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The Babaylan Survived Colonialism

The Babaylan Survived Colonialism
And how naive romanticism will bury them.

Nothing tugs at the heart stronger than a good romantic tale. Except a myocardial infraction, but that’s beside the point.

Romantic tales abound in the daily fabric of Filipino life. Inday falls off a balcony, a passing trisikad driver saves her, they fall in love, both get shot by the police. Undeniably romantic, sure, but ultimately very tragic. And one of the most pervasive romantic tales in the country is a variation on the theme of national tragedy. Of the many lasting legacies of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines, one that often gets repeated is how the Spaniards supposedly put an end to the babaylanes. Esquire published an article that details their “fall,” concluding that:

Eventually, “God” won and drove the babaylans to the mountains where they were branded as witches or mangkukulams. Their fall from being one of the most respected and powerful figures in pre-colonial Philippines to one who was feared and despised represents the drastic changes that overwhelmed pre-colonial Filipino society.

The Esquire article is remarkable for its boldness despite the lack of careful research. To be fair, they are mostly after the “share” and not the care needed for historical accuracy. So while there is a well-meaning intention behind their article, it backfires because it leaves the reader with a tattered picture of the babaylanes as pathetic losers that folded to Catholicism and failed to adapt to their times. It is an image that pulls at the heartstrings, inciting the heart to pump nationalist fervour, depriving the brain of much needed oxygen to think clearly.

Of course, it cannot be denied that Spanish rule in the Philippines was brutal. Native Filipinos became indentured labourers, bound to serve the patron for most of their lives. Many tribes and clans were forced to abandon their customs and adopt western demands. Villages were razed and pillaged. The Christian way of peace was introduced to the tune of gunfire, explosions, and clashing metal. The Body of Christ manifested itself through priests getting naked in front of believers (as per Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere). And many indigenous healers were described as being “Ministros del demonio,”1 for many friars believed that they had made a pact with the devil.

Were these enough to cause the fall of the babaylanes?

It needs to be said that the babaylanes did face challenges: their practice was slightly diminished by clerical persecution and the introduction of western science. However, these weren’t enough to cause a fall that rendered the babaylanes totally obsolete and reduced their numbers to zero, nor did these lead to a catastrophic decline that pushed them to the frontiers of society, forcing them to seek safety away from the Catholic majority that shunned them. The Roman Empire experienced a “fall” (to the detriment of mankind) after a series of implosions and invasions. That is to say, the whole establishment collapsed. The same cannot be said of the babaylanes who adapted, survived, and evolved in the centuries of the Spanish rule. So while the babaylanes may have momentarily fallen at times, what should be emphasised is that they stood up each time and persevered.

First things first. To understand the historical babaylan, we need to consult available historical sources in order to paint an accurate picture of who they were, what did they do, and what happened to them. This will enable us to fully appreciate their historical significance and erase the naive romanticism that casts them as the classic “good native” that were simply overwhelmed by the “evil foreigner.” So, unlike Esquire whose main concern was to sell the article rather than to tell the truth, we need to start at the first instance when the babaylanes entered the historical record so we can better understand them.

What is a babaylan?

While Ferdinand Magellan was busy engaging and bargaining with the locals after they had arrived in soon-to-be Philippines in 1521, Antonio Pigafetta, the chronicler of their expedition, was busy scribbling notes in his journals. It’s from him where we get the exact date of their arrival in the archipelago, and it’s also from him that we read the first (and only contemporary) historical mention of Cilapulapu (Lapulapu). More important for our discussion, it is from Pigafetta’s notes where we first get a glimpse of the babaylan although he didn’t name them as such. Here is his account of them, describing their role in the ritual consecration of a pig:

