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Shamans and Witches: The Fascinating World of Filipino Witchcraft

Darius is a former high school literary and feature writer from the Philippines.

A Filipino Babaylan.

A Filipino Babaylan.

The World of Filipino Witchcraft

Witchcraft is an almost taboo subject among modern Filipino society. However, its existence dates back as far as the country's prehistory, from its first polities and nation-states up to modern day societies. As a strong cultural belief, its lore is deeply rooted within the country, etched like hand-painted art on Neolithic/Paleolithic cave walls. It is as everlasting and wonderful to explore as ever, despite periods of stagnation and decline.

The Shamans

Shamans have a long and fascinating history within Filipino culture.

The Firsts

The Babaylan were regarded as the first shamans to practice divination and magic across multiple nation-states in the pre-historical and pre-colonial country. They bear many names, including:

  • maaram in Hiligaynon,
  • mamalak in Ivatan,
  • katalonan in Tagalog,
  • and anitu of the Aeta.

Each distinct Indigenous and ethnic group found in the country has a name for itself. And though their purposes and status vary from one place to another, each converges at certain points.

Societies during the pre-historical and pre-colonial periods had gender-based, egalitarian sociopolitical and socioeconomic systems, and the roles of being a shaman were predominantly carried out by women and/or men dressed up as women. Women during these times were just as powerful as men, and both of the sexes performed equal roles for the benefit of their communities. In fact, pre-colonial communities—despite having male noblemen as the leaders—preferred to have women as their leaders in various areas of expertise, especially when it came to tribal military and warfare. The fact that the country has consistently been one of the highest when it comes to the Global Gender Gap Report means that modern Filipinos still uphold this certain way of mindset and culture.

Roles and Responsibilities

Throughout history, these shamans have played many roles. They have been interim political leaders within tribal communities, generals and medical managers during tribal warfare, spiritual leaders that guide the spirits of both the living and the dead, healers and masters of divination, and experts in herbalism, medicines, seeds, and potions. Although they may be considered healers in tribes, they aren't explicitly miracle workers. Do remember that scientific progress in medicine during this period was not what we have today. Nevertheless, many of their herbal and medicinal ways are still used today, and in some instances have been shown to have positive effects when taken effectively. For more information, visit the country's industry site on natural health products for a complete summary and list of medicinal herbs and plants used in the Philippines' medical industry.

Shamans of these communities were chosen because of their roles, their expertise in the practice, their status in the social hierarchy, and their wealth (in their own rights). Apart from being a shaman, they also served other roles within communities should a role be needed. These roles depended on the society and varied across ethnic tribes. However, the majority of them were merchants, warriors, farmers, fisherfolks, blacksmiths, crafts masters, weavers, potters, musicians, and even sometimes barbers or chefs. Ultimately, the roles a shaman filled depended on the preferences of the shaman, skills of the shaman, and the needs of their community.

Caretakers of Spirits and Souls

Within the old Austronesian belief of soul dualism, an individual has "twin souls," which refers to the breath of life and the astral soul. Spiritual illnesses occur when a person's astral soul separates itself from its owner. Though this may not result in immediate death, it can result in the soul being trapped in the spirit world or being used by other malevolent spirits.

When this happens, the mortal body suffers severe discomfort, depression, insanity, along with other ailments. As masters of spirits and souls, shamans often have to perform systematic rituals to "heal" the affected person and to protect their soul from being attacked by other malevolent spirits.

Magic and Sorcery

Shamans also have the power of sorcery and are highly skilled with magic. They are believed to be able to control the physical world through incantations, talismans, medallions, potions, and spirit intermediaries. They are also the first line of defense against black magic and the dark arts propagated by witches, sorcerers, and fellow enemy shamans.

As they are powerful in casting magic spells and curses, they are also able to counter-cast powerful spells that may be mortally or spiritually deadly to particular targets. During medieval tribal warfare, they served as both support for the warrior-generals in the battle and healers of the wounded. They also served as anti-spell units capable of deflecting spells cast by shamans of enemy tribes.

How One Becomes a Shaman

A person becomes a shaman through arduous initiation. They usually begin at a young age, and must first become an apprentice of expert shamans. Their final calling begins once they fall ill to what is known as a "shaman's illness."

