If other countries have druids, shamans, wizards, or sorcerers, the Philippines has the babaylans. And the babaylans played important roles in precolonial 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, the gods and the demons, spirit possessions and exorcisms, and incantations and religious dances, and the feats of their heroic ancestors and of the greatest babaylans.
Therefore, with their specialized knowledge and skills, we can say that the babaylans were spiritual leaders, philosophers, and healers of their communities, and they shared the prestige given to the datus.
A WIDESPREAD PRACTICE
Interestingly, the 16th-century Castilian chroniclers documented traces of Binabaylan, the babaylan practice and ideology. And as it was historically documented, Binabaylan was observed and practiced in the precolonial Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao.
Depending on the region, a babaylan might be called a catalona, daitan, baylan, bailan, wailan, belian, or other iterations. However, it is widely believed that babaylan is a Visayan term.
Babaylans were usually females. Nonetheless, there were also transgender male babaylans, and they were called asog, bayoc, bayog, or bayogin, for it was believed that the deities favored women or spirit mediums with women-like attributes than men.
THE BABAYLAN INITIATION
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, 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 the Banawangun. This was when the merku would publicly perform a ritual sacrifice for the deities without the help of an elder babaylan. Once the merku’s ritual sacrifice was accepted by the chief spirit protector, 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; whereas, 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 can also be implied that the babaylans were punished and imprisoned, for other religions or sacred practices that were not Roman Catholic were outlawed by the Spaniards.
Surprisingly, traces of Binabaylan have survived in this modern age, for there are still manghihilots and albolaryos — masseurs and herbalists — which are medical specializations of Binabaylan. 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 pre-Hispanic 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. (1903-1909) The Philippine Islands 1493-1898. Reprint of the 1903-1909 edition, Michigan Library, 2005. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/philamer.
- Francisco, Carlos. (1953). The Progress of Medicine in the Philippines. Manila: National Museum of the Philippines.
- Jocano, Felipe Landa. (2003). Folk Medicine in a Philippine Municipality. Quezon City: Punlad Research House.
- ———. (1998). Anthropology of the Filipino People II: Filipino Indigenous Ethnic Communities; Patterns, Variations, and Typologies. Quezon City: Punlad Research House.
- Magos, Alicia P. (1993). The Enduring Ma-Aram Tradition: An Ethnography of a Kinaray-a Village in Antique. Quezon City: New Day Publishers.
- Scott, William Henry. (1994). Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society. Quezon City: Ateneo De Manila University Press.
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