Originally published in Filipinas Magazine in the March 2009 issue, reprinted with permission from the author
Filipino Women Power
by Allen Gaborro (Filipinas Magazine, pg. 45-47)
It was with the arrival of European colonialism in the 16th century that the high ideal of an indigenous Filipina woman and its practice was uprooted alongside much of the pre-colonial culture and society that it had been embedded in for centuries. One of those feminine ideals was that of the “Babaylan” which is akin to something along the lines of a spiritual leader. Several definitions have been attributed to the term Babaylan. It is said to be the Visayan word for either “priestess,” “shaman,” “medicine man/woman,” “miracle-worker,” “mystic,” or for all of the above.
While both males and females could be babaylans, it was women who made up the majority of them during the pre-colonial period. Not relegated to being simply spiritual leaders, babaylans also assumed specialized roles in their respective pre-modern communities. Babaylans performed as healers, as receptacles of knowledge, as skilled practitioners in shamanistic traditions, and as native philosophers and therapists. Other duties ascribed to the babaylans included social mediation and spiritual mediumship.
What is perhaps most fascinating about the responsibilities of a babaylan is the amount of political influence and power they wielded. There is a considerable amount of historical evidence showing that babaylan women functioned as important counselors in their tribal communities. Babaylan women in addition, were valued as political and economic administrators in the service of the ruling tribal chiefs (datus). They also acted as communal custodians, oracles of wisdom, and as authoritative leaders of their people. In short, the babaylan were a pillar of social stability, or more precisely one of the four pillars—datu (chief), bagani (warrior), panday (native technologist), babaylan—of the barangay community. Indeed, they were what one writer termed as their community’s “central personality.”
In a sign of the more egalitarian ethos they lived in, the babaylan women were afforded comparable, if not entirely equal, status with men in their community’s social hierarchy. In some cases, they found themselves even more powerful and influential than their male counterparts. In fact, few decisions were reached without the consent of the babaylan.
While most babaylans were female, their male versions deserve some mention. It is said that the babaylan was the symbolic manifestation of both female and male power, an approximation of the yin and yang principle. Interestingly, babaylan men were believed to have worn feminine attire. This goes back to the idea that some babaylans were androgynous in nature and that they were endowed with the sexual properties of both genders.
The process of becoming a babaylan involved supernatural occurrences and paranormal states. According to babaylanic traditions, a person can begin developing into a babaylan by experiencing dreams that express a sacred summons, or a “rukut,” emanating from a mystical being. It should be pointed out that a person can become a babaylan by way of inheritance. A descendant can transmit a babaylanic tradition down to their successors.
Sometimes a sacred summons comes to a person in a trance. This trance resembles somewhat the phenomena of spiritual possession. If a person receives such a summons, they are deemed to be especially chosen by supernatural spirits to be a babaylan.
The chosen ones are then escorted by a “surog” or a spirit guide on a spiritual expedition. This journey will take them to a transcendental endpoint where they will be able to communicate with ancestral spirits. The completion of this unworldly journey, as it is indicated by the surmounting of the trance stage, signals the chosen one’s readiness for interaction with supernatural entities.
Under the auspices of an active babaylan, the newly-discovered babaylan is immersed in the essentials of babaylanic rituals and practices. Once the babaylan finishes their training, they receive amulets and other small ornaments (“pangalap”) which they use for a variety of ritualistic customs. Typically, these rituals entail ancestral spirit worship. Babaylanic rituals also have therapeutic powers that are utilized for the benefit of the sick. Ritualistic chanting is conducted by babaylans whenever a community is hit with an emergency or with trouble of some kind. The babaylanic rituals are intended to mollify the spiritual entities that are believed to be the origin of the difficulty.
Why is the memory of the babaylan so faint in the collective Filipino historical consciousness, given the leading positions that they held in pre-colonial society? Probably a key reason was the advent of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines in the 1500’s. The Spanish colonizers brought with them notions of masculine vanity, a dominant patriarchical paradigm, and a Catholic clergy that cast aspersions on the babaylan. This foreign clergy would supplant the babaylan and their rituals and instill Christian teachings and sacraments in their place.
It was not beyond the Spanish to use unadulterated violence in repressing the babaylan. In her publication, “A Book of Her Own: Words and Images to Honor the Babaylan,” Professor Leny Mendoza Strobel writes that, as recounted by historian Mila Guerrero, babaylan women were physically slaughtered with wanton cruelty. Their bodies were consequently, in Strobel’s words, mutilated as well: “as if to make sure [the babaylan] bodies never return, their bodies were chopped and fed to crocodiles.”
The Spanish legitimized their pogrom against the babaylan by invoking the preeminence of Christianity in the new colony. The babaylan and their philosophy were seen as an anathema to the colonizers’ religious beliefs and therefore had to be eradicated for the sake of the Christian faith. As part of that strategy, the Spanish friars demonized the babaylans as the “monstrous feminine.” Accompanying this perception was the friars’ claim that the babaylan were malignant enchantresses who were endowed with black magic powers.
The Spanish onslaught on the babaylan disrupted the generational inheritance of babaylanic knowledge and traditions from babaylanic mothers to their daughters. Attempts to revive that inheritance with the defeat of the Spanish and the dawn of American colonialism were futile for the most part as the babaylans were regarded as heretical by American Protestants in the Philippines as they were by the Spanish Catholic friars.
At present, the babaylan tradition is being rejuvenated as a Filipina expression of feminine power, independence, and wisdom. As Neferti Xina M. Tadiar writes in her essay “Filipinas ‘Living in a Time of War,’” contemporary Filipinas are reinventing “the role of the babaylan.” This role, Tadiar suggests, encapsulates the power that Filipinas exert. She means both the “the power over life” and “the power for life” that Filipinas utilize “in struggle” against social and political repression.
This 21st century version of the babaylan is a fresh take on the tradition, one that keeps its followers engaged in the pre-modern understanding of the sagacious babaylan female. This version at once, espouses a babaylanic spirit that characterizes modern-day Filipinas’ collective empowerment and resistance against historical subjugation and inequity.
Filipina intellectuals and activists have divided Filipina women into two definitive archetypes: the Maria Clara type and the babaylan. The Maria Clara type is identified with the image of the submissive, compliant Filipina. In contrast, the babaylan type constitutes the politically-conscious, autonomous, and enlightened Filipina female.
Professor Leny Mendoza Strobel, through her writings and scholarship, has emphasized the postcolonial bearing that has been attached to the babaylan. Strobel reprises the babaylan as a revolutionary force, as a symbol for tearing down the psychological edifice of colonial dispossession and domination that has plagued Filipinos. She writes that by invoking the babaylan name, Filipinos everywhere can draw on its “power to heal” and its “power to call the wandering, colonized soul, back into its own body and home.” Strobel also tells us that babaylanic traditions “provide us a language for talking back to the [American] empire that we now paradoxically belong to.”
The babaylan ideal has been modified over the course of Philippine history. And yet, even in its evolved state, how the babaylan heritage is understood still revolves around its pre-modern past. That compelling and significant past is very much alive today thanks in part to the restoration of the babaylan tradition.