Friday, March 30, 2012

Apodalen and the Spirit of Babaylanism



Flight from the Past

Apodalen can barely catch her breath. Her entire wiry body is shaking from the mortal fear that she last experienced when the mountain diwata violently shook the land. Her face is covered with perspiration. On her cheeks tears are still running, now less copiously flowing from her widened eyes.  She spits out some saliva reddened with the combination of blood and juice from the piece of betel nut she always chews. The nut deadens her hunger and thirst. Her aching body is mercifully begging her to stop but her spirit is relentlessly driving her on to continue her journey. The huge balete tree is now in sight. But she has to go past it even if it beckons her to rest a while under its shady leaves. They cast a protective cover from the tropical sun that is now close to the horizon in the distant West. Her pursuers will surely scour like a comb with its fine teeth the area surrounding the vicinity of the balete tree. She finds some relief as she passes by it. The nono that inhabits the balete tree has been the silent and invisible witness to the many gatherings of babaylanes who have tacitly but unanimously recognized Apodalen as the leader. She is now in walking pace, assured that she will reach her abode deep in the forest. With the sun slowly but surely disappearing in the horizon, darkness begins to creep. It will soon envelop the whole land. The forest seems to be unhurriedly approaching her even though she is the one trudging towards it. No one knows about her destination, not even her trusted village followers. She will be safe there. The cicadas’ noise is now gradually abating. The bats are waking up from their slumber. They will soon be busy with their nocturnal business. Just a swift, shallow stream to cross and she will arrive at her destination. The still visible flowing water beckons her to sate the thirst that has constantly been assailing her. Bending carefully along the river bank, she scoops the crystal liquid with her frail hands cupped together. The sweet, cold fresh water envelops her entire being as it snakes its way through her gullet. She gets up and crosses the narrow stream. A few minutes later, her fragile body is finally resting on a hammock tied between two sturdy strees. She easily drifts into a deep slumber.

Training as a Babaylan

More than thirty summers ago, Apodalen was a fine looking young woman chosen to undergo training under the tutelage of the village’s babaylan. One day with the bright summer sun blazing above, she was resting in their house.  A cool breeze blowing from the south across the river entered the nipa-thatched hut through the gaps between the bamboo flooring slats. Even the domesticated animals that were taking refuge under the house supported by a number of bamboo posts were quiet. She was all alone as her parents and siblings were out on their routine business in the fields. Her slumber was rudely interrupted when she was suddenly awakened by what sounded like high pitched and shrilling voices seemingly emanating from underground. Such was the dread that suddenly enveloped her that her body shook violently. Her throat let out a croak when she tried to call for help. As the shrilling voices continued to assail her senses, she gradually regained her composure. With fear releasing its grip on her being, her calmness was now accompanied with curiosity that has slowly taken great hold of her. She got up from the bamboo flooring slats and climbed down the sturdy bamboo ladder. As her feet firmly settled down on the ground, the village appeared to be strangely quiet. She made her way towards where she thought the unearthly voices had come from. Slowly walking so that she could fully concentrate, she went fearlessly straight to a mound nearby. She would not do this under normal circumstances as she was fully aware that this place was avoided by the villagers.  It was a common belief that this was the abode of the nonos. All of a sudden she had the feeling of being enveloped in what seemed to be white silky clouds. Some invisible hands appeared to have taken hold of hers. Loosing track of time, she drifted into unconsciousness as the hands led her into a journey into the unknown. She did not know how long this experience was and she was now feeling very hot, thirsty and hungry. She then heard a familiar voice calling her faintly in the beginning. As the voice became louder, she slowly opened her eyes and felt the wet piece of cloth on her forehead. She recognized the village babaylan who was smiling and behind whom were standing her parents and relations crying with joy. She gulped the cold water in the earthen cup and ravenously ate the rice and broth placed in front of her. She gradually regained her health although she remained bedridden for a few days during which the babaylan and her parents were in constant vigil. Having no recollection of what had actually happened, she was later informed that she had been found wandering aimlessly around the balete tree. By incantation and herbal application the medicine woman helped her regain her senses. Her parents would later notice the great change in her. She has become unusually quiet and was always in deep thought and contemplation as she desperately tried to make sense of her experience. She was deeply affected by the healing action of the babaylan in bringing her back to consciousness and later to health.  Left with fascination with the old herbalist, she began to secretly harbour the wish to become like her. A few summers would have to pass before she could find herself commencing with the apprenticeship in the arts of healing under the tutelage of the babaylan.

