The Batu: Curse or Cure Stone, and the Cultural Logic of Animism among Two Indigenous Communities in Mindoro

Figure 1. Undated photo of a young boy from Mindoro with a rattan waist belt, in this case used to carry the “Batu.” Photo among the papers of Dr.Ross when he made the donation of the “belly rocks” to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 2011.

Late last year, Professor Cherubim Quizon, brought to my attention two so-called “Mangyan Belly Rocks” currently housed at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. She and a group of research fellows attending the Annual Philippine Studies at SOAS, University of London, were at the Museum studying Philippine material culture in storage, and when she saw the two smooth round black stones in the collection, she remembered that I had done field research on these same objects for my dissertation. She kindly sent me some photos and the acquisition documents, and asked if I would be interested in doing an article for the Mapping site. I readily agreed.

Provenance records showed that the rocks were acquired by Edward Ross, an American commanding officer and entomologist of the Army Malaria Survey Unit in Mindoro. He got the rocks circa 1945 and later featured them in his article Mangyan Memories, published in Pacific Discovery by the California Academy of Sciences in 1968. More than 50 years after the publication of Dr. Ross's article, his wife Sandra Miller donated the belly stones to the Pitt Rivers Museum on September 12, 2021.

In the donation document, the Rosses describe the artifacts and explain why they use the exonymic term "Belly Rock," citing the rock's protrusion resembling a belly button. It also describes the possible provenience of the rocks - the document says that Dr. Ross made frequent trips into the mountains and jungle of Mindoro to collect mosquitos, Embioptera and other insects, and make tropical disease surveys. There he befriended hunter-gatherer (and seasonally agricultural) Mangyan families whom he brought some rice, salt, and red cloth and received in exchange some bows and arrows, baskets, pink bananas, and trinkets. In the list of exchanges, he includes the “belly rocks” – heavy, shiny round black stones called “mutya” by the Mangyans. The Mangyans said that they are usually found swirling in rock holes at the base of waterfall rapids, and that they must be "caught alive" – requiring great skill to catch these stones while they are whirling. The successful person who catches them may use them to practice the art of healing, blowing over them through a clenched fist. It is believed that spirits live in the stones and that he that possesses a stone has the power of that spirit literally in his hands. The document also mentions that the "lucky owners" wear their “belly rocks” inside a rattan belt around their waist, and include a photo illustrating how it is worn (refer to Figure 1).

In his published article, Dr. Ross provides additional details, offering a general overview of the lives of the Mangyans of Mindoro. Specifically, he highlights the village of Naitan, where he introduces Egong and his wife Tayak, along with their daughter Dugi and her husband Damasu, who serves as the village chief. Dr. Ross talks about the family's religious practices, describing a localized blend of beliefs encompassing spirits and elements of "witchcraft." He elaborates on a spirit named Labang, revered by the Mangyans as the controller of all things, capable of assuming various forms such as trees, rocks, or other animals. These spirits are believed to reside in diverse natural features including mountains, stones, large trees, caves, and rivers. He continues to describe how certain Mangyans, especially as they grow older and wiser, claim a special ability to communicate with the spirits, pointing to Egong as being one of these men.

Within this general description of religious belief among the Mangyans, Dr. Ross specifically mentions the “belly rocks”, and continues:

“Another interesting ceremony was performed for us in another village. Here the witch doctor possessed a pouchful of very heavy, shining, round, black stones he called mutya, which comprised the tools to his profession. These are indeed remarkable stones for they must be "caught alive." They are found swirling in rock holes at the bases of waterfalls and in rapids. Inspite of their great weight, they are held in animated suspension by the peculiar currents. It takes great skill, according to the doctor, to catch these stones and the successful one may practice the art of healing. It is believed that a spirit lives in the stones and that he who possesses one has the power of that spirit literally in his hand. To cure another's headache, for example, one need only grasp one of the stones with a piece of beaded cotton cloth, hold it against the head and blow several times through the clenched fist. The cost of such service is one chicken.”

As for my own research, I first saw a similar artifact among a Hanunoo community in Mansalay, Oriental Mindoro. Refining my anthropological interest through fieldwork that followed after, some trusted ritualists showed me a few of these rocks because they thought it would add to my interest in cosmology, particularly in spiritism ( Rosales 2019). Based on field experience, I can categorically say that these “rocks” are spiritist artifacts with their “own” rituals, personages, and audiences. I have been working on how the artifact could be placed within a cultural logic that could be intelligible to people outside the cultural domain by which it is now appreciated- and at the same time give deference to the construction of meaning and value of these artifacts to the people the “belly rock” originally belongs to.

