The Last of the Igorot Head-hunting

Dang-on is the youngest survivor of the worst landslide that happened in Cordillera. On that tragic evening, Dang-on found himself clinging to a branch of a dead pine tree. Below him, an avalanche of mammoth soil mixed with water gushed like a legion of black horses coming down from the mountain. The houses, about fifty in number, made of steel and thin roofs were falling on the black river-like tomb heads with eyes staring at abysmal suicide. It was like a nightmare for Dang-on, the rain pouring heavily and the winds are like malignant spirits crying in the mountains. Never did he think right there in the middle of the storm at seven years old, he could choose to live for himself or surrender to what he could not comprehend, maybe it wouldn’t be a sin to give up and die after all. Yet Dang-on chose to hold on tight and hang there for hours until the first life of the morning.  When he was rescued, they found him covered with mud, both his limbs stiff and nearly torn from his body. The veins on his neck were stretched and he couldn’t talk for many months from that pain and shock.

Many years later when the community reached the decade anniversary of that ill storm, Dang-on stood in the middle of the dap-ay, their community court. He would be confronted with this decision of being alive when the evil spirit of the witch that caused this catastrophe appear to him in front of their community elders. The ritual sumang is a special ritual that allows the living to challenge the evil-doer and demand justice for what happened, even when it already happened in the past. The community healing is renewed every ten years, and when the elders called the community seeress to conjure and bind the heart of the witch, a cloud of black smoke in the shape of a half-faceless old woman, with the black wings of a vulture was summoned at the dap-ay. The interlocking prayers and chants of the elders kept the witch’s heart hooked for the night’s trial. 

The elders continued their prayers, binding the evil spirit in the burning fire of the dap-ay, so that everyone in the community, including the town mayor, the children who weren’t yet born during that calamity, and all spectators can see the witch’s face appear before them. The dogs howled and the forest nearby shook as if the spirits of the dead were disturbed. Meanwhile, the gongs played more earnestly in the background with tireless circular movements of young men dancing. Their G-strings tucked in their waist, their foot stomped the ground and created a sound that locked all of us in the circular dap-ay. Beginning that night until sunrise, the sumang would subject both people and demons to listen to the sound of the ritual.

From where he stood, Dang-on could see how angry the witch was, its mouth spilled blood and black matter, and said in a terrifying voice, “I’ve written your name in my book of curses. How could you escape what I’ve already traded with the death god, Am-masang?”  

For a moment, Dang-on was speechless, the anger started to well up in his heart, but he held it at the level of his golden necklace, “only up here,” and pointed to his chest. “Will I allow your evilness to reach me but won’t scratch my soul?”  He continued, “If you have returned to this world to harvest my soul and trade it again with your lord. I tell you that you have mistakenly identified me. I did not inherit the name of a Kadangyan for I am a widow’s son. If you confess to me, what evil magic you used to explode that rock in the high mountain and hurled it with the storm to sweep all our houses at the mouth of a big landslide, perhaps I can tell you how I hang on to life that evening and give you my ancestral name. Fair trade?” I responded with the full fury of my tribe. 

“I bind you with your words to tell your secret after mine.” The witch began to show in its smoke a long-forgotten town. “No one knew me, but I live at the center of your community at the foot of the high mountain. I would describe my house, my dap-ay.” She showed her half-vulture face to us and smiled. “Six houses are lined up in the procession in front of my door, the road before those houses where the ancient river used to flow, it hides many lost spirits I was able to command. In my kitchen where the sun rises, I counted another six families who could offer their lives to Am-masang; in my bedroom facing the sunset, where a big church stood nearby but protected by the houses of their members, I directed my feathers towards them, blew out songs that joined their procession and countered their prayer. I plan to bury them alive with their crosses and pews, and now you’ve seen how I succeeded.” 

The people shouted in anger and threw stones in the dap-ay, the fire burned even more, and smoke filled our nostrils with the ashen pine wood that blew like dust eclipsing our eyes, but they continued in louder voices.

