Naming the PHILIPPINE SHAMAN: Which Term Should You Use?

The Question:

A very common question I receive here at The Aswang Project from aspiring authors, komik creators, and game developers is which term is appropriate to use for shamans from different ethnic regions around the Philippines.  The ‘go-to’ term is Babaylan, but historically that is only accurate to Negros and other areas of the Central and Western Visayas.  The term is so familiar today because the feminist movement of the 80’s and 90’s used the historically powerful female healer/community leader as a focal point to empower the modern woman.  The Babaylan was again used as a focal point during the decolonization movement of the 90’s.  Lastly, the LGBT movement has sometimes used the babaylan monicker for the transwomen who held these powerful positions in various regions of the Philippines.  I fully support all of the above movements, but it did seem to cause a few misunderstandings in regards to the shamans from ethnic regions around the Philippines. While there is most certainly truth to these uses, one must remember that;

  1. The term Babaylan is from Negros and other areas of the Central and Western Visayas.
  2. Men were sometimes the religious leader in Philippine communities (especially in Northern Luzon and Mindanao)
  3. Transwomen only held the position of shaman in some of the Indianized Tagalog and Visayan regions

While many important understandings regarding shamanism in the Philippines have been explored over the last several decades, to properly identify which terms are appropriate to which ethnic region we need pre-date the modern movements.  For this I will defer to excerpts from the enlightening paper “PHILIPPINE SHAMANISM AND SOUTHEAST ASIAN PARALLELS” written by FRANCISCO R. DEMETRIO, S.J.  While it is not an exhaustive list (each tribe may have their own distinct name) , it gives an excellent point of reference for anyone wishing to educate themselves further.

Babaylan During Your Death by badlineart via DeviantArt


ALSO READ: Let’s Discuss Transgender People in the Pre-Colonial Philippines

Shamanism as Religious Phenomenon

As a religious phenomenon, I take shamanism to focus around man’s ultimate concerns, that is to say, with man’s life or existence, as well as the meaning of that existence. It must necessarily then touch upon the problem of disease, on the mystery of recovery, as well as on the mystery of death and of the possibility or fact of life after death. A shaman has been called, and rightly, the specialist of the holy or the sacred, or as the guardian of the psychic equilibrium of the community.  I think these characterizations have something to do with the ultimate concerns of man; preoccupation with the sacred or the holy touches the reality which undergirds man in his total nature, his whole being as contingent and limited ; anything that touches the psyche borders on the innermost life of man: for it seizes him where he is most sensitive to the influences that can reach down to his very depths: the psyche is the region where his materiality and his spirituality are most merged, his two aspects united although distinct. It is the seat of his personality.

The Shaman and the Philippine Religious Functionaries

Like most ‘primitive’ peoples, the early Bisayans, Tagalogs, Bikolanos and Cagayanos as well as the modern survivals of the proto- Malays and others now dwelling in the hills of Luzon, Bisayas and Mindanao- all have their religious functionaries. These functionaries roughly may be grouped under three categories:

1) the shaman

catalonan or anitera (Tagalog and northern Luzon)
bailan, daetan, catooran,mamumuhat, diwatero (Bisayas, especially Samar, Leyte, Cebu, Bohol and northern Mindanao)
dorarakit or anitowan (lsnegs)
alopogan (Tinguians),
balian (Pygmies of Palawan)
babalian, babaylan (Negros and elsewhere)
ballyan (among the Mandayas of Mindanao)

The shaman is at once priest-sacrificer, healer, intermediary with the spirit world, prophet and seer;

The Babaylan by lostbooks via DeviantArt

2) the magician or sorcerer:

Who can be either a white magician or medicine-man, mananambal, mamumuhat, diwatero, arbolaryo, herbolaryo, makinaadmanon whose actions are generally for the good of others, or the black magician or witchdoctors who can either do good or harm to people, but mostly harm for a fee. Then they are generally called:

mamalarang, barangan, usikan, paktolan, sigbinan, etc. This is by no means an exhaustive enumeration; the mancocolam of the Tagalogs described by Plasencia as a medicine-man who would emit flames which could not be put out from his body once or oftener during a month beneath the house of someone belongs to this group.


(3) the witch or balbal, or aswang:

Men and women, mostly women who, in the mind of the folk, are people with a particular kind of sickness which in turn they can give to others: their weakness for the blood of women just delivered of their babies, for the foetus inside the womb of a pregnant woman, for the liver of infants, for the blood of infants, for the liver and flesh of dead people, for the phlegm voided from the lungs and respiratory organs of tubercular people. Those people have powers of sense and sight which are fantastic, they can transform themselves into birds, cats, dogs, etc., they can fly through the air, can detach themselves from their torsos which they leave behind a post or beneath a window sill, while their upper parts from the head and shoulders, along with the entrails, go travelling through the air in search of prey. The witch carries a flask of oil which it uses to empower itself to fly. If you get hold of this oil you render the witch powerless. If you strike the witch’s body when it is under an animal form, the marks will be left on the man’s body next morning. To become .a witch something like a chicken’s egg begins to germinate inside his stomach. This “thing” eventually develops into a chick then into a full grown bird. If you make a person vomit this “thing” before it grows wings inside, he can still be saved from becoming a witch. Once the creature has grown wings, the witch’s lot is sealed. A witch cannot die until he has transferred the witch-being to someone else.

