Looking into Visayan Sorcery and Witchcraft

This is a section of a paper I wrote in 2004 for the Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society. In this paper, I argued for the significance of the power of the belief in the aswang (witch) as a possible causal force in some indigenous mortuary behavior (in lieu of the automatic labeling of these evidences as products of rank and warfare). This excerpt discusses sorcery and witchcraft in the Visayas region and how this might help explain the presence of a prehispanic mass grave (before 1500s).


In the Philippines, particularly in the Visayas or Central Philippines region (where Tanjay is located), a belief in the inherent evil of witches has been and is prevalent. Scott (1995) in his study of Spanish contact period Philippine societies, identified various witch-prototypes in the Visayas. According to Scott, the aswang were “flesh-eaters who devoured the liver like a slow cancer…(and) also ate the flesh of corpses, disinterring them if not well-guarded or actually causing them to disappear in the plain sight of mourners at a wake” (Scott 1995: 81). Spanish lexicons listed alok, balbal, kakag, oko, onglo, and wakwak as synonyms of aswang. Today witches are believed to have a “carnivorous habit” (Arens 1971: 97) and prey on the sick, the dead, infants, and pregnant women (Arens 1971, Villegas 1968). Liver complaints are still attributed to the appetite of witches.

Villegas (1968: 227-230) notes that, in the coastal towns of the Waray in eastern Leyte, witches are evil persons with preternatural powers but are indistinguishable from others in the community. There, witches fall into three groups: tangso-tangso, nalakat, and managhilaw. The tangso-tangso is akin to the manananggal of the Tagalog in that the witch torso separates from the rest of the body and flies out to seek a victim. The nalakat, on the other hand, “has to walk to where its victim is…and has the power to transform itself into any animal it chooses,” while the managhilaw “attacks even people in the best of health and sucks their blood” in contrast to that of the other types of witches who prey only on the sick (Villegas 1968: 227).

Aside from this predatory behavior, witches are also believed to metamorphose from a normal person during daytime into a witch at night. During nighttime, they are believed to have reddish eyes that become sharp and penetrating, allowing them to see into the womb of a pregnant mother. Witches have razor-sharp teeth and long, pointed fingernails. The hair is purportedly brittle, straight, and spreading while the body is thin and slippery so as to be able to fly or crawl through the smallest opening. Saliva drools from the mouth. They have keen hearing, sight, and smell (Arens 1971, Villegas 1968).

One of Arens’s informants remarked that witches have existed since “time immemorial” (Arens 1971: 95). Arens suggested that the first witches were “cave spirits,” for in one of his interviews, he learned that people believe one “automatically” becomes a witch if he or she “finds a bottle with an inverted plant” inside a cave during Lent. But if a person finds a bottle with a plant positioned in a natural way, with its roots at the bottom of the bottle and the leaves at the top, then that person will become a good tambalan (traditional healer).

Lieban (1960: 128) stressed that Cebuano witchcraft can be transmitted either through heredity or transference. Among the Waray, a “germ” or kagaw of witchhood can supposedly be transferred to another through cold food, physical contact, or by blowing on another person’s alimpoporo (crown of the head) (Villegas 1968). The “monster” in the witch’s stomach can relocate to another person’s body if that person is present at the witch’s deathbed (Arens 1971).

Arens and Villegas noted that in Waray culture the process of becoming a witch goes through stages. At first, the kagaw or “germ” incubates in the newly bewitched person’s stomach. The witch-apprentice begins to feel a pain in the kapoy-kapoy or sorok-sorok (diaphragm). A thick mass of blood develops which gradually assumes the appearance of a pikoy (parrot). In a month, the victim then develops an appetite for raw chicken. The witch teaches the victim how to fly and search for prospective prey. Once the witch-apprentice learns all the necessary knowledge, the process cannot be reversed.

The ethnographic accounts suggest that witches are considered to be malignantly evil. Lieban (1967) noted that the supernatural powers of witches are considered to be “rooted in the individual, a constitutional resource” in contrast to sorcerers whose “powers” are taken from “resources outside of the individual,” such as magical procedures and spirit guides. He writes:

Reaction to someone believed to be an aswang is apt to be more intense and hostile due to the extremely aberrant characteristics ascribed to this type of witch, and the fact that the aswang is more likely to be conceived as inherently evil…(Lieban 1967: 75).

The aswang resembles some witches elsewhere whose behavior in certain respects antithesizes or inverts normal behavior in the societies where they are found (Lieban 1967: 77).

Violent death is not the monopoly of warfare. Other causal dimensions of violent death are found in historic accounts. Persecution of suspected witches has been documented as a cause for violent death in many societies. For the Philippines, Anima noted that “witchcraft…has a long, continuous history of persecution for its practitioners…. Witch-suspects were often subjected to drowning tests to determine the validity of the witch-hunter’s suspicions” (Anima 1978: 2).

One lynching incident in Carigara, Leyte, as recounted by Ramos, illustrates one community reaction to those suspected of witchcraft.