To go into the illness means to experience the meaning of death. And to be able to heal oneself because of one's strong ties to the spirits means that the individual is ready to become a shaman for the community. Apprentices generally survive this sickness and live to become full-fledged shamans themselves; they then spend the rest of their years honing their skills and powers.

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Being regarded as an almost noble-like figure, the rites for becoming a shaman do not make for an easy path. The process is arduous and the responsibility bestowed is heavy. Indeed, whole communities depend on the shaman, whether it be for leadership, healing, spirituality, and guidance. And though it both being a sought after "occupation" during that time that requires high skills and mastery of divination, magic, and being grounded to spirits, being a shaman often comes at various prices and is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, communities often see shamans as powerful spellcasters who are able to do good and miracles. But sometimes, if they are heavily wronged by members of their fellow communities or is they succumb to malign and malicious influences, they have been known to become dark, dangerous, and malevolent.

An example of a Filipino witch/warlock.

An example of a Filipino witch/warlock.

The Witches

In Filipino folklore, witches are often portrayed as more malevolent and evil than other types of people who have access to spirits.

The Path of the Dark

Witches in Filipino culture are completely different from their Western counterparts and are the antithesis of what it means to be a shaman. Witches in Filipino folklore, mythos, or whatever are not known in having to form covens or groups of witches under one banner. They do, however, are known to be solitary, vengeful, hostile, and dangerous beings for normal people to encounter. They are also known to shift between a shaman and a witch, depending on preferences and reasons, and tend to live among the common folk disguising as a "miracle" worker or a witch doctor.

They practice the art of black magic, the occult, and are often seen as rebels of either/both heaven and/or hell. Though they are similar to shamans in that they are masters of spirits and souls, witches are different because they corrupt, destroy, and/or use their powers for their own benefits.

Spirits are affiliated with witches just as they are affiliated with shamans, whether they are good, evil, or in between. Witches often use these spirits to either inflict irreversible damage on those who deserve retribution or to protect against other powerful spellcasters. These spirits can also be used as tools, messengers, and even guardians or protectors for the witch's benefit. Often, these spirits are used as guides, seers, spies, watchers, or observers of any adversary who may harm the witch or their loved ones.

Witches in Filipino folklore come from various ethnic, regional, and historical origins. Witches can also be of any gender, so long as they have gone through the initiation process of becoming a shaman. They are mostly normal people living completely normal lives, and the automatic affiliation of witches with evil and shamans with good is a misleading oversimplification. That said, witches have been known to practice dark arts and black magic for their own malevolent ways and have passed these arts down through the generations. Depicted as having an extreme sense of taking their own sense of "justice" into their own hands, they often cast destructive spells to those that have wronged them, from wrong-doers and bullies to land-grabbers and murderers.

Magic, Spells, and Sorcery

Spells cast by these witches are destructive in nature. They often use poppets and dolls whilst performing a ritual or an incantation, often resulting in unknown illnesses or absurdities ranging from non-normal tumors to flesh-eating insects living inside a host's body. They are also powerful in their own ways, able to deflect anti-spells cast by shamans and healers.

They have been known to use arcane potions and dark talismans as part of their repertoire for their purposes, along with the use of dolls, effigies, bodily exuviae (e.g., hair and nail clippings), boiling pots, cursed or holy trinkets, and "blessed" glass jars. Spells are often activated using a ritual and/or an incantation that has been forbidden by shamans. The severity of the spell depends on the severity of the fault committed by the wrong-doer. In other times, witches have been known to cast spells upon malevolent spirits and wild animals to attack and even kill their target. In other cases, witches have cast spells upon themselves to turn themselves into unknown and indistinguishable malevolent beings. These spells, however, are often deflected by other shamans, healers, or sorcerers. When forced to battle someone more powerful than them, the spells witches cast often backfire on them. This sometimes results in the witch experiencing the agony and/or death they were trying to cause others. If anti-magic and spell protection aren't likely to work, appeasing the witch may solve the problem. Indeed, for those being targeted by witches, asking—and even begging—for forgiveness may be the only thing they need.

Fall From Grace

In other cases, witches are sometimes shamans and healers who have gone to the dark side due to a multitude of reasons. They can be regarded as shamans who became vengeful due to particular circumstances, and they stay that way for a very long time.

