Ian is a full-blooded Filipino visual artist who incorporates Pinoy myth and folklore in his work.
To combat more of what they viewed as heresy, the sharp claws of the Spanish Inquisition reached over a group of islands in the Pacific. Among the first victims were the Babaylan.
When the Spaniards came with their quest for Gold, God and Glory, the babaylan found themselves at the frontline of the battle against the "God" part.
— Mario Alvaro Limos, Esquire Philippines
The Importance of Babaylan
Babaylan was the spiritual leader of the tribe in the pre-colonial Philippines. Second only to the datu (head chief) in the tribal hierarchy and acting as its advisor in almost all matters concerning religion, medicine, natural phenomena, and others.
The word babaylan is a Visayan term, originating from babai (woman) and the classical Malay word belian/balian or waylan of Java, Bali, Borneo, and Kalmahera which means 'spirit medium'.
In most cultures, they are known as shamans; the ancient warrior-priest/priestess class who presided over the religious rites, serving as mediators between gods and men.
They were valued so much, exalted, and treated with deference by the native people, even feared. Their word was received with great respect and their capabilities were held with awe.
Female datus existed as well, and some remained in power because of the belief that they can harm enemies by magical means. The babaylan equally matched the tribal chief in this aspect, that they are sometimes considered rivals. But in most cases, they aided the datu in bringing down an enemy.
The babaylan function as healers, seers, clairvoyants, exorcists, artists, teachers, agriculturists, philosophers, consultants, miracle workers, keepers of culture and tradition, or a combination of any of those rolled into one. Thus, the babaylan insures the institutionalization of traditional roles resulting in the stability and endurance of the social structures.
Other popular terms for this role around the Philippines are albularyo (folk healers), hilot (midwife), babaiyon (female chieftain), ma-aram (knowledgeable/wise), mangagas (herbalist), pangatahoan (diviner), or dailan (mediator, from the word dait which translates friendship or peace) because the babaylan is also someone who intercedes for the community and individuals.
Many names are not included here because there are a lot of languages in the Philippines. But you still get a clear picture of what the babaylan's role in society truly was.
To be a babaylan is a gift from the diwata (divine spirits), but these gifts come with a hefty price tag that manifested in dreams, visions, a lingering illness, or strange events happening to those who are chosen. They must follow the path of universal surrender by living out their lives in complete devotion to their community.
In preparation to respond to the Calling, a potential babaylan must first undergo a deep intense spiritual experience by absorbing the "self" into the beyond and achieved through meditation and prayers. There, she gets tutored on the craft by her ancestral spirits known as surog or gabay, who act as her supernatural sponsor and spirit guide.
This cosmic immersion is repeated in the performance of rites to become master of the elements, which is considered critical for the babaylan's mental and physical preparedness. The rituals consist of chants, offerings of food, and various symbolic materials accompanied by singing, dancing, and other forms of body movements meant to impress the spirits to get their favors. After a successful passage, she overcomes this state resulting in her being sensitive to psychic or supernatural forces.
Rituals performed by the babaylan are meant to be preventive or curative. Others are ceremonial rites of passage from one stage of life to another. Some are intended for a bountiful harvest or a good catch. If successful, the community would then celebrate in feast because it meant that the spirits were still on their side and were pleased.
When it came to healing, the babaylan would transcend human laws by invoking divine sources. The babaylan can select the spirits they admit into their bodies for specific purposes and therefore use their powers to heal.
Asking assistance from the spirit guide, they can communicate with environmental spirit entities to take over the body or simply converse with them psychically. This ritual of possession is displayed in a body-trembling trance, speaking in tongues or changes in tone of voice.
The people would go to the babaylan for treatment of diseases, so the Spaniards, in order to get clients for their modern medicine, attached evil to the babaylan.
— Anthony Lim, Historian, Professor
Early Filipinos believe that each person has a dungan—the astral double or the soul, giving man vitality. The dungan is properly nurtured and strengthened by the babaylan to protect it from evil spirits that may capture or jest with it, causing the person to be sick.
