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Babaylan: The Ancient Witches of Tribal Philippines

Updated on November 30, 2017
Alchemy of a Babaylan by Gromyko
Alchemy of a Babaylan by Gromyko | Source

Witches have been feared and persecuted in medieval Europe and in colonial
America. Mostly they are the cunning folk but some unfortunate others were nothing but poor outcasts of society forever branded as agents of the Devil just for being different, eclectic or weird and for the purpose of eliminating rivalry. They were believed to be practicing the dark arts, spreading malice, causing plagues and misfortunes.

Throughout history, countless innocent lives were eradicated in the name of hate, born of ignorance and thirst for more power. But the grim shadows of the Dark Ages reached over even to a small remote country in the Southeast Asia such as the Philippines.

In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan--a Portuguese explorer and navigator who was financed by the Spanish monarchs set foot on the island of Samar and renamed the entire archipelago 'Philippines' in honor of King Philip of Spain. Bringing along with him the faith in one supreme god and His vicar here on earth.
A daunting task no doubt, sailing with only five ships for a crusade expedition with the objective to circumnavigate the globe and conquer new worlds for a vast European empire: surviving mutinies, warring natives and the difficulties of traveling in the high seas.

Unbeknownst to himself, it was Magellan's final destination. The chieftain of Cebu (a.k.a. Sibu which means scorched earth, the center of trade and commerce at that time)Rajah Humabon converted to Catholicism along with his people and was baptized with a new name 'Carlos' after King Charles V of Spain to ally with Magellan and used him to eliminate a rival in the person of the Hindu-animist Datu Lapu Lapu, the pirate lord of the nearby island of Mangatang('ambush' as it was known then) who refused to bow to the new religion. Magellan was defeated due to an injury he sustained from a native's poisoned arrow. This historic event is now known as "The Battle of Mactan".

Not long after, the Spanish retaliated and returned with new conquistadors and more men to take the islands by force. And so the centuries of eradicating indigenous beliefs and freethinking individuals began: our very own Dark Ages. Among these victims were the babaylans.

The Importance of Babaylan

The babaylan is the spiritual leader of the tribe in pre-colonial Philippines. The
warrior-priest/priestess class of ancient Filipinos who presided over the religious rites serving as mediators between gods and men. In some cultures, they are known as shamans. Second only to the Datu or Head Chief in the tribal hierarchy and acting as it's personal adviser in almost all matters concerning religion, medicine, natural phenomena and others; they were valued so much by the people, held in high esteem and deference by the natives, even of fear. Their word was received with great respect and their capabilities held with awe. The babaylans function as healers, seers and 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.

'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'. Other terms for this role around the Philippines are 'albularyo'(folk healers), 'hilot'(massage therapist), 'mombaki', 'dawak', 'ma-aram'(knowledgeable/wise) or 'dailan'(from the word 'dait' which translates friendship or peace) because the babaylan is also someone who intercedes for the community and individuals.

modern babaylan offerings
modern babaylan offerings | Source

To be a babaylan is a gift from the Great Spirit, but these gifts come with a hefty price tag manifested in dreams, visions, a lingering illness or strange events happening to the chosen one. They must follow the path of universal surrender, 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 or prayers. There, she gets tutored on the craft by her ancestral spirit known as “surog" or "gabay” who acts as her supernatural sponsor and spirit guide. This cosmic immersion is repeated in the performance of rites in order to become master of spiritual beings, which is considered critical for the babaylan's mental and physical readiness. The rituals consist of chants, offerings of food and various symbolic materials accompanied by 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 ceremonies pertain to passage from one stage of life to another. Also rituals are intended for a bountiful harvest and a good catch. The community would then celebrate in feast because it meant the spirits were still on their side and were pleased.

When it came to healing, it was a big deal for the entire tribe because the babaylan would transcend human laws invoking divine sources. Asking assistance from the spirit guide, the babaylan can communicate with environmental spirit entities to take over her body or simply talk to them. This ritual of possession is manifested in body- trembling trance, speaking in tongues or changes in tone of voice. As the master of the five elements, the babaylan can select the spirits they allow to admit into their bodies for specific purposes and therefore using their powers to heal.

The people would go to the babalyan 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 the man's vitality. The dungan is properly nurtured and strengthened by the babaylan to protect it from evil spirits that may capture or play with it causing the person to be sick. A lured or captured dungan can be persuaded back through offerings and negotiations with the enraged or hostile spirits possibly offended by unintended misdemeanors or intrusions to their sacred habitat. A babaylan also employs herbal medicines in treating or diagnosing a sick individual with the help of spirit guides and elder babaylans. If all else fails, they engage in a spiritual battle which the babaylan is more than capable of.

Gender Equality

The term 'babaylan' denotes that offerers to the gods were limited to women, leading some to interpret that this role is a corruption of the local terms "babayi lang" which means women only and implies it's gender exclusivity, as well as the Austronesian regional language 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 are 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. This is quiet notable during the ancient days where the daughters of Eve are the only acclaimed mediators between the spirit world and the mortal realm."

