Mary Magdalene from an Asian-Filipino perspective
on the light of the Mysticism and Spirituality of the Babaylan,
indigenous priestess in pre-colonial and early colonial Philippines
José M. Vergara
Doctor of Philosophy
Sr Marie Coloe PBVM, D.Theol
April 22, 2005
The only biblical character that has undergone the most metamorphoses in Western Christianity, with the possible exception of Jesus Christ, is Mary Magdalene. As the first recipient of christophany in the Fourth Gospel, she has become conflated and confused with a number of women in the New Testament, most particularly with the anointing women in the gospels. Consequently, she has been presented in the various roles of an apostle, a penitent and a contemplative. Her lingering secular image, however, is that of a Penitent Whore.
Since the transformations of her character have all taken place in the West, this project aims to present an image of Mary Magdalene from an Asian-Filipino perspective through the mysticism and spirituality of the babaylan, the indigenous priestess in pre-colonial and early colonial Philippines. Like Mary Magdalene in proto-Christianity, the babaylan has been driven from the position of leadership into the margin of the emergent society with the advent of Iberian Christianity into the Philippines.
This project is a study of the traditions surrounding Mary Magdalene and consists of two major parts. The first part deals with how she has been portrayed from the Western point of view. The second part will attempt to uncover her identity from an Asian-Filipino perspective. Since all studies on this woman have been based on North-American/Eurocentric viewpoints, this project will hopefully inject a new and fresh insight into the Magdalenian scholarship from an Asian-Filipino approach.
The project is going to re-assess the attempts to discover her identity in the canonical and non-canonical gospels, in the patristic and non-Christian writings, and in art, culture and literature. It will then trace the way this image was kept or altered in the cult of Mary Magdalene that found its way from Europe to the Philippines via Spain which had introduced Christianity to the Filipino people. The project will also investigate the possible connections between the image of Mary Magdalene and the preservation or revival of leadership among the descendants of pre-Christian priestesses in the Philippines.
Mary John Mananzan, O.S.B. points out that “prior to Spanish rule indigenous women received equal inheritance, were given training on a par with men, enjoyed the same rights as in the right to divorce, had the same succession rights as men for political leadership, were involved in managing not just the domestic economy but also the agricultural domain, and played a key role in the religious sphere as priestess[es] or babaylan[s].” (Mary John Mananzan, O.S.B., Feminism and Spirituality Like a Breath of Fresh Air! [http://www.cpcabrisbane.org/Kasama/1998/V12n2/Maryjohn.htm]).
The memory of the babaylans would remain in the people’s consciousness in spite of opposition from the Spanish ecclesiastical authorities who demonised them and tried to eradicate their influence. This memory found its way into various literature some of which would be contributive to the awakening of the Filipino people to aspire for independence from colonial Spain.
In Western Christianity, the New Testament figure of Mary Magdalene has undergone major changes. She has had “such a vivid and bizarre post biblical life in the human imagination, in legend and in art” that if she had not existed, she would have to invented by anyone “interested in the history of man’s ideas of woman” (Jane Schaberg, “Thinking Back through Mary Magdalene” in Ann-Jill Levine and Marianne Blickenstaff [eds.], A Feminist Companion to John, Vol 2 [London/New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003], 177).
"In spite of her importance to history and to the gospel narrative, there is paucity of material about her in the New Testament. There is no narrative of her call by Jesus . . . nor is there any discussion or teaching during the ministry that involves her. . . . Analysis of the differences among the four gospel accounts of the crucifixion, the empty tomb and the post-resurrection appearances indicates that already in the New Testament period her role was in the process of being diminished and distorted." (Jane Schaberg, “Thinking Back through Mary Magdalene,” 176).
The synoptic Gospel writers list Mary Magdalene first among the women followers of Jesus who ministered to him and were witnesses of his crucifixion and burial. The Fourth Gospel introduces her at the crucifixion. She is then singled out in the Johannine version of the Resurrection with a private encounter with the newly risen Christ and a commission to announce the Resurrection to the disciples. The New Testament accounts of Mary Magdalene end here.
The post-biblical writings add to her characterisation in their attempts to harmonize the four Gospels. The mix-up and conflation of the three women in the gospels―Mary of Bethany, the unnamed sinner who anointed Jesus, and Mary Magdalene who was the sole witness to the Resurrection according to the Fourth Gospel―was made official in Western Christianity in 591. This took place when Pope Gregory the Great declared that “she whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark” (Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor [London: HarperCollins, 1994], 96).
Mary Magdalene is the sinful woman of the town who later sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his words, who remained stubbornly at the tomb after the disciples had long since fled, who, weeping, sought the Lord at the tomb and was permitted to bring the news of the resurrection to the disciples; she was, finally, the woman who had suffered from the seven demons. (Ingrid Maisch, Mary Magdalene: The Image of a Woman through the Centuries. Tr. Linda M. Moloney [Collegeville, Minnesota: 1998], 44).
This would become the official teaching of the Church in the West for nearly fourteen centuries. With the final proclamation of Gregory the Great,
the transformation of Mary Magdalene was complete. From the gospel figure, with her active role as the herald of New Life – the Apostle of the Apostles – she became the redeemed whore and Christianity’s model of repentance, a manageable, controllable figure and effective weapon and instrument of propaganda against her own sex. (Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor, 96-97).
