Visits from Spirits: The Ingkanto Syndrome

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Balete tree. Image: Wikipedia

The only definition for “ingkanto” that I could ever get out my parents was “they’re like fairies”. According to the description given by Francisco Demetrio, they live in boulders, caves, holes in the ground, or in trees like the balete (a relative of the banyan tree) or the acacia. They are mischievous and capricious. On the one hand, there are traditions of them lending beautiful golden tableware for the weddings and fiestas of people in need; on the other hand, they can curse you and send diseases on you if you disrespect them (even accidentally), or if you don’t give proper greetings when you pass their homes. In the anecdotes that Demetrio collected, they are often described as fair-skinned, blonde and blue-eyed.

They also have a reputation for stalking people. The name Herminia Meñez gives to this phenomenon is “Ingkanto Syndrome”, though I don’t know if the term originates with her or not.

Meñez identifies three distinct stages to the phenomenon. In the first stage, the victim is visited by invisible beings, who try to seduce him or her away with displays of wealth and power. This is manifested to others who may witness the victim havings spells of stiffness and unconsciousness, disappearing for intervals of time without explanation, hanging from trees, or displaying other unusual behavior.

In the second stage, if the victim resists the spirits, they begin to abuse him physically and verbally. This manifests to witnesses as the victim becoming violent, and often extraordinarily strong. Often, family members have to tie the victim down to prevent him from “running away with the spirits”.

In the third stage, the victim’s family has brought the victim to a curer (a mananambal, for instance). Assuming the cure has been successful, the victim goes from wild and uncontrollable to “quiet and well-behaved”.

Demetrio describes the typical instance of the phenomenon similarly: “the disappearance of the victim and the seizure of madness usually accompanied by a show of extraordinary strength”.

In the traditional belief systems, the ingkanto syndrome can be brought about by any number of things. The victim might have accidentally violated the property of an ingkanto, for instance by destroying an anthill or mound that was their home, by building on an ingkanto’s land, or chopping down an ingkanto’s tree.

But there is another, more interesting folk hypothesis: the symptoms of madness were brought about because the victim was resisting their spiritual calling — namely, the call to be a shaman or healer. When the victim stops resisting and accepts the call, then the madness cures itself, and the victim becomes a more centered, thoughtful individual, one who is ready to serve the community through their spiritual or healing arts.

This relationship between psychological crisis (or “madness”) and shamanism is not unique to the Philippines. Demetrio notes that the “phenomenon of seizure or ‘an overpowering mental crisis’ …is characteristic of shamanic call documented all over the world…”. He quotes Mircea Eliade, who wrote about the Buryat of Siberia in Rite of Initiation:

The souls of the shaman ancestors of a family choose a young man among their descendants; he becomes absent-minded and moody, delights in solitude, has prophetic visions, and sometimes undergoes attacks that make him unconscious. During these times, the Buryat believe, the young man’s soul is carried away by spirits; received into the palace of the gods, it is instructed by his shaman ancestors in the secret of the profession, the form and names of the gods, the worship and names of the spirits. It is only after this first initiation that the youth’s soul returns and resumes control of his body.

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Photo: Nina Zumel

This idea, I think, carries on to other types of spiritual calling. Consider the prophet Isaiah, and the voices that called him in the desert (Isaiah 40:3-6). Or Joan of Arc. St. Teresa of Avila was subject to hallucinations, visual, auditory, and evidently tactile.

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God.

The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus (her autobiography)

Back to the ingkantos. Here is the story of an informant who was interviewed by Meñez in Aklan province (Visayas, Philippines).

This happened in Manila. I got home from work at six in the evening. I sat on a bench outside the house. A handsome young man passed by and greeted me. I did not know him. He said that he would see me later. At seven o’clock, while I was brushing my teeth, a pig appeared and asked me to go out with him. I asked the pig who it was and the pig replied that he was the man I had met earlier. “How did you turn into a pig?” I asked him. Then the pig became bigger and bigger and I saw the man instead. I screamed to my brothers that a pig was there to get me. “Are you getting crazy?” they said. They did not see anything. It must be my imagination, I thought. The man said that he would be back the following day.

The following day, as the young woman was having lunch, the man came again. He took her for a journey (against her wishes) on “something like a raft”. He showed her London Bridge, and then took her to Cebu (a city 450 miles and several islands away from Manila).

We flew to his house. It was magnificent. There were many rooms. We went to a dining hall where I saw many creatures who looked like monsters. They were black and they had no-you know, this line above the upper lip [the philtrum]. They appeared hideous especially when they laughed and showed their teeth. They told me that I was now in their power, and their leader, an agta [a black ingkanto] told me that I had to marry his son. I insisted that I had not said yes to him, but he got enraged every time I answered back. They took me to a chamber where they beat me up and pinched me until I was black and blue. They showed me horror movies. Then they invited me to eat, but the rice wiggled. A child warned me not to eat it, or else I would never be able to return home. They got angry and dragged me around.

This went on for two months. The victim’s brothers even took her to the National Mental Hospital (in Mandaluyong, Rizal), but doctors there said she was “not crazy”. The woman’s brothers told her that at noon every day she would talk to herself, saying that she was not going with “them” (the spirits), and then she would become stiff.

