THE PRECOLONIAL BABAYLANS
If other countries have druids, shamans, wizards, or sorcerers, the Philippines has the babaylans. And the precolonial babaylans played important roles in the olden times, for they held the supreme authority on the subjects of healing, spiritism, philosophy, and religious rituals.
The babaylans were expected to master the subjects of cosmology, astrology, chemistry, medicine, natural sciences, biology, human anatomy, midwifery, appeasing the gods and the demons, spirit possessions and exorcisms, religious dances, funerary rituals, their heroic ancestors, and the greatest babaylans.
Therefore, with their specialized knowledge and skills, we can say that the babaylans were the spiritual leaders, philosophers, and healers of their communities. And it is believed that the babaylans equaled the prestige given to the datus or the rulers of the preconquest Philippines.
A WIDESPREAD PRACTICE
The 16th-century Castilian chroniclers documented traces of Binabaylan, which is the babaylan practice and ideology, and they mentioned that this animistic faith was observed in the precolonial Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao.
Depending on the region, a babaylan may also be called a catalona, daitan, baylan, bailan, wailan, belian, and other iterations; however, it is widely believed that babaylan is a Visayan term.
The precolonial babaylans were usually females; nonetheless, there were also transgendered male babaylans, and they were called asog, bayoc, bayog, or bayogin — for it is said that the deities favored spirit mediums that were women or effeminate males.
THE BABAYLAN INITIATION
In the olden days, before a woman would join a Binabaylan congregation, more often than not, she would suffer some kind of mysterious sickness or temporal insanity — as this was a sign that she was supernaturally chosen to become a babaylan — and only cured when she accepted the vocation.
Then, she would become an alabay and would begin apprenticing to an elder babaylan who was usually a relative. Nonetheless, there were cases where a nonfamily alabay, who showed strong babaylan potentials, might be accepted in the apprenticeship.
With the guidance of an elder babaylan, the alabay would be formally introduced to the chief spirit protector of their congregation, and the alabay would befriend a surog, which is a spirit patron.
When an alabay learned the fundamentals of Binabaylan, she would become a merku. The merku was allowed to cure minor spiritual and medical cases and assist an elder babaylan in important ceremonies.
The graduation ceremony of the merku was called Banawangun. This was when the merku would publicly perform a ritual sacrifice for the deities without the help of an elder babaylan. It is said that if the chief spirit protector accepted the merku’s ritual sacrifice, then the merku would become a bona fide babaylan.
THE BABAYLAN PERSECUTION
However, as soon as the Castilians subjugated the ancient Filipinos, the Roman Catholic Church took charge the matters of religion, education, and healing. The Spanish Government condemned Binabaylan as devilish, demonic, and evil; and the Catholic Church labeled the babaylans as witches, warlocks, sorcerers, and the devil’s consorts.
The confiscation of anito idols and the burning of sacred writings and artifacts happened across the Archipelago. It is believed that the babaylans were punished and imprisoned, for other religions or sacred practices that were not Roman Catholic were outlawed by the Castilian overlords.
Some even claimed that the babaylans were murdered by the Spaniards, and their bodies were chopped and fed to crocodiles to assure that they would not come back from the dead.
Surprisingly, traces of the precolonial Binabaylan have survived in this modern age, for there are still manghihilots and albolaryos — masseurs and herbalists — and these are medical specializations of this ancient faith. Also, there are some practicing babaylans found in the provinces of the Philippines.
As we learn more about babaylans, we can appreciate that the babaylans contributed richly in the fields of science, medicine, philosophy, and spirituality in the prehispanic Philippines. The babaylan presence in the historical accounts proves that the ancient Filipinos had strong spiritual and physiological ideologies.
- Blair, Emma Helen, and Alexander Robertson, eds. The Philippine Islands 1493-1898. Cleveland, Ohio: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1903-1909.
- Jocano, Felipe Landa. Anthropology of the Filipino People II: Filipino Indigenous Ethnic Communities; Patterns, Variations, and Typologies. Quezon City: Punlad Research House, 1998.
- ———. Folk Medicine in a Philippine Municipality. Quezon City: Punlad Research House, 2003.
- Magos, Alicia P. The Enduring Ma-Aram Tradition: An Ethnography of a Kinaray-a Village in Antique. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1993.
- Mangahas, Fe B., and Jenny R. Llaguno, eds. Centennial Crossings: Readings on Babaylan Feminism in the Philippines. Quezon City: C & E Publishing, 2006.
- Scott, William Henry. Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1994.
Illustration Sources: The image detail at the top is from The Progress of Medicine in the Philippines by Carlos Francisco (1953), National Museum Collections; the photo source and the image remix is brought to you by Datu Press®.
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