The power to be invisible was among the magical powers or galing used by Filipino fighting men of the olden days. Among the Tagalogs of Luzon, it was known as tagabulag. The root word of tagabulag is “bulag,” which means “blind” because the magic supposedly will make other people blind to the presence of the owner of the galing.
The existence of the power to become invisible was mentioned in credible writings on Philippine history among them William Henry Scott’s Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society.
“Tagosilangan were persons with a charm which enabled them to see hidden things and tagarlum was a charmed herb that rendered its owner invisible,” Scott wrote.
Perhaps the most popular character in Philippine history that was said to have wielded the power of the tagabulag is Gregorio Aglipay. Aglipay participated in the revolution against Spain and consecutively against the Americans. He was also the founder of the Aglipayan or the Philippine Independent Church. What Martin Luther is to England, Aglipay is to the Philippines.
Hartzell Spence in For Every Tear A Victory (Biography of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos) wrote of Aglipay’s war exploits using the supposed power of the tagabulag, “There was just enough documentation of the talisman’s existence to give it credence even among some of the sophisticated. Aglipay himself admitted his possession of it. A dozen live men who, at one time or another, have vouched to newspapermen and even to serious scholars that they have seen the fetish, and have witnessed its powers to work. They had known General Aglipay, on a great white Arab horse, to disappear from their camp, to reappear a moment later a half mile away at the critical section of battle. The priest had even used the charm to provide amusement. Several times he descended from his mountain lair on a Sunday afternoon to mingle with the American soldiers at a village cockfight, knowing that the Americans had a price on his head. When he was recognized and the soldiers rushed at him, he vanished.”
A more recent mention of this magical power was published in TIME Magazine May 11, 1987 issue. A part of an article titled The Philippines: Rise of the Vigilantes by M.S. Serill reads, “Some of their members are menacing-looking young men and women with headbands and bolos stuck in their belts. The more bizarre group are called Tadtad, or Chop-Chop, because they ritually slash their bodies during initiation. They believe in potions and amulets they say make them invisible to their enemies.”
There is an elaborate process in the acquisition of the tagabulag or any other galing or anting-anting. Anthropologist Robert S. Love, in his book The Samahan of Papa God: Tradition and Conversion in a Tagalog Peasant Religious Movement, described this in details: “The way galing are obtained and made useful, therefore, is through a) traveling to the old folks b) ingratiating oneself—initiating, that is to say, a situation wherein one will contract an utang na loob debt—so that the older and more magaling man will be unable to refuse one’s request, c) learning as much as one can about the amulet, including its history (kasaysayan) and the prayers and wika or words that are used to feed it, and, d) enduring the subok or tests of the benefactor, thereby proving to the old man’s satisfaction that one is worthy to be granted the galing. Worthiness takes the form of showing that one has the firmness of will or strength of will (tibay or lakas ng loob) to be able to handle such powerful object.”
While I have not witnessed the actual power of the tagabulag first hand, I have seen for real the accompanying danger of pursuing the power of a galing or anting-anting. In the Philippines, it was believed that such powers could backfire to the owner if he misused it or if his constitution is not strong enough to wield its influence. The most common consequence of the aforementioned is that the owner could turn mentally ill—this I have witnessed on two occasions.
A man I have befriended when I was still a teenager, a tenant in my grandmother’s property, was heavily into Philippine esoterica. I remember him owning a libreta, which is a tiny book of oraciones or magical prayers and a handkerchief with elaborate religious symbols and Latin prayers on it. Learning of my skills as an artist, he asked me to replicate his magical handkerchief so I can have a copy of it and benefit from its protection. The man continued on his passionate pursuit of secret knowledge until one day; I learned from his wife that he got sick. She said her husband was just staring blankly all-day and mumbling words she couldn’t understand. Knowing her spouse’s esoteric practices, she said it was the power of the anting-anting gone awry that made her husband lose his mind. The man recovered a bit after lengthy treatment but he was never the same person again.
I witnessed another case of a backfiring of an anting-anting in the person of an arnis master. I first saw this master during the early 1990s when he was still active in teaching and giving demonstrations. He was then a robust and gregarious man known for his high level of skill in arnis. I saw him again in 2010 and at first barely recognized him. Though his arnis skills did not diminish, he looked disheveled and was displaying odd behaviors. I’ve learned later from people close to him that the change took place after he turned into a hermit and started a tedious search for secret teachings and anting-antings.