“The cambaye cloth is spread on the ground. Then come two very old women, each has a bamboo trumpet in her hand. And when they have stepped on the cloth, they make a reverence to the sun. Afterwards they wrap themselves in the cloth. And one puts a kerchief around her forehead with two horns, and a kerchief in her hand, and with this dancing and blowing [the trumpet] they call upon the sun. The other takes one of the banners, dances and blows the trumpet while leaping about, and thus for a little time calls upon the sun [^the one with the kerchief] takes the [other banner] and drops the kerchief. And both of them blow trumpets for a long time, dancing and leaping around the bound pig. The one with the horns all the while speaks silently to the sun, and the other replies to her. Then the one with the horns is presented with a cup of wine, and as she dances she says certain words. And the other replies to her. And four or five times, pretending to drink, they sprinkle the body of the pig, then immediately resume dancing. The one who has the horns is given a lance, and four or five times indicates that she intends to thrust it through the body of the pig, then suddenly she begins to dance again, and suddenly she completely transfixes it. The one who has killed the pig puts a burning torch, which was lit throughout the ceremony, in her mouth, and extinguishes it. The other wets the neck of the trumpet in the pig’s blood, and with her fingers first marks her husband’s forehead with blood and then the foreheads of the others. But they did not approach our people, then the two old women disrobe and eat the things that are on the platters, and they invite only the women (to partake). And they remove the hair from the pig by singeing it. And the flesh of the pigs is consecrated only by old women, and they never eat it unless it is killed in this manner.”2

There are many things of interest here that are worthy of note, especially if we are to understand the social importance of the babaylanes. First, they were obviously great dancers despite their old age. These rituals lasted for maybe half or a full hour, requiring great stamina from the the babaylanes. It’s safe to assume, then, that the babaylanes were active in doing other domestic and social tasks that helped keep them physically fit. Second, their office was mainly spiritual, in the sense that they were the ones able to confide and connect with the spirits, which is why the duty of sanctifying and sacrificing the pig fell to their hands as they could directly offer the gesture to attending souls (and even the sun!). Third, they exercised a certain authority as it was only after their ritual that the sacrificial swine could be consumed. Lastly, their ritual involved an onslaught on the senses. They played trumpets. They waved banners and used colourful textiles. Fire was eaten. Invocations to the sun were said (probably shouted so the giant star could hear). And then of course there’s the pig at the centre of it all, desperately wanting to escape but squealed its last the moment the babaylan pierced its heart. From its wounded chest, one could see the striking crimson of dripping blood.

However, how are we to know that the two old ladies Pigafetta mentioned were indeed babaylanes? We can confirm via analogy. Miguel de Loarca’s Relación de las Yslas Filipinas, which was written in Arevalo, Iloilo in 1582, also relates a similar practice, albeit with some minor differences. What is crucial in Loarca’s account is the mention of the specific group in charge of doing the ritual, the baylanes:

“It is only in case of sickness, and in times of seed-sowing or of war, that sacrifices are offered. These sacrifices are called baylanes, and the priestesses, or the men who perform this office, are also called baylanes. 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.”3

In contrast to Pigafetta, Loarca dives deeper into the supernatural, and he sees evil entities and demons also present in the ceremony. This is quite expected of Loarca because as a Catholic soldier in the 16th century, talks of the devil using humans as vessels for his evil bidding was a chief religious concern. He may have been outraged when he saw the babaylan invite a demon to possess her, a clear affront against his god whose temples were human bodies. So early on in the colonisation of the Philippines, priests were already wary of the spiritual threat the babaylanes posed to their evangelical mission to convert the natives to the Catholic faith.

Though it is not explicitly shown in Pigafetta’s texts, the role of healer is already incumbent in the spiritual function of the babaylanes; Loarca’s account solidifies this connection. As with many ancient societies, health in precolonial Filipino beliefs was the reciprocal relationship of the soul with the body. Individual well-being depended on the careful sustenance of the body and avoidance of anything that defiled the soul. If you were of healthy countenance but accidentally pissed on a sleeping anito, best prepare for the worst, because spiritual corruption, in this example from a curse, could lead to actual physical diseases, making the invocation of demons and deities a powerful mode of healing since they had immediate access to an individual’s spiritual vitality. It is in this regard that the babaylan was no different from that of a temple attendant of Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of healing. But that is also where the similarity ends, because each grew out of different historical contingencies, branching out into their own unique forms of medical customs. This divergence provides us a clue on what to do next. Since we’ve identified what a babaylan is, the next step is to locate the site(s) of their origins and practice because each region, if not island, boiled their own cauldrons with distinct soups of cultures and peoples. To do so will help us complete the initial picture we’ve already begun to sketch.