For example, a celebrated faith healer of a community may turn against that same community if something bad, or unjust, was done to them. Remember that shamans have the power of sorcery, so it's not that shocking when the shamans that know how to heal spiritual illnesses also know black magic.

Into the Modern Era: A Pervasive Belief

Perhaps one perfect example of the depiction of witchcraft in the Philippines is Director Eric Matti's "Folklore" episode from 7 Days of Hell on HBO. It perfectly encapsulates the belief surrounding Filipino witchcraft, gave a hint on how the modern Filipino society and its modern way of "justice" works, and offered a juxtaposed dilemma of being morally right and wrong when faced with complex problems. Perfectly portrayed by expert actors and actresses, it's a dark, fantastical, and psychological rendition that pays homage to a culture that is almost lost, but still prevails to this day.

Living in both urban and rural places, the albularyos are the shaman / witch doctors capable of healing people using shamanistic and mystical method, I which I have had the experience whenever I got sick due to an unforeseen or unexplained illness. In one instance, the witch doctor deduced that I had made a dark dwarf angry by sleeping above it and almost crushing it with the weight of my body. Another time, a witch doctor deduced that I was being held captive by a vengeful spirit. Though seemingly absurd, and highly opposed by the medical, scientific, and religious communities, these explanations are examples of strong beliefs that persist among Filipinos when something is happening to them that seems unfathomable. They are also often the last resort for very poor communities where hoping for miracles to happen through shamanistic healing is perhaps their only option.

Shamanism and Witchcraft Today

Today, the practice of shamanism and witchcraft in the Philippines carries a strong negative connotation, especially among the common folk. For one, the practice of it is seen as a rebellious act against religion and against God (a big no-no for a religious and conservative country). But it didn't start this way, either. Magic and sorcery—even during the pre-history and pre-colonial era of the Philippines—were revered, and those who could act as intermediaries between spirits (of earth, nature, the heavens, and underworld, etc.) and humans were held in high regard. They were seen as respectable and noble bards, healers, and even leaders among the pre-historical Filipino communities and nation-states.

It all somehow changed when a multitude of outside influences came. In order to establish a strong religious belief in Christian Catholicism, colonizers managed to de-establish spiritual leaders and almost eliminated their political power as leaders of united communities. The spread of other religions in the archipelago, such as Hinduism and Islam, also gravely affected the waning popularity of witches and shamans. However, the colonizers and religious influencers found that subjugating the natives' strong, superstitious beliefs with folkloric beings was not as easy as erasing written words on the sand. That said, constant and ongoing persecution coupled with ever-changing societal norms still resulted in a significant decline in shamans and witches. Looking at how these beliefs and practices went through multiple Asiatic influences, Spanish conquest, American indoctrination, and Japanese occupation, it's even a miracle that a pinch of their legacies still survive up to this day.

The rise of skepticism and scientific progress continued to impact these beliefs, and they dwindled into something of a cultural aspect. They now serve as old traditions that are still carved in the mindsets of those with nostalgia for the past. They are not fully forgotten, but not fully acknowledged either. That said, they are still practiced among rural communities and Indigenous lands. And on a positive note, they also serve as an instrumental warning that is culturally inclined and ingrained within the Filipino culture: to never aggrieve someone, even if they are just a stranger.

Further Reading

  • Bakunawa: The Tale of a Dragon and Seven Moons
    The Bakunawa is a dragon in Philippine mythology that is often represented as a gigantic sea serpent. It is believed to be the cause of eclipses.
  • The Lost and Mysterious City of Biringan
    The City of Biringan is a popular urban legend about, generally, a phantom city of the magical and mystical Engkantos, spirits and elementals that are deeply rooted in the country's ancient animistic and religious cultures, with legends and folklores

Sources

  1. DEMETRIO, FRANCISCO R. “Shamans, Witches and Philippine Society.” Philippine Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, Ateneo de Manila University, 1988, pp. 372–80
  2. Filipino shamans article from Wikipedia
  3. Filipino witches article from Wikipedia
  4. The many faces of Filipino faith healers article from the Aswang Project
  5. The many classifications of witches in the Philippines article from the Aswang Project
  6. The fall of the Babaylan article from Esquiremag
  7. "7 Days of Hell" article from Inquirer
  8. "7 Days of Hell" article from Business Mirror

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Darius Razzle Paciente

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