My own narrative will begin by providing the ethnographic context of the artifact to situate it in the larger yet diversified Indigenous conception of reality in anthropological accounts. Then I describe it so it could be isolated from other similar Indigenous or some precolonial ritual artifacts, like how it was assigned as a “mutya” in Dr. Ross’s account, or as an amulet (cf. Pambid 2000). And because museum collection is quite an intriguing aspect of knowledge stocktaking, I conclude by reflecting on the ethical and practical course of action for safekeeping the artifact that once or always has been a part of a people’s lifeworld.

“Belly rock:” An ethnographic context

Out of eight distinct Mangyan ethnic communities in Mindoro, the Alangan, Bangon, Buhid, Hanunoo, Iraya, Ratagnon, Tadyawan, and Tau-Buhid only two possess a “belly rock”. The Hanunoo whose socio-cultural lives had been documented by pioneering anthropologist Harold Conklin (1957, 1961, 2007[1959], 2007 [1960]; and Postma, (1988), and the Tau-Buhid whose ethnographic accounts are provided in the writings of the missionary F. Douglas Pennoyer ( 1976, 1980), and in my recent works ( Rosales 2019, 2021) including some previous passages in Thomas Gibson’s monographs ( 2015) about their neighboring community, the Buhid. Conklin provides insights into the cognitive, practical, and cosmological aspects of the Hanunoo lifeworld. However, to me, it was Masaru Miyamoto who provided an in-depth look into the spiritual world of the Hanunoo (Miyamoto, 1988). With myriad spirits in the Hanunoo cosmology, he mentioned some types of stones that are primarily spirit-inhabited. Spiritist objects like stones, herbs, and beads among others are important in spirit connection. Maria Mangahas reports, for example, that among the Ivatan fishing communities, a ritual payment for successful fishing done near the sea includes an officiant throwing a bead into the sea (1996). This gives insights into the importance of objects as a conduit for spirit connection. As a conduit, these objects speak about how humans form relationships with each other through the artifacts humans surround themselves with and give meaning to - a fact- verifiable in the archaeological records (Schiffer, 1999).

Recently, Elisabeth Luquin provided insights into the values associated with animism. Luquin suggests that the Hanunoo regard the traditional authority of elders, the value of kinship ties, and community cohesion by discussing how beliefs and practices associated with a spirit called daniw inhabiting a stone remain vibrant despite rapid acculturation among them (2021). Missionary activities changed aspects of the Hanunoo lifeways. Informants aver, through the mission activities of the SVD, a religious congregation of the Catholic Church, the majority of the Hanunoo had been converted to Catholicism, an event many Indigenous communities in MIndoro l (see Figure 2) and in other parts of the world confront (Rio et al., 2017). Among many consequences of such religious conversion is the misplacement of ritual objects, like the “deactivated” batu shown in Figure 3 in place of Christian symbols, like the cross.

Figure 2. A typical State-assimilated Mangyan community nearby an episodic river with a church in its vicinity, circa 2009. Photo by Christian A. Rosales

The Tau-Buhid have not been spared of missionary proselytizing, which has been the cause of many of them retreating into the interior mountains of Mindoro as a way of resisting the new life order brought by missions. While Christianity replaced the traditional supernatural belief system of many lowland Tau-Buhid communities, those in the secluded highlands maintain animistic beliefs and practices. I recently documented their regard for the importance of sorcery, the spirits invoked to mediate the biological and metaphysical worlds, and the value of reciprocity among them (Rosales, 2019). I found out that sorcery functions as a sanction against non-reciprocal actions. It is logical since in a geographically resource-limited environment equal redistribution is crucial for survival. But much like the Hanunoo, the Tau-Buhid enter a phase of their collective life where they would have to negotiate their lifeways to new political challenges brought about by the extensive State conservation works in their territory. Given the situation, the Hanunoo and the Tau-Buhid much like those who have entered “civilization”, confronted state-imagined modernity (see Li, 2014), and have been highly polarized, cling to tradition when meaning about life, explanation about an event, or solution to a problem could not be found.

