Without exception, conferences organized in March to celebrate “Women’s Month” always allude to the babaylan as the mystical symbol of women empowerment. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the babaylan was a native priestess, a spiritual leader and guardian of traditions and cultural values. Pigafetta, the Italian chronicler who accompanied Magellan, wrote about them and so did Miguel de Loarca who travelled with Legazpi.
Pigafetta referred to them as “old women” because that was what most of them were. By the time a woman became a full-fledged babaylan, she was already middle-aged, if not elderly; it took that long to learn those sacred rituals and chants, to nurture the gift of prophecy and achieve wisdom. The babaylan was a pillar of native society along with the datu, the panday, and bayani (warrior). They performed the pag-anito to assure abundant harvest; the agricultural cycle was essential, it was the cycle of life itself. They were also known to divert plagues and pestilence, to know how to keep the fertility of the soil and purity of water sources.
Pigafetta described how they danced on a cambay cloth to pay homage to the sun while chanting, sipping wine, playing reed flutes. The Italian was revolted when a pig was sacrificed by a babaylan who dipped the tip of her flute in the animal’s blood and marked everyone’s forehead with it. She purposefully did not stain the foreign foreheads to mark a space between them and the natives. The significance of that gesture went over Pigafetta’s head, according to historian Fe B. Mangahas who said it was an ominous sign, a warning of impending conflict and disaster for it was the antithesis of the blood compact between Magellan and Kolambu. A blood compact was supposed to establish a bond of equality and brotherhood between Spaniard and native, but as it turned out, to the former it was a meaningless ceremony.
Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and Miguel de Loarca came some 60 years later, only to denigrate the babaylan as a malevolent creature possessed by demons that bestowed them with healing powers potent enough to raise the dead. The early missionaries believed that the babaylan was a formidable obstacle to Christianization so she had to be discredited, if not destroyed, forever silenced; but were they really?
The missionaries persecuted the babaylans, destroyed their sacred paraphernalia, and hired effeminate young men to impersonate them. The babaylans fought back by disfiguring Christian images, burning chapels and visitas, but overpowered, they fled to the mountains. Eventually, many submitted to the colonial order.
Perhaps they are still among us. In 1915, a certain Maria Bernarda founded the Iglesia Mística de Filipinas on Mt. Banahaw; this was followed by the Ciudad Mística de Dios and many other cults and congregations. Maybe the babaylan spirit continues to roam in far-flung towns and municipalities untouched by the urban sprawl where one encounters women beyond their prime, usually unmarried or widowed who are spiritual volunteers. They assist the bereaved by attending to the pamisa or the patapos at wakes and funerals. They know all the prayers by heart, the rituals and protocols that concern sickness, life and death. They can heal, fortell one’s destiny, speak to souls in the Beyond. Their incantations are a blend of animism and Christianity. They are not unique to the Philippines. During a recent trip to Cuba, a local “babaylan” led me to the Templo de Yemella.
Although most of the religious and spiritual women “priestesses” of today are wary of being associated with the babaylan, members of the gay community have readily appropriated the legacy.