From where were the babaylanes?

In Trese, the first Filipino anime show on Netflix, the eponymous heroine Alexandra Trese is said to be a babaylan. Problem is, she is Tagalog. This is an important point to make as there is a common tendency to categorise all precolonial Filipino spiritualists within the loose umbrella of babaylan. It is a mistake that even historians and academics are prone to make.

Almost all of the historical texts available say that the babaylanes were from the Visayas (las islas de Pintados), from the middle-region of the Philippines, sandwiched between Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south. Loarca who says in Relación that the Moros of Manila observed a similar “mode of sacrifice” like the Visayans, wherein they “summoned a catalonan, which is the same as the vaylan among the Pintados [Visayans], that is, a priest.”4

The regional difference between the catalonan and the babaylan is consistently affirmed by other chroniclers. In his 1602 Relación de las Islas Filipinas, Pedro Chirino makes a similar distinction:

“Mas aunque no tenian templos, tenían sacerdotes . . . hombres y mujeres; que los Tagalos llaman Catalonan, y los Bisayas Babailan.”5

“But even though they had no temples, they had male and female priests; that the Tagalogs call Catalonan, and the Visayans call Babaylan [translation and emphasis mine].”

Even the Italian traveller, Gemelli Careri, who wrote one of the earliest accounts of the gruelling trip from Manila to Acapulco inside a Manila Galleon, distinguished the babaylan from the catalonan in his 1700 work Giro del Mondo:

“. . .certi Idoletti, a’quali si sacevano sacrifici, per mezzo di alcuni Sacerdoti; detti da’Tagali Catolonan; da’Bisay Babaylan.”6

“. . . certain idols, to which they offered sacrifices, through the intercession of some priests; called Catolonan by the Tagalogs; Babaylan by the Visayans [translation and emphasis mine].”

This regional contrast is also evident in dictionaries. In Alonso de Méntrida’s 1637 Bocabulario de lengua bisaia hiligueyna, y haraia de la isla de Panai y Sugbu, the entry for “babaylan” reads as “sacerdote, o sacerdotisa.” More than two centuries later, the definition hardly changed, although it became exclusively female. The Bisaya-Español dictionary of Juan Félix de la Encarnacion, published in 1885, defines “babailan” as “Sacerdotisa entre los idolátras.” There is no entry for catalonan in both. Whereas in the Tagalog-Español dictionary of Juan José de Naceda and Pedro de Sanlucar, first published in 1757, the catalonan is present and is simply defined as “Sacerdotisa.” It is the babaylan that is now absent in this dictionary.

Emphasising their Visayan association is integral for two main reasons. First, it strengthens the supposition that Pigafetta’s old dancers were babaylanes. The ritual he recorded happened in Cebu; Loarca’s recollections were from observations in Iloilo; both places are in the Visayas. Second, and most important, to emphasise their Visayan lineage is to properly contextualise them. When we carelessly call other indigenous healers as babaylan despite them not having the same experiences, cultures, languages, food, and beliefs as the Visayans, we deprive them of their historicity. For example, the catalonans most probably did not invoke the Visayan goddess Laon (from where the volcano Canlaon in Negros takes its name from), for they had their own gods that were not part of the Visayan pantheon. In naming them babaylan, the rich diversity of healing cultures in the Philippines is erased by the false national homogeneity being applied. The upside to this is that the name babaylan becomes more popular; the obvious drawback is that others are forgotten. This is why Alexandra Trese is a babaylan and not a catalonan even though she is not of Visayan descent. Just because both regions now belong to one country doesn’t mean that we should disregard the latent dynamics of regional uniqueness. The fact that some of the Aztec warriors wore leopard skins doesn’t mean that the Mayans did as well just because both happened to emerge in what is now Mexico.

