Published in the International Herald Tribune
10 May 2001 by Paul Spencer Sochaczewski © 2001
SAN ANTONIO, Siquijor Island, Philippines

"Lightning teeth and herbs," Juan Ponce, a sorcerer on the tranquil Philippine island of Siquijor answered when we asked what was in a sumpa "protection" amulet.

His daughter, Tata, reluctantly showed us a cuspid-shaped chunk of basalt. The tip of the rock had been broken off, making it look like a prehistoric tool. "Very rare," she said. "These lightning teeth mysteriously appear at the base of the tree where lightning has struck."

Juan Ponce's house, in the mountain village of San Antonio -- point zero for sorcery in the Philippines, certainly had the allure of a sorcerer's residence. Set up on a hill away from the road, his wooden house, overgrown garden and outhouse emitted a vaguely uneasy feeling in otherwise sunny Siquijor Island.

Ponce isn't a talkative chap. Actually, he was borderline rude, but perhaps that's due to his age - 80 - and to his adherence to what seems to be an unwritten international traditional healers code of behavior which stipulates "keep things close to your chest."

Ponce is one of some 50 mananambal, or traditional healers, who live on Siquijor, a 343 square kilometer island 45 minutes by ferry from the Negros Oriental city of Dumaguete, in the center of the Philippines.

Sorcery, magic and things that go bump in the night are part of Siquijor's allure, along with lovely beaches and a down-at-the-heels 19th century Catholic convent, claimed to be the oldest in the country.

My son David, my friend Bill and I were obviously not the first charm shoppers the Ponce family had encountered. In their simple house, decorated with a poster of Senator Juan Flavier (campaign slogan: "Let's do it…in the Senate"), a Tanduay rum calendar showing a bikini-clad girl near a waterfall, and a picture of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus, Tata laid out a selection of quick fixes.

She offered us glass vials of herbs. These were gayuma, multi-purpose good luck charms. Put a few drops of gayuma on your cash box and your store will prosper, or touch a drop of the concoction to a girl's forehead and you will win the heart of your beloved. Ponce did not react to the suggestion that if you already know a girl well enough to massage her forehead then you have a running start.

"More than a hundred" herbs marinated in coconut oil in a giant Johnnie Walker bottle. This was haplas, a healing ointment.
"These are sumpa," Tata explained. Sumpa is literally an antidote, a combination of acrid, sweet and earthy-smelling herbs which are mixed with lightning teeth and placed inside blue and gold wooden amulets. For a few dollars I figured it would be a prudent investment. After all, you never know.

And that's the lure of magic, as indeed it is with religion. You never know. Who has the ultimate truth? I know I'm going to get hammered by religionists of every stripe for this comment, but basically everyone with a religion is betting that the Gospel according to Whomever is accurate and absolute, and that by following certain behaviors in this life you will be rewarded in the next. Certainly, in medicine, if you believe that a substance is going to make you better than you have a better chance of recovering. People need things to believe in, especially when the wisdom is delivered by someone with perceived power and insight -- a doctor, a magician, a religious leader.

Buying amulets in Ponce's home was the rural Philippines equivalent of spiritual fast food - make your choice and take it home. I didn't like it. It was too easy, all cash and no soul. My experience with healers and magicians in Kenya, Madagascar, Indonesia, Thailand, China and India usually called for at least a cursory discussion of my needs, at least the pretence of giving me something specially-concocted for my situation. I found I missed the "blessing" aspect of acquiring something mystical. I wanted a human communion, not a retail transaction.

"There are two types of traditional healers," Marlon Caracol, a headmaster at a secondary school in Siquijor, explained. "The 'good side' healers treat people who are sick with traditional medicine. The 'bad side' mananambal put spells on people. Be careful."

Marlon took us to see a "bad-side church", an eight-meter wide banyan tree accessible by walking a few hundred meters up a village path and then another 50 meters through overgrown scrub. "The local village council closed the path," Marlon explained. "Too many visitors coming for the wrong reason."

Stay a few days in Siquijor and you'll hear tales of 'bad side' healers making unsavory pacts with evil spirits and roaming the forests on dark nights, looking for powerful plants. Headline-famous politicians and businessmen come from Manila to either put the hex on enemies or protect themselves from the evil eye, a sort of supernatural Asian star wars defense.

Inside the banyan tree we glimpsed empty bottles, incense and cigarettes, common detritus from ceremonies I've seen held in similar trees throughout the tropics. The banyan tree is a common symbol of fecundity and spiritual power, and the local term used for magic, diwata, refers to "bribing the spirits." It's awfully close to the Sanskrit word for deities, dewata, a common term in the Hindu-oriented societies of Asia. But 86 percent of the people of the Philippines are Catholic, and in Siquijor, at least, it seems that people's Catholic faith is built on varying degrees of animistic respect for the spirits of the trees, waterfalls and rocks.

Monsignor Julito Cortes, a friendly Catholic priest in Dumaguete who has studied the magic of Siquijor, sees the animistic inclinations of the healers as "a manifestation of the wrong practice of Catholic religion," although he admits "sometimes I find it difficult to separate what is religion for them and what is cultural behavior." He says the message for the Church regarding magic is simple - "it's a rationale for more catechism."

Some Siquijor healers prefer to gather plants and brew their potions only on Black Saturday, believing that with Christ dead, other unknown forces can put healing powers in the medicine.
Kazutoshi Seki, a Japanese anthropologist who studied the mananambal of Siquijor for five years, recounted how Catholic beliefs are intertwined with healing powers. One healer said "I dreamed of San Antonio who instructed me to get stones and a prayer book at midnight. I told him I was afraid of witches and asked him to give those things to me personally. He agreed, warning that if I refused them I would go blind. The following morning the items were on my mat. I memorized and recited the oraciones every morning and evening. Three weeks later my niece had diarrhea. I applied herbs with a prayer and she was cured two days later."

Another healer said, "I dreamed about the Sacred Heart of Jesus holding some leaves which he then told me to apply to patients. I was also required to recite 'Our Father' and 'I Believe in God' nine times every morning and evening. I gather materials for healing during the Holy Week."

I asked Marlon if I could buy him a charm. "No, I can do better," he said. "I pray to God."

The bottom line: does this stuff work? I rubbed some haplas ointment on my chronically sore back and felt fine for the rest of the day. And my sumpa filled with lightning teeth? It's sitting on my desk back here in Switzerland, nestled next to my Ganesh from India, a crystal from Brazil, a fossil from Alfred Russel Wallace's house in Wales, my hole-in-one golf ball and a magic feather I found near my favorite waterfall. Plenty of good vibes. And the gayuma love potions taken home by my son and friend? Bill claims he hasn't had a chance to try it yet, but David is walking around with a big smile.

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