Before the Spaniards came to the Philippines, the natives praised an almighty god named Bathala. His 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” which 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 male, female, or male transgenders known as "asog", but most of the babaylan were female. In order to match their god, the male babaylans would honor the great mother goddess 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 males and females 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 role of the Babaylan bordered on the political as well.
the role of the Babaylan bordered on the political as well.

Revolutionary Witches

With the colonial rule came the Roman Catholic religion which resulted in the persecution of the native priestesses and their followers. The babaylans were punished and their idols confiscated and burned with the intention of wiping out their pagan practices. Nevertheless, vestiges of the native religion persisted and its followers troubled the ecclesiastical and civil authorities.

Babaylan revolt in Philippine history.
Babaylan revolt in Philippine history.

In the years 1580-1590 Muslims invaded Panay, so the babaylans 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.

The only female Babaylan that claimed noteworthy attention during this period was Estrella Bangotbanwa also known as “Tagasod Kang Kalibutan” (Caretaker 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 Iloilo and Antique provinces, the known stronghold of the babaylanes.

The Babaylanes Festival of Bago, Negros  Occidental is based on the rituals performed by the babaylans.
The Babaylanes Festival of Bago, Negros Occidental is based on the rituals performed by the babaylans.

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. Male babaylans and some who were allegedly homosexuals led revolutions to throw off the Spanish yoke. Figures like Tapara/Tapar, 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 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.

In the society, if one is different or has weird practices, people will automatically think there is something wrong with that person. 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's viewed as unnatural. Thus women had to be suppressed into the Maria Clara mold. They were, literally, demonized.

But women in particular were the targets of Spanish oppression because strong women were considered threats to religious authority. Such was also the case in Europe and other parts of the world.

who is good and who is evil?
who is good and who is evil?

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 the friars didn’t understand was deemed un-Christian and evil. They found no written records on the native religion because everything was based on oral tradition which was passed down through generations. 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

In 1589 Fray Juan de Plasencia, a Spanish missionary in the Philippines during the time 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 some of these beings with the devil.

1. Catolonan also known as Katalonan—which is the Northern Tagalog equivalent of a Visayan Babaylan. The word “katalo” means “in good terms with.” One can associate this to the treatment of the supernatural. The spirits would be upset if there was in imbalance in the society. A katalonan was one who was “in good terms with the spirits.” and functions as mediators to appease the spirits or ancestors.

2. Mangagaway - are witches who deceived by pretending to heal the sick. Mangagauay was the Tagalog goddess of sickness and one of Sitan‘s helpers (Sitan was the guardian of the underworld and keeper of souls, similar to the christian Satan).

3. Manyisalat - are witches that are capable of concocting love potions to cause more harm than good. Manyisalat was considered a malevolent deity by early Tagalogs. She was the second agent of Sitan, tasked to destroy and break every happy and united family she could find.

4. Mancocolam - can disguise himself as a healer and emits fire from himself at night or during a bad weather. He can induce fire at his victim’s house. If the fire were extinguished immediately, the victim would eventually die. Mangkukulam was another malevolent deity to ancient Tagalogs and the only male agent of Sitan likened to a fiery demon. Today a Mangkukulam literally means witch; a person employing or using “Kulam” - a form of folk magic practiced in the Philippines.

'Mangkukulam' by Ian Balba
'Mangkukulam' by Ian Balba | Source

5. Hocloban or Hukloban - is a witch that causes trouble of greater efficacy than the mangagauay. By simply saluting or raising the hand or pointing a finger, they killed whom they chose without using tools and herbal medicines. Hukluban was considered the last agent of Sitan and could change herself into any form she desired. She could kill someone by simply raising her hand and could heal without any difficulty as she wished. Her name literally means “crone” or “hag.”

6. Silagan - are witches specific in Catanduanes, an island province located in the Bicol region in Luzon who preys on anyone dressed in white by tearing out the liver and devouring it causing the victim's death. The name means "the hated one".

7. Magtatangal - is another kind of witch that separates her head from the body and appears at night similar to many mythological dark creatures across Southeast Asia such as the '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 creature called Manananggal, a detached female torso with huge talons preying on pregnant women using an elongated proboscis-like tongue. As it flies, it's entrails dangle below.
California-based folklorist Hermenia Meñez in her 1991 paper titled, “The Viscera-Sucker and the Politics of Gender” states that the 'Manananggal'(self-segmenting viscera sucker) is "rarely known in upland Northern Luzon. More importantly, among these animists and their counterparts in the rest of island Southeast Asia, the viscera sucker is not gendered and usually appears as a bird or a dog.” Two of the animals considered as the western witches' familiars.