“At the back of my house, I knew you little boy came from that direction. Your house I cannot pick out from that dirty neighborhood filled with dogs, roosters, and pigs. These creatures are potent in delivering death messages.  They were the souls you heard that night coming from the forest, because I drew them away and the darkness ate their life. I collect your shadows, the shadows of the people passing at my door, the drunkards peeking through my windows, and the children looking at my jar bottles. I catch pieces of them from their silver hairs, toenails, beetle-nut saliva, and even from their singing. I catch their voices, they are clues to opening portals of their souls. I can contain them in spells written on my walls and there I’ll be able to code their names, not their literal names but their ancient names, of course. Now, I have confessed. Give me your name and I will deliver it to Am-masang, so he can come to you and take your life. Ten years of delay is enough, it’s not within your power to keep your life for yourself.” The witch said this with a face that turned from an old lady to an opal circular mirror, whose frightening voice surrounded us, her face returned to the shape of a young woman and then mimicked the face of a rice god bulul filled with sharp feathers. The witch could not escape the judgment of the elders, though. Her heart was trapped inside a golden pasiking at the center of the dap-ay. She could not retrieve what the elders ordered from the seeress who had found the heart in the cave where the witch hid during that evening storm.

I delayed the confession by asking a very painful question, I rehearsed many nights before the ritual sumang.

“You haven’t told me why you took the life of my Father. Surely he hasn’t passed on your doorstep for he walks in the forest from his farms, nor did he drink and go near your house. Our hair and nails are well kept and burned in our kitchen alone. He hasn’t given me any song since my mother died in giving me birth. How could you take the only person I care for in this life?” I was trembling in grief in questioning the witch. The deep sorrow that I felt within those years, knowing I wasn’t able to bid my goodbye to my father, whose hands the rescuers found in the mud rotting after searching for two days- I cried until my tears and voice dried up. What I remember were the decapitated bodies retrieved with many missing parts like severed bloated dolls. The valley turned into a ghost town. Seventy people died in that landslide, the worst experience in our region, all because of this witch, whose power we do not know exists in our midst.

“The hands of your father have sinned,” the witch answered, her heart being poked by the elders. “I, the raven, went to all farms in the forest and dug small holes in different plots. I also dug a cup of soil near the greenhouses, the vegetable tunnels and the pine trees. Did you not your father’s hands were rotten? It’s because he touched the cursed food, I buried under the soil of those farms I visited at night.” The witch smiled at me while saying this. 

I could ot contain my anguish, maybe my father accidentally touched the food offered to Am-masang while he was harvesting. 

“What great sin my father and our community have committed to deserve your evil condemnation. You have harvested many souls in one single night, their blood you have drank from below that even the underground creatures, Ambasigens, would tremble in your evilness.  Those one-legged monsters’ family of Ambasigen whom our great harvest goddess Bangan already defeated a hundred years ago rose again to eat the roots of our crops and cause famine for three years. Still unsatisfied, you ate and pierced the bodies of our villagers like an evil mammoth from the underground. Why such despicable curse, WHY?!” I shouted at the witch. The elders in the dap-ay shed tears and began to chant the old prayers. Their cups were refilled with rice wine and they replenished their body with camote, the food of our ancestors. When the cold wind would begin to whistle from the forest, the small girls and boys seated from afar carried quietly the white and black cloth from their mothers and step closer to the dap-ay to cover the back of the elders who wore G-strings, seated on the cold stones of the dap-ay.

In a little while, the sun would rise and the pig ceremony would commence. The gongs would reverberate to call the souls of the departed forefathers. The witch’s heart would be destroyed with all her wielded evil powers. Most importantly her voice would be erased with the pig’s blood from the memory of the villagers so that it wouldn’t hurt their children. The end of her would come as witnessed by the community, the barren land would be restored, and the young men whose minds were afflicted that they cry miserably every full moon would be washed and be sober the next day. All misfortunes would come to an end after the ritual sumang. The just god Kabunyan would be blessed. 

