No one knows how Siquijor got its name, nor how it acquired the reputation
of being an island of sorcerers.
Siquijor is located 21 nautical miles east of Dumaguete. It used to be
a sub-province of Negros Oriental until it became a full-fledged province
some time ago by an act of Congress. It consists of six towns with a total
population of 80,000. The whole island has a total area of 29,300 hectares
and a road network of 75 kms. from end to end.
Its main sources of income are fishing, farming (coconuts, root crops,
rice and corn) and cottage industries. Its dialect is Cebuano. It has
only one hospital and, although there is electricity, no telephone facilities
are available in the residential houses. People communicate via radio
and the only telephones are in municipal buildings.
Perhaps this explains why the people of Siquijor had to develop their
telepathic and clairvoyant powers. Because there was no hospital facility
on the island until recently, they had to develop their indigenous healing
powers and discover medicinal plants to survive.
Congressman Orlando Fua agreed. During my first visit to the island one
Holy Week, he told me that there are many things that happen in Siquijor
which science cannot explain. So I cannot say I do not believe in
these phenomena. He particularly singled out the healing powers
of Siquijor herbolarios and mananambals. When the congressman was once
bitten by a mad dog in Manila, he did not go to a hospital but flew immediately
to Siquijor to seek treatment from the local healers there. The dog subsequently
died, proving it to be rabid, but Congressman Fua believes he was cured.
Ten years ago he suffered a skin disease on his hand. Doctors in Manila
could not cure him. So off we went to see a bolo-bolo practitioner in
Siquijor and he was immediately relieved of the strange ailment.
The local healers, however, are something else. Like the congressman,
Governor Ben Aquino believes they have very good healers on the island.
In fact, according to him, the healer who cured the former First Lady,
Imelda Marcos, of a strange skin disease came from Siquijor.
Sorcery and Witchcraft
If sorcery and witchcraft are not true and there are no witches in Siquijor,
how did the island get the reputation of being a center of sorcery in
the country? Maybe because of our isolation from the rest of civilization,
according to Congressman Fua.
Or maybe there are things that the officials of Siquijor Island refuse
to accept publicly because of their possible negative effect on the image
of the island. For despite official skepticism of the practices of the
mambabarangs, the people themselves seem to accept these as fact. According
to Provincial Fiscal Wilfredo Dominguez, for example, murders and homicides
have been committed as a result of suspicion that the victims had paid
the sorcerers to do them harm.
It is said that on Siquijor Island, the crime rate is very low because
people are afraid that if they do harm to another, the aggrieved party
can simply go to a mambabarang and make him not only very sick but also
kill him. Such is the belief in the power of sorcerers, although no government
official would ever admit the practice exists on the island, except perhaps
Fiscal Dominguez. He believes the practice of sorcery exists on the island
but he does not believe in the efficacy nor power to do harm to others.
Do the people
in Siquijor Island believe in sorcery? In an article that appeared in
Fate Magazine (Sept. 1985) in the United States entitled Island
of Sorcerers, author James McClenon said, Of the respondents
interviewed by the graduate students from Silliman University, 69% believed
that sorcery is practiced in Siquijor island and 73% said they were afraid
of it. Only 10% 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 their belief is
not reflected in statistics. For example, one man stated that he did not
believe in sorcery or them quack doctors (folk healers) but
later warned me that another mans grandmother was a mananambal who
could kill through magic.
During our Holy Week visit to Siquijor Island, we interviewed two bolo-bolo
practitioners, two herbolarios, one sorcerer, one dancing doll practitioner
and one snake charmer. To get a balanced picture of the island, we also
talked to the governor, the congressman and the provincial fiscal. We
failed to get the opinions of the parish priest and the local medical
community for lack of time. During that trip we also went inside the trunk
of a huge balete tree considered sacred by the local healers and sorcerers.
It is located deep in the forest of San Antonio mountain where many sorcerers
live and practice their craft. I was accompanied during the trip by my
wife, Yoly, and a cameraman, Edgar Padil.
During the Holy Week, the whole island was filled with tourists both from
the Philippines and other parts of the world. The tourists were mainly
Swiss, Germans and Australians. Curiously enough, I met no American or
Japanese tourists there. All of the lodging places were fully booked.
And media representatives from Reuters Television, Panorama Magazine,
Peoples Tonight and a photojournalist from Time and Asia Week magazines
were also there covering the Holy Week rituals and exploring the mysteries
of the island.
The first healer we saw was 57-year-old Enrique (Iking) Bunachita, son
of the late Cosme Bunachita, a well-known bolo-bolo practitioner, who
was featured in the Fate Magazine article earlier mentioned. Iking told
us it was actually he who taught his father how to perform the bolo-bolo
and not the other way around. Not many people knew about him because he
was then studying and his father wanted him to concentrate on his studies.
It was only after his fathers death that he openly came out to practice
the unique craft of healing known as bolo-bolo.