If a dungan is lured or captured by these spirits, it can still be persuaded to return by the babaylan through offerings and negotiations with the enraged or hostile entities that are possibly offended by unintended misdemeanors or intrusions to their sacred habitat.
A babaylan is also well-versed in herb lore and used in diagnosing or treating a sick individual. They create remedies, antidotes, and potions with the help of spirit guides and living elder babaylan.
If after all these possible methods are done and the person is still sick, the babaylan will then engage in a spiritual battle with the spirits as a last resort. This can be done by invoking more powerful beings for their assistance. Usually, the babaylan has to earn the help of a diwata by accomplishing a specific task or challenge.
The term babaylan denotes that offerers to the gods were limited to women, leading some to interpret this role as a corruption of the local term babayi lang which means 'women only' and implies its gender exclusivity. As well as the Kiniray-a term bayi/baylan used to refer to female grand elders.
It viewed babaylan as a sisterhood of women with special powers. But contrary to popular belief, not all babaylan were females.
There will always be a subtle yet vital role that only females can play within the intricate tales of myths and mysticism. Among all the creations, they are the only one who are given the power of procreation; the ability to conceive life. Such qualities are usually attributed with omnipotent gods and that is why being a woman escalates an individual to a certain degree that makes them special among the people of their society.
— Daniel de Guzman, Asog: Emergence of the Male Babaylan
Before the Spaniards came, the Tagalog natives of Luzon praised an almighty god named Bathala. Its name specifically could be broken down to highlight the importance of equal gender roles. The “ba” comes from babae (female), the “la” from lalake (male), and the “ha” means spirit.
Therefore, the Filipino god is neither man nor woman. It is simply a spirit that encompasses and represents the characteristics of both genders.
A babaylan can be a male, female, or feminized man and hermaphrodite known as Asog in the Visayas.
To match their god, the male babaylan would honor the great mother goddesses and develops the feminine side to balance his manly side while the female babaylan equalizes her feminine life with masculinity. This shows a key concept in native Filipino societies—balance.
Essentially the most important role can be played by a man or a woman, neutralizing gender inequality. This is substantial because the babaylan’s role in society is very important, thus both men and women have equal roles and could be figureheads in their respective communities.
It showcases that even before a civic government was established, the early Filipinos already had this innate sense of equality among themselves. They allow individuals whom they saw as capable and trustworthy to preside and guide them without any biases on their gender.
The Spaniards broke the anito and other ritual instruments, which they dragged through the villages, burned, and made young boys defecate on them.
— Patricio Abinales & Donna Amoroso, State and Society in the Philippines(2005)
With colonial rule came the Roman Catholic religion, which resulted in the persecution of the native priestesses.
The babaylan were punished and their idols were confiscated and burned to wipe out their pagan practices. Nevertheless, vestiges of the native religion persisted and its followers troubled the ecclesiastical and civil authorities.
When forced to abandon their indigenous beliefs, the babaylan used Catholic images and rituals as their anitos and diwatas. But those who refused to submit fled to the mountains where they were branded as witches, now feared and despised by the natives.
In the years 1580-1590, Muslims invaded Panay island. So the babaylan took advantage of the situation and rallied the people to return to their native faith led by Dupinagay, Monica Gapon, and Agustina Hiticon—but their efforts failed.
It was reported that 180 "diabolical women" gathered to preach the old faith and disturbed the town of Sibalom in Antique province.
The only female babaylan that claimed noteworthy attention during this period was Estrella Bangotbanwa also known as “Tagasod Kang Kalibutan” (Caretaker of the World), who invoked heavy rains that ceased the drought which nearly perished the towns of Miago and San Joaquin, Iloilo.
Part of the Panay island in the Western Visayas are the Iloilo and Antique provinces, the known stronghold of the babaylan. Today, these places including Siquijor island are regarded as mystical and full of witches.
From the early 17th to the late 18th century, a series of babaylan uprisings occurred in various parts of the Visayas until the Philippine Revolution of 1896–1898.