Mangkukulam by huMAC via DeviantArt


In the Philippines, the call to shamanism must come directly through a sudden fit of trembling and insanity, as was the case of the shamans among the early Bisayans as we read in Francisco Alzina’s History of the Bisayan Islands, 1668-1669. Writing about the women priestesses or balianas, he says:

They were accustomed to go to the nonoc (ficus closiodes) covered with gold and ornaments made by them. There the diwata lived and there he selected them at his pleasure holding his unions with them . . . . Then those selected were initiated. The exterior sign was that he communicated to them a kind of madness, or they pretended that he did, making many grimaces, rolling their eyes and becoming enraged at times, as we find some of the ancient Sibyls and Vestals. With this it was understood that she was now possessed by the diwata. She began to relate fables and to say that the diwata was talking to her and giving her knowledge about future things to happen. “Gintitingan ako,” which means “the diwata has just talked to me.” With these demonstrations, some pretended, some really caused by the devil, these women are considered catooran, and begin to perform their functions.

Or the call could come during a long period of sickness and depression when a diwata, anito or spirit would call on them offering himself as a friend, promising to be a familiar; or it could come by a vision, as was the case of a Subanon who, having been in the forest a number of days, and finding himself without food, suddenly “saw” a diwata, riding in a boat, who promised to become his guardian spirit.


In other cases, the call was more indirect, as for instance among the Isnegs. An older shaman would pick out a young girl as candidate for the office; she was made to undergo the ritual of consecration called ipuwan. The elder woman pours sweet-scented oil on the head of the candidate. She presses the xaranait beads on her forehead and blows over it through her cupped hands. The spirit is believed to be transmitted this way. The girl begins to tremble and shake all over. This is the first consecration. It entitles the girl to assist at the seances of her mistress, to act as assistant during the seances. But she may not conduct them herself. After the girl’s marriage, the same identical consecration is gone through again; only afterwards may she hold her own seances.


Among the Tinguians, once a candidate is sure that a spirit is calling him, he approaches an older shaman and undergoes a kind of apprenticeship. He learns the details of the craft, the gifts suitable for each spirit, the chants and diams (myths) to be recited in each specific sacrifice. The candidate must learn all this by rote; for the ceremonies must be conducted as perfectly as possible according to the teachings of the spirits of “the people of the first times.” After several months of training, the candidate receives her piling. The piling which may be considered the badge of her shamanic office is a collection of large sea-shells, attached to a cord and kept inside a small basket, together with a chinese plate and a hundred fathoms of thread. The piling of a dead shaman is much preferred to shells just freshly gathered. It is in striking her plate with the sea-shells that the shaman summons the spirits.

Remarks: From the above instances we realize that the shaman-candidate owes her vocation to some spirit or god; that the candidate undergoes an experience of initiation, that the initiation is but the beginning of a series of other experiences during her period of instruction under the guidance of a mistress, human or spiritual. It is only through repeated experiences like unto those of her first calling that a shaman is finally inducted into the company and craftsmanship of other shamans.A word is needed on the sickness of the shaman during her initiatory paces. We are told that this comes in the form of insanity, usually following upon the candidate’s disappearance for two or three days, sometimes even longer.

Babaylan Diaries by steffdereja via DeviantArt

The Nomenclature

The name of the shaman itself coincides a number of times in the two regions: the Philippines and Southeast Asia. Among the Negritos the name is balyan, among the Mandayas, ballyan, among the Bisayans, bailan. The same nomenclature is found among the Ngadju Dyak, balian (priestess-shamaness), and we come across the same name among the Dusun of North, South and East Borneo. The shaman is called belian, bomor in Kelantan; while the Sea Dyak call the seance of the manang, belian. And the impotent sexless priest-shaman of the same Sea Dyak is called manang bali.

The Philippine Negritos used another name for the shaman, namely, puyang. The same word is used by the Jakun, another Malay race, to signify the shaman, poyang.  Another Negrito word pauang; closely resembles the Malayan word for shaman, pawang. A fourth Negrito word for shaman, huhak is akin to the Semang Pygmies hala or halak.

It appears, however, that the greater number of coincidences as far as nomenclature goes is found among the Pygmies of the Philippines and their counterparts in Indonesia.




ALSO READ: Witches in the Philippines, or Spanish propaganda?
ALSO READ: 6 Guidelines for Becoming a Filipino Shaman

2018 © The Aswang Project

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Jordan is a Canadian documentary director/ producer. He made the 2011 feature length documentary THE ASWANG PHENOMENON - an exploration of the aswang myth and its effects on Philippine society. Currently he is in post production for "The Aswang Project" web-series, which will feature 6 myths from the Philippines. The TIKBALANG, KAPRE and BAKUNAWA episodes are available to watch on YouTube.