Training and Apprenticeship

Apodalen’s mother was the youngest sister of the village chief normally addressed as Dato. Her mother had been initiated into the arts of babaylanism. She, however, had not lasted the rigorous training. She would tell her many stories she had come across while under instruction by the head babaylan. Apodalen had enjoyed most the story of how the sky and the earth had separated. The sky used to be very close to the ground. A tall native could practically touch it with an arm outstretched upward. One day, woman pounding rice with a pestle on the trestle accidentally hit the sky with the pestle. The sky flew upward close to the heavens where it has stayed up to the present time.[1]

Apodalen’s mother had also assisted the head babaylan in officiating in the ceremony during the birth of a child. Apodalen had herself heard the first cry of a newly born baby. It so fascinated her that she wished she would have the opportunity to witness the ceremony. As a daughter with royal blood, Apodalen had the basic qualification to become an apprentice to the arts of babaylanism. A young girl, however, did not have to belong to the tribal nobility. Signs of her communication or communion with the spirit world which only the chief babaylan could deem genuine, could serve as a passage to the prized apprenticeship. In Apodalen’s case she had both – royal blood and spirit-world experience. Her disappearance for a couple days after which she was found in a tantric state under the huge balete tree became the official passport for her to earn a spot to apprenticeship to the sacred and secret arts of babaylanism. A young boy’s dream was to become a successful warrior, but a young girl’s was to become at least an assistant to the head babaylan, if she could not possibly be a babaylan herself. For the babaylan held a very prestigious position in the village. The head of the village was the dato. His prime responsibility was preservation of, and keeping order in, the community. He personally led the warriors in the time of battle and must rule with fairness in times of peace. He was generally responsible for the day-to-day affairs of the community. One thing he could not do, and did not want to do, was making the final decision on important matters by his own volition. He might have male advisers around him but anything decided upon must have the stamp of divine approval. The spirit world would reveal the success or failure of the action being deliberated on. The dato could not directly go to the spirit world. Only the babaylan could. And this was where the real power of the babaylan hinged on.

The medicine woman

The chief babaylan was a good teacher and mentor. She was the source of ancient knowledge handed down from past generations. She knew the stars by name. Some stars and the moon would tell her the best time to cultivate the field and plant rice seedlings. She could tell whether a storm would be blowing from across the mountains by observing the behaviour of animals. When certain villagers were afflicted with ailments of different kinds, relief was forthcoming with the ritual performed by the chief babaylan. Incantation and application of herbs were the normal remedy. She knew which herb was good for what ailment. Her font of knowledge on the medicinal power of plants was endless. Slowly but surely, the young Apodalen eagerly imbibed from this font.

Of all the aspects of training Apodalen underwent, she mostly enjoyed attending to childbirth. Patiently the chief babaylan guided her in every facet of dealing with a woman before, during and after birth.  She had to commit into memory the prayers and rituals. She came to learn the effects of herbal and medicinal plants. For a pregnant mother, a special drink from the mixtures of burnt jackfruit seeds and water was sure to ease the labour. Apodalen has studied closely how the head babaylan would expertly separate the newborn baby’s umbilical cord from the placenta with one swipe of a sharpened thin bamboo. The cutting instrument had been boiled first. Aloe Vera leaves were then placed on the newly born baby’s navel and held in place with a piece of cloth wrapped around the baby’s body. The umbilical cord, together with coconut oil and aromatic herbs, was then placed in another piece of cloth to be wrapped like a package. After seven days, the package would be burnt in an earthen pot under the house. The aromatic smoke entering through the bamboo slats would complete the ritual making that ensured a welcoming environment for the baby. Any bad luck awaiting the newly born baby was eliminated by throwing the placenta in the river. For 12 days the babaylan and Apodalen would return to the mother. The babaylan would massage her belly and bound her hips. This ensured that any tears would heal and that her stomach would return to normal.[2]