Figure 3. This “deactivated” batu came into the possession of the author in the year 2008 from Giri (not his real name), belonging to the Mangyan in Calintaan, Occidental Mindoro, but it was probably originally from Oriental Mindoro. It has a diameter of 16.5mm and a height of 17.2mm, considered "pebble type". It lost its spiritual power and use when, according to Giri, its keeper converted to Christianity in the early 2000s who perceived the batu and its rituals as a sinful act. As a point of comparison, an “active” batu is a stone cared for by its keeper through animal blood-feeding sacrifice, used exclusively for rituals, and which is either inherited from the ancestors or newly found in nature. The potency of the batu depends on the spirits inhabiting it, while its loss of power depends on the cultural assimilation its keeper went through, including an oversight during the transference ritual. Although both deactivated and active batu possess anthropomorphic features resembling an "utong" (Mangyan word for a "belly button” or a nipple) these features have nothing to do with their potency. Some say that the difference may be felt by the weight of the batu (mabigat). Photo by and artifact from the ethnological collection of Christian A. Rosales.

William Mitchell, providing insights from the Lujere of Papua New Guinea suggests that it happens because Indigenous communities perceive reality in connection with how it was constructed in the past and how it was given meaning by the ancestors throughout generations (2024). For instance, Mitchell narrates how Lujere’s belief in the “sangguma” (sorcery), where a sorcerer slits the armpit of its victim to drain its blood, and then closes it without a trace of cut, is taken literally. For Mitchell, such understanding might be difficult to validate in the logic of Western science, but for the Lujere it helps give meaning to their relationship with each other, reinforce their common morality, and solidify community cohesion through the collective curing rituals they conduct for the sorcery affliction (Mitchel, 2024) all because it was taken as a real event. Richard Lieban, among the Cebuano, observes this quite universal Indigenous conception of reality, where according to him belief in sorcery (barang) helps in identifying a moral failing of a member of a community that disrupts communal harmony (1967). For instance, many people afflicted with barang are usually those involved in extra-marital affairs, unrequited love relationships, greed-motivated economic transactions, and other moral failings (Lieban 1967). So, Indigenous reality or world is not perceived like how science understands it in terms of Linnaean taxonomy (see, Descola, 2005), but through the cultural logic by which it functions (see, e.g., De Martino, 2021).

In a similar light, the “belly rock” is not just a piece of geologic rock formation, but encompasses an entire reality of its own. As a reality, it has its users, rituals, and ritualists . In other words, the “belly rock” is an artifact representing the summation of the cultural assemblage of a specific lifeworld. As a lifeworld, it is understood in the context of a ritual reinforcing, asserting, or introducing understanding about a specific aspect of material life. I surmise it might have been the reason, Dr. Ross used “belly rock” instead of an Indigenous term as his attempt at synthesizing the purely Linnaean taxonomic category of life prevalent in the culture where he was from, and the metaphysical understanding of the possibility of life he witnessed among forest peoples of Mindoro more than 50 years ago.

In the Pacific Discovery publication, he mentioned that the “belly rock” has to be “caught alive” (Ross, 1967). I would think that “alive” is Dr. Ross’s “translation” of the Indigenous perception of what living things are among animistic communities that allow for the accommodation of some rather inanimate objects. This act of agency assignment, in an anthropological sense, may refer to “beyond humans” as a category for the possibility of existence or the “earth beings” when, as Marisol de la Cadena argues, used in negotiating Indigenous political position in State affairs (2015). “Earth beings,”“beyond humans” in the practical sense include mountains, rivers, seas and oceans, massive rock formations, and natural monuments among others – that various Indigenous communities conceive as sentient (de la Cadena, 2015). True enough, Mount Halcon, the huge mountain dividing the Island province of Mindoro (Occidental and Oriental Mindoro) is a living being for the Mangyan just like the vast massifs shown in Figure 4 and hence treated with reverence whenever traversed into.

Figure 4. The vast Mindoro massifs home to many highland Mangyan communities. The Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources rangers during their routine patrol with the author wearing a green shirt, circa 2017. Photo by Christian A. Rosales

This suggests that unique understandings of reality within different communities lend meaning to diverse cultural expressions, even when they diverge from scientific paradigms. Consequently, the significance of the "belly rock" and its accompanying rituals reinforces the shared worldview of both the Hanunoo and the Tau-Buhid peoples. Despite Western scholarship's reluctance to employ the term, these communities represent "the other", embodying a distinct cultural identity akin to many Indigenous communities worldwide.

In simple terms, faith in the "belly rock" epitomizes the Indigenous perspective on an aspect of life that enables Indigenous peoples to affirm a collective identity and assert autonomy in the face of external encroachment. It also highlights a facet of their communal existence that, if disrupted, could lead to societal collapse. Informants pose questions: Without sorcery practiced among the highland Tau-Buhid, what mechanisms would regulate the potential for inequality? If healing rituals involving the "belly rock" were discontinued, what could serve as a substitute for the ancestral guardians who traditionally care for the Hanunoo in times of illness?

