Accidental Witchcraft

Cebuano
Cebuano Sorcery: Malign Magic in the Philippines by Richard W. Lieban (1967)
Photo: Amazon

I rediscovered this on my bookshelf yesterday. The author spent a year in Cebu City, and a year in a rural area of Negros island, recording local beliefs about sorcery, and observing folk medicine practices. The two are related, since folk healers often attribute their patients’ maladies to curses, or other occult sources.

The chapter on aswang is interesting, but I’ve already written a post about that. The Cebuanos also believe in another kind of witchcraft — a curse, really — that they call buyag. The one who curses the victim is called a buyagan.

It’s possible to be a buyagan (or at least, to inflict a buyag) without being aware of it, because buyag are given in the form of compliments. Imagine that a stranger tells you that you have beautiful hair — and the next morning it starts falling out in clumps. Or another mother remarks how happy and healthy your baby is, and soon afterwards the child gets sick and fussy.

A buyagan can pass out his or her curses at will, but any compliment can turn into a buyag, if a spirit overhears the compliment, and decides to “add to” it. If you’ve just gotten a compliment, you can counteract the potential curse by saying “puera buyag” (go away, buyag), or just “buyag.” That’s a more colorful response than the usual “Thank you.”

I couldn’t find much about buyag on the web. This page, from a Philippine Alternative Medicine site, links buyag to flatulence, which is funny. A few other people describe their version of the superstition, here, and here.

The belief in buyag implies a society that is wary both of giving and receiving compliments. Or, as somebody else put it: a society that values humility. The underlying premise seems to be that flattery is a mask for envy — which it probably often is. And since envy is a form of ill-wishing, it might turn your good fortune into a bad situation.

I’ve noticed that I’m especially uncomfortable when someone compliments me in the presence of other people, unless they are included in the compliment, too. The possibility of attracting other people’s envy is definitely part of my discomfort.

Still, it would be dreary to feel that no one noticed your good work, wouldn’t it?

4 thoughts on “Accidental Witchcraft

    • The book is very interesting, though obviously the field studies are quite old. I’ll probably post something about the folk healers one of these days.

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