The Spirit World

As years passed by, under the guidance of the head babaylan, Apodalen realized the importance of her calling. Her noble birth had ensured that she had the right connection to become a spiritual leader of the community. This was augmented with her experience of disappearing for a number of days and her being discovered under the giant balete tree. She had no way of knowing fully what she had undergone. It was from the chief babaylan that what she experienced was out of this world. She had entered into the spirit world. She had recognized some familiar faces among the spirits who had sent her back into her own community with a special mission.[3] A very important aspect of Apodalen’s training under the practiced babaylan concerned the spirit world.  For the most important role of the babaylan was being the bridge that connected the material world to the spiritual world.

Knowledge of the spirits was very vital in the babaylan’s arts of healing. The chief babaylan was a font of knowledge when it came to the world of spirits.  Even before Apodalen’s induction into training, she had been aware of the common knowledge that some spirits inhabited a world under the ground. Others kept their domains on the ground like the mounds, brooks, caves, fields, trees and other natural objects. There were also spirits above the ground whose main habitat was in the sky.

The babaylan was the only person who had direct access to the world of the spirits. The anitos spoke to and through her only. The anitos were also known as the nonos. They were the souls of the deceased ancestors who had become parts of the spirit world. They had direct access to Bathala Meycapal, the supreme divinity in the highest heavens. The babaylan could not directly communicate with the supreme being. She could indirectly do so through the anitos. And only she could speak to and for the anitos. This occurred in special ritual when they would completely envelope her being.  While in the state of possession, she could go in a trance. Any word uttered would be carefully noted down to be kept and followed to the letter. For this was the very word emanating, as it were, from the sacred mouths of the anitos.
A villager could go against the wish of the chieftain. To consider a similar action to the babaylan was unthinkable. For the consequence was instant and terrible. The powers of the spirit world were much greater and more immediate. Consequently, the villagers looked up more to the babaylan rather than to the chieftain. In possession of the powers of the spirit world, she was more powerful than the village head. Literally, she had the power of life and death in the village, not the dato.

Although Apodalen’s initial disappearance and subsequent discovery under the balete tree were sure signs of her initial entrance into the spirit world, the head babaylan augmented the knowledge of the trainee babaylan in the arts of recognizing the spirits. For this knowledge was very vital in dealing with the different afflictions commonly affecting the villagers, and more importantly in ensuring the well-being of the community. The babaylan was endowed with powers which could be exercised to do good or evil things. The very nature of a babaylan required that these powers were exercised for the well-being of the people. The chief babaylan inculcated in Apodalen that these powers were closely connected with the person’s inner self. Knowledge of the spirit world was useless if the babaylan remained ignorant of her inner self. For in the long run, it was in the inner self where potency was concentrated and from where it emanated.[4] The presence of this potency was only ensured when the inner self was continuously renewed and purified. Apodalen was, therefore, subjected to many tests, rituals, prayers and various forms of self-discipline. Control of one’s inner self would result in serenity and harmony in a person. It was through this inner harmony that a babaylan could recognize harmony in the universe where true power emanated from. In this acknowledgement, a babaylan could place herself “into harmony with all forms of life” making it possible for her to tap “more power available to help others.”[5] Decades of practice in the arts of babaylanism and mastery of them would truly transform Apodalen from a naive young woman into a highly respected babaylan.

First encounter with foreign invaders

Among the new trainee sacerdotisas, Apodalen was the most promising. Consequently she was chosen to become the main assistant to the chief babaylan. An important ceremony was to be held in the house of the village chief. The chieftain’s house was the biggest in the village. It was surrounded by smaller ones in the village. The village was located at the bank of the river. She had heard of the rumour of strangers who had arrived from a very distant land at another village near the mouth of the river that flowed out into the sea. She had been there once. It was a busy place where traders from across the wide seas would leave their seafaring vessels as they made their way inland in smaller boats to barter their goods for local produce. Her fellow villagers were familiar with the traders, but this new group raised many eyebrows. It was said that their complexion was pale and very much lighter than the villagers’. It was a big puzzle how they managed to go around in what seemed to be their cumbersome costume.

