ISLAND OF THE SORCERERS

By James McClenon

(1985)

 

   Siquijor Island is reputed to be a place where black magic is regularly practiced. Siquijor, located between the large Visayan Islands of Negros and Mindanao in the Philippines, has a population of about 70,000 and a circumference road of about 75 kilometers. Although the residents of Siquijor are poor, they are not “primitive.” National newspapers arrive daily from Dumaguete City on Negros Island, 21 nautical miles to the west. People on Siquijor use cars, buses, motorized “tricycles” and motorcycles for transportation. Fishing, farming (coconuts, root crops, rice and corn) and cottage industries are the predominant sources of income.

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    Various sociologists and anthropologists have studied sorcery and folk medicine in the Visayan Islands (which include Siquijor). Dr. Richard Lieban’s Cebuano Sorcery: Malign Magic in the Philippines (1967) describes his research in Sibulan, a rural municipality on Cebu Island. Some graduate students at Silliman University in Dumaguete City published a report on “Sorcery in the Framework of Folk Medicine on Siquijor Island” in the Silliman Journal in 1971. These studies reveal a complex relationship between the belief in sorcery and the process of modernization. If we understand sorcery on Siquijor, we many be able to predict changes in our own society due to the growing acceptance of psychic phenomena.

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    Most Siquijor Islanders consider the practice of sorcery a sin against their Catholic faith. Although some told me that no sorcerers live on Siquijor, I had little difficulty gathering names of mananambals (folk healers) who treat both natural and supernatural maladies, some of which are believed to be the result of sorcery. Other kinds of folk healers also exist. A manghihilot is a kind of masseur who can set broken bones. A mananabang is a midwife. A bula-bula (referred to in the Silliman University report as a mambolo-bolo ) practices a special magic most suitable for treating skin ailments but also applicable to many other medical problems.

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   Of the respondents interviewed by the graduate students from Silliman University, 69 percent believed that sorcery is practiced on Siquijor Island and 73 percent said that they were afraid of it. Only 10 percent believed that sorcerers could cause disease and death. Although my impression is that this level of belief has remained unchanged during the past 14 years, the complexity of this belief is not reflected in statistics. For example, one man stated that he did not believe in sorcery or the “quack doctors” (folk healers) but later warned me that another man’s grandmother was a mananambal who could kill through magic. Although no one admits to practicing sorcery and many desire not to believe in it, some mananambals are thought to attempt it at times.

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   Perhaps 50 different major sorcery techniques exist. A description of a few of these methods, which vary slightly between practitioners, demonstrates the complexity of this aspect of Siquijor’s folklore. The best-known method is called the barang , the name of a local beetle. Some islanders believe that various beetles can be used.

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   The sorcerer first ties a six-inch length of thread to the legs of three beetles. Sometimes a special breed of barang , which has seven legs rather than six, is raised specifically for use in sorcery. The sorcerer commands the beetles to go to the victim’s house, wait until night and enter the person’s sleeping body. After the beetles lay their eggs inside the body, they return to the sorcerer who inspects their threads. If the threads are bloody, he knows that the curse has been placed effectively. The beetle’s eggs hatch in the victim’s stomach causing ulcers, swollen abdomen, aches all over the body and other maladies. If not treated by a mananambal , who often begins the healing process by magically removing small insects, the person will die.

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    To practice an alternate method, hilo , the sorcerer goes to a special haunted place, sets out sharp bamboo blades and prepares an altar with an offering to special spirits. The ceremony attracts poisonous snakes which leave blood and venom on the blades. These substances are mixed with various herbs to form a sticky wax-like compound which can be put in the victim’s food or drink, touched to his body or merely buried in a place where the person will step. These and similar hilo techniques then produce the desired sorcery symptoms, according to the islanders.

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   Some forms of sorcery require fashioning a doll and damaging it in the same manner as the victim is to be harmed. The doll is often prepared using rituals vaguely related to those of the Catholic Church and to forms of Latin prayers. For example, the doll might be baptized at the instant that a baby is being baptized within a church.

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    To practice la-ga, the sorcerer adds hair, saliva, waste, a picture or some article belonging to the victim to an herbal mixture and boils it over a special fire with ritual prayers. The victim is expected to suffer and die in the manner desired by the sorcerer.

