A Life Less Analog, Geek Culture

Babaylan, mangkukulam: Demonizing gender-fluid past

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Ikaw ang ikaanim na anak ng ikaanim na anak, ang babaylang-mandirigma. Manggagamot at sundalo (You are the sixth child of the sixth child, the babaylan-mandirigma. Healer and warrior).”

One of the great things about the popularity of the Netflix Original Anime Series “TRESE” is that it has made more Filipinos aware of Philippine mythology and the pre-colonial, pre-Christian past of the Philippines. Our colonization by Spain, which occupied these islands for 333 years, and its efforts to erase and demonize our past has resulted in many of us becoming unfamiliar with our own roots, tales, and deities. As if Philippine history only started when the Spanish expedition led by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan stumbled upon these islands in 1521. Thankfully, “TRESE”, which is based on the critically acclaimed Philippine graphic novels written by Budjette Tan and illustrated by KaJO Baldisimo, may encourage curious viewers to learn more about the babaylan and the indigenous religions in the Philippines, and about the aswang, tikbalang, tiyanak, and other creatures of Philippine folklore shown in the anime series.

Who are the babaylan?

The popularity of "TRESE" could encourage curious viewers to learn more about the Babaylan and the indigenous religions of the Philippines. Image credit: Netflix
Image credit: Netflix

In the pre-colonial Philippine islands, the babaylan were the shamans of the different ethnic groups.

The powerful babaylan were either women or feminized men. Here is what sociologist Marianita Girlie C. Villariba wrote about how women became a babaylan.

“Women had dreams and experienced life-altering events that led them to become babaylans of their specific communities. The traditional path in babaylan formation was to be called by a mystical source or to inherit the role from an elder babaylan. The sacred call would come in a dream or the person would experience a life-threatening illness, be healed by prayers and then experience a change of consciousness, or what is called sinasapian (a spirit possessing the self). But this possession is just a signal. What is important is the continuing transformation which gave the babaylan the ability to widen her circles of concern and learn her multiple functions in society.

“In this writer’s interaction with members of Lumad communities in Mindanao, especially the Matigsalom, she learned that the practice of choosing a babaylan is a lifelong process. Any woman or man who could identify and solve the problems of the community can be chosen a babaylan. She had to demonstrate her leadership in solving its problems as they arise and mature. In other Lumad communities, a woman or man must be able to wield a sword or a weapon in defense of the community. Once proven as a warrior, she would develop further her role as a babaylan. The education of a babaylan is lifelong and she becomes a full fledged babaylan when she understands and embodies the multiple functions of priestess, healer, sage and seer. That is why babaylans are already in their maturing years when they assume the mantle of babaylanism.”

From deities to demons

Image credit: Netflix

Villariba’s article was cited by Rappler contributor Claire Madarang when she wrote about meeting a babaylan in the flesh. Madarang noted that while babaylan is the popular term, different ethnic groups used different names for their shamans, such as the mumbaki of the Ifugaos and the baylan of the Manobos.

“Her role as a healer is particularly crucial, according to her interpreter, Robilyn Coguit Canto, a Manobo youth leader. Because of the remoteness of Baylan Undin’s mountain community, there are no nearby health facilities. Robilyn revealed that health workers have ‘given up on them’ because of the difficulty getting to their area. (In fact, Baylan Undin took 18 hours to get to Butuan airport for her flight to Manila for the babaylan lecture-ritual.)

“In her community, Baylan Undin cures common illnesses like colds and stomach aches with herbs and other natural means. She also facilitates and eases the process of childbirth. It is through chanting the gudgod, a song similar to the tod-om, but where an abyan now sings through her, that Baylan Undin is also able to find the right cure or solution.”

When the Spaniards arrived, however, they conquered the Philippines and converted Filipinos to Roman Catholicism. The colonizers dismantled the gender-fluid social structure that existed in these islands, and demonized the indigenous religions and rituals, while co-opting some elements to spread Catholicism.

For instance, Bathala, also called Bathalang Maykapal, is the supreme being in the indigenous religion of the Tagalog people. The Spanish missionaries, however, made Bathala synonymous to the Christian God, while denouncing the ancestor spirits and nature spirits, known as anito/anitu or diwata, as demons.

Mangkukulam and manananggal

Image credit: Netflix
Image credit: Netflix

To do this, the Spaniards broke the power of the babaylan, branding them as mangkukulam — witches.

According to Amoroso and Abinales (2005), the Spaniards broke the anito and other ritual instruments, which they dragged through the villages, burned, and made young boys defecate on them. This effectively dishonored and depowered the babaylans, while defiling the ancient religion of the Filipinos.

The babaylans did not give up without a fight, however. When they were forced by the Spaniards to abandon their ritual practices, some babaylans used Catholic images and rituals as their own anitos or diwatas.

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.

Interestingly, it’s also possible that one of the strangest monsters in Philippine folklore, the manananggal, might have had its origins in this demonization of the babaylan, according to this episode of “Monstrum” from PBS Digital.

“Removing sexual, social, and religious power from the female population in indigenous communities changed how women were perceived. The midwives, herbalists, and shamans were recast as witches to discredit their influence. Enter the manananggal. Think about it. It’s a female monster who threatens to eat fetuses, among other things. It’s literally an exact reversal of the work associated with midwifery. You could even argue that the reason these creatures detach their upper bodies is to separate them from their sexual organs,” said “Monstrum” host Dr. Emily Zarka.

Tabi-tabi po, Twitter

As I said in my review, I love the painstaking detail with which “TRESE” reproduced the city of Manila on screen, and the seamless way it wove the creatures of Philippine myth into modern society.

“TRESE” has become so popular in the Philippines, giving birth to memes and social media posts.

And inspiring breathtaking cosplay.

I hope this renewed interest in our own mythology and culture will also help us rediscover our past and use this knowledge to empower us in the present and build a more inclusive future.

Reclaiming our past

For instance, the way the Philippine LGBTQ+ community is reclaiming the power of the babaylan.

“A direct line with which today’s LGBTQ+ community can trace its roots to the babaylan cannot be established but the activists believe that their connection to the babaylan can be in spirit and in the idea of being revolutionary, in the fight against colonization during the Spanish occupation and against other forms of oppression and marginalization in present time.”

Meanwhile, France Villarta, a communications consultant for Wells Fargo in the Philippines who is also involved with the NGO Fairplay for All Foundation, reminds us that gender is a social construct.

“In all these discussions about gender, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the prevailing notions of man and woman as static genders anchored strictly on biological sex are social constructs. In my people’s case, this social construct is an imposition. It was hammered into their heads over hundreds of years until they were convinced their way of thinking was erroneous. But the good thing about social constructs is they can be reconstructed to fit a time and age. They can be reconstructed to respond to communities that are becoming more diverse. And they can be reconstructed for a world that’s starting to realize we have so much to gain from learning and working through our differences. When I think about this subject, I think about the Filipino people and an almost forgotten but important legacy of gender equality and inclusivity,” Villarta said.

For too long, we have denied our past, disrespected our ancestors, and dehumanized our fellow human beings. We can choose to finally put an end to this.