Apodalen got the word that the white strangers would make their way to her own village. As a custom in every village, they would be offered hospitality. A special ceremony would be held in their honour. She would take an important part as the main assistant to the chief sacerdotisa who would officiate in the ceremony. She was familiar with the ceremony. In its various forms, it was held at important events in the village like the birth of a new child, death of a villager, marriage, initiation of young villagers, and others. Only the head babaylan with her assistant sacerdotisas could perform in these ceremonies. No one could, not even the village chief.

The strangers came. Their arrival was announced by several booming noises from the big sailing vessel anchored in the deepest part of the river. Many villagers were so frightened even if they had heard of this strange custom of the white strangers before. After many pleasantries between the village chieftain and the head of the strangers, they made their way to the chieftain’s house. It was elevated from the ground and supported by a number of sturdy bamboo posts. She and the head babaylan were in a separate room with the other assistants. They were not visible to the strangers, the village chief and others. The village chief, the head of the strangers and their respective advisers sat on the bamboo flooring slats in a big semicircle. Behind them stood the other villagers and the rest of the strangers. The commencement of the ceremony was announced by the sound of a gong followed by the beating of the drums. A wailing wild pig with its legs tightly bound by sturdy forest vines was dragged into the centre stage. The assistants to the head babaylan then noisily made their entrance with their chanting and beating of bamboo sticks. Each one had a pair of these sticks. For a few minutes Apodalen and the chief babaylan remained in the adjacent room. She had a good grip of the bamboo trumpet as she prepared to make her entry. The chief sacerdotisa started blowing her bamboo trumpet producing a high pitched note. She did the same as both of them pranced and danced their way in. The trumpets resonated and overwhelmed the sound emanating from the squealing, protesting pig. The other dancers gave way to the pair as they weaved their way in onto the centre stage. Then they stopped suddenly. The drummers ceased beating the drums as if in a drilled cue. Everyone became very quiet in anticipation of what was to happen next. The head babaylan removed the cloth around her waist and spread it on the shining bamboo floor. The young Apodalen followed what the head babaylan had done. Even the pig stopped squealing because of what seemed to be unnatural human silence. The pair stepped on the cloths, turned toward the direction of the sun and chanted with both hands outstretched. Their voices combined to produce a haunting song. They then picked up the cloths which they again wrapped around their waists. An assistant got the trumpet from the younger babaylan who was handed a bamboo pole in return. It was about two metres long with one end sharpened like a lance. This was the very first time she was being given this very important role. As the older babaylan blew her trumpet again, the drummers resumed their job. The younger babaylan started dancing again behind the chief babaylan. She continuously waved the bamboo lance while the older woman kept on blowing the trumpet as they both cavorted around the bound animal. As if awakened from self-imposed stupor and realizing what was in store for itself, the pig rejoined the commotion by resuming its ear-piercing wailing. The drummers increased the tempo, the other women wildly danced without leaving their places. Going into a wild frenzy, the younger woman went into a trance with her eyes dilated and wide opened, seemingly oblivious to the crowd. The uproar went on for a few minutes.  Perspiration was now dripping from her wiry body as she circled the pig while dancing wildly. Every now and then she would point the sharpened end of the bamboo alternately to the direction of the pig and to that of the crowd. The pig seemed to be going around her, not she around it. The head babaylan also entered into a trance but continued its rhythmic dancing and chanting. All of a sudden the younger woman was overcome with such great force that shook her entire body. Her concentration was now on the pig which seemed to sense what was about to happen. Then the drums and the trumpet stopped in simultaneous unison. She let out a wild, howling shriek, and with a great force, she buried the sharpened end of the bamboo into the body of the pig between its front legs. The pig’s eyes appeared to have jumped out of their sockets. Death was very quick as the pig’s heart was pierced. Blood spurt out as she withdrew the bamboo lance’s sharpened end. The animal’s shoulders shivered as it went into its death throes. One woman stepped out from the other assistants’ group expertly stopped the blood flow with grass expertly applied to the gaping hole in the pig.  The babaylan and her special assistant were now out of trance, but the young woman’s perspiration still dripped from her face. The older babaylan used the trumpet’s widest part to scoop some blood with which she smeared every woman and girl in the crowd. She ignored the males, more particularly, the foreigners as she made the round. Some women joined in. They had their left hands cupped to scoop blood from the now quiet pig. With their right hands, they also smeared all male spectators except the foreigners. The other women joined and cut the pig up. Later on, dishes were prepared from the meat. No males, either the local villagers or the foreigners, were allowed to partake in eating the dishes; for only women could eat an animal consecrated in the special ceremony. The head babaylan approached the younger one, embraced her and was very happy with the young woman’s performance. She was now a full-pledged babaylan. (B&R, vol 33, pp. 169-171

