Negotiating with Spirits



The little boy in the house had been waking up at three in the morning. We saw that as one of those natural tantrums all children go through. The regularity of it, however, became disturbing. With the regular medical check-ups all accounted for, the condition was seen as not one that could be answered – or cured – by Western-oriented medical discipline. One option was left: to bring the boy to a healer.

In another house, the story is of a man nearly seventy years of age complaining of bodily discomfort. He was brought to his doctor, who, in turn, recommended that he be admitted to a hospital. After a few days of observation and medicine, the man was discharged. And yet, he felt something was troubling him or affecting his body. He suggested they secure the services of a healer.

I write this with the perspective of an anthropologist whose first academic paper was on “Santiguar” or “Santigwar,” the healing process common in the region and found also in other places in the country, but with a different name and conducted with a similar procedure. Having done field research for many years, my expertise, if you ask me, is not about social change or health-seeking behavior (a theme I had been exposed to in social science researches many times as a consultant) but healing processes.

I have studied “Santigwar” and other “folk” or alternative healing processes for more than twenty years. From Laguna with its “luop” to Ticao with its “Pagbawi,” my studies have nurtured in me a detachment, which many social scientist perceive as the wise beginning for a scientific enterprise. You know, the old obsession with “objectivity?”

For a long time, I marveled at my own ability to bracket all kinds of experiences encountered in the field. I have known healers who disappeared with his house. I have met a “comadrona” who was also the best chiropractor and the most excellent gossip. I have even scared off a “para-santigwar” who sweated profusely throughout our interview because he felt I was holding on to “something,” which was much stronger, and more potent than his power. In this encounter, I would realize later that, indeed, during that long fieldwork, interrupted by the healer who kept on asking me if I also did some curing, I had in my wallet an “oracion” given to me by the same healer whose house vanished with him.

The most terrifying (not for me but for my sister) was when I had to end abruptly my conversation in the house of a healer in Quipayo, Calabanga many summers ago. The reason was my sister, Ebit, who kept nudging me, with fear and anxiety in his eyes, whispering how we should leave the place immediately. After some distance away from that house, she explained to me her terror. The old man I was talking with was already seated close to her, telling a story about his daughter who disappeared into the world of the “encantos.” I would not believe my sister because, all throughout, the old man remained seated some meters in front of me. All throughout, the old man focused on me.

How does one make sense of these encounters? We explain them using theories; we theorize about these “odd” and “bizarre” events and render them ordinary, comprehensible. For a long time, this intellectual position enabled many anthropologists – and sociologists – to articulate a world that may appear exotic or “savage” and different. The position is made tenable by a discipline that prides itself with a keen distinction of the insider’s and outsider’s view. The anthropologist, armed with a theory that is founded on past theories, meaning updated or more relevant frameworks, can disarm cultures and bring them as curated meals, but delectable and finding a fit in the everyday living museum, nevertheless still a museum, of observers.

But disciplines change, theories are discarded and in their place, more theories are evolved or invented.

This bothers me now: a discipline that is a product of intellectualizing, has crystallized for me phenomenon that would not have been clarified if I did not study to become an anthropologist. It is, in fact and also, a discipline that is Western in orientation. It is a discipline that thrives on constructs like kinship, social structure, cognitive map, inequalities, even culture.

Out there in the field, there is no kinship, no social structure, and no culture. They are all thought of.

I read reports on healing and the sense of the field has vanished. What we read is a dryasdust document that appears to explain why an unseen being could enter into a negotiation with the seen being. This kind of report appeases intellectuals but may never appease spirits.

Where in these books on enchantment can we locate the fear of a family losing one of its members not because of some ailments taught in medical schools but because his mind has been snatched by some beings and brought to their invisible kingdoms?

In these healing procedures that are performed away from clinics, hospitals and the universe of bacteria and virus, we see a ready option for Bikolanos, and that is the readiness to accept a cure born out of mediation and compromise.