6 Guidelines For Becoming A Filipino Shaman

6 Guidelines for Becoming a Filipino Shaman

What if, one day,  an Anito from the sky world delivered a message claiming that you are one of the chosen to become a part of a long sacred lineage of men and women that stands between the mortals and gods?  That you will guide and aid your community by playing numerous roles such as  doctor/healer, priest, counsellor, and leader?  Even the best ‘jack of all trades’ would have a hard time pulling that off.

What if you’ve received the power to travel to the realm of the dead to save trapped souls?

Becoming a shaman transcends profession and passion. Regardless of their many names around the Philippines  (Babaylan, Katalonan, Diwatera, Tambalan etc.) the way of the shaman is more than just the superficial old tribe men or women chanting languages beyond our comprehension.  They transcend the schizoid that throws themselves on the ground while under extreme fits of seizure that synchronize with the beat of gongs and drums and the image of the wild looking worshipper of crude, wooden statues. It is a vocation that demands devotion, sincerity and knowledge of both men and spirits.

The following are excerpts and notes from the studies made by F. Landa Jocano and Francisco R. Demetrio S.Jconstructed in the same manner of a ‘how to’ guide in case you found yourself accidentally treading the path of the shaman. Hopefully this short article will be able to explain the intricacies of becoming a shaman so that it can help us understand their traditions and training,  as well as their importance in shaping the pre-colonial Filipino community and culture.

1. Knowing the Call: The Initiation

Shamanism is not an academic course where you can enrol yourself. Nor is it a job where you need a long list of credentials and experience to be qualified. Many say that becoming a shaman is a calling from the spirits or gods. No one knows how these beings choose the candidate for becoming a shaman but it always start in general through dreams or visions.

The early signs of becoming a shaman, according to the early traditions of the Bisayans, connotes illnesses such as fits, tremors and convulsion to one’s body that usually leads to symptoms of temporary madness. Blindness was also depicted as another sign that an individual was selected by the diwatas or anitos as their mediator between them and their community.  These sicknesses were observed not as mere abnormalities in one’s health but a period where spirits are entering the body of a person in preparation for starting their journey as a shaman. In other cases, unusual occurrences will come – such as a sudden disappearance and return after days or weeks. Other reports told that some of these people would not return at all.  In most cases, they were found sitting beside a Balete tree, which contributed to the tree’s infamy for being the gateway of spirits in our world.

Isneg tribes also have varying ways of choosing their shamans. Older shamans are given the authority to pick their apprentice among the young maidens of their village. The spirit will dawn upon the selected maidens after conducting a ritual called ipuwan. Similar to a baptismal ceremony, ipuwan starts with the elder shaman pouring sweet oil on the head of the chosen females as if purifying them.  This is then proceeded by pressing xaranait beads on the forehead and transferring their spirits by blowing over it.   Training ranged from using their gift of prophecy, memorizing lengthy rituals, oral epics and chants and other ceremonies which were all part of the regimen of young shamans under the tutelage of the more experienced.

It would take years of several experiences and initiations to prepare the apprentice shaman to perfect their craft. It would take a lifetime of practice before they can attune themself with different inhuman entities that he or she needs to interact with to help their community.

BABAYLAN by R. Aguilar at the Negros Museum

BABAYLAN by R. Aguilar at the Negros Museum


2. Knowing your role: Supernatural Healer

Shamans were figures that both exuded mystery and wonder to those who didn’t understand their function in a certain community. Spiritually more powerful than any of their fellow men, they are endowed with supernatural abilities which were commonly used to heal and cure their community both in physical and spiritual aspects. Before the introduction of modern pharmaceuticals, sickness was always associated with paranormal causes. According to the reports of William and Corinne Nydeggers, diseases as stated by the people of Barrio Tarong of Ilocos Norte are inflicted due to the following reasons:

  •  loss of ones soul to the spiritual world,
  •  spirits of the deceased and
  •  nature spirits, gods and evil spirits that accidentally or intentionally inflict pain, curses and injuries to mortal men.

