New takes on ‘kulam’
For years now I’ve lectured on “kulam” (sorcery) in my various classes. Not the “how to” but why we continue to have so many people in the Philippines believing that sorcery exists, with no end to the stories about encountering a relative, friend, neighbor or acquaintance supposedly “sorcerized.”
This year in one lecture to a group composed mainly of medical professionals who are also administrators, the discussions were particularly animated as we looked at social and medical explanations for sorcery beliefs.
I will start out by clarifying that I do not believe sorcery exists in the sense of a person casting a spell on another person, and I presume most of the physicians in my lectures share my position.
Sorcery and low trust levels
From a social science perspective, sorcery beliefs are correlated with low trust levels. Note how in the Philippines we’re constantly being warned not to accept food or drinks from a stranger because they might be sorcerers whose offerings can cause you grave illness. In Waray this is called “hilo.”
I’ve often wondered if our geography contributes to these low trust levels and sorcery beliefs. Isolated from each other because of mountain ranges and the sea, anyone who is “dayo,” an outsider—and that can be someone from the next island—is to be suspected of ill will. Geographic separation also led to the proliferation of languages and dialects, which further divide us.
Still another reason for the persistence of sorcery beliefs is our slow justice system. Go to Plaza Miranda in Quiapo and you will find that among the best sellers there are black candles. The vendors say these are pang-konsyensya or meant to bother the conscience of people who have wronged you. The candles can be the ordinary long ones, or you can buy them shaped like human beings—male or female.
In my numerous trips to Quiapo the vendors have always had the same replies when I ask what the common reasons are for conscience-pricking. Most of the time it is someone who has betrayed you in love, or in business, or both.
When I ask which sells better, the male or female candles, you can guess what the answer was. One vendor was transgender and practically screamed, “Sino pa kundi mga (expletive deleted) lalake?”
Once you buy the candles (don’t pay more than P50 each), you insert the name of the person who wronged you, photograph optional. Whatever the candle’s shape, the procedure is the same: You light it, and hold it upside down and watch it burn, imagining it’s your absconding lover, or business partner or lover/partner.
How does this relate to our judicial system?
If you had to resort to the court to go after the lover who left you on the road to motherhood, or the business partner who bankrupted you, it would take years to get justice. So, in the meantime, a trip to Quiapo can at least bring some psychological relief, albeit fleeting.
Sorcery, medicine, psychosis
Let’s turn now to the medical dimensions. “Sorcery” is a label attached to conditions which seem unexplainable, accompanied by guilt feelings about having done something wrong. The illness is then believed to be sent by an enemy who has hired a sorcerer. Sometimes too, the patient believes he or she has not done anything wrong and that the sorcery is sent by someone envious of his or her success or wealth.
Patients who believe they are sorcery victims often suffer from incurable or chronic ailments, especially when they bring about prolonged suffering (“I’m being tormented to the fullest as punishment!); when there are physical changes that are disfiguring, or startling as with a bloated abdomen (often the result of liver damage, but interpreted as a sorcerer having put objects into the victim’s body).
The diagnosis for sorcery is made by a traditional healer, who “reads” tawas (alum) or candle droppings floating in water, often claiming to see a human figure: “Ah, someone is angry with you. Did you offend anyone?”
Mental ailments are also often attributed to sorcery and in some cases there might be a basis, the patient suffering from psychosis.
Let’s first get that term defined. Briefly, psychosis involves losing contact with reality. A person suffering from psychosis will exhibit unusual behavior, with personality changes, to the point where their daily activities are negatively affected. Frequently, the psychosis involves “thought disorders,” meaning they begin to think differently, often with deep suspicions that they are being watched, or that they are being persecuted. The Filipino slang term “praning,” derived from the English paranoid, captures much of psychotic behavior.
Psychosis might be a sign of a psychiatric disorder (for example, schizophrenia, serious bipolar depression) but often, it is used as a “diagnosis of exclusion”—meaning, when a patient has psychosis, health professionals check first if the psychosis might have been come about through nonpsychiatric causes.
You’ll be surprised at what can cause the psychosis. First, there are drugs like “shabu” (methamphetamine hydrochloride), which over-stimulate and damage the central nervous system. One complication with shabu use is that the user is unable to sleep, and this can aggravate the psychosis; and as the person becomes more and more suspicious of people, he is unable to sleep even if he is not using shabu. Soon, he, or his relatives, begin to believe he is a victim of sorcery.
Alcohol dependents may actually be prone to psychosis as well, which can be brief episodes or recurring ones when the dependency is serious, with the psychosis happening as the alcoholic tries to withdraw.
A less-known nonpsychiatric cause of psychosis is steroids. I worry in particular about people trying to build their bodies and take pills sold by their gyms, sometimes not even knowing these are steroids. Since the link between psychosis and steroids is not well known, changes in the behavior of the body-builder are then attributed to sorcery.
There are also diseases that can cause psychosis as a complication because they affect the brain. These include brain tumors and cysts, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, even dementia caused by Alzheimer’s. Some infectious diseases, notably typhoid, can also cause psychosis as a complication. It was a physician in one of my lectures some years ago, who noted this. He was practicing in Samar, where typhoid is common.
We can see there are many medical conditions that can cause psychosis and other problems that are then interpreted as kulam. Complicating the situation, we Filipinos are predisposed to believing in kulam because of the type of Christianity we subscribe to, where we take the bible literally with all its references to this phenomenon. Yet, one could turn the tables around and argue that a true Christian should have enough faith to believe that something as evil as sorcery cannot triumph over good.
Socially and medically, we have no lack of explanations for sorcery. Arguments about good and evil, I leave to the theologians to debate.
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