The Fall of the Babaylan

How one of the most powerful class of Filipinos came to an end

In the pre-colonial Philippines, the datu was recognized as the leader of the community. The datu commanded households numbering from a couple of dozen to a few thousands. If there was someone that rivaled the power and influence of the datus, it was clearly the babaylans (Visayan) and catalonans (Tagalog).

The Datu’s Supernatural Powers

One of the ways that a datu remained in power was through the cultivation of a belief among his peoples and their rivals of his or her knowledge of black magic. We also say “her” because according to Abinales and Amoroso (2005), the existence of female datus cannot be ruled out. A datu’s hold onto power was enhanced by the people’s popular belief of the datu’s arcane knowledge of pangkukulam or pambabarang, a type of black magic that allegedly harms the datu’s enemies.

A Datu and a Rajah and Their Entourage, Circa 1900


William Henry Scott (1994) listed some of the most feared supernatural powers of the datu. Ropok was a curse that allowed the datu to control and enslave the mind of any person. Bosong was another type of dark magic that caused swelling in a person’s intestines. Panlus was a spear that also caused intense swelling in the victim who steps over it. Kaykay was believed to be a highly advanced form of dark magic that allowed the datu to pierce his enemy just by pointing at him or her from a distance. Hokhok, the most feared among the datu’s powers, was believed to cause instant death just by the datu’s touch or breath.

Clearly, the datu was perceived to be very powerful. However, this power was equally matched by the babaylan.

The Babaylan’s Supernatural Powers

If the datus had their share of arcane knowledge of dark magic, the babaylans specialized in harnessing the unlimited powers of nature, which they used for both good and ill intentions.

According to Abinales and Amoroso (2005), as women, babaylans were more likely to be powerful ritual specialists with the power to influence the weather, and tap the various spirits in nature. Babaylans were held in such high esteem because of their ability to negate the dark magic of the datus and heal the sick or the wounded. Among the powers of the babaylan was to heal the sick, ensure a safe pregnancy and child birth, and lead rituals with offerings to the various divinities.

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The babaylan was well versed in herb lore, and was able to create remedies, antidotes, and potions from various roots and seeds. She used these to treat the sick or to aid the datu in bringing down an enemy.

In the pre-colonial Philippines, women were regarded as equals of men. The babaylan was one such evidence of the powerful and central role that women played in society at that time. That social order came to an end when the Spaniards arrived.

The Clash of Two Religions

When the Spaniards came with their quest for Gold, God, and Glory, the babaylans found themselves at the frontline of the battle against the “God” part. The Spanish friars pursued the relentless destruction of all the heathens’ rituals and paraphernalia.

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.



From Babaylan to Mangkukulam

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.

Today, babaylans are past reminders of how Filipinos regarded women in high esteem, long before colonizers came ashore. If the Philippines today consistently ranks high on the Global Gender Gap Report, perhaps it is because of our collective memory of women as powerful equals of men. 

Abinales, Patricio and Amoroso, Donna. (2005). State and Societyin the Philippines. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 

Scott, William Henry. (1994). Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society. Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press
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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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