cultural malpractice the abuse of folklore in our national culture, coining the term “fakelore.”

What is the folklore and fakelore of the name “Cagayan”?

The usual recourse is to cite the local legend that ascribes the name to a love story between a beautiful princess and a vanquished warrior. It was said that a slave-raiding party of Maguindanao warriors descended upon the town. The town datu, however, sends instead his beautiful daughter to meet the Maguindanao chief, Rajah Moda Samporna. Captivated by her beauty, the rajah marries her and settles in the town. Instead of conquering them, the Maguindanao warriors were conquered. They retreated in shame, traumatized by the turn of events, calling it a “place of shame.” In Binukid, “kagayha-an” is “place of shame.” Later Spanish mispronounciation, the usual much-abused alibi, is said to have then evolved into the name “Cagayan.”

The story has other variations. One identifies the princess as a Maranao and the vanquished warrior as the datu of Cagayan. Other variations claim Kagayhaan as the name of the princess. However it varies, the plot remains the same: the Moro contravida versus the Christianized vida. The consistency of that plot cannot be underestimated in the historical discourse of Christian-Moro antagonism. It is possible then that the Kagayhaan fakelore came about as a way of promoting the supremacy of the Spanish colonial masters, much in the same way the moro-moro used mental conditioning to prejudice the Christian population against the Moro people.

The use of Moro antagonists is a stereotype of Spanish-inspired plots where the Moro is never the victor but always the vanquished, never the protagonist but always the antagonist. The already-discarded and archaic moro-moro should make the Kagayhaan fakelore a source of quibble so cruelly prejudicial in these cross-cultural times.

That is one reason why the ascription of folk etymologies to place names or toponyms is at most times inaccurate and clearly devoid of historical basis, besides being sources of amusement, comedy, and ethnic inequality and social marginalization.

In this case, the “place of shame” story suffers a lot from its time elements alone. Rajah Moda Samporna was indeed a real persona, but eyewitness accounts narrate that he came to Cagayan only in 1889 (Pastells). That is nearly three hundred years removed, in fact, from the Spanish colonization of Cagayan in 1622.


One of the first contrary positions to the Kagayhaan claim was that one by Bernad (1987) who cite the name “Cagayan” as having been derived from a progenitor language, long extinct, and meant “place of the river.” A subsequent check, however, of such name in David Zorc’s Proto Philippine Finder List proved futile. Obviously, the origin of the name is beyond recall. The answer must lie elsewhere.

A good place to start the investigation is oral ethnohistory. It has already been established that the Cagayan proto people were the Proto Northern Manobo from among whom branched out today’s Higaunon of hinterland Cagayan de Oro.

Agyú (also spelled as Agio) is the protagonist from the Manobo Epic Olaging (CultureEd Philippines)

As in all ethnic groups of Mindanao, the Higaunon record their history by means of chanted epics, in their case, the olaging. The folk hero of the olaging is Agio, and mentions Agio’s elder brother Pamulaw as having taken as wife Yumagmag Katiguman (Opeña, 1979). The olaging describes her as “Lady of Kagay-an, Queen of Lambagohon,” clearly indicating Kagay-an as a place name instead of a personal name. Note also the glottal stop which today’s natives of Cagayan de Oro retain.

There is mention of the place name name Kagayhaan in the epic but it is rather the name of Pamulaw’s first daughter. One other significant light is that this is the only ethnohistorical basis of a written documented reference to the name Kagay-an as related to “Lambagohon.”

Folk knowledge in Cagayan de Oro relates that the area was also known prehistorically as “Kalambagohan,” because of the abundant Lambago tress on its banks (possibly “Bago,” Gnetum genemone Linn. or Fagraea racemosa, as cited by Paredes, 1997).

Ethno-epics such as the Bukidnon olaging do not belong to the same category as folk legends. Although many elements in a folk epic are legendary, the entire epic is handed down from one generation to the next. Epics can only be sung by prescribed chanters. Hence, they contain a higher level of accuracy than simple folk legends. They are also chanted only during special occasions.

Baybayan, Son of Agyu, the first chanter of the World. He was destined to remain on earth and experience life’s hardships. Followers who refused to follow his leadership were turned into stones. Illustration by Nonoy Estarte, courtesy of Xavier University Museo de Oro.
(Agung No. 4. 2016)

Then the usual option is to explain place names by way of Spanish corruption of the original indigenous name. This simplistic recourse, however, which is seeing Filipino history through the colonial lens, has long lost credibility and validity. In the case, for example, of Cagayan de Oro, the Kagayhaan proponents claim this name as having been corrupted eventually by the Spaniards to Cagayan. Another version traces the origin of the name to 1779 when the Spaniards were said to have found the bashfulness of its inhabitants. But the Spaniards were already in Cagayan in 1622.

