Editor's Pick

Strange Brew

A return to the mystical island of Siquijor gives a second look at the magic found in the plants, in the land, and in the folk practices that have endured through the centuries.

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Most locals spend their lifetimes refuting the Siquijor we imagine—heady love spells, insects crawling out of bodily orifices, possession by angry engkantos. The average Siquijodnon will claim that times are different now, that modernity has pushed magic up the mountains or into the past.

And yet, though the ubiquity of conventional medicine has given it considerable competition, folk healing remains the first line of defense for many Filipinos, and increased mobility has allowed more people to flock to Siquijor, drawn by its continuing mysticism. That image definitely remains central to life on this island province, despite residents downplaying its terrifying flipside: the malignant witchcraft that the island is usually associated with. The reputation is pervasive enough to keep superstitious Filipinos from visiting the island.
 
Come Holy Week though, the island’s cultural celebrity is embraced by everyone, and the folk healers and sorcerers (“mananambal and mambabarang,” respectively, although many times one can be both) become the center of a kind of low-key extravaganza involving bubbling potions, parade floats, and many a muttered orasyon. They say that during those seven summer days, mystical energy is at an all-time high. Healing powers are magnified, and things concocted at this time will be exponentially potent.
Weeks before the barrage, a small but devoted group of mananambal from across the country begin to make their way onto the island. In anticipation of a convivial plant sharing and potion cook-off held annually, many of them will join the plant collectors they call mangangalap, headed by a maestro, to form sort of cooperatives that harvest from six major locations: “pangalap sa mamala” involves combing dry land (the forest, church, cave, and cemetery), while “pangalap sa dagat” involves scouring the coastline and ocean. The groups will collect, in an organized fashion, a wide variety of plants, minerals, bones (the most famously unnerving being a human kneecap), and animals. They come all this way, according to one visiting mananambal, because they cannot otherwise acquire such a powerful potion: “We can try to replicate this back home, but it won’t be as potent. We don’t have the landscape nor the knowledge to do it.”
 
To allow the distribution of the material among visiting mananambal, the ritualistic pangadlip (chopping), usually commences at dawn of Holy Friday. The cooperatives pass plant material around from piles collected weeks before. One will receive a branch of a tree, for instance, and hack a few pieces away for themselves, slip these into their personal plastic bags, and pass the branch on to the person next to him or her. He will receive a new branch and repeat, until he has a plastic bag full of various tree parts. The resultant inadlip (literally, something “that has been cut into pieces”): a sort of greatest hits of botanicals that the healers will use throughout the whole year in oil and alcohol infusions.
 
The remaining plant matter will be charred in large metal drums and tightly covered with the large leaves of the biga plant, a relative of the edible taro, secured with the sturdy uwag vine, otherwise used for making fishing implements. The carbonized ingredients will then be pounded in a large mortar and pestle and passed through a screen that resembles a makeshift gravel sifter. The black powder will be one of the main ingredients for one of two kinds of minasa, a potent, sticky paste made with the charred botanicals, coconut oil, wax, and other ingredients.
Three years ago, we gatecrashed a cooking session on Good Friday, the designated time for cooking minasa for igdalaut—for hexing or cursing, the dark side of the island’s mysticism. As in the rest of Catholic Philippines, the general mood turns somber two days before Easter as the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is contemplated. In Siquijor, many believe that this is when negative spirits and elementals roam freely—thus any concoction or incantation prepared on this day can attract powerful but sinister energy. (We would need to come back the next day, Black Saturday, to observe the cooking of the minasa for panambal, or healing.)
 
As we joined a group of people already well into the cooking, we were given the leaves of the pahauling-ulian plant to roll and stuff up our noses. This was supposed to prevent us from inhaling the vapors, which could “confuse” or disorient the uninitiated. A few used sacks were laid out on the ground with small piles of chopped candle wax (from a gravesite) and sand (from the four corners of a cemetery). A black clay pot sat on top of a wood fire, with coconut oil bubbling furiously inside. The oil was extracted from a coconut that grew facing the sunset. One of the men unhooked a bamboo segment from a tree branch, peeled back the plastic cover, and poured its smelly contents (a putrified goop of bahag-bahag or snake sea cucumber, jellyfish, and other decomposing objects from the ocean) into the pot. The sacks were lifted carefully and the ingredients slid into the increasingly vile-looking concoction, together with the charred plant powder. The men made friendly banter as they stirred the pot with a large wooden stick.

