Bargain Books and Excerpts on Tarongan Magic and Witchcraft

I went yesterday to a bargain bookstore in the heart of Rio Piedras and found thirteen books for a dollar apiece. This bookshop is unattended and the books were strewn everywhere.  It was like going through a library after a heavy carpet bombing. Nonetheless, I found literary gems there and a few classic anthropology books by Geertz and Leach.

One of the things I do also when I am in bargain bookstores, especially in a foreign country, is to search for Filipiniana books.  I find it interesting to know what other people read about my country. After three hours and with palms blackened with dust and soot, I chanced on five books about the Philippines:

1. Notes on the New Society of the Philippines (1978) by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos

2. The Filipino Way of Life: The Pluralized Philosophy (1940) by Camilo Osias

3. Amok (1980) by George Fox

4. Tarong: An Ilocos Barrio in the Philippines (1963) by William F. Nydegger and Corinne Nydegger (one of the papers in Six Cultures: Studies of Child Rearing by Beatrice B. Whiting ed.)

5. How to Ask for a Drink in Subanun (1964) by Charles O. Frake (a book chapter in Language and Social Context by Pier Paolo Giglioli ed.)

Of the five books, I bought the last two of the list. I was especially interested on Nydegger and Nydegger’s paper because of its rich description of the Iloko village of Tarong. The paper, which subscribes to the Culture and Personality school that was in vogue  in the 1960s, also provided an ethnographic account of magic and witchcraft. While reading this paper, it got me thinking about witchcraft and postcoloniality (e.g., when viewed through the lens of our colonial experience, witchcraft practices reveal a lot about our colonial encounters). Read this excerpt from Nydegger and Nydegger’s paper (1963:771-777) and you would see what I mean:

The principles basic to all Tarongan magic are first that similar events are believed to produce similar effects; and second, that certain objects and certain rituals are believed to ward off undesired events or to bring about desired ones. The power in the former lies in the similarity; the power in the latter resides in the object or ritual itself.

The basis by which events are recognized as similar often seems farfetched to persons unfamiliar with Tarongan culture. Thus to dream of catching fish foretells good luck in money matters, and many a Tarongan, after such a dream, will feel justified in borrowing money to bet on a cockfight; or, a dream of having one’s teeth pulled is believed to foretell the death of a member of the family. This latter omen can be counteracted by, immediately upon arising, breaking a pot in the doorway, or by biting the trunk of a tree to transfer the omen. As Tarongans, fond of a pun, explain: “You pull the teeth of the dream.”

The Tarongan list of omens is long and a few examples will suffice to indicate their flavor. If a kingfisher calls from a perch near a house, something serious–perhaps death–will affect someone in that house. A mound of white ants under the house brings money to the household; “Its luck will grow as the mound grows.” If a gekko lizard croaks outside the house, it foretells the arrival of a guest.

As has been suggested above, many of these omens can be negated by certain rituals or talismans. The talismans have much wider significance, however. They are of two kinds, the anib which protects against misfortune and the talibagot which brings good luck.

As one informant put it, “Anibs are our shield.” They protect their owners against not-humans, against illness, against witchcraft, lightning, robbers, and so on. There is a cluster of long established anibs basic to ritual and used by all Tarongans to ward off ill. These are salt, garlic or ginger, hot pepper, wine or vinegar, anglem (various kinds and mixtures of smoke), and the Christian cross. This by no means completes the list of anibs. There are many of less wide acceptance than the basic list either because they represent personal beliefs or because they are out of fashion.

The use of anibs is exemplified by the following practices. It is believed that if one eats outside this will make the envious not-humans cause inflammations of the neck and mouth or a toothache. This danger may be avoided by sprinkling salt about before eating. Similarly, a pregnant woman is likely to arouse envy of not-humans if she goes outside at night. She will be reasonably safe, however, if she loosens her hair, letting it fall over her face, and carries anibs of salt and garlic or ginger. Pepper anibs are believed to be especially effective against disease-carrying spirits and are hung outside the house during epidemics. For added protection a plate of salt is set at the top of the ladder. Another method of dealing with such spirits, was described as follows: “When you hear their footsteps and hear them bumping against the walls, open the shutter just enough and sprinkle vinegar or wine and a little salt out quickly. This will drive them away.”

The other two anibs in general use, smoke and the cross, are also effective against thunder and lightning. The smoke (anglem) is produced by burning a mixture of substances slowly on embers in a small container, to produce as much smoke as possible. Generally bits of the “kitchen rag” are burned and certain leaves–often garlic or ginger; church incense when it can be procured is considered especially effective.