Han olitawo pa ako may-ada wakwak didto ha Cogon an ngaran he Mara. Damo an nasering nga hi Mara in para wakwak han mga bag-o nga anakan didto hadto nga lugar. Usa ka adlaw may ada bag-o nga anakan nga namatay kay guin wakwak kono ni Mara. Guinhigot ha barsa ngan iguin pasaog han carabao hasta nga namatay. An mga taga baryo diri na kontento salet era guin labay ngadto ha lunayan han kabao…

When I was still single there was a wakwak in Cogon whose name was Mara. Many said that Mara was the cause of the death of many mothers who had newly given birth there. One day a mother had been wakwaked by Mara (her blood sucked out). The barrio folks went to the house of Mara and tied him and mounted his body on [or behind?] a sled and had a carabao pull him over rocky ground. The barrio people were not yet content so they dumped him into the mud where the carabaos wallowed… (Ramos 1971: 56-57).

Another incident was recorded by Lieban (1960: 133) where violence was perpetrated against those suspected of sorcery. He said that “a man suspected of sorcery was shot at in a community near Sibulan” and, in the course of his study, a newspaper reported that a “woman suspected of performing sorcery had been killed and her husband and children injured when men threw a homemade explosive into her house because she was believed to have caused the illness of a son of one of the men.”

Recently, another news item appeared in the Visayan Daily Star (Gomez 2003) that recounted the beheading of a married elderly couple in Sitio Si-alay, barangay Bulata, Cauayan town in Negros Occidental. The perpetrators (three members of the same community) believed that the couple were aswang. As one of the men beheaded the female witch-suspect, he purportedly saw the severed body “stand up before falling down.” He then rushed to the couple’s kitchen to get some ashes and rubbed the ashes and some salt on the stump of her severed head to “prevent it from reconnecting with the body.” The men then hacked the other witch-suspect (i.e., the husband) and proceeded to sever the head from the body. They planned to bury the heads in a nearby river to prevent them from rejoining the bodies. Interestingly, the perpetrators believed that “they did the right thing and saved the lives of others. That is why they did not attempt to flee from their barangay.”
Arens’s informants noted that “aswangs…do not live long because all the people are after their necks.” Some of the aswangs have been “killed and the rest moved away to far-away places where they are not known.” To kill a witch, one should chant certain prayers and stab the witch in the back with a sharpened length of bamboo. Arens was told that the aswang has to be slashed into pieces. If the witch transforms itself into an animal, the animal should be severed into two and the two halves placed in the distant opposite reaches of a river (Arens 1971: 101-102).

Scott wrote, if Visayans “became convinced that a death had been caused by one of their townmates who was such a creature, he or she was put to death – along with their whole families if the victim had been a datu” (emphasis mine). The stark fear of witches was also manifested in the burial of the datu after which a “slave called dayo was stationed at a datu’s tomb for the rest of his life to guard against robbers or aswang, with the right to feed himself off anybody’s field” (Scott 1995: 90-91).

In the Visayas, it has been shown that the power of witches reside within the individual and not outside, say for example in another supernatural being. Although “witchhood” may have originated from the “cave spirits,” it is thought to be transmitted usually along kinship lines—the “germs” or kagaw being contagious. Scott, in his rendition of contact period Visayan culture, pointed out the possibility that families of suspected witches were put to death together with the witch-suspect. Moreover, an aswang could not simply be killed with bare hands but certain weapons ascribed with special powers had to be used, usually metal knives or bamboo spikes. In contemporary Cebuano culture, the aswang motif is not simply an individual “affliction” but rather a family trait. In other words, the community generally views witchcraft as transmittable along kinship lines (among kaliwat sa aswang, roughly translated as “clan of witches”). For example, Arens (1971: 103), to account for how contemporary witches are treated, noted that:

The life of a suspected witch and her [or his] family is made difficult by the constant suspicion of the people. The “witch” is shunned and sometimes publicly embarrassed. Food and delicacies sent from her kitchen out of hospitality are thrown away or fed to the dogs. Endless gossip circulates about horrible and inhuman ways such as feasting on a dead man’s body which some will claim to have seen her doing the night before. The family members are the targets of many sarcastic and cutting remarks. The pretty daughters stay unmarried because young gentlemen are afraid to marry them.

In Philippine folklore, the aswang is capable of returning from the dead with a vengeance (Ramos 1971). It can be warded off only by using sacralized objects and incantations (Villegas 1968, Scheans and Hutterer 1970, Arens 1971).

Given the very malevolent image of witches in the Visayan mind, witches probably even during the pre-Spanish period were victims of persecution. They very likely suffered social derision and worse – their persecution may have led to mass killings.

As presented above, witchcraft persecution is found in historical as well as ethnographic accounts in the Visayas. There is therefore a compelling reason to reassess Junker’s interpretation of the Tanjay mass grave in view of the ambiguity of the causality of violent death in the archaeological record of protohistoric times–especially with Scott’s discovery of the Visayan practice of the massacre of witch-suspects’ families.


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