FROM TOP: A Nazareno handkerchief, crab claw talisman, and Christmas decor

Mananambal Annie Ponce, a Dipolog transplant who married into a family of local healers

Freshly charred plant matter prepared as a remedy for binat and fever

Amulets for sale at Annie Ponce’s home

It struck me how inclusive and innocuous it all seemed. Save for our leaf-stuffed nostrils, the neat stacks of inedible ingredients lined up on the ground, and the gurgling black muck, the scenario would have passed for your regular outdoor fiesta cookout. The men around us—healers from Siquijor and other small towns across the country—looked glaringly normal in their basketball jerseys, even making cheery jokes with each other in Cebuano.
 
Throughout the week, there were constant references to the progenitors of the island’s mystical practice—its heavy forests and teeming waters, and also the people who have the knowledge and skills to select the species and process the items for use. Focusing on mysticism might lead us to overlook how astounding this orchestrated gathering of flora and fauna is, or how deep the stores of knowledge are that fuel these events. The pangalap is not uniquely Siquijodnon. However, other accounts of the Holy Friday foraging across the Visayas tell of smaller, less elaborate affairs, usually involving a search for wooden or stone amulets in the forests and caves. I know of no effort in our country of the same scope and scale as Siquijor’s—one in which, each year, more than 200 unique species are foraged from across various ecosystems by wholly self-organized groups.
 
In a country like the Philippines, where the villagers from the most remote mountains now find themselves buying sachets of vinegar from large conglomerates (i.e. people are quite quickly losing the small ways in which they connect to their environment), such a ritualized, entrenched link between landscape and human beings seems to be preserved by a strange amalgamation of local tradition, strong social ties, fairly fringe but constant market demand, and a kind of low-key public spectacle.
THREE YEARS LATER, here we are sharing the hour-long boat ride from Dumaguete to Siquijor with what seems to be a cabin full of people returning from errands in the city. We are trying to gain a more sober view of Siquijor, without the exotic goings-on of Holy Week. The engine pops and putters as our boat docks at Larena port, with only the collective ruffling of plastic bags and occasional loud cellphone call in the Siquijodnon brand of Cebuano announcing our arrival.
 
I am delighted to find that the mood of the island is cheery yet languid. Our tricycle driver-cum-guide Dexter is waiting by the port gate. We roll our bags past a security outpost painted with colorful illustrations of sinister-looking witches and mystical creatures, a stab at romanticizing the island’s reputation. The attempt seems very out of place on this glaringly normal day.
 
After close to an hour of undulating and winding road, the craggy coconut-punctuated landscape gives way to thick curtains of towering trees. Large branches wrestle with creeping lianas. Palm trees are scattered all over the softly lit understory.
 
And it looked like rain.
 
The roads hereabouts are bright green with slippery moss, which means that our puttering tricycle could carry us no further. We alight and survey the expansive green paradise that provides bark, leaves, and roots to Siquijor island’s famous (and infamous) healers. The beauty is intense, and the cicada’s drone envelops us.
We were approaching a kind of locals-only entrance to the mystical Mt. Bandilaan. The mountain springs to life during Holy Week as an intensely foraged pilgrimage site, with stalls selling talismans and rituals being performed. Today it is empty, with the thick forest noise permeating its dense air. It seems like the perfect place to have an epiphany. Or a crash-course in mind- boggling Siquijodnon forest botany.
 
Noel Torremocha is smoking by his motorcycle, waiting for us. As we approach, he parks his cigarette in his mouth, draws a machete with his right hand, and grabs on to the vine nearest to him. He hacks at it, mumbling that it is a cure for stage 4 cancer, discussing it for a few seconds before tossing his cigarette and leading us into the forest through a dirt path.
 