In simpler terms, a "belly rock" represents a fundamental symbolic link between a community and their ancestral spirits, embodying the Indigenous perception of the world they inhabit. In cases of malevolent spiritism, the "belly rock" serves to reinforce the violated morals associated with sorcery, with the aim of restoring such moral values. Therefore, a "belly rock" is not merely a cultural element but a lifeworld in its own right, believed to be "inhabited" by spirits.

In sum, it is for this reason that when a “belly rock” is misplaced through historical encounter, assimilation, acculturation, or other reasons the logic of cultural practices appended to it becomes indecipherable, lost forever.

The Batu as it is: Physical description, handling, and safekeeping

Among the Hanunoo and the Tau-Buhid the “belly rock” is called “batu”. It is usually small in size and can be held in one’s hand in a clenched fist. Its texture may either be rough or smooth, looks shiny or oily, or is porous and dull. Its shape is either like an imperfect sphere, like a “heron’s egg” (“itlog ng tagak” [Tagak, Egretta garzetta, migratory bird species abundant in rural agrarian communities]), a shape of a nearly full moon (“magdanon”, Fanabuhid, the language of the Tau-Buhid), or sometimes uneven almost unrecognizable from other river stones, and is quite like a pebble. It is cold to the touch, but quickly adapts to one’s body temperature when held for quite some time and when carried around absorbs sweat if its surface is porous.

On specific events like a ritual, the rock is taken out of its sulpa (Fanabuhid) or bamboo vessel (see Figure 5) or from a woven rattan belt bag and a batu could be quite smelly because of the blood poured through it during a ritual sacrifice. Its strong odor could be the reason why it is customarily forbidden to try to smell it intentionally because, as my informants warned me, it is not pleasing. But a batu that has been newly “caught alive” might smell like the earth, a freshly cultivated swidden plot, or a pot of garden soil. Its weight could vary, unlike an ordinary river stone when held in one’s hand is quite heavier, and solid, as if one carries a tire bolt, an iron ore – rich in some Mindoro rivers– or cooled melted gold. Different as they may be, there is one common characteristic among the different kinds of batu, they are all black likened to a “dark moonless midnight”, and are powerful or damaging like the blazing fire of a swidden when there is no firebreak to contain.

Figure 5. Sulpa (bamboo vessel), usually a tobacco container, is used for storing a batu. Photo by and artifact from the ethnological collection of Christian A. Rosales

Following the description, a batu in context is connected with fire. It is a “firestone”, in which the rituals associated with it depend upon the rising of the sun, and the waxing of the moon, and done in front of a hearth (refer to Figure 6 ).

For this reason, the Tau-Buhid do not frequently carry the stone. It is commonly believed that the stone consumes whatever organic matter it comes in contact with including the human body. It is feared that the stone consumes the life of anyone who carries it around without knowledge on how to contain its power. A common indicator that it is “eating life” are frequent sicknesses or that one’s body gradually becomes thin. To avoid this adverse effect, the stone is securely placed next to one of the corner poles of a house. The potency of the rock often becomes obvious when it begins to decompose the organic material of the roof just above it. In the community, if a hole appears in the roof due to this decomposition, it signals that one of the occupants of the house is a keeper of such a rock, known as a "batu"

When it becomes impractical to always repair the damaged part of a house, the stone is kept in a dungdung (Fanabuhid) or granary house instead like the one shown in Figure 7. A granary house is ordinarily rebuilt every year to make it secure for the storage of grains, and this is why it is the perfect place to keep a batu so it may “freely eat” the storage house instead of the main house. This way, a family is saved from the inconvenience of frequently repairing the main house.

Figure 6. Ideogram showing the time when a certain ritual occurs following the phases of the moon and the rising of the sun. Ideogram by Christian A. Rosales

Despite these auguries of decomposition and harm,a few spiritists do carry the “batu” around, often like an “amulet.” But even the most skilled ritualists are vigilant of the signs that their body can no longer contain the batu’s decomposing power. Symptoms like frequent fever, sudden chills, and headache are taken as adverse effects of carrying it around. When it happens, the keeper is left with no choice but to set it aside for safety. In some cases, the Hanunoo carry the batu in a woven rattan belt bag as Dr. Ross reported, because they have an antidote to pacify the decomposing power of the stone. But during field validation, when I saw a “belly rock” again after several previous fieldwork, the elder took it first from their cotton storage room adjacent to his family’s house. It was inside a plastic bag. I asked him if it could be carried around but he said it may only be possible if one could tolerate a headache when it is carried for a prolonged period. But he never mentioned it has a decomposing power like how the Tau-Buhid believe. I remember the first time I saw a “belly rock” before this, the informant took it from his small betel quid rattan bag on his neck. He was carrying it, so I would think that whether it could be carried around or not depends upon the reverence shown to it among the Hanunoo or the Tau-Buhid.