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    Some forms of sorcery are designed to punish adulterers. Lieban describes antiwal , a method that requires an herbal concoction containing the joined genitals of two turtles, killed whiled engaging in sex. If the victim wears clothing on which the substances had been applied, the adulterous couple will be unable to disengage after sexual intercourse. The spell can be broken if the first person to see the joined couple takes off all his clothes.

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    Mananambals know counter-measures, which generally involve herbs, for each sorcery method. One mananambal , Nicolas Agan, showed me his collection of herbal remedies. The victim may be required to place a compress on his chest or stomach, to eat or drink a remedy or to stand in the smoke of a fire constructed with special wood and herbs. The herbs must be gathered on special days, particularly Good Friday before Easter. Roots, bark or leaves gathered from the east side of a tree bring about healing. Similar substances taken from the west side are used in sorcery. The area around San Antonio, on the highest mountain of Siquijor where Agan lives, is known as the “graduate school of sorcery.” Every Good Friday herbal practitioners from other Filipino Islands and the local mananambals visit the area to gather herbs, cook up concoctions and perform rituals.

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    An alternative method for treating diseased patients is undertaken by bula-bulas . I accompanied French journalist Grimm Gilles who sought treatment for a cut on his thumb from one bula-bula , Cosmi Bunachita. As I snapped photographs, Bunachita held a glass filled with water over Gilles’ thumb and blew into it through a bamboo tube. The water became cloudy, a sign that the infection was being removed. The bula-bula repeated this symbolic cleansing process and again the water magically became murky. The third time the bula-bula blew though the tube a small bone with crosses painted on it seemed to appear instantly in the glass. After further blowing through the tube created more murky water, the bula-bula blew into the cloudy water and it magically became clear, a sign that the infection had been removed.

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   Gilles, an unconvinced skeptic, refused to allow Bunachita to apply an herbal salve to his thumb. He assumed that the bula-bula had used sleight of hand to create the magical effects. The Silliman researchers detected exactly that form of fraud as they observed one bula-bula . Unlike mananambals , who practice their art on a part-time basis and receive little compensation, Bunachita supports himself through healing and has achieved a degree of wealth through the contributions of grateful patients. Bunachita requested and received only one peso (about five American cents) from Gilles who felt that nothing miraculous had occurred.

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    One informant told me that during the 1960’s American professors at Silliman University had tested Bunachita under controlled conditions. He blew through a clear plastic tube into a sealed glass test tube while treating experimental subjects. The water magically turned cloudy when the subjects were sick but remained clear for the healthy ones. Objects such as stones, trash or bones (larger than the tube) appeared in the sealed test container after the sick patients were treated. Although the professors maintained skeptical supervision, they reportedly could not explain their observations. Later, when I visited Silliman University, I found no one who knew of this test or any written record or it. Apparently this story is merely part of the folklore that surrounds the healers of Siquijor.

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    Various persons told me that bula-bulas are best at curing skin disorders which do not respond to traditional medical treatments. One bula-bula sometimes makes large objects seem to materialize, shattering the glass container. When my wife and I visited the bula-bula , Isador Bucol, I hoped that he would perform such a magical feat. He did not. But after my wife showed him a rash on her hands, he recommended an herb that grew in his front yard. The remedy seemed effective.

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    All the mananambals that we visited (Nicolas Agan, Pastor Dohaylonsod and Wilhelmina Sibonga) claimed that their abilities came “from God,” rather than through training. Their patients came from all over the Philippines. Some are diagnosed as having natural disorders and are sent to medical doctors. Others have problems caused by spirits. Some have sicknesses caused by sorcery. All of these mananambals stated that, although they did not practice sorcery, some of the many other folk healers might.

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    People most often consult sorcerers in an attempt to “solve” marital problems and land disputes. Divorce in the Catholic Philippines is not legal, making infidelity a particular problem. Jealous wives and mistresses sometimes ask a sorcerer to eliminate their competitors. Land boundaries often are poorly marked and corrupt court systems can make arbitration unsatisfactory. Persons who feel wronged by their neighbors sometimes seek justice through sorcery.

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    One folk belief surrounding malign magic is that any attempt to harm an innocent person will not work. A sorcerer is expected to investigate a claimant’s case to determine if an injustice has occurred before accepting the task of sorcerizing the suggested victim. One sorcerer described a case to Lieban in which successful sorcery had occurred: “My conscience is clear because this is done only against those who are guilty of wrongs against their fellow man….Some people believed that the man got sick because he claimed land that was not his and God punished him. That is the right idea.”

