Copyright: ©JAIME T. LICAUCO, 1997
Anvil Pub; 1997

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 man’s 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, People’s 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.

Enrique Bunachita (Bolo-Bolo Practitioner)
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 father’s 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 patient’s 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 that’s 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, cleared up.

We did not see any dramatic manifestations with the bolo-bolo which the American writer James McClenon witnessed when he visited Enrique’s 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 Gille’s 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 wasn’t impressed, according to McClenon and believed the process involved trickery. However, the American writer reported that in the 60’s, 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, Bucol’s 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.

The Dancing 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 were there.

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 conductor’s 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, it’s a trick.

Let’s 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 can’t 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 didn’t 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 don’t 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 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 inside the victim’s 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 victim’s 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.”

According 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.

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