Although there are differences in the handling of a “belly rock”, a common thread among the Hanunoo and the Tau-Buhid is the belief that someone who wishes to acquire it must dream of it. Dream requirement applies to both a “belly rock” “caught alive” and one that was inherited.

Figure 7. Dungdung or a highland granary house for various types of beans and grains, especially palay, is where a batu is safely kept. A tin sheet wrapped around the tree as its pole deters mice from reaching the storage. The author stands beside it for height reference. Photo by Christian A. Rosales


There, in the middle of the night, in one’s vivid dream, the “possessor” communicates with the spirit, a form of dialogue. Like people who meet for the very first time, the spirit and possessor identify themselves. It is commonly held that such a spirit could take form out of whim, sometimes as a boar, a deer, or a talking tree, or at times in the form of a man. At first encounter during this deep dream, the spirit’s form, or face if it shows itself, becomes clearer. After it introduces itself to the possessor, and the possessor to it they both fly above the mountains, rivers, and forests. It was like, as the informant said, traveling to places they had never been before. But where the batu was found, they land together. There, they talk again, but now in a negotiating manner.

Their communication reflects an egalitarian manner of interaction among community members during waking hours, wherein no individual holds superiority over another. The spirit demonstrates its power, showcasing its capabilities and the tasks it can undertake. The individual seeking possession may request a specific supernatural ability, and if the spirit is capable, it may agree to fulfill the request. If the spirit voluntarily grants an ability and the individual accepts it without specifying, they would promptly establish the terms of their pact. However, the individual seeking possession must pay a price for the ability they request from the spirit. This payment can be substantial. Once the terms for the ability have been agreed upon, the individual may experience a sudden awakening akin to a "hypnagogic jerk" or the sensation of falling during sleep, often accompanied by the vivid imagery of their index finger being cut by a bolo knife. According to informants, this moment seals the agreement: the spirit grants the ability, while the individual bound to the spirit pays the negotiated price of their pact.

This same dream scenario is true even if the stones were inherited. Passing a batu to another is usually within one’s family, from a father, uncle, or grandfather. Indeed, it is a cultural activity for men, but not exclusively for them. It is seldom that women possess a batu, or inherit a batu from their parents. But, it happens especially among the Hanunoo even if such abilities are not deemed as potent as those acquired by men.

While major scenarios in a dream are the same such as talking, bargaining, flying, and waking as if falling from bed, and cutting the index finger, inheriting a batu is quite more complex than finding it in natural settings.

Crucial to the ritual is its original keeper severing his affinity with the residing spirits with the condition that the soon-to-be keeper would be successful. The original keeper, being bonded with the spirit or several spirits of one’s ancestors in a batu, has to speak to each of them. It requires an evening ritual attended by the elders of the community especially when a batu is for healing. If it is for a malign purpose, a ritual is held in secret, usually at a location outside a community. And since a batu for maligning is not ancestor spirits inhabited and there are no names of ancestors to chant, the ritual requires animal sacrifice, blood poured through the batu while the keeper-sorcerer utters his spells spontaneously severing his ties with the spirit. This may be done on the first dawn before the first night of the three nights of the full moon (refer to Figure 6). In other words, it has to be done before the first night to the full moon when the soon-to-be keeper-sorcerer has to dream of it. The most important scenario in a dream is the willingness of the ferocious spirit to cooperate with the aspiring keeper aside from other scenarios I mentioned.

For benevolent purposes, the keeper performs a ritual before the elders (or other respected elders if the keeper is an elder himself). During this ritual, he recites the names of his ancestors, detailing the commendable deeds each one accomplished, such as the specific diseases they cured (as also observed in Barton 1919 in the case of Ifugao ancestor name chanting). This recitation typically spans an entire night. However, if the keeper fails to mention or accidentally overlooks a name, the batu loses its perceived efficacy. It becomes void or powerless. This oversight may have been one reason why Dr. Ross was able to acquire the "belly rock" now at the Pitt Rivers. It is an empty stone that cannot be used for anything anymore. I am not sure if Dr. Ross was aware of the cultural reason why he was allowed to acquire the stone at the time. However, if the chanting is successful, the original keeper may pass the batu on to the aspiring keeper-healer after the night of chanting. This does not guarantee the cooperation of the inhabiting spirit.