An ominous news from across the river

A bright light shone on the face of Apodalen. She lazily opened her eyes a little. It was the moon. She closed her eyes again. A wild rooster crowed in the distant. Her body still ached. Gradually she went into deep sleep again as she continued reminiscing about the past.

Two decades swiftly passed by. The older babaylan had passed away with her soul now among the revered anitos or nonos. Apodalen was now the chief babaylan. Her renown spread even to the neighbouring villages from where a number of women came to learn the arts under Apodalen. She was an excellent teacher. Many things had happened in the meantime. A number of white foreigners have occupied the closest village to hers. At the center of that village a house bigger than the chief’s was built. Adjacent to it was another building. At one end of the roof two intersecting pieces of wood were displayed and called Santa Cruz. An offering ceremony was offered inside the building every morning by a plump, white stranger, who always wore long clothes with hood. He had talked to the people about a good man in the distant past who had been put to a horrible death. This man had been suspended in a contraption like the two intersecting pieces of wood at the top of the building. But an amazing thing had happened when he was buried. On the third day he became alive again. Apparently he did not remain visible all the time. He appeared a number of times to some women and men, and then he went up into the heavens. His followers spread what he had said and how he had lived. The plump, white stranger in long clothes claimed that he was now representing him. He was known as the Padre. It was he who had told the villagers about the good man with the name Hesucristo. The Padre was able to persuade many inhabitants in that village to believe in the good man. The Padre seemed to have magical powers to drive evil spirits. The babaylan in that village, whom Apodalen had trained many years ago, was forced to flee and sought protection under her. What she had told Apodalen about what had happened in that village had since troubled Apodalen. She did not realize that a worse fate would befall her in her own village. It would take, however, more than a Padre to make this possible. Her fellow villagers gradually fell under the spell of the Padre and succumbed to the teaching he was spreading. The overture of the Padre to win Apodalen over fell on her deaf ears. She resisted his every effort and encouraged her fellow villagers to return to their old beliefs. The Padre’s failure to convert her and her efforts to win the villagers’ back enraged him so that he had sought all means to eliminate her. She was branded an evil old woman, a devil’s follower and minister, a reincarnation of the devil and so on. Threats to her life became real. Despite the villagers’ apparent conversion to the Padre’s teaching, they protected and shielded Apodalen from his persecutions. Every now and then, many villagers, most of whom were women, would seek her out to make the traditional offerings to their ancestors. In this way Apodalen was able to minister to their needs and to continue wielding her influence over many villagers. She was, however, unprepared to the latest strategy employed by the Padre.

Having trained a group of young boys to assist him in celebrating his rites, the Padre had personally taken them under his wing. Having been won over by the Padre, these young boys did not share the same loyalty their parents have kept toward Apodalen. The young boys found out where she was conducting her rituals and discovered where she was hiding her instruments and tools for these ceremonies. Having personally seized them, the Padre asked the villagers to come to the village square. They were horrified to see Apodalen’s instruments piled up there. Their shock, however, was nothing in comparison with the event to follow. Under the instigation of the Padre, the young boys picked up Apodalen’s instruments and smashed them to the ground. What they could not destroy, they set on fire. Their parents and the rest of villagers were powerless to stop the children as they carried out their destructive action with gusto and enthusiasm. With his arms folded in his breast, the Padre watched the entire spectacle in triumph.  When the news was relayed to Apodalen, she was very disheartened. She knew all these children. She had personally ministered to and assisted their mothers as each child emerged from his mother’s womb. The persecutions that followed after the destruction of Apodalen’s ritual instruments were relentless and would eventually break her will to fight. The Padre succeeded in persuading a number of leading male villagers to help in seeking out Apodalen. She barely escaped with her life as she made her final departure from the village.

