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.

Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration in the Camotes Sea

Map of Service Contract

Below is a short video on a fishing community’s resistance against the resumption of NorAsian Energy’s offshore oil and gas exploration in the Camotes Sea. A news report indicates that the survey will “cover a total of 100 line kilometers in Borbon waters or at a distance of at least 2 kilometers from the town’s shoreline.” The approved service contract extends to neighboring areas as well (see map), particularly in Cebu, Leyte, and Bohol (current survey coverage is at 900-line kilometers).

Environmentalists and fisherfolk groups fear that the seismic survey will adversely impact the marine environment and the livelihood of coastal residents. According to the Central Visayas Fisherfolk Development Center, Inc. (FiDEC) and the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty:

seismic surveys involve the use of a ship with an airgun and hydrophones connected to a cable that is dragged underwater. The sonic boom from an airgun array is 255 decibels (dB), way over the human threshold of 80 dB and that of animals which is even lower. Seismic blasting is expected to damage the reproductive organs, burst air bladders, and cause physiological stress in marine organisms. It can also cause behavioral modifications and reduce or eliminate available habitat, alter fish distribution by tens of kilometers, and damage planktonic eggs and larvae.

FiDEC further added that the impact of the continued exploration activities will result in an estimated 20% cut in the domestic fish production in the Philippines for the next 10 to 20 years. In the 2007 Japan Petroleum Exploration Co., Ltd. (Japex) seismic survey, Vince Cinches of FiDEC reported a significant drop in fish catch, from the normal yield of six to 11 kilos to zero to 2.5 kilos after the survey.

The campaigners call for the cancellation of the service contracts. The Borbon Alliance of Fisherfolk Association (BAFA) urged the public to take heed because “the protection of the seas is not only an issue for coastal fishers.” Marine scientists regard this area as one of the least studied environments in the region. The Camotes Sea is also one of the places where cetaceans, whale sharks, and other large marine animals frequent.

WATCH THIS video below. It gives a nice background on the oil and gas exploration from the perspective of the coastal fishers.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration“, posted with vodpod

El Morro: A Sentry’s Graffiti

After months in Puerto Rico, I finally decided to visit one of the island’s main tourist draw, Castillo San Felipe del Morro. This Spanish-era fortress sits right at a promontory facing the Atlantic Ocean. Viejo San Juan, the old city center of the island, is a few meters inland and is connected to the fort via a thin stretch of road that slices through a sea of green grasses.

Back when El Morro was an active military fort from 1539 onwards, it was a bastion of strength for the Spaniards, guarding the important trade routes that connected the outlying colonies to the Spanish Crown. Galleons loaded with silver, gold, spices, and other items of high value from the Pacific and Latin America passed through the Carribbean, making this island prone to attacks from pirates and other colonizing powers. Pirates like Sir Francis Drake and Roberto Cofresi made themselves legendary in these waters. Yet despite the repeated invasions, the fort was so strategically located that it was only overtaken in battle once in its centuries of history (by George Clifford, Duke of Cumberland).

Similar to the construction of the Spanish-era Philippine fortresses, Spanish military engineers filled the walls with sand and gravel and not of compacted blocks of rock. This allowed enemy cannonballs to easily penetrate the wall without destroying the structure completely. An alternative explanation could be that these sand and gravel fillers are good deterrents from collapse during earthquakes since this provides room for movement, as some Philippine local historians contend. Whatever the reasons might be, El Morro’s centuries of warfare is written on its walls.

And I am saying this in the literal sense. While casually walking about, I chanced on a conquistadors‘ graffitti. It was not on the tourist information kit so I believed that I stumbled into something nice and exciting. I was about to scream Eureka but then again, I googled “el morro graffitti” and found two sources about it. According to Rivera-Collazo, there are at least 400 ship drawings in El Morro, most likely from the 1700s to the first half of the 20th century. Personally seeing the graffittis however was very rewarding in itself, touching these etches was like doing Braille on what could have been on these conquistadores‘ mind.

I chanced on the graffittis when I walked in the tronera, a few meters from where the brass canyons were wedged. The tronera is virtually a vertical hole carved into the wall just enough for one sentry to wiggle through. The info posted near the tronera says the following:

Armed with a musket, a sentry stood guard at this post. In the event of an attack, the sentry could scurry down the narrow tunnel to a concealed firing position. Here he could fire his musket and reload under cover.

While sitting in this claustrophobic hole, I looked down and saw the first evidence of the sentry’s presence. Etched at the base where the gun might have been put were two line scratches and a hole. I thought that although these looked like Wolverine’s claw marks, there should be a  plausible explanation for this. I figured that the small hole could have been where the metal balls and gunpowder were placed while the two “claw marks” were used for striking a fire.