At the breaking of dawn after the night of chanting, the aspiring keeper receives the stone. And on the night of that day, which marks the first night of the three nights toward the full moon, he has to fulfill the dream requisite for keeping the batu.

If, on a very rare circumstance, during the dream there was no agreement made between him and the spirit in the batu, it is said that he would wake up at sunrise, unlike those who have successfully sealed an agreement with the spirit who woke up before the first light of the sun. Or worse, he would have no dream of it at all. Futile, the “frustrated keeper” has to return the stone to the original keeper. If it happens, the bond between the spirit and the keeper is renewed. Overall, the process of passing a stone, receiving it, and dreaming of it are stages of inheriting a batu, especially those for benign purposes. And when successful, the possessor wakes up from his vivid dream.

Upon waking, and fully recovering consciousness, the possessor now knows the ability of his batu. If it was originally inherited for healing, then he would remember all the spirits who could heal specific diseases, which he would have to invoke during healing rituals.

The case would be quite different for a newly found stone. For the Hanunoo, if in the dream ancestors (“daniw”, see Luquin 2021) had been encountered, then the stone’s ability is for healing maladies. Again, provided that the possessor did not ask for any other ability. Among the Hanunoo, this type of “belly rock” is called Batu Daniw. However, if a ferocious spirit inhabits the stone, such as the spirits called sudaya, paniwa, panhiri, and sunayan it is primarily used for malign purposes, such as in sorcery or casting curses (cf. Miyamoto 1988 and Luquin 2021).

In contrast, among the Tau-Buhid, a batu either found or acquired has no other use but for sorcery. Ordinarily, sorcery may be done without a batu, but it is said that those who practice it with a batu are more powerful because the inhabiting spirit who knows nothing but anger can easily be communicated. Spirits among the Tau-Buhid are called falad. Gibson (2015) notes that the falad are more or less like the lowland conception of the human soul, but perhaps throughout the history of contact, and because “culture is dynamic” its conception changed wherein now, a falad refers exclusively to the angry spirit of the departed. It was quite a reason why other religious missionaries found difficulty in explaining the Christian concept of the “Holy Spirit” because it was puzzling for the Tau-Buhid how a falad or spirit becomes holy not to mention that the concept of “holiness” is new. To remove confusion, the missionaries describe the Tau-Buhid type of spirit called labang (also found among the Buhid in Gibson’s account) as the ferocious spirits, not the falad. Still, the majority of the Tau-Buhid, especially among those in the remote highland communities use falad to denote spirits of angry dead people. These angry spirits reside in stones, and hence these are called Batu Falad. Again, it is used for sorcery or cursing an enemy. It is noteworthy to remember that among the Tau-Buhid a batu may only be “acquired”. As an acquired ritualist object, a payment of pig(s) and chicken(s) is required to be given to whom he inherited it.

Payment ritual for supernatural ability: Possessor to keeper

Once a “payment” is made through a ritual, a possessor becomes a keeper. This “passage ritual” is quite complex: At the first light of the sun of the second day before the full moon (refer to Figure 6). A possessor, upon waking in the wee hour of the night, awaits the breaking of dawn. A possessor must see the first light of the sun, and “bathe” himself in it so that like a snake, his “venom” would be lethal (in case the ability is for sorcery, but similar logic applies to healing ability). This analogy is based on the observation that snakes “dry” themselves every morning after having made themselves wet from the dew fall of the previous night. It is believed that venom loses its potency during the night so a snake has to expose itself under the sun to quickly make it lethal again. So, the possessor bathing under the sun ensures that the power of his batu would also be like snake venom, lethal.

When the sunrise is full, he secures the animals. Through these, he will perform the blood sacrifice on the rising of the full moon which happens on the third night (refer to Figure 6). If the payment is a chicken, it should be an adult egg-laying one. Specifics, among the Tau-Buhid and the Hanunoo, are the same in such a way that the chicken should be the colors of fire in the hearth – yellow, reddish, or yellow-reddish hue. If a pig is the payment, then one should procure it immediately, it is costly, and hence it is normally a payment for malign activity. Very rarely, but it happens, especially among remote highland Tau-Buhid that the first-born male of the possessor becomes a sacrifice. Not in the form of “human sacrifice” but more of a “life payment” through the death of his son. For instance, if this is the price, the possessor must feed his son (child or a grown-up) with white-cooked rice. Then beginning the first full moon night until the new moon (refer to Figure 6) his son is expected to die. Death may occur either as an accident, like tumbling on a cliff, being attacked by a boar, accidentally poked by a spear-trap, or simply by sudden sickness. To me, the interesting part is the ritual requisite of feeding his son which could mean a last gesture of a father’s care for a child, knowing that his son is his payment for the malign ability he would soon possess. Seldom, among the highland Tau-Buhid fathers show a similar act of kindness ordinarily.