Noel was the maestro of the mangangalap group we had visited a few Holy Weeks ago. I have located him and convinced him to show us around the forest, where most of the ingredients from dry land are found. A transplant from Davao City, he is a rarity—a middle-aged local healer who is also a master in traditional medicinal plant gathering. He became a seasoned mangangalap under the tutelage of his late father-in-law, by years of tagging along in the forest and doing grunt work—climbing trees, stripping bark off, hacking at branches. Eventually, he “inherited” his father-in-law’s practice, and became a kind of expert—a vertically integrated one, at that.
Noel sashays through the young wildling trees, moving his body around stumps and rocks with surprising dexterity. He surveys the plant life casually, but with deep familiarity.
 
“Taste it,” he suggests, snapping of a leaf from a plant hitchhiking on the aerial roots of the dalakit tree. “To know a plant, you need to taste it. Smell it, taste it.”
 
I smell the leaves of the salong tree, a close relative of our common pili—spicy, balsamic, like the most fragrant resin incense. Later on, Noel hands me a leaf from a creeping succulent, obviously unrelated but with the same distinct resinous aroma, with an added fresh, succulent taste. Noel asserts that each tree has a counterpart kind of “twin” vine that possesses identical characteristics and uses, and that this vine version of the salong tree is his discovery, a kind of secret plant that he has begun applying in his healing practice. They are both used to heal binat—a blanket term for relapse of a sickness, or weakness from childbirth or traumatic events.
 
Noel continues to tap trees of interest with his machete, leaving none unintroduced. He snaps leaves off, crumpling them up and inhaling their scent deeply before handing them to me to smell. He shows us the leaves of pahauling sida, pahauling kahoy, pahauli-ulian, and solbaran, all used for countering curses. He yanks at a tuft of pastel-colored green lichen: “This is for my business. I use this to make love potions.”

FROM TOP LEFT: Leaves from the Solbaran tree are used to counteract supernatural maladies and curses such as paktol, a powerful form of sorcery.

Taipong Pula is used to treat pasma, a disorder characterized by the palms shaking and sweating. It is said to be caused by, among other things, cold showers after strenuous activity.

Handalimukon leaves are boiled into a decoction to use for treating fevers.

Another species of Solbaran, as pointed out to us by Noel Torremocha.

The Dalakit (Balete) tree is said to be a portal to other worlds, and is home to engkantos and abion. Its roots are used to cure cancer.

His knowledge is remarkable for a person his age, a far cry from the vague. Typically, these days, it is only among older healers that plant knowledge runs this encyclopedic. This concentration of knowledge is because of what appears to be a specialized-role system being cemented by a small but robust trade of gathered healing materials. Now, mananambal are able to purchase harvested and chopped plant matter (of a general mixture or some specific customized requests) or minasa from the mangangalap.
 
The physically fit—and exclusively male, as far as I know—mangangalap venture into more challenging landscapes to harvest species that are often obscure even to the healers themselves. When middle-aged and younger healers are quizzed, many offer vague or conflicting responses about what plants they are actually steeping in bottles of coconut oil. Eventually, it becomes apparent that there is a huge, perhaps unprecedented, amount of confidence today placed in the mangangalap. They are, many times, the sole mediators between practitioners and a bulk of their raw materials.
 
The concept of a truly wild forest is a fairly recent and western conservation idea—people have always “managed” their environments by their constant use of it, culling and encouraging according to preference and utility. In Siquijor, people like Noel nurture wildlings of otherwise nondescript species into large trees. They thin cramped understories when they harvest roots from adolescent trees. The forest is therefore shaped by the mangangalap and mananambal, and ultimately, the ailments and concerns of the people who seek their services.
The ocean, too, provides very specific remedies for a mananambal: “If a person is cursed and his stomach swells up,” Noel had mentioned offhand, “you need to look for the cure in the sea.” He also tells me, casually, that each tree in the forest (apart from having a “twin” vine) also has a counterpart below the ocean that yields the same properties.
 
I ask Dexter, our tricycle driver, if he could take me to a neighborhood healer to get a sense of everyday consumer demand for mananambal services.
 
No appointments are required, so we park the tricycle along the main road and make our way up a small dirt path. We finally arrive at a door with a small empty porch. We were the only guests today. The door pushes open after a few knocks, and Quirino Ponce pokes his head out. He gives a warm, impish smile, and gestures for us to sit down. He is in his 50s but looks years younger. He chuckles often, and it turns out he is generous with his stories, though he often predicates the more fantastic ones by teasing, “Will you believe it?”
Many of the middle-aged Siquijodnon mananambal claim to have learned their craft through their parents or grandparents. The older ones speak of having dreams or visions that led them to discover a librito, a prayer book that contains orasyones. Some claim to have met an abian or elemental guide that showed them the ropes.
 