These generally accepted anibs, with the exception of the cross, apparently owe their counteractive properties to their strong taste or smells, which repels not-humans. Since they are always available, they are in constant use. To hang pepper on the wall when sickness is about is as casual a gesture to a Tarongan as our taking aspirin when we feel a cold coming on and has no more or less awesome overtones–both are simply sensible precautions. The effectiveness of the cross as an anib derives its power from the Catholic church rather than from its natural properties. A cross of any sort, even the sign of the cross, is a good anib, but one fashioned out of palm leaves which have been blessed in church on Palm Sunday is particularly strong. It is believed to be effective against sickness and thunder and lightning if it is hung in the window of the house. The household shrine statues or pictures are also anibs against bad luck in general.

Far greater in number and variety are those anibs used by many but not all Tarongans, and their functions are also more varied although none are required for ritual practices. The largest group of these are unusual roots, seeds, and nuts most often bought from sirkanos or Igorot and Tinguian peddlers from the mountains. But almost any distinctively formed object may have anib qualities and is likely to be tried by its finder. For example, from Cagayan have come a number of roots which startingly resemble a human hand. Such a root, kept in a bottle of coconut oil, is very powerful and, when hung from the middle of the ridgepole, discourages all manner of bad luck, even robbers. The oil itself, in which the root is kept, becomes a strong counteractive agent to be used during the massage-cure of certain illnesses.

A potted spiky cactus, rare in Tarong, is a deterrent to witches as are, one man avows, the string of honey-combs hung from his porch. Those anibs specifically against witches are called somang and frequently not only shield their owner but also force the evil back against the witch. One Tarongan woman had a powerful somang with her one day at a market when she met a famous witch in the the crowd. He glared at her, but her somang turned his evil glance back, and he fainted there in the market. His guilt was in this way clearly demonstrated, as was the efficacy of the somang.

There is probably no Tarongan who does not carry a somang, if not habitually, at least when leaving the barrio, and whose house is not protected by another somang and two or more anibs. Even animals are provided with anibs. Chickens are thus protected against epidemics, and when a pig disease is believed approaching, wooden crosses are sometimes placed beside the pic trough.

That class of talismans which is for rather than against specific events is called talibagot and presumed to bring goodluck. These may be hung in the house or carried on one’s person, as are anibs, and most Tarongans have one, but the variety is tremendous. There are a few generally recognized talibagot, such as the stone “lightning’s tooth,” which brings good luck. A man living near the mountains has one which he rubs over his dogs’ noses before deer hunting and which has proved very useful.

Any unusual thing is as likely to be talibagot as anib. For example, a tooth of a child born with teeth brings good luck, a caul saved after birth brings luck to the family’s financial dealings, and so on. If the unusual is not classifiable immediately, however, such as the birth of a child with one finger missing, the true meaning of the event may become clear with time. For example, a child in Ikan, the youngest of nine, was born with a large egglike swelling between his eyes. Shortly after his birth the family, which had been very poor, began to improve its economic status and is now doing well. The child, therefore, was considered a talibagot and the favorite of the family.

In addition to an acceptance of omens and talismans, Tarongans share in the widespread belief in exuvial magic. The first fingernail cuttings of a child placed in crevices of the house ladder will ensure that a child have a good grasp and not fall; a whisker pulled from a new puppy and buried under the house ladder will keep a dog from straying. Beliefs about exuviae are not associated with witchcraft, however: A person cannot be harmed through his hair cuttings or fingernail parings.

Harmful magic or witchcraft is, however, believed in by Tarongans. Typically a witch is a man or woman who has powers, presumably inherited, to do great harm to others. Although he may harm others unintentionally, he usually does so purposefully.

Witchcraft attacks produce illnesses ranging from chill or fever to death and are most often due to unprovoked malice on the part of the witch. Understandably, these people are feared and hated, but the pattern of coping with them is avoidance as far as is practicable and the use of somangs. To confront a witch with evidence of her treachery and demand retraction of her evil is unthinkable, for, angered, “Who knows what she might not do–she could kill us all!” * In effect witches are dealt with in much the same way as are malicious supernaturals–by avoidance, reliance on anibs, and if these fail, the arcane knowledge of the sirkano.