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    Although sorcerers are feared by many, they are considered different from witches. Witches are thought to work evil without considering the justice of their actions and without conducting rituals. The witch’s power is thought to be inherited although sometimes the evil ability is transferred though touch. If the affected person does not accept the role of the witch or seek a healer’s aid, he will die. Some islanders told me that there are no witches in Siquijor, hinting that all had been killed in the past. Others said that witches hid in the caves in the mountains. In the 1960’s an old couple died when their house was dynamited during the night. Villagers believed that the victims conversed with evil spirits.

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    It is difficult to determine the degree to which sorcery attempts are related to the suffering of the persons diagnosed as sorcery victims. Since sorcery is a secret activity, the sorcerer’s successes and failures generally are hidden. The belief that sorcery symptoms are always psychosomatic is not necessarily well-founded. In fact, sorcerers rarely allow their victims to learn of the curse attempt, so it is unclear why sometimes there is such a close relationship between the ritual and the victim’s disorder.

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    Medical doctors have diagnosed alleged sorcery effects as cancer, abdominal tumors, stomach ulcers, portal cirrhosis, ovarian cysts, peritonitis, gastrointestinal neurosis and cerebro-vascular accident (in the case of a man who died soon after being sorcerized). Most mananambals would not argue with these diagnoses but suggest that sorcery caused the problem.

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    When the mananambal is unable to effect a cure, as sometimes happens, it is assumed that his power is insufficient to overcome the sorcerer’s. When the sorcerer is unable to affect a victim, it is assumed that the person is innocent or protected by a powerful charm. Although it is almost certain that some persons who are diagnosed as suffering from sorcery have not been the target of a sorcerer’s curse, the ideology supporting malign magic is never called into question. Like medical doctors, mananambals sometimes disagree regarding a diagnosis but unlike doctors they do not charge when they fail to effect a cure.

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    One symptom of sorcery, diagnosed by medical doctors as gastrointestinal neurosis, is highly unusual. The victim’s stomach swells and recedes with the rise and fall of the tides, a condition leading to death if not treated by a mananambal . Although many people I interviewed said they had never actually seen anyone who suffered from this disorder, mananambals and their relatives told me that they had seen many cases. I feel confident that such cases occur; the president of Silliman University told me he had seen such a case himself.

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    Sorcery exerts a degree of social control over the islanders. People try not to allow conflicts to reach the stage where sorcery might be used. Sometimes adulterers, believing that they have been sorcerized, return to their spouses. Lieban relates to a case in which a sorcerer performed the ritual la-ga , using fingerprints left by a thief. Later a man suspected of being the thief suffered and died from a “swollen stomach.” After his death some of the stolen property was found in his room.

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    I wish to emphasize, however, that Siquijor Islanders are not hostile or unfriendly because of their fear of sorcery. Abe Vega, a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to Siquijor, described the atmosphere far differently. “In Dumaguete City during my training people often made jokes about the danger of my going to an island full of sorcerers,” he told me. “Actually sorcery is not an important part of life here. People might turn to it in cases where there is severe conflict but it doesn’t involve me in any way.”

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    Vega told me about another volunteer who sought the advice of a mananambal for her respiratory problems. He told her that an enchanted rock in her backyard was the source of the disorder. After she moved, her problem was alleviated. Vega suggested that her moving away from a dusty area explained the “cure.”

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    Vega also related the tale of a bachelor who loved a woman who detested him. The man obtained an herbal love potion from a mananambal , the use of which proved highly effective. Everyone was amazed that the woman quickly developed an intense love for the man, one so strong that she cried when they were apart. Unfortunately, the effect wore off after they were married!

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    Some people explain the prevalence of folk healers on Siquijor as a result of (1) the healer’ low fees, (2) the shortage of medical doctors and (3) the healer’s concern for the total wellbeing of the patient. None of these explanations is entirely satisfactory.

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    Although mananambals generally request just token payment only after achieving a successful cure, patients sometimes travel long distances to consult them (even all the way from Manila). Patients also are sometimes required to pay church officials for special masses that are part of their “treatment.” Although a modern hospital has been built on Siquijor, some patients invite mananambals inside, hoping that their herbs will aid in their recovery. Some mananambals and bula-bulas treat their patients in the same “clinical” manner as do medical doctors; yet they still attract many persons requesting aid.