Now safe in her secret sanctuary, Apodalen was aware her body would not be able to recover from everything she had endured. She, however, felt resigned to her fate and was ready to join her ancestors in the spirit world. As her eyes closed for the final sleep, her only regret was the feeling that with her entry to the spirit world of the ancestors, the spirit of babaylanism would die out with her passing away. She would be proved wrong as future history would unfold.

Using narrative as a methodology

The use of the narrative is one of the multiple methodologies which were mentioned at the beginning of the project. The narrative above is the outcome of the deconstruction and reconstruction of the various accounts on the babaylan gleaned from the numerous records the Spanish ecclesiastical and civil authorities in the archipelago had meticulously kept during the 333 years of occupation of the islands.[6] The reconstructed story aims not only to portray a most probable and realistic image of the babaylan, but also to give her a voice that has been deliberately silenced in the colonialists’ accounts. It is, in fact, more than giving her the voice; it is a restoration of this voice that had been listened to and pondered on by her followers and people in the community before the advent of the colonizers. In the colonialists’ accounts, there were few instances wherein the babaylan was allowed to speak. Nevertheless, she did so only when the devil entered her and possessed her being. In a way, her being silenced was being kept up, as it was not really she who spoke, but the devil through her. Perhaps she could be exonerated from any failing or evil. On the contrary, her guilt was magnified in her portrayal as deliberately seeking the devil and purposely imploring him to possess her.  Her representation went as far as equating her with the devil.

The reconstructed story tells about the initiation, training and vocation of the babaylan, her conflict with the newly introduced Iberian brand of Christianity, and her struggle to win over her fellow villagers to the traditional beliefs in the ancestors, her subjection to relentless persecutions and final banishment from her village and own people. The colonialists’ accounts on the babaylan resonated the portrayal of Mary Magdalene as being possessed by the devil in the synoptic gospels (Luke and Mark), a sinner and a whore in the post-biblical era. The fate of the babaylan had a similarity to that of the image of Mary Magdalene. There was no record on what had actually happened to Mary Magdalene after the risen Jesus’ first appearance in the gospel of John (Jn 20: 1-18). Legends and traditions, however, emerged in Western Christianity as her image underwent many transformations. The same thing took place in the traditional image of the babaylan in pre-Hispanic Philippines. From a position of leadership, she was demonized and banished from society. The recent decades, however, have witnessed the rehabilitation and re-emergence of the traditional image of Mary Magdalene and that of the babaylan.[7]

[1] Zeus Salazar, “The Babaylan in Philippines History” in Women’s Role in Philippine History: Selected Essays, 2nd edn., tr. by Proserpina Domingo Tapales (Quezon City: The University of the Philippines Press, 2001): 214.
[2] A Tale of Two Births: Two Generations of Filipina Women, viewed 19 Jun 2007,
[3] John P. McAndrew, People of Power: A Philippine Worldview of Spirit Encounters (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2001), p.  28.
[4] Ileto 1979, pp. 32-33 cited in McAndrew, p. 9.
[5] Hamer 1987 cited in McAndrew, p. 14.
[6] Although the Philippines was discovered in 1521, it was in 1565 that the Spaniards started the official occupation of the islands that would last until 1898 when the people rose in a nation-wide revolt and defeated the Spanish authorities.
[7] In 1967, the Roman Catholic Church officially announced that Mary Magdalene was a different person from Mary from Bethany and the penitent sinner in the city in the Gospel of Luke. Eastern Christianity has always maintained this separation and recognized her as the Apostola Apostolorum.

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