An Animist priestess named Caquenga rebelled against the coming Dominicans into the Cagayan Valley who began proselytizing the Malaueg people of Nalfotan (now Rizal) in 1607. She gathered people from different villages and fled to the mountains to prepare for war.
The forthcoming rebellion was quelled and Caquenga was captured and sold as a slave. But some of her remaining followers burned down a church, and one of them who desecrated an image of the Virgin Mary was executed.
The Tamblot Revolt was a religious uprising against the Jesuits who first came to Bohol in 1596, began converting the people, and eventually governed the island.
The rebellion was led by a babaylan named Tamblot and it began on the day the missionaries were in Cebu, celebrating the feast day of St. Francis Xavier in 1621. It was crushed on the first day of the following year, and Tamblot was beheaded. His severed head was displayed on a spike to serve as a warning to the populace.
The Bankaw Revolt in the year 1621-1622 was led by Bancao, the datu of Cariraga, Leyte. He was baptized Catholic in his youth and at first, warmly received Miguel Lopez de Legaspi as his guest.
In later years he abandoned this faith. With the help of a native babaylan named Pagali, he built a temple for the local diwata and convinced six other towns to rise in revolt. Pagali used magic to attract followers and claimed that they could turn the Spaniards into clay by hurling bits of the earth at them.
Male babaylan who were allegedly homosexuals also led revolutions to throw off the Spanish yoke.
Heroic figures like Tapara—a babaylan from Iloilo in 1663, who dressed and acted like a woman; Ponciano Elofre, later known as 'Dios Buhawi' (Tornado/Whirlwind God) of Negros Oriental in 1887; Gregorio Lampinio, secondary leader of the Pulahan group—a religious revival cult in 1897, and Papa Isio of Negros Occidental.
Their primary agenda was religious freedom and agrarian reform because most adherents of the babaylan revolution were dispossessed landowners, thrown off their property by the Spanish hacienderos and friars bent on acquiring land.
A story is told that when the Spanish began to understand the power and potency of the babaylan, they so feared the latter’s spiritual prowess that they not only killed many of them but in some instances, fed them to crocodiles to ensure their total annihilation.
— Back From The Crocodile’s Belly: Philippine Babaylan Studies and the Struggle for Indigenous Memory
In society, if one is different or has weird practices, people will automatically think there is something wrong with that person.
But women, in particular, were the targets of Spanish oppression because strong women were considered threats to patriarchal religious authority. Such was also the case in Europe and other parts of the world.
Because the image of a woman in our culture is always poised and meek; if a female shows a sense of independence and strength, it is viewed as unnatural. Thus, women had to be suppressed into the Maria Clara mold and demonized.
The Twelve Disciples of Darkness
When Spanish friars arrived to evangelize the Philippines, they spread propaganda about indigenous beliefs as a strategy for converting natives to Catholicism. Anything they didn’t understand was considered un-Christian and evil.
They found no written records of the native religion because everything was based on oral tradition. So they reconstructed this pre-conquest religion from false beliefs and left accounts of what they saw, heard, and observed.
They easily believe what is told and presented forcibly to them. They hold some superstitions, such as the casting of lots before doing anything, and other wretched practices–all of which will be easily eradicated, if we have some priests who know their language, and will preach to them.
— Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, conquistador
In 1589, a Spanish missionary named Fray Juan de Plasencia wrote the paper called "Customs of the Tagalogs" and provided a list of "distinctions made among the priests of the Devil”—a classification of witches in tribal Filipinos.
Due to his Catholic mindset and the Spanish objective to cleanse the lands of heathens, early Filipinos were trained, forced, and convinced to associate these beings with evil.
(Italicized sentences below are the general understanding of each, based on Placensia's definition.)
1. Catolonan or Katalonan is the Northern Tagalog equivalent of a Visayan babaylan.
The word katalo means “in good terms with”. One can associate this with the treatment of the supernatural because the spirits would be upset if there was an imbalance in society.
In reality, a katalonan is one who was on good terms with the spirits and functions as a mediator to appease the ancestors or supernatural entities.