Spirits that causes diseases may belong to three particular groups wherein each of them are responsible to a particular ailment.  These are the ibabawnon also called udtohanon from the upper (or sky) world which can cause epidemics and plagues when improper ritual or sacrifice was made in their honor.  Second is the dutan-on or those who dwell among the mortal men  – which are further divided into talunanon (forest dwellers) that cause blood vomiting, and themalignu and tamawu who commonly residds in trees, hillsides and rice fields.  The last one is the idadalmonon from the underworld which are known as the death bringers. It’s up to the ability of the shaman to appease and communicate with the spirits that causes maladies and to give sacrifice for them so that they will be more benevolent towards their community.

In  worse case scenarios, shamans were also the ones who would exorcize evil spirits as well as seeking lost souls who are trapped in the spirit world.  Besides their herbs, oils, and tools, the shaman utilized chants and prayers often accompanied by dancing and the playing of instruments such as bells, kettle drums, large gongs and bamboo trumpets.


3. Knowing your Gender: Man or Woman

Typically, most of the Babaylans and other shamanic groups in the Philippines were female. This highly contradicts the western ideologies that female are only secondary to men when it comes to religion or spiritual functions. But older teachings prove that originally woman were held in higher regard to men when it came to divinity. This is related to the ancient belief that women symbolize  the Mother Goddess – who represents, or is a personification of nature, motherhood, fertility, creation, destruction or who embodies the bounty of the Earth. Giver and and taker of life, the Mother Goddess was also rooted with lunar worshipping as well due to the percieved connection between the phases of the moon to the menstrual cycle of a female. Moreover, women possess features that were once held as special,  such as their ability to give life and being able to bleed without dying (pertaining to menstruation) that makes them sacred and closely knit with the divine.

Yet male shamans, such as the asog did also exist. In order for them to be accepted in the craft, they underwent a gender transformation (in a symbolical way) that would have them accepted and viewed by the community as female.  Today we would consider them trans-women, but they were much more readily accepted by their community in the ancient past. This could explain why only there are only a  few males who venture into the world of shamans today.  Gender biases aside, joining the elements of masculine and feminine and other opposing forces (fire and water) in spirituality are important in attaining a harmony for which a shaman must attain first within oneself before they apply to their surroundings.



4. Knowing your Tools: Sacrificial Items, Prayers, Stones and Amulets

The life of a shaman is a life offered for the good of their people. In every event or occasion, a shaman will always be present to bless it with divine favors. This is  proof that even before the time of colonialism, Filipinos had a deeper sense of spirituality that, until now, is prevalent despite the fact that we are now following a different system of beliefs.

Sacrificial ritual was one of the most important tasks that a shaman would learn. Most of the time, this rituals were done during marriage, wars, baptism and even in rites of passage for the young ones. Sacrifices would vary depending on the spirits that would be called upon. Pigs were known to be one of the special types of sacrifice that were offered for powerful spirits as well as serious cases in the community. Other known sacrificial animals and items that were used before included chickens with red feathers and black feet,  seven glasses of wine or tuba, seven sticks of cigarettes, seven biscuits, betel nut chew quids and one dozen eggs. Take note that the above mentioned sacrifices have specific instructions and orders.

Prayer is a vital medium that goes hand in hand with rituals. Calling forth the name of anitos or ancestral spirits using the secret language of shamans is essential for the success of every ceremony they conduct. Oftentimes prayer is a prelude to one of the most terrifying and amazing feat of the shaman; going through an ecstatic vision. Although misunderstood by many, the said trance which puts the shaman in altered state of consciousness resulting in wild seizures and glossolalia (speaking tongues) indicates the departure of the shaman’s soul.  The shaman’s soul would them journey in the spirit realm to perform their function..