The hole and the “claw marks”

When I saw this, I started looking around and saw non-utilitarian graffiti written on the walls. I surveyed the walls and found three of the more than 400 ship drawings in El Morro. There were also religious symbols, badges, and outlines of a face.

Sketch of a Ship 1

Sketch of Ship 1 (same as above)

Sketch of Ship 2

Sketch of Ship 3

These three ship drawings were only visible from the digital camera’s screen. It is barely visible if one is looking at it with the naked eye because of the darkness and the burrito-like situation inside the tunnel. Aside from these ship drawings, there were other interesting sketches too:

Sketch of Face 1

Sketch of Face 2 (with only one tooth)

Catholic religious symbols and outlines of coat of arms were also found in the tronera. Which could be interpreted as visual evidence of a deeply religious sentry or a frightened conquistador. There are stories among Puerto Ricans too (or at least my partner believes it) about ghostly apparitions in the fort. These symbols might have been used as a talisman to ward off evil spirits. Or alternatively, the sentry might just have been bored and doodled anything that crossed his mind to while away time in a dreary wait for the next shift.

Sketch of a Marian Rose

Sketch of Cross 1

Sketch of Cross 2

Outline of What Appears to be a Coat of Arms

Drawing of a Heart?

These drawings are windows into the mind of the Spanish Crown’s foot soldiers. I am sure sketches can also be found in Intramuros, Fort Santiago, Fort San Pedro, and other Spanish-era fortifications in the Philippines and other former colonies. All we need is to wean ourselves from written documents and investigate the past in novel ways.

As it is, history books are often written from the point of view of the power elites of the era because historians use their official records and documents. There’s an inherent bias in choosing which sources historians rely on thus making historical interpretations perilous.  The squiggly scribbles of lowly sentries are thus critical in understanding the colonizing process, if only to provide a well-rounded interpretation of what has happened.

The time has come indeed to cast a light on the doodles of the past.


The development of Bisrock is not simply a result of the bisrockers’ opportunistic maximization of the popular Cebuano media. Surely, the pop media helped a lot in the spread of bisrock songs but there is more to this than meets the eye (or ear, I suppose).

For one, the Cebuano music scene has always presented a counterpoint to the mainstream Manila’s TV-oriented music industry. While Manila was wooed by Victor Wood, Yoyoy Villame and Max Surban had been regulars on the Cebuano radio airwaves. Their music rendered the ordinary insanity of everyday life into a stream of comedic interludes. Yoyoy’s buchikek song, for example, was said to be just a collection of all the Chinese store names in his neighborhood. It was neither Mandarin nor Cantonese, it was simply Yoyoy. Their regular attendance in amateur hour contests (as hosts or as performers) also helped a lot in anchoring their music into the Cebuanos’ psyche.

The age of the radio ushered in the amateur hour contests all over Visayas. I think this is critical because public performances before (like the linambay, moromoro, Via Crucis, etc.) were inundated with religious deference. The amateur hour contests, on the other hand, were purely secular (save that this almost always happens when fiestas were approaching). At the center of the amateur hour universe lies the emcee, a charismatic personality who is both witty and nasty (i saw once how an amateur hour champion left in a huff because the public were roaring with laughter at his bald pate’s expense).

I believe that Yoyoy and Max Surban’s wit and humor is almost a mirror reflection of the amateur hour emcee’s persona. If I remember well (during the time when an amateur hour winner was an “in” thing), the emcee is there not merely to present but to entertain–e.g., a singer is a comedian at the same time; sort of a humorous renaissance man with a mike. Not a few popular emcees of “amateur hours” went on to become successful street comedians, busting into the radio airwaves from time to time. For Yoyoy and his generation, to sing is to sing is to sing indeed.

Now, with the bisrock, there is of course some continuities and discontinuities with the “amateur hour tradition”. Many of the songs tried to retain the humor that undercuts much of Yoyoy’s songs. I don’t think that this is intentional on the part of the bisrockers (to mimic Yoyoy’s witticism). But I am really amazed that much of the bisrockers’ and the Yoyoy generation’s songs were practically churning out the same humorous themes.

Perhaps, singing as a comedic interlude can tell us more about ourselves.

While listening to a bisrock song about why a guy needs to use his fingers and not the utensils (nganong gi-finger, gi-finger na lang), I asked myself these questions: Why is the jokester persona everywhere?  Is  there more to joking than the laughter it generates? Could joking be subversive of colonial structures (like, for example, how Yoyoy and the bisrockers, re-encode many popular Tagalog and English songs into humorous Cebuano puns)?

Even in matters of religion, Fenella Canell, paraphrasing an anthropologist, once said that lowland Filipinos tend to only have two representations of Christ–the suffering Christ of the Passion and the child Jesus, a holy prankster and jokester. Surprisingly, Cebu–the center of Bisrock–is suffused with images of the Holy Child. Why? Now, that’s for another blog post.