The Mystical Babaylan

Babaylan

INTRODUCTION

If other countries have druids, shamans, prophets, seers, sorcerers, and healers, the Filipinos have the babaylans. The babaylans played an important role in precolonial times, for they held the supreme authority on the subjects of healing, spiritism, and religious rituals.

During the pre-conquest Philippines, the babaylan held an honorable status in the community, sharing the prestige given to a datu. Rightly so, for the roles of a babaylan was to be a priestess, a seer, a healer, a midwife, a psychic medium, an officiator of rituals, and the mediator of gods and men.

WIDESPREAD PRACTICE

Interestingly, Castilian chroniclers had documented that the Binabaylan, the babaylan practice and ideology, was observed in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.

Depending on the region, a babaylan might be called catalona, daitan, baylan, bailan, wailan, belian, and other iterations. However, it is popularly believed that babaylan was a Visayan term.

Babaylans were usually women; its male equivalent was called asog, bayoc, bayog, or bayogin; and they were, if not, usually transgender males. For according to historical reports, the deities favored women, or with women-like attributes, for them to effectively communicate. Thus, most babaylans were reported to be women or transgender males.

During the pre-conquest Philippines, the babaylan held an honorable status in the community, sharing the prestige given to a datu. Rightly so, for the roles of a babaylan was to be a priestess, a seer, a healer, a midwife, a psychic medium, an officiator of rituals, and the mediator of gods and men.

THE BABAYLAN INITIATION

Before a woman would join the Binabaylan congregation, often or not, she would suffer some kind of mysterious sickness or insanity as a sign that she was supernaturally chosen to become a babaylan. And this mysterious sickness or insanity was only cured when she accepted this vocation.

ALABAY
Then, the babaylan hopeful would start as an alabay, an apprentice, to an elder babaylan that was usually a relative, for this role was usually inherited from an older family member and then passed on to the next generation. It can also be observed that this calling often ran in specific families of babaylans.

Nonetheless, there were special cases where an outsider who had the strong potentials in becoming a babaylan could undergo the same training.

SUROG
Next, the alabay would be acquainted with the spirit world. With the guidance of an elder babaylan, through a trance, the alabay would be formally introduced to the chief spirit-protector and friendly deities of their congregation. Then, the alabay would befriend a surog, her personal spirit-patron.

TRAINING
The babaylan training was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting. Under the strict and watchful eyes of the elder babaylan, the alabay would learn cosmology, natural sciences, human anatomy, medicinal herbs and plants, the good and the bad spirits, the gods and the demons, creation stories, spirit possessions and exorcisms, incantations, elaborate dances, the names and feats of their ancestors and heroes, the histories of the greatest babaylans, and various rituals.

MERKU
As soon as the alabay learned the fundamentals of Binabaylan, she would be allowed to practice spiritual and medical aids on minor cases, and she would assist the elder babaylan on important and communal ceremonies. At this time, the alabay would become and called a merku.

BANAWANGUN
Finally, after the merku had learned and mastered everything, the Banawangun would take place. The student would perform a ritual sacrifice for the chief spirit-protector and friendly deities. This was publicly performed without the aid of the elder babaylan. Once the merku’s ritual sacrifice was accepted by the chief spirit-protector, by magnificent signs and wonders, she would become a bonafide babaylan.

The babaylans played an important role in precolonial times, for they held the supreme authority on the subjects of healing, spiritism, and religious rituals.

RITUAL SACRIFICE

The precolonial Filipinos worshipped deities that were classified as the anitos, the diwatas, and the bathalas. According to reports, the religious rituals that the babaylans led were either called paganitohan or pagdiwatahan.

These ritual sacrifices might include chicken, hogs, rice wines, rice, fruits, and others. And this ritualistic sacrifice was performed to invoke the supreme spirit-protector, friendly deities, or a surog for their approval and aid on either curing sicknesses, choosing an auspicious time for planting, selecting a land for cultivation, canceling curses, fortune-telling, spiritual and corporeal mediations, appointing the favorable seasons for raiding and war, and other divinations.

In 1582, there was a soldier by the name of Miguel de Loarca who penned the Relation of the Filipinas Islands. And in this document, Loarca was able to give specific details about the babaylans and their ritual sacrifice:

“The priestesses dress very gaily, with garlands on their heads, and are resplendent with gold. They bring to the place of sacrifice some pitarrillas (a kind of earthen jar) full of rice-wine, besides a live hog and a quantity of prepared food. Then the priestess chants her songs and invokes the demon, who appears to her all glistening in gold. Then he enters her body and hurls her to the ground, foaming at the mouth as one possessed. In this state, she declares whether the sick person is to recover or not. In regard to other matters, she foretells the future. All this takes place to the sound of bells and kettle-drums. Then she rises and taking a spear, she pierces the heart of the hog. They dress it and prepare a dish for the demons. Upon an altar erected there, they place the dressed hog, rice, bananas, wine, and all the other articles of food that they have brought. All this is done in behalf of sick persons, or to redeem those who are confined in the infernal regions.”

— Miguel de Loarca, Castilian Soldier, 1582

THE BABAYLAN PERSECUTION

As soon as the Castilians subjugated the ancient Filipinos, the Roman Catholic Church took charge the matters of religion and education. And based on their reports, the Spanish priests, and also the Castilian soldiers, had condemned Binabaylan as devilish, demonic, and an evil practice. While for the babaylans, the Castilian Church labeled them as witches, warlocks, sorcerers, and the devil’s consorts.

Soon enough, the confiscation of anito images, or the wooden idols, happened; and then, the burning of sacred writings and artifacts followed. It can also be implied that the babaylans caught were punished and imprisoned, for other religions or sacred practices that were not Roman Catholic were outlawed by the Spaniards.

POINTS TO PONDER

Surprisingly, traces of Binabaylan survived this colonial persecution, for there are still practicing manghihilots and albolaryos, masseurs and herbologist, that are medical specializations of this practice. And there are a few number of babaylans found in the provinces of the Philippines. With that, we can truly appreciate:

  1. The pre-conquest Filipinos had a strong spiritual and cultural identity.
  2. The babaylan’s rich contribution in the fields of science, medicine, philosophy, and spirituality in pre-Hispanic Philippines.
  3. The baybaylan is a cultural treasure from the precolonial Filipinos that we can be proud of.

REFERENCES

  • Blair, Emma Helen, and Alexander Robertson, eds., The Philippine Islands 1493-1898 (Volumes I–LV). Reprint of the 1903-1909 edition, Michigan Library, 2005. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/philamer.
  • Francisco, Carlos. The Progress of Medicine in the Philippines, 1953. Manila: National Museum of the Philippines.
  • Jocano, Felipe Landa. Folk Medicine in a Philippine Municipality. Quezon City: Punlad Research House, 2004.
  • ———. Anthropology of the Filipino People II: Filipino Indigenous Ethnic Communities; Patterns, Variations, and Typologies. 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, 1996.
  • Scott, William Henry. Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society. Quezon City: Ateneo De Manila University Press, 2004.

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