the manananggal
the manananggal

8. Osuang - is a sorcerer that can fly and eat people and probably the most 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 werebeast, or even all of them together. There are various theories as to the origins of the term, one links it back to the ancient Bicolano diety known as Asuang: an evil god who stole the sacred fire of Mount Mayon from his brother Gugurang which sounds a lot like the myth of Prometheus in ancient Greek. He 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 he is considered nocturnal.
The Spaniards also used the aswang myth to suppress political dissent. During those times, a lot of upheavals happened in the town of Capiz. Women led these attacks, usually at night, because they had no modern weapons. The Spaniards then told the natives that the women were evil, that they performed magical acts, and that these women were aswang. The natives avoided these women so they had no one to join their upheavals.
Some historians claim that the origination of the word "Aswang" comes from "aso-wang", because most of the alleged form of this dark creature is a dog. 'Aso' is a tagalog word for dog, also connected to the Greek goddess of the witches, Hecate. But in Mindanao, the asuang (and similar beings) exist among many of the animist tribes, which had virtually no Catholic influence, yet did have influence from the Indianized areas. That's because the areas first colonized by the Spanish(Visayas and Bicol regions) also happen to be the areas that were influenced most by Hinduism and the concept of their demons, the 'Rakshasa'. To this day, it seems a common occurrence that a person in the Philippines is feared, beaten or murdered for being a suspected aswang.

9. Mangangayoma - a person who makes love charms out of herbs, stones or wood believed to decieve people by causing lovers to be madly infatuated which then lead to insanity. "Gayuma" is known today as a Filipino love spell.

10. Sonat - is equivalent to a preacher/tribal priest or priestess or rather an oracle that can predict a person's death and decides whether the soul deserved to be saved or condemned.

11. Pangatahojan - is a soothsayer who can predict the future. They were the ancient psychics and fortune-tellers who were deemed evil by the evangelists.

12. Bayoguin/ Bayoc or Bayog - is another name for the Asog, a male babaylan sometimes depicted as transgender males viewed as immoral by the Spaniards. They were described by the friars as "impotent men and deficient for the practice of matrimony and considered themselves more like women than men in their manner of living and occupations."
The term "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 like a male(a tomboy or lesbian). The modern Cebuano word 'bayot' is an evolution of this term, which refer to homosexual men in general.

skirt-wearing babaylan Ponciano Elofre, pioneering LGBT activist
skirt-wearing babaylan Ponciano Elofre, pioneering LGBT activist

"Society might tend to have degrading outlooks towards a man who is found incapable of partaking his role as a male, for it is expected of him to take part in the practice of matrimony and to beget children. For impotent and effeminate men who found themselves in this kind of position, becoming an Asog is an alternative way to claim their lost honor. Their traits and life style which lean towards being a female categorically puts them appropriately to the woman-centered class of Babaylan."

Though not included in Placencia's work, imbedded in the hearts and minds of modern Filipinos is the Mambabarang, an ordinary human being with black magic who are known to torture and later kill their victims by hexing and infesting their bodies with insects. Similarly in the Eastern Visayas, a Barangan is a witch who uses insects and spirits, and any material to enter the body of anyone they hate. These things are said to exit the body in the most gruesome of fashion.
Not coincidentally, black magic in Thailand involves spirits, ghosts, souls, talismans and also extends to the use and practice of voodoo known as 'barang'. Using barang, a practicioner can make various dangerous object appear inside the stomach of the intended victim.

In Closing

The Spanish most certainly categorized the work of the babaylan as being witchcraft or in league with the devil. They were successful in eliminating the belief in deities and de-powering the spiritual leaders and used brutal and humiliating tactics to achieve this. Spanish documentation is littered with examples of how they abused their power over the people and stripped them of their rights.
However, we cannot put all the blame to the Spaniards because evil deities and mythological monsters already existed in pre-colonial Philippines as part of the Indianized influence in many areas of the Southeast Asia before they even arrived.

It is just upsetting to know that they used god to control those that they think is lesser than themselves. Religion is supposed to unite mankind, to worship whoever we think is worthy. But instead it has been used significantly as an excuse to do more evil, cause harm and kill those who do not have the same beliefs and practices all over the world.

The babaylan plays an important role in modern Philippine society as a symbol for gender equality. It is not surprising to think that the Babaylans being known only as females actually opened their arms for male members who have lost their pride and honor in the eyes of their community due to the inability to act or perform “manly” roles. In turn, some of them ended up leading the fight for the nation’s freedom.

History is what makes us who we are today. Without the various colonizing nations, we would not have our own unique mixture of influences as a culture. Without the oppression, Filipinos would not have learned to fight for their independence. The important thing is we should look back at history as a lesson to avoid repeating the same mistakes done in the past, in order to move forward to a future free from prejudice, free to practice our own faith and free from distinctions of color, gender and sexual orientation.

After centuries of brainwashing, what is sad is that most people lost respect for the witch. The once noble servants of nature and keepers of balance are now nothing but a villain in fairy-tales.


Panay's Babaylan: The Male Takeover by Maria Milagros Gerenia-Lachica

Babaylan to Aswang: A Collective Deception by Jordan Clark(

Why Do Filipinos Still Believe in Aswang - Ijuander


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    • PinoyWitch profile image

      Jude Ian 11 months ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Hi Nicole, I'm back. yeah, what I like about them the most is how they fought for their rights. They didn't just stand there and let the tide of persecution swallow them.

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Nicole Canfield 11 months ago from the Ether

      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!