Saturday, August 2, 2008

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 fore head 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.

By pointedly excluding the Spaniards, according to Fe B. Mangahas,(“The babylan historico-cultural context”, Centennial Crossings, 2006) Pigafetta’s babaylan explicitly marked a space between them and the foreigners, an ominous warning of impending conflict and disaster. It was the antithesis of those blood compacts between native men and foreigners ( Magellan and Rajah Kulambu) , alleging equality and brotherhood. The prescient babaylans were right after all, in the centuries that followed and in myriad ways, Spain betrayed the essence of those blood compacts.

Sixty years later when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi came, his chronicler Miguel de Loarca, called “ vieja” by her real title—babaylan—but denigrated her as “possessed by demons whose body is hurled to the ground, foaming at the mouth after so much chanting and dancing….” In fact, de Loarca was terrified as he associated the babaylan’s being “possessed “ to her having healing powers potent enough to raise the dead , and the gift of prophesy.

As expected, the early missionaries like Fray Ignacio Alzina were wary of the babaylans. To the natives, their revered priestess was the medium between them and the gods. The babaylan performed the pag-anito rituals for abundant harvest which was the very cycle of life and they were known to divert plagues and pestilence away from fertile land to the gushing rivers. To Fray Alzina and other missionaries like him , the babaylan was a formidable obstacle to Christianization , who had to be discredited, if not destroyed and forever silenced.

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