Bolo-bolo is performed with the use of a drinking glass, water, stone
and straw. The healer first puts a black stone into the glass, then he
half fills the glass with water. He then blows air into the water through
a straw as he passes the glass around the patients body. When the
water becomes cloudy, murky, or if some objects appear in the water, that
means something is wrong with the patient.
The healer repeats the same procedure with clean water until no more objects
appear and the water does not become murky anymore.
When Bunachita tried the diagnostic method on my wife, the water remained
clear, indicating she was perfectly healthy. When it was done on me, however,
the glass was suddenly filled with rust-like floating objects. The healer
had to repeat the procedure four times before the water became clear.
He said some spirits liked me and they attached themselves to me. He also
mentioned that there are creatures not like us who try to
harm me. And thats why something appeared in the water. With one
woman suffering from itchiness all over her body and painful menstruation,
the water simply became cloudy and after two repetitions of the procedure,
We did not see any dramatic manifestations with the bolo-bolo which the
American writer James McClenon witnessed when he visited Enriques
late father, Cosme, in 1985. Writing in the September 1985 issue of Fate
Magazine, Mr McClenon said, I accompanied French journalist Grimm
Gilles who sought treatment from a bolo-bolo named Cosme Bunachita for
a cut on his thumb. 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 bolo-bolo repeated this symbolic cleansing process and again
the water magically became murky. The third time the bolo-bolo blew through
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 bolo-bolo blew into the cloudy water and it magically became
clear, a sign that the infection had been removed.
Gilles wasnt impressed, according to McClenon and believed the process
involved trickery. However, the American writer reported that in the 60s,
American professors near Silliman University tested Bunachita under controlled
conditions. The water turned magically 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.
McClenon tried to verify this reported experiment from Silliman University
but found no record of it, nor of anyone who remembered it. So it forms
part of the folklore that surrounds the healers of Siquijor.
We also interview another bolo-bolo practitioner, Isidro Bucol, but did
not see him perform because it was Good Friday. Like Bunachita, Bucols
healing paraphernalia includes a black stone which he acquired magically
through supernatural means.
The healers know as mananambals whom we visited and interviewed in Barangay
San Antonio on Siquijor Island were: Nicolas Agan, Juan T. Ponce and his
cousin Juan Isabel Ponce. Unfortunately we did not witness any actual
healing done by these healers because they do not heal during Holy Week.
They spend their time gathering many medicinal plants which abound in
the mountain of San Antonio. They then mix these into a concoction to
be used for treating various forms of ailments.
Some of these healers, including the bolo-bolo practitioners, say they
treat only spirit-caused illnesses or kulam and leave organic or natural
ailments to the care of medical doctors. Others say the opposite. They
treat only naturally caused sicknesses and not those inflicted by mangkukulam
of spirits. Still, others claim they can treat all types of illnesses.
One interesting observation is the fact that there were a number of healer
visitors from Mindanao who came to Siquijor to obtain medicinal plants
there. When I questioned some of them why they had to go to Siquijor for
this purpose, they replied that the medicinal plants in Siquijor are more
potent than those found in Mindanao. Whether this is a fact or is again
part of the folklore concerning the healers, I cannot tell.
Paper Doll Phenomenon
A strange psychic phenomenon we witnessed, which apparently takes place
only on Siquijor Island, is the ability of one practitioner to cause ordinary
paper cut out dolls to dance energetically to music without touching them.
The better-know practitioner of this art is Jess Butalid, but I was informed
that he already lives in Pagadian in Mindanao.
We were lucky, though, to witness Frank Vios, another (but relatively
unknown) younger practitioner of the dancing doll phenomenon. There were
several reporters and many curious people present during the demonstration.
Even congressman Orlando Fua and Provincial Fiscal Wilfredo Dominguez
Frank Vios took a long time preparing for the demonstration and when he
finally emerged from the room, he appeared nervous.
When he first attempted to make two paper cutout dolls) one male, the
other female) dance, he could not do it. The dolls simply collapsed on
the floor. He next requested everybody to get out of the house. So we
all moved outside. He then positioned himself across the front door and
we all looked in from the outside. He requested that no TV lights or flashlights
be used, but it was visible enough for our curious eyes to see.
After several more attempts to make the dolls dance, he finally succeeded.
We all saw the male and female dolls energetically dancing to some fast-paced
music being played. Frank Vios did not appear to be holding a string.
He was naked from the waist up, so he could not have been hiding anything.
All he was holding were three pieces of bamboo ribs, like the walis tingting
we are familiar with. He held them with his right hand and beat them lightly
on the floor like a conductors baton to the rhythm of the music.
The movements of the dancers were highly suggestive and sensual. They
danced with so much energy that at times they would tumble over.
One interesting thing that happened during the demonstration was when
the male dancer collapsed on the floor but his female partner continued
dancing. Frank tried to prop up the male dancer several times but he was
unable to do so. After a number of attempts, he was able to make the male
doll dance but only for a few seconds. Then he collapsed again. The female
dancer never got tired, it seemed, until the end. Finally, he stopped
the demonstration and left the dolls and the bamboo ribs lying on the
floor. I picked these up and examined the dolls. They were ordinary paper
dolls with no strings attached to them.
