Okay, this is it.
I have always considered that one of the best ways to start an essay, so there.
I traveled to Siquijor alone for seven days and six nights. Now everything can be told. If you’re still reading this, then maybe you’re one of those people fascinated, or frightened, or at least remotely interested in this so-called mystical island province of the Philippines, the ultimate lair of the sorcerer, the witch, the tikbalang, duwende, and the aswang.
Some of my personal friends, upon knowing that I would be traveling alone in the island of Siquijor, expressed concern that I might be doing a very dangerous thing. Yet everyone knows what Siquijor is—or so everyone says, even without stepping on the island itself. Siquijor, as the popular tales say, is a remote island where paranormal phenomena abound. There is also a popular belief that Siquijor is inhabited by engkantos, witches, sorcerers, ghosts, and dark creatures like the duwende and aswang. If you would like to see or even feel these beings, then Siquijor is the place to go.
Well, for me, I have never really considered Siquijor as otherworldly or superstitious, other than the fact that when I looked in the Philippine map to consult its very position among our lush 7,107 islands, the mystical island eerily resembled the three-cornered hat of the nuno sa punso we usually see in Pinoy folkloric books.
And so my journey begins.
Stormy Day Arrival in Siquijor
I took a Philippine Airlines flight from Manila to Dumaguete (capital of Negros Oriental) and arrived at around eight in the morning in Dumaguete airport. Outside the airport, I hired one of the several motorcabs to get me to the port where a fast craft was scheduled to depart for Siquijor at nine in the morning. On the way to the port (some ten minutes away), rains suddenly lashed out. The skies became dark and I thought there was suddenly a typhoon.
The sea was very choppy, but the boat's skipper decided to continue with the sea crossing. In about an hour, we reached Siquijor, the rains were still lashing, and low dark clouds hung above the mystical island, like a portent of something terrible that might happen. Nevertheless, the rains soon stopped as we waded ashore. The rain-drenched pier was very slippery. Awaiting for us in the terminal were several motorcycles called locally as habal-habal. The habal-habal is the standard transportation in the island. I hired one take me to one of the few hotels in Siquijor.
During the Spanish times, Siquijor was called the Isla del Fuego—
My first impression of Siquijor was how laid back this island really is. I have the impression that this is an island forgotten by time. It is an idyllic place of white-sand beaches, centuries old gigantic balete trees, and almost untouched forests. It is a perfect island for a summer holiday.
And it can also be a perfect island for a haunting.
Some places in Siquijor have been earmarked by some people to be scary places. But for some people, the scarier the place, the better it is to visit. Well, I am maybe one of them because the first things I asked around in Siquijor was: where are the scariest places here?
I found that there were many more beautiful spots than there were scary places. But then again, I thought the scary places would make for a more adventurous trip. Besides, I have already seen more than enough of white-sand beaches with gorgeous nude ladies basking in the sun.
In Siquijor, there is also a good supply of people with supposedly magical powers, of people called mangkukulam (warlocks) who practice sorcery and witchcraft, and people called mananambal (shamans) who can heal the incurable diseases. There is also no scarcity of tales about ghosts, engkantos, legendary heroes and villains so that even one writer can fill a big tome collecting these tales.
So here we go.
Juan Ponce the Sorcerer, Retired
Manong Juan Ponce, the legendary sorcerer of the
I found out that Manong Juan has recently retired from practicing sorcery, and has already bequeathed his powers to his six children, who now act as the sorcerers-sorceresses in-waiting whenever a client arrives to commission them for “paktol” or “kulam sessions”.
According to the local people, Manong Juan was a much-feared man during his peak as a sorcerer-shaman in
Manong Juan’s fame and reputation as a sorcerer goes beyond the shores of Siquijor and into the neighboring islands of Samar, Leyte, Cebu, Bohol, and
At 90 or 100 years old (whatever his age), Manong Juan spoke only exclusively Visayan, and struggled hard answering in my interview. From what I gathered though, he learned sorcery from his father named Ciriaco Ponce, a powerful sorcerer in Siquijor during the Spanish and American times. No children of Manong Juan was able to recall any information about Ciriaco, except that he sired many children, one of them being Manong Juan. When Ciriaco was in his deathbed in the 1930s, he chose to bequeath his powers exclusively to Manong Juan.
Manong Juan recalled the many battles he had with other sorcerers in the past, but he had annihilated them all because of his “superior” wizardry. He particularly remembers having to use buntot-pagi to cast away witches from the possessed bodies of the bewitched. The witches apparently possess the bodies of their victims who then act malevolently, destroying properties and harming people physically. The relatives of the possessed are thus forced to bind the victim in bed so that he/she could no longer do any damage. They then call Manong Juan to drive away the evil witch from the body of the victim. Manong Juan would whip the victim with buntot-pagi, and if this was not enough, scald the victim with boiling water. The evil witch then flies away in terror, because she had been the one experiencing the torture, and not the patient, who then becomes normal again, and miraculously, not a single mark of the whipping or burn on her/his body.
