The rise of Babaylans: Inside a Philippine Witch Coven

Published November 2, 2020, 10:00 AM

by Jessica Pag-iwayan

How two young artists joined forces to revive and cultivate Babaylan culture 

Every Halloween season, or Undas as Filipinos call it, people look for some spooky story to complete the vibe of the celebration. These stories range from supposed paranormal activities and horror movies to personal supernatural encounters. And the Philippines, being a country with a colorful tradition and culture, will never run out of these kinds of stories, Halloween season or otherwise. 

One of these is our local version of witches or mangkukulam. A mangkukulam is believed to be a person who uses dark magic to inflict harm on others. 

But is it truly the role of a mangkukulam in our long history as Filipinos?

Down the memory lane

Long before the Spaniards arrived, historians say that the natives of these islands knew nothing about what mangkukulam is. Instead, they had a babaylan

Babaylanes were respected individuals—men or women—who served as community healers. The Center for Babaylan Studies describes a babaylan as someone who has “the ability to mediate with the spirit world, has her own spirit guides, and is given gifts of healing, foretelling, and insight.” 

Then the conquistadores came with their quest for gold, God, and glory. Spanish missionaries led the campaign against heathen rituals, and with all of these, “God” had won and babaylans were driven to seclusion in the mountains. It was then that the word mangkukulam started popping up. 

Years later, more and more Pinoys have become more aware of our pre-colonial culture and the role the babaylan played in it. Some young people have even responded to this “spiritual calling.” Among these are Baguio based artists Dagol-ara and Mizz Kiki Krunch. In an exclusive interview with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle, Ara and Kiki shared their spiritual journey, which led them to establish The Coven of Light and Shadow. 

A SPIRITUAL PATH? Dagol-Ara performing a ritual and offering a prayer (Images from Mizz Kiki Krunch)

The Coven of Light and Shadow

For Ara, her babaylan abilities run in their family. “My grandmother from my mother’s side and her mother practiced a form of Filipino folk magic. On my dad’s side, they practiced hoodoo (African-American folk magic),” she says. “When my grandmother was still alive, she would tell me stories of her encounter with spirits and entities, and how her mother would use herbs to treat people who are sick. I found it extremely fascinating so I started learning about magic and practicing Wicca. Then I decided to follow the path of my ancestors from both sides of my family.” 

Meanwhile, Kiki grew up in an opposite situation. He was raised in a Christian family where anything related to witchcraft was forbidden. “I have had a long-time fascination with albularyos, mangkukulam, and tagatawag. It was hard to process because I was born and raised as a Christian,” he says. “I was so confused about the principles or teachings of a dogmatic religion. That was the time I started studying about Filipino folk magic, Wicca, and Hoodoo.” 

They might have come from different backgrounds, but their similar interests with spiritual magic led them to cross paths. With her wide knowledge about magic, Ara serves as Kiki’s mentor. Their bond and trust have made them form their own coven, with Ara as the priestess. 

“I have been teaching him magic and spirituality. I told him that I have been receiving messages from the Spirit about becoming a high priestess and creating a coven,” Ara shares. “He was very supportive of this idea and wanted to be a part of it. Soon enough, like-minded people joined our coven and we have begun the process of learning and sharing our knowledge, talent, and magic.”

What do witches do?

Contrary to what others think about witches, Ara and Kiki say that babaylans are not evil. They are spiritual healers. “Witchcraft has its own set of beliefs and principles that generally maintain the balance of nature,” Kiki says. “One good example of a principle is the three-fold rule: Knowing that in every spell or ritual you cast or perform, there is a three-fold return.” 

With a gift of clairvoyance and healing, Kiki says he uses his magic to help others. “I perform spells and rituals related to them. Rituals mostly to help myself and those who ask for them. I do the art of tarot reading with the help of my guide, Santa Marta Dominadora and Bulan/Luna.” 

Meanwhile, as the coven’s high priest, Ara has to make sure that her people are using their power for greater good. “The priestess serves as the link and representative of the god or the goddess. Their main role is to be of service both to the gods or goddesses and the coven,” she explains. “As a leader of the coven, priestesses are also the mentors, elders, and advisors. A priestess should ensure the spiritual growth of every member of the coven and should build a good path for them.” 

A preservation of Filipino culture

Not all people will understand why Ara, Kiki, and the members of their coven are doing this. But for them, they are doing this for their personal spiritual growth and, above all, to remind everyone that magic is part of Filipino culture. 

“Long before we were colonized, our ancestors were already practicing the craft. It only became taboo because of the emergence of monotheistic religions,” Kiki says. “Do not be afraid to explore your gift and learn from our culture. Do not be afraid of discovering the spiritual path that you are destined to take.” 

For her part, Ara reminds everyone that keeping babaylan culture alive is our responsibility as Filipinos. “One thing that we stress in our coven is ancestor veneration and understanding the magic that runs through your blood as a Filipino,” she says. “Our ancestors were spiritual and were guided by the spirits (diwata) of this land. It is our job as Filipinos to recognize and venerate them as much as we do the deities of other lands.” 

We might now be living in a new era, where things that science and technology couldn’t explain will automatically become a taboo. But for us Filipinos, spirituality is a science-defying topic. In fact, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) has recently announced that babaylan, manghihilot, and albularyo are now considered National Living Treasures. 

This groundbreaking announcement from the NCCA and the rise of modern-day babaylans might change the way we look at witches. They are not always in black clothing, flying on a broomstick.