A week before I left Manila for Aklan, they kept coming back and were insistent that I join them. They told me that I could become a curer if I wanted to. I told them that I did not want to leave my parents. They continued to torture me. I was going to Mass at Saint Jude’s, but they would not let me enter the church. My brother put a rosary around my neck, but I would not let him. I mean, they would remove it from my neck.

The emphasis in the above quote is mine. The victim moved away from Manila, to Aklan, and took employment as a household domestic. The ingkanto followed her there — “Little people came out [of a mound near her house] laughing and told me, ‘You thought you escaped, but we are here.'”

The woman’s mother called a healer, but to no avail. At the time of the interview, the woman admitted that her employer had heard her talking to the spirits, and that she (the victim) still lived in fear that the spirits would return.

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Photo: Nina Zumel

Compare this to the story of Bessie Dunlop, from Chapter 5 of Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. I’ve reformatted it for legibility.

She was walking between her own house and the yard of Monkcastle, driving her cows to the common pasture, and making heavy moan with herself, weeping bitterly for her cow that was dead, her husband and child that were sick of the land-ill (some contagious sickness of the time), while she herself was in a very infirm state, having lately borne a child. On this occasion she met Thome Reid [the name of the spirit that visited her] for the first time, who saluted her courteously, which she returned.

“Sancta Maria, Bessie !” said the apparition, “why must thou make such dole and weeping for any earthly thing?”

“Have I not reason for great sorrow,” said she, “since our property is going to destruction, my husband is on the point of death, my baby will not live, and I am myself at a weak point ? Have I not cause to have a sore heart?”

“Bessie,” answered the spirit, “thou hast displeased God in asking something that thou should not, and I counsel you to amend your fault. I tell thee, thy child shall die ere thou get home; thy two sheep shall also die; but thy husband shall recover and be as well and feir as ever he was.”

The good woman was something comforted to hear that her husband was be spared in such her general calamity, but was rather alarmed to see her ghostly counsellor pass from her a disappear through a hole in the garden wall, seemingly too narrow to admit of any living person passing through it.

Another time he met her at the Thorn of Dawmstarnik, and showed his ultimate purpose by offering her plenty of every thing if she would but deny Christendom and the faith she took at the font-stone. She answered, that rather than do that she would be torn at horses’ heels, but that she would be conformable to his advice in less matters. He parted with her in some displeasure.

Shortly afterwards he appeared in her own house about noon, which was at the time occupied by her husband and three tailors. [Neither the tailors nor her husband noticed him.] … so that, without attracting their observation, he led out goodwife to the end of the house near the kiln.

Here showed her a company of eight women and four men. The women were busked in their plaids, and very seemly. The strangers saluted her, and said, “Welcome, Bessie; wilt thou go with us ?” But Bessie was silent, as Thome Reid had previously recommended. After this she saw their lips move, but did not understand what they said; and in a short time they removed from thence with a hideous ugly howling sound, like that of a hurricane. Thome Reid then acquainted her that these were the good wights (fairies) dwelling in the court of Elfland, who came to invite her to go thither with them.

Bessie refused the invitation, which displeased Thome Reid. But Bessie did agree to take Thome’s advice on the healing arts. He visited her frequently, and she gained a reputation in the community for diagnosing the illnesses of people and animals, and for finding lost objects. She learned about the properties of herbs from Thome Reid; people came to her for healing medicines and ointments.

Unfortunately, Scotland in the sixteenth century was not a friendly time and place for a mananambal (for so she was); Bessie Dunlop was burned as a witch in 1576.

We might also include the story of Anne Rykhus and the hulder in this set of examples; it at least has a happier ending.

It’s easy to see that folk psychology might explain schizophrenia-like symptoms as visitations by spirits; once that premise is accepted, it’s not a large leap to believe that those spirits might give the visitants special gifts or insights. I’m not asserting that all healers, shamans, or those who have experienced a spiritual calling are schizophrenic or mentally ill; I am pointing out that the shaman and healer roles provide a constructive and community-positive outlet for those individuals who manifest these symptoms — and conversely, the cultural beliefs of these communities provide support for such individuals to remain high-functioning, and even (when it is schizophrenia) to recover, to some degree.

Some cultural differences are also apparent in the kind of delusions that occur in schizophrenia patients. Often, the delusions tend to reflect the predominant themes and values of a person’s culture. For example, in Ireland, where religious piety is highly valued, patients with schizophrenia often have delusions of sainthood. In industrially advanced countries like America, patients’ delusions tend to focus on sinister uses of technology and surveillance. Patients may report that they are being spied on by their televisions or that they are being X-rayed when they walk down the street. In Japan, a country that prizes honor and social conformity, delusions often revolve around slander or the fear of being humiliated publicly. In Nigeria, where mental illness is believed to be caused by evil spirits, delusions may take the form of witches or ancestral ghosts.

Thomas Stompe and his colleagues estimated that 15-30% of the symptomatology of schizophrenia and similar delusional disorders is culturally shaped. Other researchers point out that cultures with stigma-reducing explanations for delusional symptoms — like spirit visitation or “thinking too hard” — tend to have higher recovery rates.

As they said about Anne Rykhus: “no longer considered to be odd, but wise”. And perhaps, in some cases, the belief engenders the reality.


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