Watching a Pagtawas, or Wax Divination

The first time I heard about “tawas” was when I think I was about eight. My mom had invited a lady to the house. I had no idea what she was there for, but I was allowed to observe.

They proceeded to the kitchen, where a small basin waited. My mom filled the basin with water and set it in front of the visitor. The woman lit a candle. Some prayers were said in Latin. I don’t remember if she chanted or not, but I do remember the candle wax dripping onto the water, to solidify and form shapes. What I had witnessed is called “tawas.”

Tawas is Tagalog for alum, or potassium alum, the hydrated form of potassium aluminum sulfate. Pagtawas is also the name of this specific kind of divination which is used to figure out the often supernatural cause of a person’s ailment.

Tawas, or alum, bought at the Marikina market.

Nowadays, candles are used instead of alum. A candle is lit while oracions—Latin prayers—are said. The wax is allowed to drip onto a bowl of water, and the shapes that form on the surface are read.

Tawas is usually more popular in the provinces, where herb doctors are just as accepted as medical doctors, but we live in Manila and as our case showed, people in the city believed in it, too. In fact, some of them still do.

I watched as the wax took the shape of what can most accurately be described as one of Snow White’s seven dwarves, complete with the big shoes and floppy hat. “You’ve got dwarves in your house,” the woman said. Even as a kid, my first thought was that the woman’s hand movements were what caused that shape to form. She prescribed
something to appease them, my mom paid her, and she went on her way. I didn’t think much of it. This was in the mid-eighties.

The next time I encountered tawas was early this year. A guy a friend was seeing had been complaining of a strange fever that had been going on for days. My friend was taking him to see the healer in Marikina that her family frequented and asked if I wanted to come along. Of course, I said yes.

The Marikina River is highly underrated.

This healer’s method was different than the one from my youth. She had my friend write her then-boyfriend’s full name on a piece of paper. The healer made us wait while she took it inside her house so she could divine in private. After a few short minutes, she emerged holding a piece of wax in some used Christmas wrapping paper.

The blob of wax looked like a snowman, a small ball on top of a bigger ball. She said that the fever was caused by an angry spirit (to be fair, the guy was kind of a jerk, so I can understand why anyone, supernatural or not, would be annoyed with him). To get rid of it, my friend’s ex had to say a few prayers and burn incense twice a day at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The result of my friend’s pagtawas.

My friend and I knew that there was no way that the dude was going to do any of these things, but we drove to the nearby wet market to buy incense anyway. A week later, he still had the fever, but I suspect that it had more to do with his continuing to smoke and
drink despite his illness more than anything else.

My first experience with tawas, however, ended a bit differently. My mom was instructed to place a low table in our skywell —she used a square piece of plywood on a biscuit tin—and on each side place a boiled egg, a packet of crackers, and an unlit cigarette. My mom followed everything to the letter. We thought she was nuts. Except over the next few days, we noticed that the eggs and the crackers wer untouched by the ants, cockroaches, and rats that shared our duplex with us, and the cigarettes seemed to be shortening, the paper and tobacco slowly turning into a line of ash.

I sometimes wonder if this was a made-up part of my childhood but my sister, whose memory is better than mine, swears that she saw it, too. I’m not sure what that ritual was meant to do: our house seemed no better or worse than before the healer dropped by.

After we dropped of her by then soon-to-be-ex, we ended up at my friend’s house for snacks. It’s a common belief among the spiritually inclined that one should cleanse oneself after dabbling in the esoteric. This can be anything from meditation to bathing with rock salt to, well, eating. I’m not making it up, I promise! Many healers recommend eating a lot of salty or sweet food after a session, and we were only following orders.

Coffee and our favorite calamansi pie to help keep us ‘grounded.’ It’s a thing, I promise!



Yvette Natalie U. Tan is a multi-awarded author of horror fiction and the Agriculture section editor of Manila Bulletin.