Witchcraft in the Philippines: Filipino Witches Midwives and Healers
The second in an exciting duology by a modern Filipino witch, Kristine Ibanez, covers detailed accounts of the types of Filipino witches, healers, and indigenous shamans. Please go back and read the first in the duology, if you haven’t yet.
The Most Prominent Types of Filipino “Witches”
I put “witches” in parentheses, because each individual’s belief on what is considered or not considered a witch will vary. For our intents and purposes, Filipino “witches” means anyone who practices magic.
Katalonan: Tagalog Priest/Priestess
The Katalonan (Catalonan, Catalona; Catulunanin Kapampangan): is a priest or priestess in the indigenous religions of the Tagalog. Mostly found in Central to Southern Luzon. They are the equivalent of the Visayan Babaylan. Spanish friars and missionaries also called them anitero (male) and anitera (female).
What the Katalonan Do
They safeguard the religious practices of the barangay (a type of community) and the dambana, the main term for a sacred place before Catholicism was introduced in the Philippines. Now, in the modern times, it may refer to shrines of indigenous religions in the Philippines, altar of Philippine churches, or monuments erected to remember Philippine history.
Female and Transvestite Catalona, Offerings, and Ceremonies
The Catalona could be of either sex, or male transvestites (bayoguin), but were usually women from prominent, wealthy families. As compensation for their services, they received part of the offerings (mostly food, wine, clothing, and gold.) Thus, the catalonas filled a very prestigious as well as lucrative role in society. The catalonas performed public ceremonies for community prosperity, fertility, or seasonable weather as well as private services to diagnose and cure ailments.
This type of Filipino witches were respected for these functions but they were also feared sorcerers able to work black magic. Some were spirit mediums and held séances during which they spoke with the voice of spirits (anito).
The Babaylans: Shamans and Mediums
The Babaylans were shamans of various ethnic groups of the pre-colonial Philippines and usually found in Visayas. They were highly respected members of the community. Usually female, especially the mediums. They function as spirit mediums and as a mananambal (a Filipino practitioner of traditional medicine or a medicine man).
The Babaylans’ Abilities and the Asog
The Babaylans could be considered Filipino witches in that they performed divination, sorcery, black magic, and herbalism. There were male shamans too, but they’re usually the minority and belonged to a special class of shamans known as asog (feminized men). In Luzon they’d be called bayok. The asog would adopt the voice, mannerism, hairstyle and overall look of a female. They were treated as women by the community and would do the work most women did back then—shamanism, pottery, and weaving. These powerful individuals were believed to possess powers that blocked dark magic and healed the sick or wounded. They ensured safe pregnancies and child births.
Albularyo: Filipino Witch Doctor
The albularyo is a Filipino witch doctor, folk healer, or medicine man, who often don’t have formal education. They are equivalent to a general practitioner. And knowledgeable in most folkloric medicinal herbs. The Filipino witch doctor was believed to have acquired their healing abilities from an elder, passed down to them. Or acquired from a supernatural being or a higher power. Some are able to find out your ailments just by checking your pulse.
Herbalists and Healers
Coined by the Spaniards as herbolario, or in English, an herbalist. An albularyo is alternatively called a manghihilot (a person who does healing massage) or a manggagamot (someone who heals). They’re found in rural areas where modern medicine and facilities are expensive and difficult to find. People who are traditional and superstitious are the ones who seek the albularyo the most. Aside from tradition, people seek them because they are believed to show more care and concern for their patients as compared to the modern doctor. Albularyos differ by region and were born from the suppression of the Babaylans and native Filipino animists.
Their practice is influenced by animism and the local mythological ethos. To survive persecution, some willingly adopted the Catholic ways by fusing together ancient healing practices with the new religion and exchanged their native pagan prayers with oraciones. Albularyos were prominent figures in rural Philippines.
Albularyos and Angry Spirits
People trust the albularyo to rid them of disease of natural or supernatural causes. They employ herbs, alum, coconut oil, etc. in their healing practices as well as incorporating prayers, chants and “supernatural” cures. These cures are used especially for cases involving spirits like the duwendes (dwarf or goblin), nuno sa punso (a dwarf-like creature, some call them ancestor/grandparent of the anthill but not because they are actually ancestors, but they are perceived to be old looking earth bound dwarfs that live on anthills), lamang lupa (gnomes), tikbalang (hybrid horse beast, complete anatomical opposite of a centaur), and a kapre (a tree giant or a tree demon that carries a cigar and has a prominent smell that’s hard to ignore).
A Dying Breed
As western medicine rose, people leaned towards modern technology and scientific treatments, slowly pushing the albularyos and Filipno witch doctors into shadows even further, slowly being driven to extinction. However, they can still be found in the rural areas of the Philippines.
Filipino faith healers usually start as an albularyo, a medico, or a manghihilot. They believe their healing powers come from a higher being, like the Holy Spirit. They believe this higher gives them the gift of healing, or they believe they’re merely a medium of the Holy Spirit or the Mother Mary to heal.
These faith healers use their divine connection to heal others. Their mode of healing is prayers, visiting religious or sacred sites, or by use of sheer faith. They truly believe calling on the presence of a higher power will heal those who ask them. Their hands are used as their healing tools. People who seek their healing liken their results to miracles of god/Mother Mary.
On one end of the spectrum there are the albularyos, manghihilots and other faith healers; where their healing rituals are mostly of religiosity, icons, prayers and invocations. They use the same divining ways of a mangtatawas, diagnosing black elves, black gnomes, black dwarves and the like, evil spirits, possessions, and sorcery as causes of maladies. With their knowledge, belief, and courage, they share their unconventional concoctions of treatments to heal.
