Rediscovering the babaylan

In a training with young LGBTQCIs, the scarcity of historical records on the babaylan was cited as an example of the silencing of Filipino LGBTs. I listened intently. It was the first time I heard about the babaylan.

The babaylan (rough translation: Oracle) was predominantly a woman priest, healer, and visionary in prehistoric Philippines. They were the doctors, weather forecasters, leaders in community rituals, and consultants to the datus in important matters as for example whether or not they should wage war. At the time, there were three figures of authority in the barangay (village): the datu or chieftain, the panday (blacksmith) or technical expert, and the babaylan. There were men babaylan but were required to dress in women’s clothing. Hence even before, there were already transgenders in the Philippines. As babaylans, they were also required to lie with other men.

But in colonial Philippines, the babaylan was equated with witchcraft. From being experts they were demoted as witches and sidekicks of the devil. The Spaniards saw that the babaylans were a threat to their power over the barangays hence took necessary steps to undermine them. Among these, they had the babaylans dress in yellow which was then the color of insult and paraded them around the town square. Tools that the babaylans used in their rituals were peed on in public.

Considering that the Spaniards wrote the first Philippine history books, they took out the babaylans from the pages. There is almost no written records of their existence. They have been made invisible in Philippine history. Along with that little is known of contributions made by LGBTs in Philippine society.

When the talk on the babaylan ended, I was like wow. I didn’t know that about my country’s history. I should know more about it. The researcher in me was piqued.

And, what do you know, just recently while at a bookstore and browsing the shelves for new titles, I came across Centennial Crossings: Readings on Babaylan Feminism in the Philippines. There was only one copy and looked as if it had passed many curious readers’ hands. I had an emotional moment considering that this copy may have been waiting for me. I immediately bought it.

The babaylan consciousness is alive or kept alive, it appears. In July 2005, during the Centennial of the Feminist Movement in the Philippines (1905-2005), St. Scholastica’s College sponsored The Babaylan Symposium. Many of the papers presented in the Symposium are adapted as articles in the book.

When I was based in the Metro, I attended several conferences and a few classes on women/feminism at St. Scholastica and Miriam Colleges (this is among the things I missed in the Metro. HEIs in Baguio City don’t have such programs or engagements with the public). Among the exclusive Catholic schools of higher learning, St. Scho, run by Benedictine Sisters is a pioneering force and sponsor in feminist studies and movement. One of the more well known among the administrators, Sr. Mary John Mananzan, is, I’m surprised to know, a self-confessed modern babaylan. She shares her journey in the book. An excerpt,

My involvement with the struggle of our people started to reshape my ideas of theology and spirituality. I remember that after several years of sociopolitical involvement, some of us Sisters and priests who were in this struggle, suffered a spiritual crisis. In working closely with the people, a lot of our absolute principles became relativized. We began to see many of our concepts and practices both in the Church and in the convent as irrelevant, but we still did not know what should take their place, or if something should take their place at all. So thirty of us went on a five-day retreat to clarify to ourselves our new understanding of Christianity and our new understanding of being religious.

At the end of five days, we realized that there was one thing common in our experiences: we all experienced an inner liberation-psychological and spiritual. We found a new understanding of our being Christians based on our conviction of Christ’s option for the poor. We got a new understanding of faith which is no longer the security of being saved…but we understood faith now as a total openness to the radically new that God would demand of us every day. So faith is a risk, not a security.

Finally, I got involved in feminist theology because the moment we started to reflect on why women are oppressed (and we are 85% Catholic in the Philippines) we realized that one great social conditioning is religion. Women are told: you are taken from the rib of Adam so you are a derived being…So have you significance in yourselves as women? No! Your significance is in relationship to a man. And thirdly, you are supposed to be guilty of the sin of Adam. So guilt becomes ingrained in woman.

Personally, my discovery of Asian spirituality was like a completion of my being. I was like a fish that found it’s stream… I actually first got in contact with Zen when I was a student in Rome… Later on I got acquainted with Syddha Yoga which gave me another aspect of contemplation-a certain kind of lightness of being…I learned to “dance with the playful consciousness of God!”

This is another of the “contradictions” I had learned to live with. People ask me how as a Roman Catholic Sister, I could do Zen or Syddha Yoga meditation. My answer is, “Suppose I am walking on the street and come across a diamond, should I ask myself, “Is this a Catholic diamond?” and if it is not, should I throw it away?” Too bad for me if I do. I think that God put all these gems in all religions, and I, as a child of God, claim them for myself and feel free to integrate into my spirituality which I find helpful. Syncretism? So what? Isn’t real life syncretic?

Babaylan presiding over a healing ritual


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