The other way of verification is to consider comparative chronology. Two important historical documents already identified the place as Cagayan even before 1622, when the Augustinian Recollects first came to Cagayan. One was the donation of the area in 1571, only five years after the arrival of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, as an encomienda to a certain Juan Griego (Fray Juan Francisco de San Antonio, 1738-1744). The other document identified Cagayan as a cinnamon-producing region (de Loarca, 1582).

It has already been established that at the time of the Recollect arrival, Cagayan was a tributary of Sharif Kabungsuwan’s great grandson, Bwisan. We know that Kabungsuwan came to Mindanao in 1480 and Bwisan was his fourth generation descendant. Cagayan then could have lost its independence to Bwisan sometime in the late 1500s. But at this time, the place was already known as Cagayan. That is another deficient time element in the Kagayhaan legend.

A third recourse would be to look at comparative toponymic nomenclature. Kagayhaan proponents have never explained why there are other places in the Philippine archipelago also named Cagayan. There is Cagayan province in Luzon, Cagayan de Mapun (formerly Cagayan de Sulu, subsequently Cagayan de Tawi-tawi) in the Sulu Sea, and Cagayancillo Island in Palawan. How is it that in these places, they do not have the same elements in the Kagayhaan folklore? Surely Princesa Kagayhaan could not have bilocated on these places too?

There are, in fact, striking geographical commonalities among the place names Cagayan de Oro, Cagayan province, and Cagayan de Mapun. In all three, there are remarkable bodies of water. Not only are there major rivers that dissect through both Cagayan de Oro and Cagayan province. Both rivers, in fact, exhibit a very similar terrain of karstic limestone topography on vertical cliffs interspersed with lush forest vegetation. It has been said that in Spanish times, Cagayan de Oro was compared as “Cagayan el chico” (little Cagayan), a diminutive of Cagayan in Luzon where the river was known as “el rio grande de Cagayan.” One historian brought up the possibility of the Spaniards having observed “geographical twins” (Burton, n.d.). Since both places have Camiguin islands to both their north, that twinning is a possibility occurring in proto-historical times.

On the other hand, in the island of Cagayan de Mapun are two fresh water crater lakes, which are its most remarkable natural features, Ernestine and Singuwang (Casiño, 1976). There is also a perfect circle crater bay, Jurata, with a seaward wall that opens to the sea to form a bay. Could the toponym Cagayan be associated then with water?

In the case of Cagayan province, the Ilocano word for “river,” karayan, was said to have given the province its place name (de Jesus, 1982). It would appear that place names are determined linguistically. Hence, a useful recourse is to look at linguistic kinship or the study of cognates. It is little known, for instance, that there may be more than linguistic coincidences with Ilocano [karayan], Isneg [karayan], and Central Cagayan Agta [keheyan] (Elkins, pers. com., 2001). The name surely has something to do with water.

The noted linguist Richard Elkins (2001) is of the belief that there is most likely a connection between Ilocano and Manobo. “There are some features which both language sub-families share with each other that they do not share with any languages found in other parts of the Philippines.” Citing the linguist Isidore Dyen, Elkins posits that this strongly hints of genetic relationship. The Western Bukidnon Manobo, in fact, pronounce Cagayan as kegey?an (? = glottal stop), in much the same way that multi-generational natives of Cagayan de Oro do.

The curator of the Crisologo Museum in Vigan, a native of Cagayan province, informed me that among some old folks of the place, the name is said with a glottal stop, Cagay-an, much like the way Cagayan de Oro old folks say the same.

Elkins further offers the view that the Ilocano “karayan” could be a cognate of “kagay-an” because of the r-g-h correspondence found in Philippine languages (June 22, 2001). He is therefore of the position that Kagayan from a possible Proto karayan for “river” is very likely (July 4, 2001).

Elkins also offers the so-called “siak connection” (citing Dyen, July 6, 2001). Dyen once pointed out the fact that both Ilocano and many Manobo languages have the topic personal pronoun “siak,” probably indicating some close genetic relationship with the north. None of the central Philippine languages (or those south from the far north) use this form. The Manobo subfamily, Dyen claims, is very likely closely related to Ilocano and its sister languages than it is to languages of other subfamilies.

