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Babaylan is a Visayan term identifying an indigenous Filipino religious leader, who functions as a healer, a shaman, a seer and a community "miracle-worker" (or a combination of any of those). The babaylan can be male, female, or male transvestites (known as asog, bayoc, or bayog), but most of the babaylan were female.
The babaylan in Filipino indigenous tradition is a person who is gifted to heal the spirit and the body; a woman who serves the community through her role as a folk therapist, wisdom-keeper and philosopher; a woman who provides stability to the community’s social structure; a woman who can access the spirit realm and other states of consciousness and traffic easily in and out of these worlds; a woman who has vast knowledge of healing therapies".— Leny Strobel
A babaylan is "a specialist in the fields of culture, religion, medicine and all kinds of theoretical knowledge about the phenomenon of nature."— Marianita "Girlie" C. Villariba, sociologist and anthropologist
Contribution to Society
The babaylan played a very important role in pre-colonized Philippine society as a shaman, yet still plays an important role in modern Philippine society as a symbol for gender equality. They are usually chosen by their community and live their lives with and for the community. The babaylan has many roles in their respective community. They were clairvoyants, leaders, and, in addition, they also played a role as a medium between the physical world and the spirit realm. In addition to this, a babaylan is someone who "intercedes for the community and individuals" and is also someone who "serves".
They also played a huge role as healers. When it came to supernatural-caused diseases, such as those thought to be caused by witchcraft, only the babaylans could treat the ailment. When it came to healing, it was a big deal for the entire community because the babaylan would transcend "human laws" and begins to pray and call for help from the divine source. Once the spirit is in him or her, the babaylan is able to use its power to heal. The community would then celebrate in feast because it meant the spirits were still on their side and were pleased. One group of Filipinos that still follows this practice is the Talaandig. Despite rapid modernization, the Talaandig still continue their indigenous customs and beliefs. They have two methods of healing:
1. Through a religious ceremony
2. Through the application of traditional herbal medicine.
Types of Babaylan
There are two kinds of babaylan: the living babaylan and heavenly babaylan. The living babaylans are babaylans who are still living in the physical world, who serve people and help to control day to day negative happenings on earth. The heavenly babaylans are the babaylans who directly receive heaven's messages from God. The heavenly babaylans guide the living babaylans, who also receive messages from heaven but serve people directly on earth. Each babaylan has a gabay. The gabay are heavenly babaylans who protect and serve the living babaylans. Each babaylan has a different designation in the world. People may be destined to become presidents, senators, doctors, teachers, or members of the armed forces, but the babaylans always these things' "center." There are five elements in the power of living babaylans: wind, soil, fire, water and earth (kalikasan). If a living babaylan is ordained and baptized in the place of the babaylans' five elements, he or she will be a powerful babaylan.
Long before western imperialism imposed it's own conventions, women played a prominent role in pre-colonized Philippine society. The babaylan can be a man or a woman. This is substantial because the babaylan’s role in society is very important, thus women had as much power as men in their communities.
Back in pre colonial Philippines, the natives praised a god named Bathala. His name specifically could be broken down to highlight the importance of equal gender roles. The “ba” = babae (female in filipino). The “la” = lalake (male in filipino). The “ha” = spirit. Therefore, the Filipino god is neither man nor woman. It is simply a spirit that encompasses and represents the characteristics of both genders.
In order the match their god, the male babaylans would honor the great mother goddess and develops the feminine side to balance his manly side. On the other side, the female babaylan equalizes her feminine life with masculinity. This shows a key concept in native Filipino societies—balance.
Babaylans are a representation of their entire society and (because the babaylan can be a male or a female) puts females at the same level as males, thus neutralizing gender inequality. Essentially the most important role can be played by a man or a woman. That means that both males and females have equal roles in society and could be figureheads in their respective communities.
In addition to babylans, there is also katalonan—which is the Northern Tagalog Region equivalent of a babaylan. They were either female or male transvestites. Men would dress as women and women would dress as men, thus removing their gender. This shows how, in their society, gender neutrality was very important. The word “katalo” means “in good terms with.” One can associate this to the treatment of the supernatural. A katalonan was one who was “in good terms with the spirits.” The spirits would be upset if there was in imbalance in society. In order to appease to spirits, the katalonan removed gender to restore balance.
By being either a male or female, the babaylan showed gender neutrality. Because of how much of a role they played in society, they were very important figureheads. As figureheads, they represented everything their community believed in. The babaylan represented a Philippine society built on balance, gender neutrality, and equality.
Prior to, during, and after the Philippine Revolution of 1896–1898, the babaylans of Dios Buhawi and Papa Isio of Negros Occidental participated in the struggle to throw off the Spanish yoke. Their primary agenda was religious freedom and agrarian reform; most followers of the babaylan tradition were dispossessed land owners thrown off their property by the Spanish hacienderos and in some cases by Spanish friars bent on acquiring land.
- Villariba, Marianita C. "Babaylan Women as Guide to a Life of Justice and Peace" (PDF). WOMEN IN ACTION No.2, 2006, page 55. isiswomen.org. Retrieved 28 November 2013.
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