However, if the payment is animal blood, the chicken or pig is not fed even at the last light of day. The wailing of the pig or the cry of the fowl is even encouraged. In some ethnographic accounts, like in Frederic Laugrand et al. (2020) it has been mentioned that the shrieking of the pig serves to communicate with the spirit world. It could also be the reason why almost universally the wailing of animal sacrifice is important in any payment ritual (see Rosales 2021). At dusk of the full moon, the animal sacrifice is prepared by carefully tying it to a makeshift table or a wood slab. The head of the animal is above the ground for easier cutting of its throat. Below it is a bamboo vessel containing the batu or among the Hanunoo a white plate that has never been used for eating with the batu on it.

As soon as the night falls, and the full moon appears in the east, the pig or chicken is poked with a knife without it being wounded, so that its “pleading” surrounds the ritual vicinity. When the moon fully appears as bright as the sun, the possessor immediately cuts the throat of the pig (or chicken) while spontaneously talking to the stone telling the stone that he is paying for his newly acquired spiritist skills.

The blood is poured, down to its very last drop, into the bamboo vessel where the stone was placed. The stone is soaked in this blood, and with blood spilling over the ground, the possessor spontaneously talks to it reminding it that he is paid. The bamboo vessel, or the white ceramic plate where a batu is placed should remain lying beneath the blood-dripping throat of the sacrificial animal until the killed animal turns cold. It is said it is important for the sacrificed animal to turn cold to the touch to ensure that its life had been fully offered. After, the possessor closes the lid of the bamboo vessel, or in the case of a plate, covers it with a banana leaf. The bamboo vessel or the plate is then placed near or on top of the hearth where the reserved firewood is normally kept. It stays there until the first light of the sun the following day. The meat of the chicken or pig may be consumed provided that the entrails, liver, and heart are discarded in the nearby forest. Among the Tau-Buhid, the meat may be distributed to the community members without indifference to the new sorcerer of the community.

Unlike in the lowlands where ritualists are seen with abomination, in the highlands the Tau-Buhid ritualists are respected people, who are also seen as healers. However, this is quite different among the Hanunoo, who keep ritual activities and identity a secret. This is the reason why a chicken rather than a pig is used for a sacrifice, because the chicken meat may be shared within one’s household, and easily consumed. Rituals are done in faraway places.

Among the Tau-Buhid whose relative or son “paid” for the supernatural ability, their family follows the usual communal funeral observances. Traditionally, when a member of the family dies, its corpse is laid on the ground or on a bamboo bed. Elders (fufuama, Fanabuhid) of the community and the dead’s kinsfolks gather around it. After a short grieving period, especially after women and children have mourned, and before the sunset of the day when a relative dies, its corpse is buried. Usually, burying the dead occurs before sunset, so if one dies right after the sunset the corpse should be buried before the sunset of the following day. After the funeral, the bereaved family is confined to their house. This means that they could not tend their swiddens, take care of their domesticated animals, or make any other economic transactions, and they cannot eat other food except those they already have in the house. This is so, because the bereaved family is beliieved to be a bearer of misfortunes. An elder needs to perform a ritual for them to extinguish their misfortunes, and only then can they go out of their house to live a normal life again.

A Keeper’s Spiritism: The first and succeeding mornings

At the breaking of dawn following the full moon, the possessor now a “keeper” prepares the hearth, so he can make his first spell. It is said that a keeper’s words containing his bidding become his spell. It shows that a batu used for maligning others gives a natural ability to its keeper that whatever illness, misfortune, or any curse he says becomes a potent command to the spirit inhabiting his batu to inflict on someone. When casting such spells, the keeper takes his batu before the blazing fire in the hearth, takes an ignited firewood, and while holding the stone, utters his words with clear bidding. He would have to say his words with the name of the person he has enmity with before the stone until it heats up. At the point where he can no longer hold the heat of the stone, he emphatically intones the part of his spell which could be contextually “You shall die!” if his bidding is to kill someone. Then, he places his batu inside the bamboo vessel or the “belly belt bag”. It is said that misfortunes, illnesses, and other harms intended for someone take three nights to effect, but death occurs quite quickly. Those my informants know to have been victims of this sorcery die of heart failure, lung disease, or through a nightmare. Successfully, casting his first spell, the keeper (or sorcerer for this matter), repeats the ritual whenever he has to malign someone. But much like the batu for healing, every last full moon of the first swidden clearing season a keeper has to kill an animal pouring its blood upon the stone, very much like following the payment ritual to nourish the spirit.