But how does one bridge the great geographical divide between these two very diverse ethnic groups? The Ilocano and the Manobo are literally on two separate poles of the Philippine archipelago. We must remember that thousands of years ago, when the sea was a highway, there was only a Proto Philippine language that existed in the Philippines (Walton, 1979). We are thus of the hypothesis that in that time period, the antecedents of the Ilocano and the Manobo had some form of interaction. The name Cagayan was a vestige of that interaction.

There is also the “ag” connection that Elkins points out. In the Manobo and Ilocano, the verbal affix “mag” of Tagalog and Cebuano is “ag-.” Hence, note the following comparisons.

Ilocano: Agtugaw kayo (sit down); siak ti agtugaw (I am the one who will sit down) Manobo: Agpinuu kew en (you will now sit down); siak is agpinuu (I am the one who will sit down).

Contrast this with Cebuano:

Ako ang maglingkod (I am the one who will sit down).

Such similarity seems to corroborate the possible connection between Ilocano and Manobo.

Finally, as to the nominalizer “an,” this sometimes marks the location, as in: belayan (place of houses), seyawan (dancing place). In most Philippine languages, “an” functions similarly, that is, locative. Thus, Cagayan can be “place of the river.”

Based on this foregoing evidence, the name kagayan is a Proto Philippine form that probably became long extinct, but continues to be manifested in its daughter languages. We assume that the distribution of the name is a vestige of ancient north-south interaction. But barring a formal study, we can only make guesses as to when that interaction took place. Glottochronologists who use statistical data to date the divergence of languages from their common sources may say it happened in protohistory, which can be a catch-all of anywhere between the Neolithic age to the Metal age.

Because of the wide use of the name in many ethnic regions of the Philippines, only a linguistic inference can explain the origin of the name.

Cagayan de Oro is certainly not a condescending “place of shame,” but sometimes it is good to let out a loud guffaw over the sidesplitting absurdities of toponymic fictionalizing.

Seriously speaking, fakelore must not dictate the culture of identities.

-30-

Antonio J. Montalvan II PhD is  a Kagay-anon columnist, social anthropologist, university professor and heritage activist. on the occasion of the 2004 launching of his book “Ethnohistory of Cagayan de Oro” at the Museum of 3 Cultures, Capitol University, Cagayan de Oro City. (Photo by Elson T. Elizaga)

REFERENCES CITED

Azurin, Arnold 1995

Reinventing the Filipino Sense of Being and Becoming:

Critical Analyses of the Orthodox Views in Anthropology, History, Folklore and Letters

2nd ed.

University of the Philippines Press

Bernad, Miguel 1987

Editor’s note in “Oral Tradition in Bukidnon Prehistory” by Mardonio M. Lao

Kinaadman Journal, vol. 10 p. 31,

Xavier University

Burton, John William n.d.

“Northern Mindanao: A Historical Synopsis”

Unpublishsed papers, Xavier University

Casiño, Eric 1976

The Jama Mapun

Ateneo de Manila University Press

Dyen, Isidore 1962

The Lexicostatistical Classification of Malayo-Polynesian Languages

Language vol. 38 no. 1

Elkins, Richard

personal communications:

June 22, 2001

June 25, 2001

July 4, 2001

July 6, 2001

De Jesus, Ed C. 1982

“Control and Compromise in the Cagayan Valley”

Philippine Social History: Global Trade and Local Transformation

Ateneo de Manila University Press

De Loarca, Miguel 1582

“Relacion de las Yslas Filipinas”

Blair and Robertson vol. 5, 34

Project Gutenberg EBook retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16501/16501-h/16501-h.htm

Opeña, Ludivina 1979

Olaging, the Battle of Nalandangan: a Bukidnon Folk Epic

Translated from the Binukid

Kinaadman Journal, vol. 1, Xavier University

Paredes, Oona Thommes 1997

People of the Hinterlands: Higaunon Life of Northern Mindanao, Philippines

Masters Thesis, Arizona State University

Pastells y Vila, Pablo 1998

Mission to Mindanao 1859-1900

University of San Carlos Press

De San Antonio, Fray Juan Francisco 1738-1744

Cronicas de la Provincia de San Gregorio Magno

Walton, Charles 1979

A Philippine Language Tree

Anthropological Linguistics

Cover photo: Placid Cagayan River by Carlo Antonio Romero

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *