A Lost Art: Ancient Filipino Methods of Concocting Poisons

By | 2018-05-08T00:07:58+00:00 August 6th, 2010|FMA Corner|

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Now a lost art, the skill of concocting poisons as weapons was widely practiced in pre-colonial Philippines. The flourishing of this art among ancient Filipinos is not surprising considering that the Philippines, with its more than 7,100 islands is among the most biologically rich countries in the world.

The pre-colonial Filipinos can create powerful poisons with corresponding antidotes out of plant, animal and insect extracts.

Those who specialized in these secret skills are herbalists and witches. Early Spanish chronicles narrate that there were no particular prohibitions for the practice of these skills so long as they do not inflict any special harm, which is of course is difficult to determine.

Deadly darts and arrows

The Filipinos of the olden days commonly used poisons to increase the deadly potency of their arrows as well as the darts they shoot with their blowguns.

In “The Former Philippines thru Foreign Eyes” by Fedor Jagor, Tomas de Comyn, Chas. Wilkes, and Rudolf Virchow (1875 English translation corrected from the original German text), a detailed account of the Igorots’ meticulous method of poisoning arrows was mentioned and it reads, “Before we parted the Igorots prepared for me some arrow poison from the bark of two trees.

I happened to see neither the leaves nor the blossoms, but only the bark. A piece of bark was beaten to pieces, pressed dry, wetted, and again pressed. This was done with the bare hand, which, however, sustained no injury. The juice thus extracted looked like pea-soup, and was warmed in an earthen vessel over a slow fire.

During the process it coagulated at the edges; and the coagulated mass was again dissolved, by stirring it into the boiling fluid mass. When this had reached the consistency of syrup, a small quantity was scraped off the inner surface of a second piece of bark, and its juice squeezed into the vessel.

This juice was a dark brown color. When the mass had attained the consistency of a thin jelly, it was scraped out of the pot with a chip and preserved on a leaf sprinkled with ashes. For poisoning an arrow they use a piece of the size of a hazel-nut, which, after being warmed, is distributed uniformly over the broad iron point; and the poisoned arrow serves for repeated use.”

The Mandaya tribesmen of Davao employed a more or less similar method but instead of using the bark of a tree as a principal ingredient for the poison, they used milk extracted from the trunk of a certain tree.

This technique was documented in “The Wild Tribes of Davao District, Mindanao,” by Fay-Cooper Cole published in September, 1913. In his book Cole wrote, “The poison is, according to the writer’s informant, prepared as follows: A long bamboo is cut and carried to a tree called camandag.

The bamboo must be long enough to reach to the limit of the shadow cast by the tree to the trunk of the same, as the tree is so poisonous that it even affects those who stand beneath it. The bamboo has a sharp point which is stuck into the tree and receives the milk which exudes from the cut.

After several days the bamboo is removed and the contents emptied into another bamboo which serves for a sheath or quiver for the arrows, these being placed in it point down. The slightest scratch will cause death.

A peculiar thing about the tree from which the poison is extracted, is that the person extracting must not only not get under the tree, but must approach it from the windward, as the effects of even the odor are unpleasant and dangerous.”

Tool for Assassination

The knowledge of the ancient Filipinos in concocting poisons was so profound that they can create tinctures that can kill when touched and whose activation time could be predetermined.  This variety of poison of course is perfect for assassination.

Volume 2 of Dr. Antonio Morga’s “History of the Philippine Islands” has a lengthy and interesting entry on this subject, it reads, “The natives of these islands quite commonly use as venoms and poisons the herbs of that class found throughout the islands.

They are so efficacious and deadly that they produce wonderful effects. There is a lizard, commonly found in the houses, somewhat dark-green in color, one palmo long, and as thick as three fingers, which is called chacon.

They put this in a joint of bamboo, and cover it up. The slaver of this animal during its imprisonment is gathered. It is an exceedingly strong poison, when introduced as above stated, in the food or drink, in however minute quantities.

There are various herbs known and gathered by the natives for the same use. Some of them are used dry, and others green; some are to be mixed in food, and others inhaled. Some kill by simply touching them with the hands or feet, or by sleeping upon them.