On the other end of the fringe, there are psychic healers, those who can heal at a distance, whispering and blowing prayers to the afflicted areas, healers anointing the bodies with flowers dipped in coconut oil infused with prayers, healers anointing the afflicted areas with their own saliva, and healers who pass religious icons or crucifixes over the body. Kind of like the same way you use salt or an egg to check for Evil Eyes. To this group of healers belong the psychic surgeons, those who perform bare-handed surgery. They perform without the traditional surgical tools. They are but a small number; perhaps, over a hundred, and a mere handful of them are exceptional by faith healer standards.
Mangkukulam: The Feared Ones
Kulam is a form of Filipino folk magic, specifically natural magic, where the practice is very similar to voodoo. A mangkukulam is someone who is believed to be a sorceress who performs black magic. They can either be a man or a woman. People come to these Filipino witches for revenge or justice, that’s why they are the most well known and the most feared type of witch in the Philippines, especially in rural areas. If you ask even a city-dweller, they know all too well what a mangkukulam is and are just as fearful as the country-dweller. Aside from the mangkukulam’s ability to harm, hex, or curse people, they also offer love potions. And for witches like me, love potions are a no no as it controls another’s free will.
Mangtatawas: Diagnosis Ritual
A mangtatawas is a divination where someone uses tawas (alum) as a diagnostic ritual. Other tools could be used for a diagnostic ritual, like candles, eggs, plain paper or the paper used in cigarettes, and mirrors. A good example of candle wax diagnosis is interpreting the shapes that form in bowl of water from candle wax drippings. This has personally been done to me when I was a child, because I was sickly.
Manghihilot: Healing Hands
A manghihilot is someone who performs hilot (a magical chiropractic type of massage or form of reiki healing). Their scope of healing abilities are limited and are reserved only for sprains, sala (afflicted area or cause of pain), and massage in general. The basis is more esoteric than scientific. They use hilot to find musculoligamentous disorders and muscoloskeletal problems to diagnose and treat. Even though they have no formal training, people from rural areas seek them. The manghihilot also use coconut oil or special herbs as a patch to an afflicted area.
The magpapaanak is someone who people call for pregnancy, prenatal, and postnatal issues. They have a basic knowledge of herbal medicinal plants which they use in prenatal and postnatal care, like suob. They mostly get their training from a trained practitioner who was a relative, friend or neighbor. Some become magpapaanak because of a spiritual calling, or a message from a supernatural being that grants them the needed power. Their care starts about the fifth month of pregnancy. The magpapaanak requires the patient to follow up every two weeks or as often as needed to assess the progress and fetal position.
Education and When There’s No Magpapaanak
Midwives are required to be certified and should register annually at the municipal hall, yet there is no strict enforcement of certification for a magpapaanak. In impoverished communities, deliveries are performed by friends, neighbors or relatives who have gained experience, confidence and the basic expertise in umbilical cord care if a magpapaanak is not available.
In these same communities or even in developed ones where superstitions are treated seriously, if an infant shows unusual amount of crying or restlessness, they attribute it to unpleasant entites. A midwife or local healer might take on the task of “pagbubuhos,” a pre- baptismal ritual of water application or immersion performed on some infants while awaiting the sacramental church ritual.
When I asked my old Nanny…
I had a nanny who was originally a midwife. She was from Siquijor, one of the most feared island in the Philippines known for its legends, superstitions, and the supernatural. When asked about the island’s beliefs and the situation of the old ways, she says that believers and practitioners of this nature alike are dying. After coming back home permanently, she told me that before, people would go to faith healers a lot. Now, not so much.
Yet, some still seek the medical aid of the local manananambal (medicine man) especially if they’re opting for a cheaper solution, they’re superstitious, or if they are too far from modern doctors. Tourists also seek them for curiosity’s sake or for actual aid.
Filipino Folk Magic and Healing is Disappearing
Kulam is no longer the norm either. Siquijor is now treated as one of the most beautiful tourist destination. Due to the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, most native shamanistic practices and Filipino witchcraft are now extinct. A few followers of the native shamanism resisted Spanish rule and conversion, especially in areas difficult to reach, like the highlands of Luzon and the interiors of Mindanao.
Some Resisted Spanish Rule
In Spanish-controlled areas, especially in the Visayas, entire villages defied the policies of resettlement and moved deeper into the forests or mountains. Shamanistic rituals continued to be performed secretly in some areas, though these were punished by the Spanish clergy if discovered. At the onset of the Colonial era, the suppression of the babaylans and the native Filipino religion gave rise to the albularyo. By exchanging the native prayers and spells with Catholic oraciones and Christian prayers, the albularyo was able to synchronize the ancient mode of healing with the new religion.
Misconceptions of Asian Witches
Time is slowly erasing the original spiritualists and healers of my people. It also doesn’t help when you search for Asian witches, the articles that come up are mostly of people in India who are wrongly accused and killed for witchcraft. Or people in rural parts of China where middle-aged women who are heads of their households are being accused of witchcraft. In China though, even if accused, these women are luckily not being hunted down and burned at the stake. They’re mostly just ostracized. However, real life witch hunts seem to still be active in Papua New Guinea, where the burning times seem to still be going on.
The Reality of Modern Witchcraft in the Philippines
Here in the Philippines, even though the babaylans were often falsely accused of witchcraft (in a negative connotation) or for being believed to be the “priests of the devil”, were persecuted harshly in the Spanish times by the clergy, there are no recent burnings or hangings of witches.
Asian witchcraft isn’t as abundant, informative, or welcoming as western witchcraft. Though we have a long way to go as a collective to revive and honor the old ways, majority of the modern witches you’ll find here in the Philippines are either old school like the folk healers mentioned above or Neopagans mostly found online with a practice rooted in pre-christian European witchcraft.