Many of us have probably come across the photo of the Bagobo woman with teeth filed down to points. When I saw it, I decided to dig a little deeper.  Why do they do that and what was the belief system behind it?  I found out quite a few interesting things.

At the turn of the 20th century, human sacrifices were still conducted by the Bagobo Tribe.

In 1913, the west coast of the Davao Gulf between Daliao and Digos was dotted with small villages, the inhabitants of which were largely Bagobo who had been converted to the Christian faith and induced to give up their mountain homes and settle in towns.  Along the lower eastern and southern slopes of Mt. Apo and its tributary peaks lived the wilder branches of various tribes, whose traditions, religious observances, and daily life remained largely untouched by the arrival of the Spanish. At the turn of the 20th century, human sacrifices were still conducted by the Bagobo Tribe.  The offering was usually a slave bought from the Moros or Christians.  After driving a spear through them, the body was cut into cubes and distributed among the people.  This environment was the subject of Fay-Cooper Cole’s paper “The Wild Tribes of Davao District, Mindanao”  – referenced in most Davao Tribes research since.

The Bagobo believed in a mighty company of superior beings. Above all was Eugpamolak Manobo, also called Manama, who was the first cause and creator of all.  Serving him is a vast number of spirits. Below them is a horde of low, mean spirits who could bring sickness and disaster to men.

  • Tolus ka balakat, “dweller in the balakat” –  A male spirit who loves the blood, but not the flesh of human beings, and one of the three for whom the yearly human sacrifice is made.
  • Buso – Evil spirits who eat dead people and have some power to injure the living. A young Bagobo described his idea of a buso as follows:“He has a long body, long feet and neck, curly hair, and black face, flat nose, and one big red or yellow eye. He has big feet and fingers, but small arms, and his two big teeth are long and pointed. Like a dog he goes about eating anything, even dead persons.”
  • Tagamaling (a type of buso)  –  A cannibalistic creature that is kind to humans one month but eats them on the next month.
  • Tigbanua (A type of Buso) – These beings are the most feared of the Buso since, not content with digging up corpses, they are forever trying to kill live humans to eat.

Belief in these lower spirits existed among most of the tribes in the district – BAGOBO, BILA-AN, KULAMAN, TAGAKAOLO, ATA, and the MANDAYA.

The Mandaya were of particular interest to me because in addition to the above mentioned lower spirits, they also believed in the aswang.

…and finally calls upon the asuang to whom she offers the live fowl on the condition that they will cease trying to injure the patient.

When a person is seriously ill a ballyan is summoned and she, after securing prepared rice, betel-nuts, and a live chicken, enters into communication with the spirits. First she converses with the dead relative of the sick person and requests their aid in  a cure, next she presents food to diwata to request aid, and finally calls upon the asuang.  She offers the live fowl on the condition that they will cease trying to injure the patient. She then begins to dance counter-clockwise, around a bamboo pole on which leaves and betel-nut have been hung. 

So what about those teeth?  Were they to scare off evil spirits?  To tear flesh during an attack?  Nope! It turns out it was only for “beauty”.  Both men and women filed and blacken their teeth. When a boy or girl had reached the age of puberty, it was time that this beautifying should be done.  The candidate placed their head against the operator and gripped a stick of wood between their teeth while each tooth was filed so as to leave only a stump or point. When this has been successfully accomplished, what is left of the teeth was blackened.  The blackening was done using smoke or powder over several days until a shiny black sheen was achieved.

According to a paper held at the NATIONAL LIBRARY OF THE PHILIPPINES, the practice of teeth filing and blackening was still taking place into the 1990’s, although I am happy to report that human sacrifices have ceased.

Bagobo Teeth Filing Philippines

It isn’t all doom and gloom with these tribal groups.  One really needs to appreciate the cultural legacy they have left in their arts and crafts.  The bead work of the Bagobo excels all such work found in the Philippines. The same can be said of the intricate and beautifully embroidered designs seen in the garments of the Bila-an or the over-sewn fabrics of the Kulaman, while the crudely embroidered patterns of the Mandaya are wonderfully effective.  –

4798457097_034fbd89cf_zBagoboFamily: Photo Credit: ahoklaham100709


2017 © The Aswang Project

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Jordan is a Canadian documentary director/ producer. He made the 2011 feature length documentary THE ASWANG PHENOMENON - an exploration of the aswang myth and its effects on Philippine society. Currently he is in post production for "The Aswang Project" web-series, which will feature 6 myths from the Philippines. The TIKBALANG, KAPRE and BAKUNAWA episodes are available to watch on YouTube.