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Monday, June 29, 2020

The Origins of Oton Death Mask


The practice of putting death masks on the deceased was a custom in many ancient societies. Filipinos from Pre-Hispanic times also performed this rite of honoring the dead to protect the body from malevolent entities or spirits. An archeological wonder named Oton Death Mask proved the rich heritage and customs of Pre-Hispanic Filipinos.

Oton Death Mask
Image: My Beautiful Iloilo
Oton Death Mask is not elaborate, ornate, and lifelike unlike other death masks from Western societies such as Agamemnon's Mask, it has a more archaic and Bronze Age design in it. The prime purpose of the death mask is to act as a shield against engkantos or evil spirits.


Filipino Archeologists led by F. Landa Jocano, and Alfredo Evangelista found the most popular of these death masks in Oton, Panay, an island in Western Visayas or Region VI. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, several of these death masks were found in several islands in Western Visayas and Northern Mindanao. These death masks are found along with Ming Dynasty porcelain, vases, and cookwares. This is a strong proof that these masks were first made around the 1300s up to 1400s.

Using gold in death masks in non-Western societies proved how the rich of the Philippines was even before the colonizers made their way to the Philippine soil. Accounts of explorers to the New World noted that even natives of lower social standing can wear gold, a resource highly valued in Western countries.

The process of making the Oton Death Mask is very different compared to death masks from Western civilizations. Instead of dye casting or pouring malleable gold to form a mold of the deceased person, the Oton Deathmask is made manually and only covers the eyes and the nasal area of the person instead of smelting gold all around the face of the dead. The gold used to craft the mask is remarkably thinner compared to other more popular death masks from other cultures.

Oton Death Mask
Image: gramho.com

An intact and well-preserved death mask is currently at the care of the National Museum. There are also thinner variants of the death masks displayed in the Ayala Museum. Some of these death masks are also shown in cultural exhibits or events in the country.

Oton Death Mask
Image: Simply Iloilo
The Oton Death Mask is not only an evidence of a rich and culture even before the colonizers came to the Philippines, but it is also a symbol of a culture long lost in time that is, fortunately, being restored and venerated by the locals. The central motif of Katagman Festival is the death mask, along with the events that transpired when the masks are being adorned to the fallen warriors.


The Katagman Festival is an annual event that begins on April 28 and ends on May 3. The week-long event is a showcase of a rich culture that locals from Panay demonstrate through street dance, games, and plays or presentations reenacting the struggle of locals against pirates, colonizers, and fights between warring tribes.

The Katagman Festival also encourages the more traditional street games by organizing contests on palosebo, and other traditional games.  This is one of the few festivals that encourage traditional games along with street dance and plays. You can watch the Vlog of the festival in the video below.

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