Grace Nono’s Book Echoes Voices of Living Babaylan
By Luisa A. Igloria, VERA Files
July 9, 2013

Drape used by Grace courtesy of Narda Capuyan

“Babaylan? I thought they were all gone,” a young student remarks, almost in the same way one might talk about an extinct species.
Contrary to that common belief expressed by that student, the Philippine babaylan--- powerful shamanic figures from precolonial times and known by variant names throughout the archipelago such as bailan, anitera/o, diwatero/a, catalonan, mambunong---are very much alive.

“Their continued existence is documented in the latest book of singer, scholar, and grassroots cultural worker Grace Nono, titled “Song of the Babaylan: Living Voices, Medicines, Spiritualities of Philippine Ritualist-Oralist Healers.”.

In this book, Nono, who completed course work as a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at New York University, has gathered the voices of living babaylan. It's 10 major sections are devoted to babaylan using their own words to describe their chosen “genre” or main mode of work to channel the spirits for ritual, healing, pedagogical or other purposes, as follows: Aragoy and Gannay through Dawak, Babo Samida and Ama Maugan through Daging, Ka Mila through Subli, Undin through Tod-om/Gudgod chants, Nong Cabeza through Dalit, Josefa/Manang Lita through Mangurug, Minan Nenita through Turon, Mang Henio through Angba/Ba-diw, Mendung through Lingon Loos, and Inday Titang through Sinuog.

The babaylan were said to have been banished en masse at the time institutionalized religion was enlisted in the work of colonization. Keepers of ritual, poets, priestesses, healers and repositories of natural and tribal history, they were viewed as threats to the goals of colonial order.

Photo by Neal Oshima,
Drape by Narda Capuyan

As shamans who were the living embodiment of a world view of interconnectedness, they had access to the ground-level realities of experience, and held the keys to a vast network of alternative communication systems that included dreamwork, herbology, native agriculture and economics, epic poetry, folklore, fable, talinghaga or metaphor, among other things.

Doubtless, to the outsider, these community figures were not only mysterious but frightening, and could only be dismissed by their demonization as practitioners of savagery or "paganism." In worse cases, they are run out of town, whipped or beaten (like Dapungay in Cebu, Negros and Panay, Caguenga in Cagayan, Yga in Nueva Ecija and Santissima in Iloilo, for daring to lead local rebellions), killed (like Tamblot of Bohol, Sumoroy of Northern Samar, and Tapar of Panay) or jailed (like Papa Isio of Negros, who died in Bilibid Prison in 1911).

In Nono’s book, published by the Institute of Spirituality in Asia, what emerges most clearly is not a picture of babaylan as passive or empty mediums through which an external or transcendent substance is simply sieved and absorbed. Rather, the babaylan are depicted as very physical and human examples of what it is like to be intensely open to the encounter with both benevolent and potentially malevolent influences. And the reader is bound to be struck by how in turn, all who come in contact with them must actively participate in the encounter with ritual, song, or dance.

While the babaylan generally work as intermediaries with the spirit world in order to address human experiences marked by illness, death, conflict, hardship, as well as celebration, in the stories of encounters with them, there are numerous references to the role of those who seek their help.

Not only must the supplicant comprehend that mutual respect is the foundation for any invested exchange, he or she must also manifest a willingness to work through the layers of resistance or potential antagonism that any of a number of biases might provide. It could be a Western-centric education, gender or class assumptions, a purely rationalist outlook, habits of thinking of feeling that may have been strengthened by exposure to certain types of media, etc.

The most powerful message of the “Song of the Babaylan” is that all of us are ultimately responsible for the longevity and survival of human tradition.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “ true ”.).

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