Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Kulam (sorcery) in different anthropological lenses

by Gideon Lasco, MD

Kulam (sorcery) is an oft-encountered institution in many Filipino communities. Evans-Pritchard makes the classic distinction between witchcraft (asuwang in Tagalog) and sorcery by suggesting that the power of the sorcerer (mangkukulam; mangbabarang) lies in the use of medicines, rituals, and spells while the power of the witch is an ‘inherent quality’ (Evans-Pritchard, 1937:21).

Anthropology offers different lenses through which we can understand the phenomenon of kulam:

Classical evolutionism, which places societies in different stages of development but on a linear track, would look at kulam as belonging to the realm of supernatural beliefs and it would classify such belief with those of other cultures holding the same belief, in keeping with its comparative methodology. In his Primitive Culture, for instance, Tylor devotes much attention to various supernatural beliefs of ‘lower cultures’ (Morgan, 1877:120-145), explaining them as attempts to explain life and death. Building on Tylor’s ideas, James Frazer compared religions and belief systems around the world and concluded that there are three progressive stages of human belief: primitive magic, religion, and science. The idea of kulam would fall under ‘primitive magic’, magic described as ‘one of the earliest means by which man endeavors to adapt the agencies of nature to his needs (Frazer, 1959:469).

Culture and personality exponents, like Margaret Mead, claim that ‘culture is personality writ large’ and that ‘culture, not biology, determined human responses to life’s transitions, like adolescence’ (Evans:110). Thus, this approach would look at how aspects of culture, like folktales, enable and enact the institution of kulam. For instance, the very real fear that people experience in relation to the sorcery endows the institution with power, and perpetuates the prestige of the sorcerer. Whenever children are threatened by their parents with words like “Don’t wander at night, a mangkukulam might get you!”, these views are reinforced and ‘writ’ into the people’s personalities.

Neo-evolutionism will have a freer hand in interpreting the notion of 'kulam'. With its emphasis on historical events and materialistic explanations, one may well look at the past, including epidemiologic events and environmental circumstances. For instance, a distant village may be labelled as a village of sorcerers as part of a general fear of outsiders that is rooted in the possibility of contagion. The illnesses that sorcery can inflict – or may have inflicted in the past – may very well be symptoms of diseases like yaws or leprosy. Leslie White’s brand of neoevolutionism would also look at the roles that sorcery play, bringing him closer to functionalism, which will be the last lens we will consider.

Structural-functionalism is concerned with how the structures of a society operate (cf. Spencer’s organic analogy) and how various elements of society, including belief systems, “function” to maintain the stability of a society. With this perspective, particularly of Malinowski’s functionalism, we can approach kulam as a form of social control, a “a valid way of “punishing” individuals who have violated social norms” (Tan, 2008:14). One observation I have that makes sense in light of this view is that the kulam institution is stronger in far-flung areas like islands or distant mountain communities. Without any other means of social control – and with the government institutions too far to make any effective presence – the institution continues in the present day.

By offering various lenses to look at phenomena, medical anthropology offers us perspectives that allow us to make sense of the mysteries of our culture.


Evans-Pritchard, E. (1958). 1937. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande.

Frazer, J. G. (1959). The new golden bough: A new abridgment of the classic work. T. H. Gaster (Ed.). Criterion Books.

Morgan, L. H. (1877). Ancient society: or, researches in the lines of human progress from savagery, through barbarism to civilization. H. Holt.

Tan, M. L. (2008). Revisiting usog, pasma, kulam. UP Press.

Tylor, E. B. (1958). Religion in primitive culture (Vol. 2). Harper.

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