First in a series, posted in 2008 at Global Balita

by Gemma Cruz Araneta

Silencing the babaylan

The BABAYLAN, a native priestess or spiritual leader in the days of datus and rajahs, has always been a subject of fascination to latter day Filipina feminists. There is no self-respecting conference on the empowerment of women that does not conjure the spirit of the babaylan directly after the national anthem is sang. So beguiling is the babaylan, members of the gay population insist that they are the rightful descendants and heirs of those enchanted women , a contention belied by a variety of historical evidence ranging from ancient epics and ritualistic formulae to the travel chronicles of Pigafetta and de Loarca who came to these shores with Magellan and Legazpi, respectively.

Antonio Pigafetta did not know they were called babaylan and referred to them as “viejas”, old women, because that was what they were. By the time a woman became a full-fledged babaylan, she was already middle-aged and menopausal for it took almost a lifetime to master that gift those sacred rituals and songs and to assimilate the wealth of ancient wisdom. That being the case, self-styled modern day babaylans like dancer Myra C. Beltran and singer Grace Nono, are probably too green to
aspire for such prominence. After all, the babaylan was a pillar of native society together with the datu, the panday and
bayani ( warrior); they were not only spiritual leaders but also guardians and harbingers of culture values and tradition.

Pigafetta wrote about how the “viejas” danced on a cambay cloth, chanting and drinking wine, playing reed trumpets (flutes probably) to pay homage to the sun . One of them sacrificed a pig, which revolted Pigafetta, and dipped the tip of her reed flute in the pig’s blood and marked the forehead of her busband, companions and community members…The vieja (babaylan) did not mark the Spaniards with pig’s blood, a bold and meaningful statement that went above Pigafetta’s head.

Complete text available on in the Global Balita archive.

Links accessed 7/19/2009