2. Mangagaway are witches who deceived people by pretending to heal the sick.
In the pre-colonial period, Sitan was the god guardian and keeper of souls of the Underworld called Kasanaan (a place of anguish), similar only in name to the Christian Satan and the Muslim Shaytan introduced by the Islamic influence from Malaysia. He had four assistants, the first among them is Mangagauay, the goddess of sickness for the ancient Tagalogs.
She was said to possess a necklace of skulls, and a girdle made up of several severed human hands and feet. Sometimes, she would change herself into a human being and roam about the countryside as a healer.
If she wished to kill someone, she did so with her magic wand. She could also prolong death, even for several months, by simply binding to the waist of her patient a live serpent which was believed to be her real self or substance.
3. Manyisalat are witches that are capable of concocting love potions to cause more harm than good.
Manyisalat or Manisilat was the second agent of Sitan, known as the Tagalog goddess of broken homes; tasked to destroy every happy and united family she could find. She was said to be restless and mad whenever there was a happy home within sight.
She would disguise as a woman healer or an old beggar, enter the dwelling of her unsuspecting victims, and then proceed with her diabolical aims. With the aid of her charms, she would turn the husband and wife against each other, leading one of them to leave the conjugal home.
4. Mancocolam disguises itself as a healer and emits fire, burning down the house of its victim.
Mangkukulam was another malevolent deity to the ancient Tagalogs. The only male agent of Sitan is likened to a fiery demon, whose duty was to emit fire at night, especially when it was dark and the weather was not good.
Like his fellow agents, he often assumed human form and went around the villages pretending to be a priest doctor. Then he would wallow in the filth beneath the house of his victim and sends forth fire. If the fire was extinguished immediately, the victim would die.
Today, a mangkukulam is a person employing Kulam, a form of folk magic practiced in the Philippines.
5. Hocloban or Hukloban is a witch that kills anyone they chose by simply saluting, raising the hand, or pointing a finger, without using herbal medicines and other instruments.
Hukluban was the last agent of Sitan whose name means “crone” or “hag”. She could change herself into any form she desired and could heal or kill someone by simply raising her hand.
Old women were specifically targeted because they can no longer function in the community and were unable to beget children. They represent all that's most frightening in a society where youth is viewed as something to be preserved at all costs, especially for women. It's assumed the elderly are vampirically envious of nubile flesh to regenerate their physical forms.
Hokhok is also a form of advanced harmful magic that causes instant death just by a touch or breath.
6. Silagan are flightless witches specific in Catanduanes province, whose prey of choice are people with fair skin or anyone dressed in white. It is said they could see the internal organs of a person (like x-ray vision). They have sharp claws that they use to tear out the liver (some say through the anus), devouring it, and killing the victim.
The name means "the hated one". Since white is usually the color of cassocks worn by religious clerics and associated with purity; those who are against them are considered impure. Anti-colonial resistance against the white Spaniards certainly did help to create this monster.
7. Magtatangal is another kind of witch that separates her head from the body at night, similar to many mythical dark creatures across Southeast Asia such as Kasu of Laos and Ap in Cambodia, Thailand's Krasue, Leyak from Indonesia, and more closely to Penanggal in Malaysia. It is believed that the Devil carries the head to different places at night and returns it before morning, fully alive.
At present, it is known as the Manananggal—a detached female torso with huge bat wings and talons that preys on pregnant women using an elongated proboscis-like tongue. As it flies, its entrails dangle below.
In her 1991 paper titled "The Viscera-Sucker and the Politics of Gender", folklorist Hermenia Meñez states that the Manananggal or self-segmenting viscera sucker is rarely known in upland Northern Luzon, not gendered and usually appears as a bird or a dog. These two animals are among those considered familiars in the popular Western image of a witch.
In Pampanga province, the manananggal is called mangkukutud, both originating from two terms of similar meaning: tangal (to separate) and kutod (to sever).