Though Spanish chroniclers decried the laziness of the Visayans (which is actually something to be proud of), the Visayans were nonetheless quick to arm themselves when trouble was astir. A common theme in many accounts that describe them is that they were of a warrior culture that frequently fought against their fellow Visayans and other nearby tribes. They were often in conflict with the Moros from Mindanao who launched several slave-raiding campaigns in the Visayas, sometimes leading to catastrophic outcomes like the burning of many Negros villages in 1599.7 The Visayans committed many horrendous horrors, like when they massacred an Aeta village in Iloilo just to avenge a murder.8 To put it mildly, Visayan society was extremely complex, capable of being ferocious and friendly, even simultaneously. It was their amiable disposition that allowed Pigafetta to witness firsthand the many interesting practices of precolonial Filipinos, and it was their propensity for brutality that murdered many of Magellan’s surviving crew. And in Bohol, a certain babaylan was instrumental in reminding the Spaniards what being a Visayan meant.

In horror cinema and literature, blood pacts are often depicted with satanic imagery. That, however, isn’t always the case as the pacto de sangre or sandugo between the Spanish coloniser Miguel López de Legaspi and Datu Sikatuna of Bohol in 1565 was rather tranquil. After they’ve established that they were different from the Portuguese, who along with the Moluccans attacked and sacked the region, Legaspi was able to enter friendly relations with the local aristocracy of Bohol, leading to the famous pact with Datu Sikatuna (or Catúnao, according to Chirino). But a few decades later, it became apparent that the Spaniards were getting more out of their deal than the Boholanons, and this led one disgruntled babaylan to foment rampage against the colonisers.

According to Juan de Medina’s Historia de la Orden de S. Agustin de Estas Islas Filipinas,9 written in 1630, a babaylan by the name of Tamblot rallied his fellow Boholanons to fight the Spaniards, promising them “that the time was come when they could throw off the oppression of the Castilians; for they were assured of the aid of their ancestors and divatas, or gods. And in order that they might know this, it was proved by certain signs.” His message was so inspiring that many followed his lead, so much so that “they became like mad dogs; and they preferred death to enduring the conditions of the conqueror.” Unfortunately, it was a revolt that would end in failure, but it did cement Tamblot’s name in the annals of history. Not only that, his rebellion also allows us to trace the impressive breadth of a babaylan’s influence over Visayan society: not just in talks of spirituality and medicine but also in warfare.

Staying Alive

History is unkind to those whose names have not been put into writing. Had Pigafetta not named Cilapulapu in his journal, we wouldn’t have known of Mactan’s proud chief. Perhaps Tamblot had other contemporaries who galvanised the anger of their tribes to resist the Spaniards or other invaders, but because there are no records of their lives, we will never know who they were and what they did. Maybe their exploits were noted down but only in manuscripts that are now lost, or lie unattended in private collections and libraries, often difficult to access for research and reflection. The vast majority of Filipinos also refuse to relearn Spanish even if it means recovering three centuries of historical data. So the many unnamed babaylanes will remain voiceless, their songs and battle cries forever inaudible to posterity. Given such difficulties, how will we be able to know what really happened to them if, as claimed in the beginning, they didn’t actually fall?

The key to unlocking the answer is, again, their being Visayan. Distance is crucial in this regard. The Spanish empire realised that the Philippines is very far from Spain, so it was decreed that it be placed under the Viceroyalty of Nueva España which was nearer. This meant that material, technical, and personnel requests from the country had to undergo several processes in Mexico before getting reviewed in Madrid. For the Spanish settlers in the Philippines, this was an added headache, and compounding to the problem was travel time: they had to wait for months for ships to reach Mexico, then to Spain, then back to Mexico, and finally to the Philippines. And in occasions where such requests were granted, there was still the problem of having to cross the treacherous Pacific just for things and people to safely land on Philippine shores. In 400 voyages between Manila and Acapulco from 1565 to 1815, there were 59 accidents of immeasurable losses in wealth and human lives.10 When such aid did arrive in the Philippines, they were often only available and utilised in Luzon, where the centre of Spanish rule, Manila, was located.