Quirino, indeed, had learned the basics from his grandmother at age 13, but continued his foray into the supernatural when he was recruited in the 70s by a sort of armed Christian militia. Such groups were commonplace during that period, unofficially used by the military in their missions against communist or Moslem rebels. Throughout Philippine history, revolutionary or nationalistic groups have been known to employ strong religious or occult practices. Quirino’s group was no different.
 
Living with an isolated sect on a mystical mountain in Ozamiz, he had helped build a church out of large forest trees. He grew his hair down until his waist and found himself enduring days of fasting—called puasa here—and performing ablutions into the night. The story gets really hardcore: there are accounts of physical light radiating from their arms, and of magical lakes with colorful water of varying temperatures.
 
He removes his shirt, revealing a fully tattooed torso. He explains that as he learned them, he had orasyones inked on his body every Friday for four years. The visual effect is fantastic. Rays of incantations in some version of Latin radiate from his solar plexus and heart, countless more forming shapes across his chest, stomach, and back. These tattoos protect him—they kept him safe, for instance, amid long gunfights with communist rebels.
He has since returned to Siquijor, chopping his locks off to remain inconspicuous and carry on in normal society. Unsurprisingly, his current healing practice remains orasyon-heavy, while incorporating a variety of local healing practices. This is a picture of the Siquijodnon mananambal today—he can be a product of migration, different waves of spiritual influence, and a marked desire to try new things and incorporate them into their practice. While pananambal styles and methods have always been highly personal, the increased movement of people to and from the island are adding to the diversity in approaches and styles. A few of the island’s most famous healers today are transplants from Mindanao.
 
Quirino pulls out an old notebook in which are scrawled a prescribed prayer for virtually every human desire, running the gamut from holding your breath underwater to making your wife feel sorry for you. It also includes more serious dilemmas like ambushes and other hazards of armed combat. This has made him a go-to for soldiers and policemen, who procure very specific talismans from him.
He shows us a mutya—a heavy, luminous egg-shaped stone—which he uses to “see” the causes of people’s illnesses. He relates that the stone was given to him by a kapre, who left it on a tree stump because he was unable to approach Quirino on account of his protective tattoos. He also shows us a few bottles of coconut oil containing chopped twigs, poisonous red saga seeds, tiny scrolls of prayers wrapped in plastic, and a wooden cross made of softwood. They were custom-made to bring good luck to a customer opening a business in Dumaguete.
 
Quirino tells us that he forages himself for the plants that he knows of, and he has a network of people upland who harvest material for him. He mentions casually that he is mostly responsible for sourcing from the sea. He would lead the highly specialized group that does pangalap sa dagat— gathering from the sea—navigating this confounding underworld on behalf of the mananambal and all who rely on them. Aside from a gamut of marine plants, they also collect corals, starfish, sea anemone, sea cucumbers, pufferfish, jellyfish, octopus, and other sea creatures.
 
He cheerfully ends our conversation by saying he has to pick his wife up at the local wet market, where she sells every day. Healing is not an everyday gig on this island. It merely punctuates normal rural life.

FROM LEFT: Mutya—a heavy, luminous egg-shaped stone—which Quirino uses to “see” the causes of people’s illnesses.

A bottle of lana (coconut oil) with a combination of chopped forest branches, formulated to bring good luck to a client’s shop in Dumaguete.

COEXISTENCE WITH THE OCCULT is nothing new to Christianity. In fact, when our colonizers arrived in the 1500s, they brought with them not only the era’s version of the faith, but also a national tolerance and appetite for medieval Latin sorcery. At a time when Europe was experiencing hysteria over witches, the Spanish viewed them as relatively benign, sometimes humorous, and somehow complementary to their religion.
 
It took about a century for the Church to declare magic and sorcery as taboo, but no doubt it persisted in this far-flung colony. It was a practical necessity—religious relics were used in healing and valued by the natives, and conversion of heathens to Christians during the early Spanish period was particularly appealing because of baptism’s supposed medical efficacy.
 