Before colonialism, Mankukutod was originally the god and protector of the coconut tree—considered by early Filipinos as a "Tree of Life" because everything—from the wood to the fruits and the leaves, has its usage and is an incredible source of food and shelter. Her body is the tree itself, and she would sacrifice her heads (the coconut fruits) as a food resource for the community.
8. Osuang is a sorcerer that can fly and eat people during the night.
It is the most popular and feared monster in Filipino folklore known in modern times as Aswang; usually possessing a combination of the traits of either a vampire, a viscera sucker, a ghoul, a witch, or different species of werebeasts together.
Various origin theories of the term are proposed.
One links it back to the ancient Bicolano deity known as Osuang (the god of evil and chaos) who stole the sacred fire of Mount Mayon from his brother Gugurang (the benevolent god of justice). Similar to the Greek myth of Prometheus.
Asuang dwells inside Mount Malinao and would cause the people to suffer misfortunes and commit sins. He was a friend to the moon god Bulan, which is why this fearsome beast is considered nocturnal.
Some historians claim that this word originated from aso-wang or asong buang (a rabid dog) because most form taken by this monster is a dog (aso in Tagalog)—an animal that was also sacred to the Hellenic goddess of the witches, Hecate. While others think it might be from other Tagalog words: asin (salt) and bawang (garlic), the known repellants of this dark creature.
To this day, it is still a common occurrence that a person in the Philippines is feared, beaten, or murdered for being a suspected aswang.
9. Mangangayoma is a person who makes love charms out of herbs, stones, or wood to deceive people and cause lovers to be madly obsessed.
Gayuma is known today as a Filipino love spell, and the witches utilizing them are called nanggagayuma.
10. Sonat is an oracle that decides whether the soul deserved to be saved or condemned.
Sonat means 'preacher'. They were classified as evil witches because they contested the functions of the Catholic priests, simply by being rival indigenous spiritual leaders.
11. Pangatahojan is a soothsayer who can predict the future or death of a person.
They were the babaylan who practices divination from among the Tagalog-speaking people.
12. Bayog or Bayoguin or Bayoc is a sinful and immoral transgender male, described by the Spanish friars as "impotent men, deficient for the practice of matrimony and considered themselves more like women than men in their manner of living and occupations."
In truth, bayuk means 'to sag or bend like a bow or bamboo', while bayog or bayoguin means 'one who bends' and is named after a local species of bamboo.
The modern Cebuano derogatory word bayot referring to a homosexual man is an evolution of this term, based on males acting like bayi (female).
Bamboos were not seen as weak by our pre-colonial ancestors, but instead as resilient and strong because they were capable of bending low without breaking. The perfect balance between power and humility, as well as survival.
These terms are just another name for the Asog—a male babaylan who performs healing rituals reserved for women. Asog is still used today by older folks to refer not to men, but to sterile or barren women. In Aklan province, the term refers to a female acting as a male—a tomboy or lesbian.
Queer people were seen by ancient Filipinos as sacred powerful beings, reflecting the mighty gods who are mostly gender-fluid.
Though not included in Placencia's work, another witch figure that's embedded in the minds of modern Filipinos is the Mambabarang—an ordinary human being that hexes people. They torture and later kill their victims by infesting their bodies with bugs and insects (worms, centipedes, flies, or roaches) through imitative magic.
Similarly in the Eastern Visayas, a barangan is a witch who uses insects and other foreign materials to enter the body of their intended victim. These things are said to exit the body in the most gruesome of fashion. It came from the verb barangon, meaning 'to place a hex'.
By no coincidence, dark magic in Thailand also involves the use and practice of stereotypical voodoo known as Barang where various dangerous objects appear inside the stomach of its victim.
The colonizers most certainly categorized the work of the babaylan as being witchcraft and wrong. They were successful in eliminating the belief in the local gods and achieved this by de-powering the native spiritual leaders using brutal and humiliating tactics.
Spanish documentation is littered with examples of how they abused their power over the natives and stripped them of their rights. The functions of the babaylan, as well as others who practiced outside conventional methods, were deemed wicked and savage, simply because they were not sanctioned by those in power.
