reprinted from South China Morning Post, November 30 2006
Last month, a Filipino traveller was arrested in Brunei airport after she was found carrying a cloth-wrapped bullet. She avoided a stiff prison sentence, and was released only recently, after convincing authorities the object was really a fertility amulet.
Her story isn't unique - far from it. Plenty of Filipinos go around carrying mystical ammunition, or other strange objects. It has got to the point that, at Manila airport, there are notices warning people against carrying bullet amulets.
What can we do? We're obsessed with talismans, charms and other Three centuries ago, a Spanish priest noted that natives always seemed to be carrying charms - including scraps of paper scribbled with nonsensical formulas and prayers, stones, bones, herbs and pieces of woodenchanted accoutrements. We have amulets of every shape and for every occasion: to send curses, improve health, ward off unhappiness and guarantee good fortune.
Enchanted items go so far back in our history that our Spanish colonizers remarked on it: three centuries ago, a Spanish priest noted that natives always seemed to be carrying charms - including scraps of paper scribbled with nonsensical formulas and prayers, stones, bones, herbs and pieces of wood. Apparently, one wasn't properly attired unless bedecked with the latest in witch-blasting accessories.
To tell the truth, things haven't changed much. Even the educated and powerful elite carry charms, though most will never openly proclaim it - that might tip off their enemies, for one thing.
The most popular amulet is the anting-anting, which supposedly confers mystical advantages. I've read of a small stone that supposedly makes you invisible if you hold it in your mouth. Things might get dicey if you were to get excited or thirsty. The most widely known anting-anting, though, is the one that makes you impervious to weapons. A famous action star reportedly had a charm to protect him against bullets: he died of a stroke, so I suppose it could plausibly be argued that the talisman worked.
Anting-anting are taken so seriously that people have even taken their amulets to a range to be shot at by a pistol marksman. The owners were less than ecstatic when the expert proceeded to systematically blast the charms to pieces. They were probably thankful that they hadn't insisted on wearing the things.
Amulets are either created by magic or found in strange places. Every year on Good Friday, one ancient account went, the "divine child" could be seen in the nearby town of Los Baños, hopping about the hot springs. Anybody who caught him would get a powerful anting-anting. There was probably a list of scalded, steamed and poached adventurers who tried.
I entertain the hope that someone will enchant an amulet that can be used against corrupt politicians. Nothing has turned up yet, so I guess nobody has found a spell powerful enough. I can just hear the mythical forces of magic whining: "Can't you just settle for being invulnerable?"