Yet, the voice of the witch answered in a grieving voice, as if I was her last confession. “Do you not remember the sin your grandfathers did in Mount Agaran fifty years ago? Do you not? Let me tell you. To satisfy your rituals, your forefathers searched for a lowland head to be sacrificed in the mountains. Yet on the third day, they didn’t find any adult man. When they reached our homes on the mountain trail, my father and mother took them in. They ate with us and slept in our quarters but in the middle of the night, your hunters went against my father who was sleeping in the granary house! They took the head of my father, and our rice grains bled on the watch of our family bulul. When the hunters returned to your village and all your women danced during the ritual, you did not know whose head they had taken! It was my father’s! It was from the housemaster that treated the headhunters as guests! Your men broke the goodwill of Kabunyan. What evil you did for the sake of your rituals! 

“Remember, remember. At your feast before the sunset, my mother carried us with my little sister and took the plates where your men had eaten, the blankets your hunters used, the hairs and nails they left at our doorstep, mother kept a jar where the voice of your headhunters was stored, when they sang on our wooden windows and spat the red juice of beetle nut, we all collected them. We walked the whole day after the slaughter and left the bleeding torso of my father in the rice granary, now barefooted, we reached your community. You’ve seen this face before! 

“At the center where your men throw their spears at the severed head of my father, others missed, one and two hit the head and whacked the skull, we stood at the top of Mount Agaran, and you heard the lament of my mother. Did not all your women cry, too, at the sight of a widow and her daughters? All eyes lifted us on the shoulder blades of the wind god Dagem, oh, what sorrow.  The men, out of shame, ran into the river and drowned and no one rescued them. They could not stand to see how each of the articles they left – the clothing that held their smell, forgotten in the swift blood of murder, each plate and spoon they used, still unwashed from our kitchen, the jars that hid their voices now eat their conscience and followed them in the deepest water. The fishes feasted on their flesh. We hold them now evidence as against you and your tribe. The unseen god Kabunyan who sees the world of the living and the dead judges us all!

“My father may have closed his eyes and muted his mouth in terror, but now I still can see his head torched at the center of your ritual. I swear at the eyes of his seven-year-old daughter, I saw his ghost run after Am-masang and pleaded for his daughter to live up to this day to remind your forefathers whom now you’ve called in chant and the presence of your gong-beating sons and daughters know and be reminded of your evil -doing. If you destroy me for taking souls in recompense for the life of my father, I would gladly vanish as my mission to have been completed. Now tell me what’s your name and who held your feet in the air for you to live?” 

There was a grieving silence amid the dap-ay. Indeed, all the elders remembered that unfaithful day when the hunters did sin. And since then, the head-hunting ritual left the mountains of the Cordillera. They decided to mourn for all the orphans left because the fathers of tribes were beheaded for the sake of the ritual. When the elder gave me his nod, I gave my confession:

“I, Dang-on, confess to all of you, including you evil maiden, that my name is also Sumarag. Father changed my name and for a new one, hoping we can forget the death of my mother. I only knew of my real name through a document father hid under our bed, but never did he speak of my name and instead gave Dang-on to the community as my name. 

“I remember one morning I passed your doorstep and was tempted to look into your jars lined up outside your house. I peeked through the empty jar but saw your blank opal face there, staring at me at the bottom of the jar. How do we call this in our tongue? It’s banig – when a person is bewitched to tell his name. When you asked for my name, I lied to you and said what everybody knew, I said Dang-on. And you fell into the trap and called the wrong name and traded it to death-god Am-masang. I knew all deaths should come under the wings of Am-masang, yet they cannot command to call for the soul of someone who is not existent in the records of the ancestors that’s where your evil magic failed. It failed because it was my name Sumarag that survived the deadly storm, and when the seeress was looking for your ultimate destruction, they found your heart hidden and unprotected.” 