However, we cannot fully blame the Spaniards for branding us negatively because evil gods and monsters already existed in the pre-colonial Philippines as part of the Indianized influence before the Europeans arrived. No matter how biased the Spanish records seem, they allowed us to study the past because oral traditions certainly did not survive and those written by the natives themselves were done on biodegradable materials. Without the oppression, I don't think the Philippines can have its unique culture and Filipinos would not have learned to fight for their independence.
What's just upsetting is that they invoked God whenever they seized control over those they think are lesser than themselves. Religion is supposed to unite mankind and to worship whoever we think is worthy. Instead, it excused doing more evil and harming those who do not hold the same beliefs and practices.
The babaylan plays an important role in modern Philippine society as a symbol of gender equality as evidenced by the country being ranked high on the Global Gender Gap today.
It is not surprising to think that the babaylan—being known only as females, actually opened their arms to male members who have lost their pride and honor in the eyes of their community due to the perceived inability to act or perform “manly” roles. In turn, some of them have even ended up leading the fight for the nation’s freedom.
The National Commission for Culture and the Arts recently announced that babaylan, manghihilot, and albularyo are now considered National Living Treasures. Some young people have even responded to this spiritual calling today while being assisted by the Center for Babaylan Studies in reviving our indigenous religious practices and united in the common belief in land spirits.
If the babaylan can heal, they most likely can curse as well to undo whatever has been done. But also because versatility is better. No one is truly good, or truly evil. It always depends on the perspectives of the people narrating the story.
Throughout history, countless innocent lives were eradicated in the name of hate, born of ignorance and thirst for more power. Witches have been feared and persecuted for a long time. Thankfully today we know them to be completely fabricated. But old habits die hard.
It is time to reclaim the word witch (that originally meant someone wise) to define something not only positive but neutral. By doing so, only can we retrieve the respect lost. Because the once noble servants of nature and keepers of balance are now nothing but a villain in fairy tales.
Here's a fantastic Indie short film about the Babaylan
Sources and Recommended Reads :
- Panay's Babaylan: The Male Takeover by Maria Milagros Gerenia-Lachica
- From Babaylan to Aswang: A Collective Deception, Sitan, Diety of Kasanaan by Jordan Clark, aswangproject.com
- Why Do Filipinos Still Believe in Aswang - Ijuander, gmanetwork.com
- Babaylan - The Legend by Clem del Castillo, babaylanfiles.blogspot.com
- Facts about the Precolonial Philippines, filipiknow.net
- The Revolt of Babaylan Tamblot that Incited the Uprising of Bancao in Leyte, kahimyang.com
- Philippine Revolts against Spain, wikiwand.com
- The Rise of Babaylans: Inside a Philippine Witch Coven, Manila Bulletin
- The Fall of the Babaylan, esquiremag.ph
- Asog:The Emergence of Male Babaylan by Daniel de Guzman, aswangproject.com
- The Indefinite Transition of Percieved Realities: Babaylan, nightskylie.blogspot.com
- Historian Kirby Araullo, youtube.com/user/thekirbynoodle
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Ian Spike (author) from Cebu, Philippines on October 27, 2020:
thanks Ms. Camille Lachica, I'm glad you enjoyed it.
Camille Lachica on October 25, 2020:
Thank you for this article. I am the daughter of your primary source and have been inspired my mother’s body of work throughout the years. You’ve done an incredible And succinct job with this!
victor on September 12, 2020:
Ems on April 16, 2019:
I have a friend who is a descendant of Babaylan and now, she is practicing it. My father once said that we also have a root of babaylan. My father is good in healing us if ever we felt "usog". I remember that there's a ritual to increase your "dungan" because i found some ritual things in our rooftop.
Kitty Fields from Summerland on April 17, 2017:
This is SO well done! Well written and researched. I've never heard of the Babaylan but now am glad I have. They ultimately sound like shamans from many other cultures all over the world, particularly with how they become a shaman and also with the belief of the astral double and caring for it to prevent disease. So interesting. Thank you!