How do I explain the phenomenon? I can think of three possibilities. First,
psychokinesis or telekinesis, that is, mind over matter. Second, he calls
upon an elemental or some lower spirit under his control. Third, its
Lets discuss each of these. The disciplined mind is very powerful
and can make objects move without touching them. This ability has been
documented by researchers around the world. I do not believe, however,
that psychokinesis is involved here because of the following: Frank Vios
did not seem to be concentrating as he was distracted at times. Neither
did he appear to be in a trance. He seemed to be fully awake and conscious.
He even admitted this to me afterwards. He was in no special state of
mind at that time.
Moreover, if it were psychokinesis, how can we explain the fact that the
male dancer collapsed while the female dancer continued dancing? And he
seemed to be bothered by that incident. He could not make the male dancer
dance again; there was no reason why he could make the female doll dance
but not the male one.
Assuming what we saw was not a trick, he must be calling on elementals
or some lower form of spirits to animate the dolls. Spirit phantoms that
sometimes materialize and are under the control of human beings were popular
with alchemists during the Middle Ages. Could Frank Vios be calling on
some spirits? Apparently so, because when I interviewed him after the
show, he admitted calling on some spirits.
A third possibility is that the whole show was a clever trick. This is
the view of some reporters and observers. They told me they detected a
dark, thin thread connected to the dolls. If this was so, how could he
have moved the dolls with both his hands at his side all the time? He
did put his hand on top of the dolls for a few seconds. Still we cant
be sure. The hands are faster than the eyes, so they say.
The Island of Siquijor is more well known for stories about sorcery and
witchcraft. But when we were there one Holy Week, no one admitted to being
a sorcerer or mambabarang. The dean of the sorcerers (Nicolas Agan) himself
told us he used to do it for a fee. But he no longer does so. When we
asked why, he replied, If I hex a person and make him sick, he soon
comes to me to remove the hex and so it is useless. The reply didnt
sound convincing to me. And true enough, because the very next day, we
saw a film by a French group which showed Nicolas Agan performing rituals
of sorcery in all its eerie detail. He first prays to St. Anthony for
forgiveness for what he is about to do. And in the movie he is shown doing
the ritual to kill a person by sorcery at the request of another person
whom he also mentions by name in the film.
How true is sorcery in Siquijor? We dont believe it,
said Gov. Ben Aquino, Congressman Orlando Fua and Fiscal Wilfredo Dominguez.
But they all told me stories of victims of witchcraft and sorcery in the
island. No one can, of course, prove whether sorcery really works or not.
But that does not matter. If the people themselves believe so, it will
work because the mind is very powerful. What one firmly believes in will
eventually come true.
How extensive sorcery is practiced and believed in Siquijor may be gleaned
from the account of McClenon. According to him: Perhaps
50 different major sorcery techniques exists
The best know method
is called barang, after the name of a local beetle. Some islanders believe
that various beetles can be used.
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 sorcery. The sorcerer
commands the beetles to go to the victims house, wait until night
and enter the persons 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 beetles eggs hatch inside the victims stomach causing
ulcers a 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.
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 victims food or drink, touch his body or merely be buried
in a place where the person will walk on.
Some forms of sorcery require a fashioning a doll and damaging this
in the same manner as how the victim is to be harmed. The doll is often
prepared using rituals vaguely related to those of the Catholic Church
with forms of Latin prayers. For example, the doll might be baptized at
the instant a baby is being baptized in a church.
To practice la-ga, the sorcerer adds hair, saliva, waste, a picture
or some article belonging to the victim, to a herbal mixture and boils
this over a special fire with ritual prayers. The victim is expected to
suffer and die in the manner desired by the sorcerer.
to McClenon, people most often consult sorcerers in attempts to solve
marital problems and land disputes. Divorce in the Philippines is
not legal, making infidelity a particular problem. Jealous wives and mistresses
sometimes ask a sorcerer to eliminate their competitors. Land boundaries
are often poorly marked and corrupt court systems can make arbitration
unsatisfactory. Persons who feel wronged by their neighbors sometimes
seek justice through sorcery.
There is one interesting sorcery technique mentioned by Sociologist Richard
Lieban which is practiced on Siquijor Island to punish adulterers. It
is called antiwal and this consists of a herbal concoction containing
the joined genitals of two turtles killed while engaged in the sex act.
If the victims wear clothing on which the substance has been applied,
the adulterous couple will not be able to disengage from their sexual
intercourse. But there is an antidote. The spell can be broken if
the first person to see the joined couples takes off all his clothes.
Is there no danger of innocent people becoming victims of sorcerers
powers? According to the sorcerers, if the intended victim is innocent,
the sorcery will not work on him. Besides there are always mananambals
or healers who are experts in treating victims of sorcery. So there is
a balance or power on the island.
Although the government officials of Siquijor would rather have the island
remembered for its beautiful beaches, peaceful and friendly people, virginal
forests and low crime rate, it will take a long time before outsiders
forget Siquijor as an island of sorcerers.