Utilization of magical items such as anting-anting and agimat are prevalent with the practice of shamanism. Besides the amulets and talismans, stones and minerals were also believed to bestow powers to bolster the ability of a shaman. Notable among these are two kinds of diamond: diamante (raw) and brillante (refined) which could counter the curse of Barangan,  and the mysterious stone mutya that could be obtained from the flower of the kusul plant where it only blooms when the moon rises. In other stories, the mutya is found in banana flowers or from the vomit of a rat.

mga engkanto sa mahikanto by tsonggoh via DeviantArt

mga engkanto sa mahikanto by tsonggoh via DeviantArt

5. Know your Level: Seven Stages of Babaylanship

Heeding the call, knowing the complex rituals, names of plants,  and functions of nature spirits was only the first step in the rigorous, yet extraordinary, experiences that an apprentice must undergo towards the road of becoming a shaman. The real test would begin for the student of the craft as he worked to pass the seven levels of Babaylanship depicted in the traditions of Sulud from Panay:

Baratakan – the first level wherein young shamans are given their own spirit-companion which act as their own familiar or guardian. The main job of the apprentice is to provide assistance only when elder shaman conduct rituals and ceremonies.Sanguban – this level involves immersing the apprentice in different plant and herbal lore and basic medical diagnosis of illnesses by familiarizing them with the symptoms of different maladies.Hangdugan – in this period, the apprentice will conduct the first ritual offering to their spirit-companion by sacrificing a black chicken. This stage acts as a retrospective moment wherein the aspiring shaman will know the names of their ancestors that will act as their guides towards total spiritual growth.Tagbungan – the fourth level starts by indoctrinating the students with rituals, ceremonies and dances that a shaman must perform. However, he or she is still forbidden to conduct all of these.Hagbayan – apprentices under this level will take larger roles as they are getting near in the end of their training. He or she will be known as a merku and will be given the responsibility to attend minor cases in their community. The relationship with their spirit-companion will also be strengthen in this period. This is also the level wherein the young shaman prepares their primary curing elixir known as himagan which they will use during their healing ceremony.Turupadan – Fully equipped with knowledge both in medicine, magic and religion, the apprentice is now given the power to conduct rituals under the supervision of the elder shaman. Instead of a black chicken, he or she will now sacrifice seven red chickens for their spirit-companion.Banawangon – the last level involves the final offering of the student before he or she will be recognized as a full-fledged shaman. Without the guidance of the elder shaman and in front of their village menfolk, the apprentice will offer a black pig for their spirit-companion –  which also grew along with them. The liver will be offered to their spirit-companion while the entrails and the remaining parts of the pig will be given to minor spirits or deities.

Taking it on a more esoteric perspective, seven is a sacred number which is usually connected to God and heavenly powers. The number appears universally in mystical teachings (seven chakras, seven colors of the rainbow, seven archangels that represent the seven days of the week) and even in the esoteric biblical teaching (seven days of creation, seven gifts of the holy spirit). This could only mean that the spiritual teachings of our ancestors greatly coincide with the common themes that are universally present in many myths and teaching around the globe.

6. Know your Importance: Standing for Man and For Gods

If police have their badges, shamans also have their own markings that make them an official mediator between the spirits and men. After finishing the long training, the apprentice shaman will now receive their piling, a large sea shell attached to a cord –  usually kept together with a plate (another item used for their rituals) and threads inside a tiny basket. This acts as their own badge that marks their triumphant journey to becoming a shaman that will serve the village.

Acquiring their piling is not the end, but the beginning of a life that a normal person would not dare to try and live. Being a shaman is like your entire life being a ritual. The practitioner continually sacrifices themselves for the physical and spiritual world to sustain the balance and harmony between all the seen and unseen creatures co-existing with one another. It is a challenging life and not for those who are weak in heart and soul. Just the thought of encountering entities and creatures beyond our comprehension on a daily basis, and dealing with almost all the serious problems of a community would make anyone feel drained to the point of exhaustion.

Whether we are called for such life or not, there is no arguing the impact of shamans in the early years of our country as it struggled to shape its own culture and tradition; guiding the people spiritually and balancing the natural order of existence.  It is right that we honor these figures who once led our ancestors towards understanding the world they dwell in, as well as the world hiding behind the veils of normalcy that couldn’t be grasped by common folk. The tradition of shamanism should be remembered for all generations to come.  For when modern understandings fail, it is in community, spirituality, and the natural world where comfort and answers may be sought.

Published on : 30/01/2018 by Papagei

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