Albularyo: Why 'Magic' Healing Still Prevails in the Philippines
Modern technology and breakthroughs in medical science don’t seem to have erased the faith of many Filipinos in the albularyo, supernatural healers who specialize in reversing illnesses caused by curses.
In 2014, during a trip to Sorsogon, we overheard a conversation between two locals while riding a jeepney. They were talking about recent visits to the doctor and the albularyo.
“The doctor told me my inflammation is caused by diabetes. Hmph! I don’t believe him,” said a woman in her mid-40s. “I visited the albularyo and he told me I stepped on a taong-lupa, and I should offer something.”
And just like that, the albularyo’s expert opinion won over the doctor’s.
In Filipino folklore, taong-lupa is a supernatural entity that dwells in the earth unseen. You have to utter the phrase, “Tabi-tabi po” (“Move aside, please”), so you won’t accidentally step on or bump into them.
Origins of the Albularyo
The word albularyo comes from the Spanish word herbolario or herbalist. He is a person who specializes in herb lore, which he uses for treating ailments, whether supernatural or not. But long before the Spaniards came to the archipelago, Filipinos had long put their trust in the powerful babaylans and catalonans, the precolonial equivalents of today’s albularyos.
Before the Spaniards came to the Philippines, babaylans and catalonans were considered equal in power to the datus. Pre-colonial Filipinos believed they possessed the power to communicate with spirits in nature, aiding them in influencing the weather, healing the sick, and protecting against curses.
Just like the modern-day albularyos, the babaylans used an array of healing magic to create remedies, antidotes, and potions from various roots and seeds. They used these to treat the sick or to aid the datu in bringing down an enemy.
When the Spaniards came, the babaylans lost their influence and were replaced with churches, with the parish priest concentrating power in the community. They were relegated as evil witches and driven away to the mountains. Their healing abilities were labeled as witchcraft.
But the Spaniards did not really eliminate the babaylans, and the Filipinos’ new Christian faith was supplemented with traditional beliefs.
After hundreds of years, the Spaniards lost their influence and power in the Philippines, but the babaylans remained, although with a Spaniard name: the albularyos.
The Bad Side of Albularyos
But not all albularyos intend for you to get well. If you travel to the side streets around Quiapo Church in Manila, various peddlers would offer potions, roots, and incantations allegedly crafted by albularyos for various purposes.
Among the more sinister products sold at Quiapo are curses (you pay P500 to P1,000 to gain access to an incantation you can use to harm your enemy) and love potions.
According to one vendor, she has an albularyo supplier from Siquijor who gathers ingredients for potions from Mt. Banahaw and weeds from the sea.
DOST’s Albularyo Certification Program
Although the albularyo’s stock of healing herbs, potions, and roots have folkloric origins, these are products of hundreds of years of traditional medicine, which also have health benefits.
In 2015, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) unveiled the ‘Albularyo’ Certification Program, which had a healthy fund of P100 million for research and development of traditional herbs used for healing. It partnered with the Philippine Institute for Traditional Healthcare (PITAH) to grant existing albularyos the official recognition as alternative healthcare providers.
“Some successful herbs became drugs eventually, like lagundi, sambong, and herba buena. [These are] herbs derived from traditional health practitioners in the different communities in the Philippines,” said Jaime Montoya, executive director of the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development.
Why Filipinos Still Believe in Albularyos
Even with access to public healthcare, many Filipinos still set much store on their local albularyos, as evidenced by our 2014 trip to Sorsogon when a woman preferred to listen to her albularyo rather than the doctor.
There could be two reasons why many Filipinos still believe in the power of albularyos. First is the deeply rooted belief in folklore and folk medicine, which has been ingrained in the precolonial Filipinos’ psyche for hundreds of years prior to colonization. Even with the sweeping cultural upheaval brought by the Spaniards, they failed to eliminate this particular faith in folklore and folk medicine.
Second is the efficacy of the herbs used by the albularyos themselves. As the DOST recognizes, some traditional herbs and roots prove to have medical benefits. This only bolsters the credibility of traditional healers in the Philippines.
The albularyo’s lore of ancient herbs, healing roots, and traditional healing practices is comparable to the more accepted forms of traditional medicine such as Chinese traditional healing practices. A little more research and funding on the albularyo’s herb knowledge and practices could go a long way in the field of medical science.