In ancient times, before the monopoly brand religions and their intolerant jealous gods began to demand obedience of thought and belief, ritual animist traditions were the normal viewpoint, not just in Southeast Asia, but the whole world.

Many vestiges of these traditional views still survive, often even intertwined within the usurping religions, which predominate the intellectual and spiritual languages of many cultures.

Where Hindu and Buddhist countries are more readily able to absorb the cultural legacies of ancient tribal practices, the posture of ‘unquestionable truth’ propagated by both Islam and Christianity, at least on the surface, leaves little room for coexistence.

Despite this, and even with the superseding modern empiric doctrine of science, many beliefs and practices persist today, though many have of necessity expediently adapted their visible iconography to the prevailing psychological milieu.

No one in the modern world can be unaware of the contemporary extreme application of radical Islam in certain parts of the world, but in many ways these uncompromising attitudes have precedence, even in ancient times, and were famously also deployed in the often violent promulgation of the Catholic Church as it sought ascendancy in Europe.

The obsession of witch hunting in both catholic and protestant Europe is legendary, though whether the actual practice of heresy, sorcery or witchcraft, or indeed what defines such, was ever involved is at best questionable and is a scourge which still plagues parts of Africa.

In the modern Philippines, the inheritance of Spanish Catholicism remains the overarching prevailing force, so it may be surprising to find the ostensible practices of black magic still being adhered to in the Sorsogon region of Luzon and the islands of Siquijor and Samar, in the form of Kulam.

Although Kulam, with many parallels to Voodoo, is being rebranded as an exclusively positive force, not least because of its understandable fascination for tourists, the traditional practices are normally regarded as malevolent, and like voodoo involve the use of dolls, tied with a string to symbolise the witch’s control, and pins, submersion in water or fire to invoke the intended spiritual attack on the target.

These curses are implemented with the aid of numerous potions, incantations and spells aimed at inducing the desired effect of the petitioner for whom the Mangkukulam (witch) is acting, be it the death of an enemy or rival, a love or charm spell, a healing or harm spell, or as part of a divination ritual. Sometimes the traditional embodiment of a doll to represent the subject is now replaced by a photograph.

Interestingly, these rituals often invoke the use of Catholic saints and even Christ in their deployment, a clear illustration of the practical accommodation of the political realities of former practitioners. Indeed the empowering legitimacy of belief in witchcraft is paradoxically at least as much promoted by the church itself.

The perceived power of Mangkukulam in local societies is often a source of paranoia, engendering fear when people get ill, who then attribute the onset of illness to the witch, and conjecture whom of their acquaintance might have cause to seek the use of witchcraft against them, and may even lead to counter spells through the use of a rival Mangkukulam.  

The psychological fear of dark power at work and the notion that one has been cursed, in those prone to believe it, can itself lead to unwholesome consequences, preying on their minds and aided by an assumption of self-guilt.

Conversely, in many places the Mangkukulam is often seen largely as a healer or magician for good, and regarded as a ‘white’ witch, using their herbal knowledge and incantations for entirely benevolent aims.

It is often cited that where modern medicine has failed that the Magkukulam is able to induce cure. For many, whether any actual spiritual power can be attributed to such apparent anomalies is an irrelevance. Even in science, the power of belief and placebo is well acknowledged, and indeed honest science, even if sceptical, is perfectly well aware that indeed it does not know all things.

The island of Siquijor, accessible from the southern tips of Negros, Cebu and Bohol, is the favourite destination for tourists with an interest in Filipino witchcraft from a perspective of curiosity, and if your own beliefs lead you to conclude that you can obtain that promotion, pay rise or love interest through magic, the ever resourceful Mangkukulams will be happy act on your behalf in exchange for a few of your hard-earned holiday Pisos.