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Echoes of the Babaylan singing

The 21st Century West Visayan Literature


By John Iremil E. Teodoro

When we look closely at the map of the Philippine archipelago, we will see that Panay Island is the gut center of the Philippines. It is no wonder that the center of the babaylan tradition is Panay, which was called Madia-as by the Malay settlers who arrived in the archipelago in three waves from 200 BC to 1500 AD. The island was earlier called Aninipay, named after a plant once abundant in the island, by the Ati or the Negritos who came by the land bridges centuries before Indonesians and Malaysians did.

This babaylan tradition shared by the different tribes of Panay Bukidnon is the wellspring of 21st century West Visayan writing especially in the native languages of Kinaray-a, Hiligaynon, and Aklanon. The archaic form of Kinaray-a is the language of the 13 Panay epics loosely called Hinilawod.

Babaylan by Botong Francisco

Babaylan by Botong Francisco

Babaylanism is an ancient Panayanon religion. The babaylan was the spiritual leader in the pre-colonial barangay that acted as both priest and healer—the medium between the physical and the spiritual worlds. When the Spaniards colonized the Philippines, babaylanism was declared a pagan religion. The babaylan rituals were branded as acts of the devil by the friars. The babaylan went up to the mountains of central Panay far from the reach of the foreign colonizers.

And so Babaylanism is alive and well until today in Panay—yes, even after almost four centuries of Spanish colonialism and more than a century of American colonialism and neocolonialism. It survived not just in the mountains but also in the villages by the rivers and the seas as a traditional way of healing and living with nature.

The name Panay, just like the name Filipinas for our country, was given by the Spanish colonizers. “Hay pan,” there is food. For when the Spaniards in Cebu under the leadership of Legazpi had food shortage, they explored other islands and found Panay abundant. Of course, colonization made Kinaray-a Hispanized and Anglicized today. But it doesn’t matter; what matters is the power of this language to survive and endure.

Palanca Hall of Famer and Metrobank Outstanding Teacher, Leoncio P. Deriada in his Palanca prize-winning short story Ang Pagbalik sang Babaylan (The Return of the Babaylan, 2008) tells the story of Dr. Milagros Paguntalan, a feminist professor of Anthropology in Metro Manila. Her roots can be traced to a barangay in Antique whose inhabitants are direct descendants of the greatest babaylan in history—Estrella Bangotbanwa. A victim of her Western education, she has almost forgotten about her babaylanic ancestry. Ah, but the gods of the babaylan have a way of calling her back to her roots to continue the work of her ancestors. At the end of the story, she went home to Antique to embrace her paranubli-ën, her ancestral legacy, of being the medium between the spiritual and physical worlds.

The Kinaray, Hiligaynon, and Aklanon writers of today, in order to be important, must reach back to the babaylan tradition. Young writers like Norman Darap and Jesus Incilada are going toward this direction. In their Palanca award-winning stories, they explore the ancient culture of the babaylan and its manifestations today.

In 2014 the University of the Philippines Press has started publishing the 13 epics of Panay chanted by Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan Federico Caballero and family in Barangay Garangan up in the mountains of Calinog, Iloilo. The chief researcher and senior translator is anthropologist Alicia P. Magos of the University of the Philippines Visayas. Magos is from Dao, Antique, and I suspect is the basis of the main character in Deriada’s story.

The publication of these epics (five books as of press time!) is truly a milestone in Philippine literary publishing. It is making available not only to the Philippines but also to the whole world the genius of ancient Panayanon culture. The Panay epics are a tapestry of colorful and magical stories including an enchanted black dog, a powerful hermit woman whose golden pubic hair was stolen, a priceless golden medallion, a giant crab pretending to be an islet full of plants and trees and meddles with the love affairs of powerful mortals, and many others. If the writers of the Western World have The Iliad and The Odyssey, the writers of Panay and the whole Philippines have the Panay epics in addition to other epics from Mindanao and Luzon.

I remember being angry as a young writer in the 1990s when in a Young Writers Conference in Vigan, Ilocos Sur organized by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, a literature professor from Panay told the participants that she is not impressed with the works of the young poets of Panay because we young writers have no tradition.

That was an irresponsible thing to say for someone with a Ph.D. For when one would look for a literary tradition among the young writers of Western Visayas (that would include the island province of Guimaras and Negros Occidental), the answer is in the language. Kinaray-a is an ancient language of Malay-Polynesian origin. It is the language used by the babaylan in their sacred rituals. This is also the language of the epics handed down from one generation to the next by the binukot, or the wisewomen tasked by the community as cultural bearers to preserve ancestral arts. No wonder that Ph.D. holder has written forgettable poems. The ancient gods of Panay have surely found her not worthy.

The 21st century Panayanon literature written in three regional languages—Kinaray-a, Hiligaynon, and Aklanon—is a vibrant literature with a solid and ancient foundation built by the babaylan. When we read the poetry and stories of the young West Visayan writers today, we are actually listening to the echoes of the babaylan chanting from the center of the Philippines. It will be good for us who belong to this Philippine nation if we listen with all of our being.

John Iremil E. Teodoro is a multilingual and multi-awarded writer from San Jose de Buenavista, Antique. An author of more than a dozen books and editor of several literary anthologies, he is an associate professor of Literature and Creative Writing at De La Salle University where he earned his MFA in Creative Writing and Ph.D. in Literature.

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