Noticeably, the Hanunoo and the Tau-Buhid quite share a reverence for the sun. When a batu for healing is used for specific maladies, it is done just before sunrise and in front of the burning hearth. The only difference is that for the Hanunoo healing may be done even at the last light of the sun, or sunset. Dr. Ross’s description of the “belly rock” as a healing batu, and how it was used through the healer acquiring all the power of the spirit residing in it by holding the stone while healing the sick is also how those who still have a batu today perform the ritual. The only difference is that for healing to be fast and successful, a chicken is required to be killed. Perhaps, this action reinforces the Indigenous spiritist principle of repaying life with life.

Conclusions: Logic of Spiritism

Providing context and reflection on all this, I would think that the logic of the practice of the batu finds expression in how the community where it occurs shares an understanding of their common world, everyday life, the inevitability of death, and the socio-political changes they confront. This means more, that the “belly rock” as a batu could be taken as an artifact representing the cultural assemblage of a specific lifeworld where it once belonged.

Thus, taken this way, the “belly rock’s” destination in a museum could be much like how a batu was stored in a granary house 50 years ago. But unlike before where the “belly rock” was stored to contain its decomposition power, its safekeeping in the museum now is to protect it and the story of the people who once held it, so that it may tell humanity that in our common history, we once lived autonomously. Hence, much like the same as with the political atmosphere of World War II when it was acquired, the “Mangyan belly rock” could also be seen as an artifact of resistance against colonization. Put simply, the logic behind the belief in “belly rock” is about the assertion of a collective identity of a different kind of people, like the Hanunoo and the Tau-Buhid.

*Department of Human and Family Development Studies

College of Human Ecology

University of the Philippines Los Baños

[email protected]


I am forever thankful to Dr. Cherubim Quizon for her invitation and encouragement to write this piece. Likewise, I am grateful to Dr. Maria Cristina Juan for editing and suggesting more appropriate terms, making this piece more sensitive to culture bearers. Above all, I thank the Tau-Buhid and Hanunoo elders and my informants for generously providing data, helping validate the data, and granting their consent to write and publish.



1. Note, the term “Mangyan” may be considered derogatory by some people in source cultures. However, its use throughout is to make it consistent with the historical and ethnographic classification of ethnolinguistic groups of people in the Philippines. I use the term with the caveats around ethnogenesis (James Scott, 2009)

2. Pitt Rivers Museum Acquisition Record 2021.

3. Ross, Edward S. 1968. Mangyan Memories. Pacific Discovery, California Academy of Sciences, Volume XI (5), September-October, 176-186.

4. A counterpart among the Tagalog called “Bato Omo” is white, and is called “mutya” sold in some online stores or directly by local healers (see, e.g., )

5. “Inhabited” rather than “possessed” is most appropriate as a distinction from a dominant Christian religious connotation that certain objects can be “infested” by evil spirits (see Christian Faith and Demonology). Traditional Hanunoo and the Tau-Buhid do not recognize spirit-inhabited objects like batu as “infested”.

6. “Rattan belt bags” are quite ordinary among traditional Hanunoo women. Some say these bags are tied around the waist during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage, others say to regulate blood flow during menstruation. There was an NGO (Non-government Organization) who made these as handicrafts and then sold these to foreign tourists through a "guilt tripping" marketing strategy. True or not, the NGO marketed these belt bags as being tightly tied around women’s belly so that they would not feel hungry, pushing the false claim of a starving group of people .

7. Unmarried possessor without a son may repay through a male sibling following the same cooked white rice feeding ritual. Most know this, and it is one of the reasons why the highland Tau-Buhid seldom eat rice especially when given. In the absence of a male sibling, the immediate male relative, except his father and elders, like one of his cousins or nephews would be his payment.



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Plaited rattan belt for "Mutya" rocks

Plaited rattan belt with opening for holding two mutya ("belly rocks") and worn around the waist. A carved wooden peg operates as a fastener when secured to the length of twisted cord attached to the other end of the belt.

Mutya or Batu (Belly Rock)

Spherical black stone, highly polished by water erosion, with a small protrusion on top resembling a belly button. Worn in a rattan belt tied around the waist and used in medicinal ceremonies to cure ailments such as headaches.

Mutya or Batu (Belly Rock)

Spherical black stone, highly polished by water erosion. Worn in a rattan belt tied around the waist and used in medicinal ceremonies to cure ailments such as headaches.

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