For pueblos far from Manila, this was certainly a problem. And the difficulty of distance would often come into focus when sporadic spells of infectious diseases surfaced. COVID-19 continues to highlight the difficulty in going to the doctor or chemist when sick, how much more if there are none in the vicinity? This sorry situation never did improve in the course of Spain’s rule. Towards the end of the 19th century, there were only 18 licensed physicians in the Visayas, 2 in Mindanao, and 42 in Luzon.11 There was also the disparity in infrastructures built. Most, if not all, hospitals were only found in Luzon. So during such catastrophes, priests, who were often the only Spanish presence in rural areas, had to rely on local herbology and ingenuity. In 1628, a cholera epidemic had swept through the islands, and according to Fransisco Colin the local curanderos, healers who primarily practised herbal and physical therapeutics rather than spiritual interventions, used a concoction made of coconut oil mixed with bark fragments of the manunggal tree to supposed great effect.12

Science, therefore, never could’ve displaced the babaylanes because it wasn’t a coherent and consistent alternative to traditional medicine. The babaylanes remained integral to Visayan society for their needed healing activities, a fact that even priests acknowledged since most of them only had little training in the natural sciences (and were unfamiliar with local flora).

The pressure exerted by science and religion did have an influence on the later development of babaylanism. According to Robustiano Echauz, judge of the Court of First Instance in Bacolod from 1881 to 1885, one babaylan ritual held in Tubungan, Iloilo in 1874 had the resemblance of a Catholic mass. Unlike in ages past where pigs or other sacrificial animals took centre stage, the ritual witnessed had an altar in the middle, and on it was placed a large book with its first five pages written in Latin.13 In 1975, such books, although much smaller in size, were still being circulated among the babaylanes14 of Iloilo, and they contained various oraciones that now invoked Jesus Christ. Their use of printing techniques and adoption of Catholic theology exhibits how adaptable the babaylanes were in the face of historical change; a stark contrast to the popular belief that they simply could not withstand the challenges that confronted them.

And withstand they did. In fact, like Tamblot before them, the later babaylanes also took up arms against colonial rule. Echauz noted that the babaylanes in Negros lived in shacks up in the mountains, but it wasn’t because they were driven there by Catholic faithfuls, it was a choice by design. It was only up in the mountains where they could conduct their rituals, prayers, and collect herbs in peace, away from the busy developments of nascent urban communities. However, despite their secluded lifestyles, they weren’t forbidden from entering nearby pueblos, as a matter of fact, they were even welcomed. Echauz writes that:

“. . .acude al pueblo si tiene gran falta, ó si le llaman para curar algún enfermo, gozando de su estado primitivo, pero asimilándose si le conviene, á la vida regalona del curandero.”15

“…he goes to the town if he is in great need, or if he is called to cure some sick person, enjoying his primitive state, but assimilating if it suits him, to the regal life of healer” [translation mine]."

Their prestige as healers offered the babaylanes relative ease to move in and out of society, and this would later be instrumental in the two babaylan-led uprisings in Negros. In the southern town of Zambanguita, Ponciano Elofre, a babaylan who adopted the name Dios Buhawi, organised an armed uprising to oust the Spaniards after an offence done to him by the guardia civil. (What is interesting about Elofre’s case is that he was also a cabeza, a local government head, adding strength to the argument that religion never drove the babaylanes to the mountains as was claimed in the Esquire article). Like Tamblot, his revolt failed to deal a significant blow to the Spaniards and he was killed in a skirmish in 1887. But another babaylan soon picked up arms against the Spaniards and declared his own rebellion. Dionisio Magbuelas, popularly known in Negros as Papa Isio, organised a formidable fighting force up in the mountains of Negros to fight the Spaniards, and later, the Americans. The local hacenderos who replaced the Spaniards in ruling the island had Magbuelas captured with American aid and in 1907 he was sent to prison in Bilibid, Manila where he died in 1911.16