Although now officially retired, Manong Juan can still cast an “irreversible” spell or drive away evil witches whenever a client requests his services. It comes with an exorbitant price though, ranging from 6,000 to 40,000 pesos per spell.
Brewing Potions in the
Every Good Friday and Black Saturday, the sorcerers and shamans of Siquijor go to the little uphill
The purpose of this gathering was to prepare the healing materials and potions for their work. Prior to this gathering, however, the sorcerers of San Antonio would have already collected some 260 kinds of herbs, barks, leaves, and even sea creatures, such as sea urchins, weeds, dried abalones, algae, and starfishes. Many of these herbs only grow in the mystical soil of Siquijor. The sorcerers would choose from this collection the best of the lot and then chop them into little pieces.
The brewing of potions takes place only every Good Friday and Black Saturday. The sorcerers believe that with the supposed death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday, the underworld spirits roam the Earth freely, sharing their magic powers to the sorcerers and shamans.
Blessed coconut oil was boiled in a large cauldron called “kawa” and the collected herbs, roots, weeds, and barks were cooked. The area smelled of strong aroma as a result of the “cooking” of hundreds of ingredients. The combined smell and smoke can make someone dizzy.
After the “brewing”, the sorcerers made chants and prayers over the cauldron, making it into powerful potion. Asked what the chants were for, the sorcerers answered that they were asking the netherworld beings and spirits to share their powers to the brewed potions. After the chants and prayers, the potion was now a powerful “sumpa”, able to cure all the sicknesses, both human and supernatural. They then put the brewed potions on cleaned and empty Tanduay and Efficacent Oil bottles.
There are two kinds of potions: one is meant as a rubbing and blessing agent, and the other one is used for drinking. The rubbing potion is never taken internally. It is rubbed on the afflicted part of the body. The other potion is imbibed, thus the sorcerers add a liberal amount of Kulafu Sioktong or Tanduay Gin to the potion.
The price for the Tanduay-sized bottle is 1,500, and the Efficacent Oil-sized bottle is 500. One can get a good discount if one bought the potions wholesale. These potions are very popular so that even sorcerers and shamans from the other provinces like Bohol, Samar, Cebu and
According to the sorcerers I interviewed, the potions can heal all sicknesses caused by “kulam” and “barang”. According to them, the “kulam” is called in local term as “paktol” a powerful curse cast by a mangkukulam to a person he or she wanted to make sick or kill. The person afflicted will be sick with a bloated stomach and no medical doctor can be able to treat it. The bloated stomach will then erupt and cause the person to die. Apparently, only a more powerful sorcerer can heal the curse of a sorcerer. It appeared that there is a hierarchy of sorcerers in Siquijor: there are high-ranking sorcerers and there are low-ranking ones.
A Siquijor sorcerer-shaman
The potion can also heal the “barang”. The “barang” is a powerful hex cast by a “mambabarang”. The “mambabarang” has an army of insects he cultures inside bamboo tubes. He commands these insects to lodge themselves into the sleeping victim’s ears, mouth, nose or any other opening of the body like the anus, or open wounds. The insects will then attack the internal organs and cause them to rupture, killing the victim.
The potions can also ward off the evil spirits and heal all diseases caused by the four elements: water, fire, earth and air. The potions are also said to be effective in the treatment of snake bites and other medically known illnesses like rheumatism, skin diseases, headaches, and all other afflictions.
Located along the main road in the
Many villagers also believed it to be inhabited by spirits and supernatural beings. There is a water pond under its base, and I found some local men drinking tuba at the side of the tree.
Actually, I didn’t feel at all threatened by this otherwise lovely balete tree, although it may look scary, because of its humongous size, eerie outline, and convoluted above-ground roots; and even if some local people claim they have seen old little people surrounding the tree during moonlit nights; or some people who claimed they have seen apparitions on it during rainy nights. Yet, I wouldn’t be crazy enough to test if these stories were true or not. I would rather be in a bar sipping ice-cold San Mig Lights rather than hunting spirits and elves in this balete tree during moonlit or rainy nights.
What actually scared me was what Johnson, my habal-habal driver and tour guide, told me: that some men in Campalanas are real evil sorcerers. These men will just invariably put a spell on anyone, regardless of whether you have offended them or not. Apparently, some of these men would just tap you on the shoulder, and there—you have already been hexed. So in no way will you allow any of the local men in this area to tap you on your shoulder, or any part of your body, for that matter. Although I found it quite ridiculous and unbelievable, when one of the drinking men approached to offer some drink, I made sure he would not be able to reach me and tap my shoulder. Johnson and I just said thanks, and quickly sped away on our habal-habal.