A few objections raised in the 16th century against the official stand on the unicity of the anointing women caused some commotion in the Church. The issue was again brought up in the the 17th century with serious debate raging until the 19th century. The controversy was further fuelled by the discovery of the two manuscripts Pistis Sophia in late 18th century and Gospel of Mary in the following century. In the former, Mary Magdalene makes an appearance while in the latter, she is the central character. Consequently, scholars early in the 20th century started asking questions on the actual role of Mary Magdalene as an important leader in very early Christianity. They raised objectons to the alleged biblical basis of her identification with other women in the gospels. Further discoveries of gnostic writings in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Upper Egypt, led to the flowering of feminist scholarship on Mary Magdalene and other women in early Christianity. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church officially separated Luke's sinful woman, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene as part of a general revision of the Roman missal in 1969.
The Dominican order introduced the Magdalenian cult to the Philippines. The Filipino culture has been strongly influenced by the Iberian brand of Catholic Christianity. The early missionary friars from Spain made great efforts to convert first the village chiefs. They expected that the inhabitants would follow the example of their leaders. A conquistador expressed his confidence with the following statements:
These natives will be easily converted to our holy Catholic faith … They have neither temples nor idols, nor do they offer any sacrifices. They easily believe what is told and presented forcibly to them. They hold some superstitions, such as casting of lots before doing anything, and other wretched practices – all of which will be easily eradicated, if we have some priests who know their language, and will preach to them. (Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, “Relation of the Filipinas Islands and of the Character and Conditions of their Inhabitants,” Tr. Arthur B. Myrick in Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson [eds.], The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898, Vol 3: 1569-1576 [Mandaluyong City, Philippines: Cachos Hermanos, 1973], 60-61).
The friars, however, found an unexpected stumbling block to their mission of evangelization in the person of the indigenous priestess known as the babaylan. For them, she was the epitomy of the “worst aspects of idolatry”―the ‘Devil’s priestess’ who “posed both a physical barrier to the success of their work and a visible symbol of the Devil’s tyrannical dominion” (Carolyn Brewer, Holy Confrontation: Religion, Gender and Sexuality in the Philippines, 1521-1565 [Mandaluyong City, Philippines: Raintree Publishing Inc., 2001], 1890.
The sacerdotisa or babaylan exerted such influence on the inhabitants that, even when apparently converted and baptised, most would readily revert to their animistic beliefs and practices. The friars, therefore, decided to wage war on the babaylan. She was branded as a witch, sorceress, priestess of hell, priestess of the demon and cursed priestess, and labelled with other denigrating names. Considered as a plague, many priestesses were forced to ‘go underground.’ When discovered, they would be flogged or publicly humiliated by cutting off their hair. In a religious uprising in 1663, a priestess whom the Inquisitor branded as an ‘impudic whore’ with no explicitly sexual offences on record, was impaled alive, and when she died, her body was thrown into a river. (Pedro Murillo Velarde, Juán Diaz, et al., “Insurrection by Filipinos in 17th Century,” Tr. Emma Helen Blair in Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson [eds.], The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898, Vol 38: 1674-1683 [Mandaluyong City, Philippines: Cachos Hermanos, 1973], 223).
The friars would confiscate the babaylan’s vessels and equipment of sacrifice and persuade the christianized indigenous boys to destroy them. The place of worship and her abode would be razed to the ground. She would be banished to the forest away from her own people. She would be eventually marginalized and pushed out of her position as the spiritual leader of the people. The spirit of babaylanism, however, would not be completely extinguished in the entire duration of the Spanish colonialization (1565-1898).
Strong similarites exist between the image of Mary Magdalene and that of the babaylan. My thesis will demonstrate that each was recognized as a leader in the earliest stage of her community. Both were gradually ousted from the position of leadership to the margins of their respective groups. The portrayal of each underwent transformation so that their original image almost completely disappeared. In the kind of Filipino society that emerged as heavily influenced by Iberian Christianity, both suffered marginalization. In the Filipino harmonization of the gospels and some Old Testament texts, the Pasyóng Mahál ni Hesukristong Panginoón Natin (The Holy Passion of Jesus Christ Our Lord), Mary Magdalene was not the first recipient of christophany. It was Mary of Nazareth who first saw the Risen Christ. Mary Magdalene, however, was featured as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. She was present during his crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection. Her portrayal in the Pasyóng Mahál was strongly contributive to the development of a Filipino brand of spirituality. With its penchant for visions, trances and altered state of consciousness, this spirituality contains elements of babaylanism. In the Philippines, with the exception of Mary of Nazareth, the most popular female saint is Mary Magdalene. Her role in the Passion is remembered in passion plays during Holy Week. The Pasyóng Mahal, recited or sung 24 hours each day in the entire duration of the Holy Week, shows the strong influence of non-canonical gospels.
The Magdalenian tradition in the Philippines played a discernible role in the movement for independence from Spain. The Filipino nationalist, Dr. José Rizál, wrote a book entitled Noli Me Tangere (Do not touch me) taking its inspiration from Jesus' command to Mary Magdalene in Jn 20:17. The execution of Dr. Rizál, by the authorities in 1896 signalled the beginning of the end of more than three centuries of Spanish occupation. Following his execution, the people rose in a nation-wide revolt culminating in their independence from Spain in 1898.
The above brief picture of the Mary Magdalene accounts and their impact, particularly the Johannine account, on Filipino spirituality and culture, and of the plight of the babaylan indicate the focus of my research with the following objectives:
• to re-assess the development of traditions concerning Mary Magdalene in the West;
• to examine the influence of Magdalenian writings and traditions on Filipino spirituality;
• to make a comparison between the characters of Mary Magdalene and of the babaylan; and
• to examine the 'liberationist' interpretation of Jn 20:1-18 in the movement towards Filipino independence from Spanish occupation.