The specific methods of bewitching vary; some witches are thought to use mysterious and potent objects, others apparently do not. In either case it is the innate power of the witch that propels the evil force into the victim, the object providing the specific kind of illness or acting only as a reinforcement. If one is a witch, all the necessary power with which to do harm is present–magic objects and devices serve only to elaborate and refine.

If the evil is to be transmitted through the air, this may be accompanied by a “fierce look,” by a pushing gesture of the hand, or by a slight stamp of a pointing foot. Media other than air are also popular, and a bamboo slat of the floor between witch and victim may carry evil; drinking water or food can easily be contaminated; indeed, anything the witch may have handled is suspect as a transmitting device for his poisons. The only limit to a witch’s power is the necessity for at least initial contact with the victim or the transmitting object, and it is this essential factor that enables avoidance to function as a protective device.

Daya, adjacent eastern barrio, has previously been mentioned as a residence of many witches. And Maria, the only witch living in Tarong, is a daughter of a Dayan couple particularly notorious as “poisoners.” She has caused tremors and unpleasant, painful swellings about the neck, face, and arms of two Tarongan women, in both cases by “looking strangely.” The first occurrence was the result of a quarrel with a neighbor over some cloth, the second apparently for no particular reason.

I was coming along the lane, bringing faggots home, when I met Maria coming toward me. I moved as close to the other edge of the lane as possible and we passed without speaking. But she looked at me strangely, as if I were her enemy. By the time I reached home my neck was so sore I could barely talk or eat, and it was very swollen and painful for three days. She is evil, that one–just like her father and mother.*

Toward the end of the field period another Tarongan woman became very ill, her body painfully swollen. A number of sirkanos were called in turn, each giving a different diagnosis but little relief. In desperation, the family, which was relatively poor, called in a famous sirkano from the provincial capitol who immediately diagnosed witchcraft. He proved the allegation by rubbing the side of a new water jar until a picture of a witch appeared, recognizable to the patient and three other Tarongans present as a woman in adjacent barrio with whom the patient had been familiar.

No reason was ever offered for the witchcraft attack, but the time was easily determined–the last time the patient had used the then-unrecognized witch’s sewing machine, about five days prior to noticeable swellings and pains. That this woman was trying to kill the Tarongan woman was clear, for the latter was very weak and obviously critically ill. The sirkano’s series of treatments (and tremendously expensive) did provide relief, however, and the patient was walking unaided within three weeks. Asked what she would do if, walking along a path, she should meet the witch who had nearly succeeded in killing her, the Tarongan woman answereed, “If I met her, I will talk naturally, but I will try to avoid her.”

There is one other class of harmful persons who, although using no magical aids, are nevertheless a source of dread to Tarongans. These are the agtoyo, men of great strength and cunning, who, during the dry season, ride on horseback along the roads, lassoing and kidnapping the unwary. Their purpose is to provide victims for the bridgebuilders who reputedly drop the body or blood of one person into each foundation post, thus giving the bridge extra strength to withstand floods.

Some local customs give plausability to such a practice: when a new house is built, a 10- or 20-centavo piece and a little wine are usually placed in at least one corner post hole, and often in all; and within memory of middle-aged Tarongans, when a government flood control dam was built on the Tarong-boundary creek, the blood of the pig was used in its foundation.

Although a large number of Tarongans doubt the existence of agtoyo, the largest number of adults fear them, and if news circulates that a bridge is to be rebuilt, Tarongans are not often met walking alone on the paths, even during daylight hours. The feeling in the provincial capitol during one such period was also strong: high school students refused to walk to or from school alone and rumors of kidnappings circulated constantly. Fear of these kidnappers is strong enough to have made the following account of the attempt on the life of an Ikan man thoroughly credible: The elderly man, walking along the national highway at noon with his grandson, came to a part of the road which cut through a brushy hill. With no warning both felt ropes cast about them, pulling them towards the trees. The old man managed to draw his bolo and slash the ropes. He and the boy fled along the road to the nearest sari-sari store, where they collapsed, terror-stricken and exhausted. Neighbors hearing their story nodded gravely and said: “You were very lucky to escape the agtoyo.”



*The courts of law apparently allay this fear in the cities. During the field period of the trial of an alleged witch provided an engrossing spectacle to residents of the provincial capitol (defendant and plaintiff both were teachers in the city high school).

*It should be mentioned here that, to the field team’s eyes, Maria was one of the most attractive, pleasant, and intelligent women in Tarong. Nor did any other individual pointed out as a witch have any noticeable peculiarities of appearance or behavior.


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