Merlion and The Ancient Symbol of Manila

Merlion, with "mer" meaning "sea" in javanese" and "lion" as in lion, is the mythical sea-lion creature that has been Singapore's marketing icon and de-facto symbol since the 1970s. Very similar to the heraldic sea-lion (sometimes called a morse) which occurs in a number of different artistic traditions, it is widely used as a mascot and national personification of Singapore. However, the sea-lion has been an element of the Western heraldic traditions and can be seen in various Coat of arms of overseas territories. And that's where we start our interesting topic.

Depiction of the original coat of arms of City of Manila, Philippines. By HansenBCN - Own work, Public Domain, Link

For most people, the first thing that will come into their mind when they see a sea-lion is Merlion and thus, Singapore. That in itself can be attributed to the successful tourism and marketing campaign of Singapore in the 1970s. But the ultramar sea-lion on the other hand is another sea-lion symbol that dates back several hundred years earlier. Its use is mostly delegated as just an element a larger symbol or coat of arms. The depiction of the half-lion, half-fish symbol followed the classical tradition of iconography and heraldry, with the lion represented the lands of the Kingdom of Spain, while the fish represented the seas where the possessions(colonies) are. For Britain, three lions represented the Crown. Eventually, this sea-lion is called "Ultramar" with "ultra" meaning "from beyond" and "mar" means "sea". In effect, Ultramar means "from beyond the sea" which is an apt description for the overseas possessions of the western kingdoms. Despite not unique to Manila, ultramar was ultimately associated to the city.

Coat of arms is a unique symbol unique to an individual person or family, corporation or state. Its use became popular and widespread during the late Medieval period in Europe where it found its way from the battlefield use to become a flag or emblem for families in the higher social classes of Europe inherited from one generation to the next. By the time of renaissance period, most countries and cities in Europe have their unique emblems and there were even regulations on its use. And on March 20, 1596, King Philip II of Spain granted Distinguished and Ever Loyal City of Manila its own coat of arms. It's the first coat of arms for the Philippines.

Here's what was written on the document granting the coat of arms of Manila.

“By these presents I assign, as the special coat-of-arms of the said city of Manila in the Filipinas Islands, a shield which shall have in the center of its upper part a golden castle on a red field, closed by a blue door and windows, and which shall be surmounted by a crown; and in the lower half on a blue field a half lion and half dolphin of silver, armed and langued gules—that is to say, with red nails and tongue. The said lion shall hold in his paw a sword with guard and hilt. This coat-of-arms shall be made similar to the accompanying shield, painted as is indicated above. I bestow these arms upon the said city of Manila, as its own, and as its appointed and recognized device, so that it may and shall bear and place them upon its banners, “shields, seals, flags, and standards, and in all other parts and places desired and considered fitting, according to, and following the same form and manner as the other cities of my kingdoms to which I have given arms and device place and possess them."
— English translation from Blair and Robertson's "The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898"

Philippine Coat of Arms as designed in 1596 photo credit, Presidential Communications Development and Strategic And Planning Office

The Ultramar then became part of the logos and insignia of different Philippine government agencies. More prominently, the Philippine presidential seal displays the sea-lion at the front and center. The seal of the Vice President of the Philippines also features the sea-lion. The city of Manila, for its part, has maintained a number of elements from the one commissioned by King Philip II. The Philippine Navy SEALS also have the ultramar on its insignia. Unfortunately, however, ultramar was not fully utilised as a tourism icon nor endorsed as a national icon. Even sadder is that fact that most Filipinos today do not even know about the significance of the ultramar sea-lion to our history. This is due in part to nationalistic view where the ultramar represents the colonial past of the country.

Interestingly, the Malacañang Museum has an article which extensively explains its significance in Philippine history. The article touches on the fact that the sea-lion, an imagined symbol of authority and office, is part of the Filipino culture despite its colonial past. The Spanish colonial period is part of the Filipino DNA and heritage. The identify is in every Filipino blood and it is the same blood that our ancestors paid to gain our independence. And despite the fact that the sea-lion is not unique to the Philippines, it cannot be denied that the ultramar sea-lion was widely known as part of Manila's coat of arms not only in the Philippines and Spain but throughout the western world when Spain was still a world power. The almost exclusive use of ultramar to represent Philippines in the olden times is a proof that it is mostly associated to the country. It is a fact that was lost in our struggle for own self identity and to move away from our old colonial masters.

To be clear, Singapore's Merlion is not an imitation. When it was conceived for the Singapore Tourism Board in 1964, the icon is actually a combination of Lion and Sea which has links to the city state. The island's name, Singapura, came from the old sanskrit "Singa" meaning lion. Temasek, Singapore's old name in Javanese, actually meant "sea". So the combination of old+new names of the island perfectly represents the city-state. Besides, the ultramar sea-lion is not unique to The Philippines, either. In fact, the city of Burgas in Bulgaria has a similar figure on its coat-of-arms though that's supposedly a sea-dragon.

On the private sector, the San Miguel Corporation has the sea-lion on its "escudo". The conglomerate dates back to the Spanish times when its brewery was established in the San Miguel area in Manila. And that's where the connection came from.

So now after reading this piece, we are hoping that when you stand near the Merlion, you'll remember that the Philippines also have a similar symbol. A symbol that is unfortunately almost forgotten.

Philippine Coat of Arms Logo of the President of the Republic of the Philippines

San Miguel Corporation Escudo coat of arms of archdiocese of manila, philippines

References: Presidential Museum Library

The story behind the 'Merlion9 emblem
The Straits Times, 20 May 1964, Page 13

Whatever Happened to Manila's Merlion?

Pilipinas Heraldry