Deep within dense forests, a bubbling brew of spells and supernatural powers comes to life. Accompanied by their black cats, they fly into the night to spread misfortune among innocent and unsuspecting bystanders. In the moonlit sky, they cackle and howl to signify the end of their malicious mission. This image comes up most often when people think of witchcraft. But unknown to many, it is a sacred connection with nature, other people, and oneself through the use of sorcery or mystical means.
In the Philippine context, witchcraft used to be a common practice due to our polytheistic belief systems. However, more than 300 years of Spanish colonization led to the transfiguration of pagan beings and practices, making witchcraft a taboo topic in the now predominantly Catholic country.
Fortunately, the rise of “WitchTok” videos and Facebook community groups in the past year allowed people to rediscover witchcraft. With these platforms, conversations about precolonial and modern witchcraft are more openly discussed—a long overdue discourse. Damien Roh and Lester Agaloos, mentors of the “Philippine Witches” Facebook group, unravel this often overlooked tradition.
Agaloos practices witchcraft with a burning passion—often casting spells, worshipping deities, and has an altar dedicated to his craft. “My practice is connected to my spirituality,” he reckons. Originally a believer in Catholicism, Agaloos was around 15 when he researched Wicca—an on the rise Western religious movement. “After a year [of research], I decided to do my own dedication ritual as a witch, and I renounced my faith in the Catholic church,” he shares.
Aside from his interests in the field, his family’s culture also encouraged him to learn more about witchcraft. He shares that his father’s side is Ilocano while his mother’s side is Tinguian—tribes commonly found in Abra where Agaloos also currently resides—which became a key factor in his self-discovery. He further elaborates, “mas rich ‘yung tradition of witchcraft doon sa Tinguian community kaysa sa Ilocano community. Doon ako nagkaroon ng interest sa witchcraft.”
(The witchcraft tradition in the Tinguian community is richer than in the Ilocano community. That’s what made me interested in witchcraft.)
Roh, on the other hand, first started practicing Western witchcraft, being born in the United States. But he then learned Filipino witchcraft when he unveiled his family’s former practices. “My grandma brought me in and showed me what she knew. She showed me things that our family [traditionally did],” he says. He later learned that his family kept their practices from Roh’s generation after being baptized and converted to Catholicism, fearing that his generation may feel ostracized.
While storybooks would narrate witches spreading mayhem for the fun of it, this isn’t the case in real life. With consistent discernment and the guidance from their deities, practitioners do not use rituals and spells to rewrite reality based on selfish desires. Roh emphasizes that one should “ask to receive what you need [and] not to get what you think you want.” It has never been the premise of witchcraft to force a connection between oneself to another or a goal which is not meant for them.
In fact, most practitioners subscribe to the Wiccan Rule of Three. Agaloos describes it as “what you send out to the world, good or bad, comes back to you three times.” He believes that the occurrence of a practitioner imposing his will on another is rare, as most modern practitioners believe in the three-fold law—“a version of the Buddhist Karma,” he likens.
But above all, “consent in the craft is very important,” Roh reiterates. Ethics is still the priority in any magical practice because of the great responsibility that witchcraft entails. Agaloos says interfering means avoiding the inevitable in life, so one must always choose to “deal with [the situation] instead of looking for things you can change but are fine without your meddling.”
In the heart of witchcraft, however, lies the urge to highlight and recognize our precolonial practices and sensibilities. These otherworldly beliefs are found in the mundane, such as our belief in the healing powers of albularyos or witch doctors, to our attachment with anting-antings or amulets. This is because early Filipinos, as Agaloos explains, “[believed] na lahat ng bagay sa nature is may espirito or sentient—nakakapag-isip [sila].”
(They believed that everything in nature has a spirit or sentient—they can think.)
“Kahit ‘yung naka-drawing sa anting-anting natin si Jesus, witchcraft pa rin ‘yun kasi amulet ang tawag doon,” Agaloos cites.
(Although it’s Jesus who’s carved in our “anting-antings”, that’s still considered as witchcraft because those are amulets.)
This was also the reason why Roh chose to open his temple in the Philippines, sharing, “A lot of Filipinos will find a stronger connection with their [ancestral] roots by practicing what our forefathers practiced.” Through these means, he hopes that these would remind people that we haven’t completely abandoned traces of witchcraft prior to Spanish conquests.
Thus, Agaloos hopes for a new breed of Filipino witches to emerge because “easily accepted sa atin ‘yung [witchcraft] kasi ingrained talaga ‘yung belief natin sa magic and [the supernatural],” he notes. “Hindi ‘yun na-erase ng mga Espanyol sa atin.”
(Witchcraft is easily accepted because of how magic and the supernatural are ingrained in our beliefs. Spaniards weren’t able to erase our belief in magic and the supernatural.)
Mired in prejudice
The enduring role of witchcraft in our culture compels Roh to claim it as our “original religion”. But in a predominantly Christian country at present, witchcraft—among other pagan practices—is endlessly condemned. “The common misconception is that all witchcraft is bad and evil,” Roh explains. He and Agaloos, together with the rest of the pagan community, face constant harassment from religious crowds who see them as spawns of the devil. Frustrated, Agaloos clarifies, “We don’t worship the devil. I don’t even believe in the devil. How will I worship him?”
This prejudice against the witchcraft community has forced them to exercise their beliefs in private—thick-skinned and cautious at all times. “We don’t have any issue with anybody’s beliefs,” Roh remarks disappointedly, “[yet we] face judgment, ridicule, or extensive lectures [on] how we are evil because of [them].” He notes the irony in the religious fanaticism introduced by colonizers, “A lot of us are happily praising the idols of [those who] killed, raped, and pillaged our ancestors, [while they demonized] our craft and [stripped] us off of our indigenous spiritual beliefs and practices.”
Meanwhile, Agaloos points out that many practitioners of the craft turn out to be part of the LGTBQ+ community, like himself. He reveals, “We’ve been ostracized from the Catholic Church, that’s why we had to look for a spiritual path…that will accept us for who and what we are.” Pagan practices, on the other hand, have fully celebrated the diversity of gender and sexuality; agendered gods commonly exist in Philippine folklore.
Despite the presumed antagonism between witchcraft and monotheistic religions, Roh reckons that the two operate similarly. “There’s not really much difference in praying and casting a spell,” he states. “The ceremony and deities may be different, but the intent remains the same.”
Preserving the (witch)craft
Witchcraft is a complex practice that’s worth learning about in its peculiarity. Unearthing its layers reveals a world outside of broomsticks and bubbling cauldrons. After all, being open-minded toward witchcraft doesn’t require compromising faith and scientific integrity.
Agaloos hopes that the practice of witchcraft can revive ancient Filipino beliefs and traditions to combat their extinction. “Those [traditions] are very important [because] we can then take our identity as Filipinos,” he notes. Similarly, Roh supports this claim, expressing that while witchcraft has been forgotten by many, they’re “just trying to revive it.”
Ultimately, Roh asserts, “The Filipino people should be standing up for their own culture.” While fighting for it is important, it is also crucial to recognize that practices do not define how one goes about their life. Certainly, witchcraft is not the real purveyor of evil. Most times, the true perpetrators of death, wickedness, and monstrosity are the very people abusing their power in broad daylight.