The natives are so skilful in making compounds from these substances, that they mix and apply them in such a manner that they take effect at once, or at a set time–long or short, as they wish, even after a year.

Many persons usually die wretchedly by these means–especially Spaniards, who lack foresight, and who are tactless and hated because of the ill-treatment that they inflict upon the natives with whom they deal, either in the collection of their tributes, or in other matters in which they employ them, without there being any remedy for it.

There are certain poisonous herbs, with which, when the natives gather them, they carry, all ready, other herbs which act as antidotes. In the island of Bohol is one herb of such nature that the natives approach it from windward when they cut it from the shrub on which it grows; for the very air alone that blows over the herb is deadly.

Nature did not leave this danger without a remedy, for other herbs and roots are found in the same islands, of so great efficacy and virtue that they destroy and correct the poison and mischief of the others, and are used when needed.

Accordingly, when one knows what poison has been given him, it is not difficult, if recourse be had in time, to cure it, by giving the herb that is antidotal to such poison. At times it has happened that pressure has been put upon the person suspected of having committed the evil to make him bring the antidote, by which it has been remedied.

There are also other general antidotes, both for preservation against poison and for mitigating the effects of poison that has been administered. But the most certain and efficacious antidotes are certain small flies or insects, of a violet color, found on certain bushes in the islands of Pintados.

These are shut up in a clean bamboo joint, and covered over. There they breed and multiply. Ground rice is put in with them, and they exist thereon. Every week they are visited and the old rice removed and new rice put in, and they are kept alive by this means.

If six of these insects are taken in a spoonful of wine or water–for they emit no bad odor, and taste like cress–they produce a wonderful effect. Even when people go to banquets or dinners where there is any suspicion, they want to take with them these insects, in order to preserve and assure themselves from any danger of poison and venom.”

Breath of Death

But perhaps the highest expression of the ancient Filipino art of concocting poison is the technique that can only be described as “breath of death.”  In an old Spanish document titled “General History of the Philipinas” by Fray Juan de La Concepcion, included in Morga’s work, this deadly skill was depicted, “The natives were on the whole very savage, and had even more barbarous customs and greater stupidity than the inhabitants of the other islands.

They have a knowledge of herbs. In Paragua especially, there are some very poisonous ones. They use them to bewitch their fellows and deprive them of life. There is one of so uncommon deadliness, that if it be chewed in the mouth, and if the exhalations from it be directed in a gentle current toward any person whom it is wished to destroy, his life is quickly taken away.

I heard that from some who have intercourse with the Negroes of Dapit, who know more about it and use it mere easily. The way to overcome those fatal effects is to carry the effective remedy with one—another herb or root. Thus the evil breath loses all its force, and the [aforesaid] herb or root is a sure antidote for its deadliness.”

An additional chronicle by another Spanish priest further confirmed the existence of this deadly skill among pre-colonial Filipinos.

A part of “General History of the Discalced Religious of St. Augustine” by Fray Luis de Jesus reads, “In confirmation of this assertion, it happened, according to the recital of one of our ministers, that while he was preaching to a great assembly one Indian went to another, and breathed against him with the intent of killing him.

The breath reached not the Indian’s face, however, but an instrument that he was carrying, the cords of which immediately leaped out violently, while the innocent man was left unharmed.

The philosophy of such cases is that the murderer took in his mouth the poisonous herb given him by the devil, and had another antidotal herb for his own defense. Then, exhaling his breath in this manner, he deprived of life whomever he wished.

They used arrows full of poison, which they extracted from the teeth of poisonous serpents. They wounded and killed as they listed, by shooting these through a blowpipe, which they concealed between the fingers of their hands with great dissimulation, blowing the arrows so that they touched the flesh of their opponent.

They practiced consultation with the devil by means of their baylans, in order to ascertain natural causes, especially in their illnesses.

Consequently, they were very great herbalists, knowing above all the preservatives from the poisons with which they attacked one another on slight occasions—especially the women, who are the more passionate and more easily aroused.”