The Riddle of the Statue at the
In the town of
And so one day, I decided to visit the town of
In fact, the statue is not that of Maria, nor is it black, nor is there a magic connected to it. Indeed at first glance it may look like a frightening statue because of the unusual “stare” its eyes cast on the viewer, and because of the skull the statue holds, or the supposedly inverted cross it holds. Yet a more intent look reveals that it was actually all symbolism perfectly interpreted by the anonymous sculptor who created the statue centuries ago. The penetrating stare was possibly an interpretation of St. Rita’s agony (or shock?) from the innumerable sufferings she endured in her lifetime; the skull possibly represented the unfortunate deaths of her husband and twin sons; and the inverted cross was, well, not inverted at all, but was just held downwards.
The statue is in fact, just a full head and hands only. The torso is just a bastidor covered with layers of cloth so that it appeared that the statue is whole head, torso, arms, and legs. The mannequin measures four feet, representing St. Rita de Cascia, the tragic woman who, in history, had been a long-suffering martyr.
The statue's torso and legs were just a bastidor, as you can see here.
My little research on the dictionary of Catholic saints revealed that St. Rita (of
At the moment, the statue of St. Rita de Cascia can be viewed at all times of the day at the Church of the Divine Providence in Maria. It was hidden before from public view because of some attempt to steal the antique statue. In fact, the very statue of the Divine Providence, the patron saint of Maria, was stolen before but was fortunately recovered from the hands of scrupulous antique dealers. From then on, Maria’s parish priest, the kindly Reverend Father Cecilio Gordoncillo placed each of the church’s statues in glass cases.
The Man Tree
After visiting the Statue of St. Rita de Cascia, Johnson and I went to a remote wooded grove in Maria which, according to Johnson, was an enchanted place. It was late in the afternoon but, according to Johnson, no habal-habal driver in his right mind would ever drive to this road late at night. On both sides of the roads were thick forests of molave and tugas trees. I noticed that Johnson was driving slowly on this narrow dirt road and when I asked him why, he said he was making some pasintabi. In Tagalog, the pasintabi is a superstitious belief that when you passed by an enchanted place, you ask the spirits to let you pass safely. It is done just by whispering “makikiraan po” or roughly translated “please allow us to pass”.
Afterwards, Johnson led me to one of the trees in the forest that the locals say was being inhabited by spirits. Locals here call this tree the "Taong-Tuod" or “Man-Tree” because of the tree’s resemblance to the physical features of a man. Some people even claim that sometimes, the facial features of a man can be seen clearly marked on the upper bark of the tree. I wanted to photograph it but the ever superstitious Johnson said that I should ask permission from the spirits first, so I said “makikiraan po”, and then took the photograph and sped away.
The Old House in the Village of Cang-Isok
Presumably, this is the oldest existing house in all of Siquijor. Located in the seaside
The Tejano house, though long empty of residents, is not totally abandoned. The new generation of Tejanos, who live a few kilometers away, still maintains it from time to time. When I visited, I chanced upon meeting Aling Antonietta Tejano, who oversees the house. The kindly old woman recounted stories that the house had been occupied at different periods in history by Spanish, American, and Japanese invaders. Today, though, it has become a “bodega” of discarded boats, paddles, and fishing nets. Apparently, the house, being empty and locked most of the time, had become haunted. It seemed that ghosts loved to dwell on old and empty houses. When I interviewed some of the locals around for some information, some of them made the sign of the cross as old people do, looking frightened, and swore they have seen apparitions at night and even saw some glowing eyes peering from the window cracks.
In one of the barrios in Lazi, I met some people who have very white hair to the point of being snow-white, flour-like freckled white skin, and very white eyes. I took some photos but I promised not to show them here so as not to intrude into their privacy. Medically speaking, they are known as albino, people who lack color pigmentation in their bodies. Wikipedia defines albinism as a congenital disorder characterized by the complete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes due to the absence or defect of an enzyme involved in the production of melanin.
In Siquijor, however, the albinos are known as ugings. What I’m curious about was why they were so numerous in Lazi. The old folks I interviewed told me that the first ugings in Lazi may have been sired centuries ago by a Spanish conquistador who was afflicted with albinism. And since albinism is passed on genetically, this explains the numerous ugings in Lazi. Suffice it to say though, that aside from being pale colored, the ugings are your normal Siquijodnon people who are very hospitable and friendly.
The mystical Mount Bandilaan, rising more than 1394 feet above sea level, is the highest point and dead center of Siquijor. I am proud to say that this is the first and possibly the only mountain I ever scaled. This mystical mountain is sacred to the Siquijodnons as they regard it as the abode of spirits and otherworldly beings. The sorcerers and shamans of Siquijor gather here every Good Friday and Black Saturday to brew their healing potions. Even the local folks make a pilgrimage every Holy Week to visit the Stations of the Cross located at the very peak of the mountain. At the top of the mountain one can view the entirety of Siquijor, and on a perfectly clear day, one can even see islands of Bohol and Cebu from the distance.