This meant for a softer landing into an animistic people. Herbalism was the norm, and like all “primitive” societies, there was no distinction between “natural” and “supernatural”. Malign magic was pervasive: a Spanish account from 1578 outlines an existing native form of sorcery called barang (from which the now more general termmambabarang” comes), which involves placing insects inside the victim’s body to gnaw away at his organs. This practice persists today across Southeast Asia.
It is possible that folk practices have wider acceptance on the island because, even well into modernity, it was still predominantly used to heal and to curse. Before regular bangka trips were introduced in 1962, Siquijor was fairly inaccessible from the outside, as well as notoriously inadequately governed. Weather permitting, there were twice-weekly boats arriving from Mindanao and Cebu, sometimes skimming by Bohol and Dumaguete. Though personal migration was common among the islands on that route, Siquijor was left mostly to its own devices by geography and government, evidenced today by minimal trade and “underdeveloped” agricultural production.
 
This fecund mix of medieval magic, Christianity, animistic culture, and small island migration would give birth to the broad, wildly varying, constantly evolving “tambal na Bisaya,” which roughly translates into “native remedy”. If you ever wander into a Mexican brujeria shop, you will see how persistent and potent this breed of syncretic mishmash is.
 
Today, though the church literally looms large in Siquijor, folk practitioners and their devotees select portions of the prevailing dogma and iconography to weave into their practice. They see no conflict between their faith and the institution, as they believe they are worshipping the same God. Some would call it appropriation and blasphemy, others, democratization.
 
And despite the standard-issue Catholic prayer cards and crucifixes in healer’s homes, the moral absolutes of Christianity are somewhat muddled in these parts. Most healers vehemently oppose using their power to harm people, but the few that are willing to talk about it claim that black magic is a necessary flipside to their healing practice.
 
“Of course, if we heal people, we also have to harm people. There has to be a balance,” one healer says. “It’s not an instant thing, it’s hard work. It takes a few weeks or months to achieve results. And it’s risky; we need to know how to protect ourselves very well, otherwise, the curse can find its way back to us.”
Perhaps owing to an unintentional eschewing of conventional development, the future of the island’s biodiversity seems promising, or at the very least, not as dismal as the rest of the country’s. Government and organized groups have been adapting to Siquijor’s unique assets, drumming up tourism around the “Healing Festival” during Holy Week, creating opportunities for the casual beachgoer to access rituals such as the cooking of the minasa.
 
They have also begun to address the major downsides to the annual pangangalap: overharvesting and physical damage to the trees. The local environmental agency has organized the harvesters to facilitate gentler wildcrafting, and has also supported the creation of backyard nurseries to decrease stress on the forests. Remarkably, when other parts of the country were planting high-value crops like coffee, cacao, and rubber during massive government reforestation efforts, Siquijor chose to propagate several hundred hectares of “healing trees,” many of them endemic.
 
The mangangalap, mananambal, and mambabarang have themselves weathered centuries on this quiet little island, but in this day and age, they have real needs that social capital cannot cover—education, transportation, rising food costs, and yes, even medical expenses for more acute cases. Futhermore, the healers are often the more financially stable of the clan, and their responsibilities are multiple.
Noel is an unabashed pragmatist when it comes to monetizing his activities. “People keep asking me to give them plants for free,” he scoffs, adding: “I charge them.” And although most healers operate on a donation basis, they gain significant income by charging fixed prices for the potions and talismans that they sell, often sending them to other islands or abroad.
 
This pressure makes it particularly tempting for everyone involved to reduce the rituals of Siquijor to another tourist attraction—exotic, Instagrammable, fairly authentic. But before the culture becomes a commodity, it would serve us to examine things far more remarkable, those that deserve more attention than a passing blog post or feature: What does Siquijor show us about pre-Hispanic and colonial cultural practices? How exactly did the ecosystem of the island shape these remarkable, nature-based mystical practices over time? How is the ecology adjusting to the changing economics of harvesting?
 
And, after coming to terms with the resilience and flexibility of folk religion, one can’t help but wonder—did magic save the diversity of Siquijodnon forests? What else can it save, elsewhere?
 

Originally published as “Strange Brew” in Volume 4.