Footprints

For Cultural Hybrids Seeking Home

THE STRANGE CASE OF MR MAGDAL

05 April 2021

In Negros and the surrounding areas, there are a number of folktales not unlike those found in Western comic books: Antman, Wonder Woman, Spiderman—stories of extraordinary humans with unique powers who people an alternate world.

Unlike its Western counterpart, however, this alternate world bleeds into Negros’ everyday life. I still remember that when I was little, my carer Yaya Teresit brought me to the Sorohano (our local word for Babaylan) to cure some unexplained sores on my leg.

Like my Yaya, many a Negrense believes supermen walk amongst us. These supermen include the Busalians, Dalagangans, Balaylans, and Anting-antingans.

Busalians are individuals born with powers to influence the course of natural events. The most powerful amongst them are still able to summon inclement weather on an otherwise calm and sunny day. Through psychokinesis, even the weaker ones can move inanimate objects at will.

Dalagangans possess unusual physical strength and extraordinary fearlessness in their fight against the dark forces. Previously invincible in combat, their amazing skills give them the ability to be great leaders and protectors of their community. They are said to hold strong integrity, which points them to the right direction in ambiguous situations.

Babaylans or Sorohanos are the shamans and the healers of old. Historically, they had the important role of summoning animistic spirits to end drought or to ask for abundant harvest. Now-a-days, their social roles have been diminished, but through their mastery of various ritualistic ceremonies, coupled with their extensive knowledge of the properties of different plants, they still retain the powers of healing and clairvoyance. /1/

It was to a Babaylan that my Yaya brought me in order to ask for my cure. His ritual consisted of incantations, and dance movements around a darkened room as he rhythmically swung, twirled and otherwise manipulated a machete tied to a long piece of string dangling from the ceiling. After about 20-minutes, he paused and pronounced his diagnosis. I had fought with another girl who cast a spell or hiwit on me. His ceremony had now nixed that spell. He proceeded to instruct my Yaya to wash my sores with water boiled with the leaves of the guava tree. The sores eventually disappeared although I don’t know if the guava leaves had anything to do with it. I do know they did stop me from quarreling.

Anting-antingans, on the other hand, were formerly ordinary humans who, through an amulet called anting-anting, acquire magical powers. Sometimes, anting-antings are found through serendipity, other times they are bestowed as gifts by some supernatural beings. An anting-anting can be a fang of an animal, bullet, piece of cloth, or any ornament where power resides and which must therefore be worn or carried at all times.

Magdal was one such Anting-antingan. His story is still recounted by old folks in the quiet town of Calatrava in northern Negros Occidental, a scenic place of hills, underground caves, and hidden waterfalls./2/

Young Magdal was a big and muscular man with bronze skin weathered by the sun. It is said that whilst wandering around Kandiwata Mountain, he met its owner Diwata, an earthly goddess. She complained that the many giant brambles surrounding the tip of the mountain made her itch too much, and implored Magdal to clear the prickly plants. In a spirit of kindness, Magdal laboured for days and the pleased Diwata in return gave him a stone amulet, a talisman with occult powers that could give him strength, cunning, and overall magic. He was admonished to use these powers wisely in the service of his people.

Magdal soon became a leading and respected figure in Calatrava, known for his prudence and fairness. During the Japanese invasion of Negros, it was reported that Magdal saved the town from occupation. The Japanese soldiers were encamped in neighbouring Escalante, waiting for reinforcements to arrive before crossing a bridge connecting it to Calatrava. /3/ Right under the noses of these soldiers, Magdal single-handedly destroyed the bridge, thus becoming a recognised hero.

After the war, legends grew around Magdal--he was allegedly seen walking on water near the shores of Lemery, the town center. He supposedly could also walk upright on leaves of cogon grass without disturbing the plant. Yet, it had been a while since anyone had talked to him. Where was Magdal? He had disappeared without a trace.

Flash forward some 60 years. There are current whispers among the old men frequenting Calatrava’s lone beer house. Rumours have it that, as the Americans were liberating Negros, Magdal left the island to settle in his wife’s province of Cebu. Perhaps out of feelings of dislocation--or possibly the anting-anting had in due course turned malignant after all--no one knew why, but there, he gradually descended into a life of dissolution. He acquired the vices of gambling and womanizing, and when drunk, was involved in brawls, which he always won because of his anting-anting.

In time, the powers of the anting-anting waned and Magdal was incarcerated when he knifed a man in another drunken brawl. According to one version of Magdal’s story: a big black spider came out of his mouth when he died.

Unlike my son’s superhero Spiderman, a.k.a. Peter Parker, who kept his uncle’s famous precept--"With great power comes great responsibility”-- Magdal forgot Diwata’s injunction. The anting-anting had to be used judiciously in the service of his people.

Magdal’s story is thus a warning to the gifted amongst us—that there is punishment for those who do not use their gifts wisely.

 

 

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Ascription: From interviews done by Jopy Plotria

Footnotes: /1/The Babaylans were community leaders before the country was Christianised through the coming of the Spaniards. They were mostly women or effeminate men, although today, they can be of either gender. Especially in more urbanised areas, their practice is also dying out. Babaylans are identified through bloodlines. Then, they go to a concealed place where they learn about the properties of diverse plants, master various rituals to summon the ancestral spirits, or simply in order to re-charge their energies. Aside from their healing powers, as clairvoyants they foretell events about impending troubles awaiting their patients or the community, and perform rituals to avert such disasters; /2/Nobody seems to know exactly where Mt Kandiwata is, as Calatrava is situated on a rocky mountain range with a number of hidden caves. Before Magdal’s time, so the story goes, folks from Calatrava would go to Mt Kandiwata with their offerings in order to ask a favour from Diwata. In the 1970s, anthropologists from Siliman University, Negros Oriental, explored one of these hidden caves where they found a huge stone slab prominently displayed, perhaps an altar of sorts. Amongst the artifacts excavated were shards of jarlets and other earthen wares, old coins, and miscellaneous items suggesting that rites and rituals were practiced there; /3/Calatrava was a former dependency of Escalante. It became a separate municipality during the American occupation.