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    “Why do so many people consult these folk healers?” I asked a skeptical islander.  “Because the doctors cannot help them,” he replied. “They have problems which can be cured only by a quack doctor.”

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    Lieban suggests that the practice of sorcery and folk healing may increase in some Third World societies due to the disorganizing effects of modernization. Increased land disputes and marital strife may be associated with “progress.”

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    Previous investigators note that, although there is a tendency for less-educated persons to seek treatment from folk healers, some of these seeking aid are highly educated. I found that educated respondents often reported seemingly valid reasons for belief (and astonishing anecdotal stories); yet they cautiously qualified their statements.

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    For example, attorney Anastacio Lozano, formerly a local court judge, consulted a medical doctor when he began suffering from a strange sickness. The doctor suggested that he also seek advice from a folk healer because his illness seemed unusual. Wilhelmina Sibonga, a mananambal , told Lozano that he had been sorcerized by a man involved in a court case over which he had presided. Sibonga accurately described a man involved in one of Lozano’s recent cases, a remarkable feat since she had ho way of knowing the case, the man or even the judge’s decision to visit her. Lozano was even more astonished when her herbal remedies proved effective. “For a while I believe,” he told me, “but I cannot be certain.”

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    Lozano also told me of a court case in which a woman from Cebu Island claimed to have sought aid from a mananambal who was rumored to be a sorcerer. She wanted her husband’s mistress killed. The mananambal asked for 500 pesos and told her to wait in Cebu. Later the woman returned and asked the mananambal why nothing had happened to the mistress. He requested more money, a picture of the victim, a piece of the adulteress’ dress and two fighting cocks. Although the woman brought these things, the sorcery had no effect. She brought a lawsuit against the mananambal seeking to regain her money. Apparently many people on Siquijor were afraid of the mananambal – none would testify in support of the woman’s claims. The suit was dismissed when the mananambal denied ever having met the woman.

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    Prof. Salador Vista, head of the anthropology/sociology department at Silliman University, has studied Siquijor’s mananambals for three years. I asked him if he thought the bula-bulas , mananambals and sorcerers on Siquijor ever demonstrated authentic psychic phenomena.  “I would not be able to say,” he replied. “ But I too have seen the bula-bulas make objects appear instantly in the glasses and remarkable herbal cures occur under the direction of mananambals . Yet I cannot say if these things are actually paranormal.”

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    Once Professor Vista sought treatment from a bula-bula for a seriously infected foot. He experienced an astonishing recovery the day after the treatment. He told me of a German researcher who visited Siquijor each year on Good Friday to learn herbal magic from the mananambals . This researcher seemed convinced of the mananambals ’ (and sorcerers’) authenticity.

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    The president of Silliman University, Venacio Aldecoa, Jr., also described to me remarkable effects produced by bula-bulas who had healed his daughters of skin diseases after medical doctors had failed to help them. Although he closely watched many bula-bula performances, he was uncertain about the phenomena’s authenticity. He also told me of cases in which mananambals successfully treated people after medical doctors had given up.

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    If Westerners come to accept psychic phenomena as real (as public opinion polls in recent years have indicated they are doing), more attention probably will be devoted to malign magic and to ways of countering if. Already in the United States the military and CIA have shown interest in Para psychological research. Yet if this interest increases, it can be expected that sleight of hand, which the Silliman researchers saw, will also be used more frequently to deceive investigators and the public.

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    Although Westerners may have better methods of dealing with marital strife and land disputes than do Siquijor Islanders, our system of criminal justice could stimulate sorcery. Robbery and rape victims, unsatisfied with the court system, might turn to sorcerers for justice. This might contribute to a kind of social control, since guilty individuals might suffer from the fear of being cursed. But this positive effect of sorcery would be offset by many negative effects. We can predict that psychosomatic symptoms, associated with sorcery, would increase. Some persons would believe that their psychosomatic problems had been caused by sorcery and might retaliate. Sorcery, although it may possibly produce real effects, generates many spurious phenomena. The effects of malign magic are closely related to belief, even false belief.

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    The best source of action may be not to worry about the possible effects of malign magic. President Aldecoa told me of malign magic. President Aldecoa told me of a wise Visayan saying about sorcery: “Don’t believe in it. Just try to avoid it.”