While I was confessing this, my hands burned at the fire before us, and my mouth trembled to recall my name Sumarag. In our tongue, Sumarag means the horns of the water buffalo. The confession of the truth of which this ritual sumang is founded by Kabunyan himself begins to take effect. The witch’s feathers begin to burn and my hands, too.  And only by our words are our beings judged before the dap-ay, before the unseen gods and community. I risk my life again the second time. When I am nearing death, I felt I was moving at the right time, these breathing and living for the past ten years were always a borrowed time for me. 

In effect, the witch’s heart slowly burned before us, the smoke of the ghost suddenly vanished and the menacing voice of the vengeful spirit that clouded us turned into silence.

The gongs stopped, the chanting uttered its last words and before we knew it, the first light broke through the dap-ay. The light struck and revealed in front of us the last embers of the fire and the ash of what was left of the heart and the golden pasiking. All were gray ashes floating before us, the smell of the burned flesh, the elders’ withering in the silence of the cold breeze of the morning, the cries of the departed muted in the heaves of heavy breathings of our women and children, exhausted in ritual, they bowed almost asleep condemned by what they witnessed. I look at the empty cups of rice wine, the dregs of basi at the bottom like dead ants. The black pig is tied in the yard and lies in the stench of mixed blood and urine. Their heart is poked with a sharpened stick as in the manner of the ritual. A hole carved in their belly, their livers at the hands of the elder priests as they read the omens. Then the adult men began to burn the pig with a torch, gathered the chopped wood under wide pans, and set them on fire for the day would begin with the cooking. I saw the men quartered the pig’s body and chopped its meat, washed it, and put them in the boiling pans. 

Meanwhile, my body was lying on the floor untouched, both my hands were blackened after the burn, and blisters were inside a burning water balloon on the skin until blood and bones boiled into black matter.  My spirit slowly departed from my body and I could see all these things transpire from above. I died temporarily in a painful manner and I accepted that truly I did not survive the sumang. If this is the case, I would return to see my father and mother in the spirit world. But a violent shake woke me and when I opened my eyes, my spirit returned to my body and a shout called the people to surround me for they also thought that I was dead for that was the code of ritual. 

I lost the challenge of the ritual sumang, we were both guilty but the heart of the witch was burned and her voice was lost in eternity. Why was my life returned? It was my hands that bore the sin, I saw it turn into dust and I was decapitated. It was my hands that bore the sin of the unrighteous killing of our forefathers and I would have to accept this as my fate.

The ruling of the ritual is just and true enough that we saw the end of the headhunting ritual in our generation. It seemed to die naturally as a generation makes up for the sins of its fathers. It was only the righteous way of the sumang happening in the dap-ay that remains practiced today. When I remember its graciousness to us, for after another ten years, my life was extended. Without arms to pray with, I lived alone near the dap-ay. I enjoyed all the fruits of those years. Also, they call me this time by my real name Sumarag. 

Many years after, I saw how new houses were built in our community; the mountain was planted with new pine trees and the path where the big rock was hurled by the evil maiden has become visibly the scar of the mountain. I lived up to the age of 27 and I dreamed of that unfaithful night again for the last time, I saw how the big rocks exploded and a mammoth landslide swept before us. The witch hurled it with the strongest storm and the legion of black horses made of water and soil ate all our houses. In my dream, I held the dead branch of the pine tree then I finally let go of sleep, hoping to be called again in the second decade anniversary of the storm through the power of the ritual. I will return to stand again in front of our elders, this time not as the youngest survivor but as a voice from the past.  


Richard A. Giye
Richard A. Giye
Richard A. Giye is a Cordilleran writer from Sadanga, Mountain Province. He received the BIYAG Essayist of the Year 2022 Award from Benguet. He is also a fellow of the Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika at Anyo (LIRA). He currently teaches language and literature at Benguet State University.


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