And herein lies the tragedy of the babaylan: they fought the Spaniards, they lost, but they survived; they then fought the Americans, but rich Filipinos wanted to suppress them, not because of any religious ill-will, but because of economic interests. The landed elites of Negros saw Magbuela and the babaylanes as threats since they had the influence and arms to launch a workers’ revolt against the hacenderos. It wasn’t god that drove the babaylanes away, but it was the Americans and the emergent local bourgeoisie that penalised and imprisoned them. And it is a tragedy that continues to this day, as many of the people the babaylanes sympathised with, the farmers, the indigenous peoples, and the rural poor are getting killed in droves by the government eager to silence their rancour against the brutal economics that leave them hungry and poor.

So where’s the romance in people facing daily horrors just because they have less? Yet popular Filipino culture continues to romanticise the “fall” of the babaylan because it’s an easier nationalistic recourse. It relieves the nation of guilt when one says that it’s the fault of the Spaniards or the Americans, because by doing so the local capitalists can be excused. If there’s anything the babaylanes can teach us about history, it’s that “evil” spirits can exist regardless of social forms.

Such evil can even possess a whole country, for nothing tugs at the heart of a nation stronger than the need to protect capital at all costs.

Old dictionary entry for babaylan

Old dictionary entry for babaylan

  1. Juan Francisco de San Antonio, Chronicas de La Apostolica Provincia de San Gregorio de Religioso Descalzos de N. S. P. S. Fransisco En Las Islas Philipinas, China, Japon, &c, vol. 1 (Manila: Juan de Sotillo, 1738), 156. ↩︎

  2. Antonio Pigafetta, The Voyage of Magellan: The Journal of Antonio Pigafetta, trans. Paula Spurlin Paige (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 72. ↩︎

  3. Miguel de Loarca, “Relacion de Las Yslas Filipinas,” in The Philippine Islands: 1493-1898, ed. Emma Blair and James Robertson, vol. 5 (1582–1583) (Cleveland, OH: The Arthur H. Clarke Company, 1903), 131, 133. ↩︎

  4. Ibid., 143. ↩︎

  5. Pedro Chirino, Relación de Las Islas Filipinas, 2nd ed. (Manila: Esteban Balbás, 1890), 77. ↩︎

  6. Gemelli Careri, Giro Del Mondo, vol. 5 (Napoli: Giuseppe Roselli, 1700), 149. ↩︎

  7. Robustiano Echauz, Apuntes de La Isla de Negros (Manila: Tipo-Litografia de Chofré y Comp, 1894), 9. ↩︎

  8. Chirino, Relación, 39. ↩︎

  9. Juan de Medina, “Historia de La Orden de S. Agustin de Estas Islas Filipinas,” in The Philippine Islands: 1493-1898, ed. Emma Blair and James Robertson, vol. 24 (Cleveland, OH: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1908), ^↩︎

  10. Efren Isorena, “Maritime Disasters in Spanish Philippines: The Manila-Acapulco Galleons, 1565-1815,” International Journal of Asia Pacific Studies 11, no. 1 (2015): 64. ↩︎

  11. Conrado Dayrit, Perla Dizon Santos, and Eduardo de la Cruz, History of Philippine Medicine 1899-1999: With Landmarks in World Medical History (Quezon City: Anvil Publishing, Inc., 2002), 1. ↩︎

  12. Jose Bantug, A Short History of Medicine in the Philippines During the Spanish Regime, 1565–1898 (Manila: Colegio Medico-Farmaceutico de Filipinas, 1953), 24. ↩︎

  13. Echauz, Apuntes, 143. ↩︎

  14. Alfred McCoy, “Baylan: Animist Religion and Philippine Peasant Ideology,” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 10, no. 3 (1982): 163. ↩︎

  15. Echauz, Apuntes, 138. ↩︎

  16. Filomeno V. Aguilar, “Masonic Myths and Revolutionary Feats in Negros Occidental,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 28, no. 2 (1997): 297–99. ↩︎

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