Re-imagining the Balyana Priestess in Pre-hispanic Bikol


This article is an attempt to study the [mga] balyana or priestesses of Bikol and  analyze some of the  names in the epic-fragment of Ibalon and practices of the ancient religion as cited in the Lisboa dictionary (1754). It  features three images/personalities: the Balyana, the Asog and Oryol.

Balyana and Asog

Many would define a priestess as a woman who leads rituals. But there are a range of names and culturally-defined meanings, including shaman, medicine woman, diviner, spirit-medium, oracle, sibyl and wisewoman. There is no sharp division in these categories. The shaman may be a ritual leader, but also a solitary practitioner. The visionary can act as healer, the medicine woman speak prophetically. The ceremonial role of the priestess does not preclude her from entering into trance or shamanic spiritual journeys.

The main sources for the Philippine study of priestesses are manuscripts written by the missionaries upon contact with the inhabitants of our islands. These include the Bolinao, Manila and Visayas Manuscripts, also, writings by Pigafetta, Marcos de Lisboa, and other Spanish writers in the Philippine contact of that century.

Lisboa pointed at the role of the balyana as “priestesses to whom the natives entrusted their religious needs and obligations such as the performance of supplicatory rituals,” indicating the varied roles of this priestess as spirit-medium, healer, ritual-leader and others. The balyanas as many Spanish writers noted were mostly old women.

It is also important to add in this article the position and function of their male counterparts. Carolyn Brewer in her book Holy Confrontation: Religion, Gender and Sexuality in the Philippines, studied the role of transgendered male priests in the Philippines widely known as asog and bayog. The presence of these transvestite priests suggests different theories in anthropology. Two opposing theories are the following: “the third sex/gender group is regarded as being neither male nor female or being a composite of both. It is their ambiguous status which locates them beyond the more conventional sexual and gender dualism of society and becomes a sign associated with the primal creative force.” (Brewer, 1999) And another, one which Brewer asserts is that, “… male shaman’s identification with the feminine either as temporary transvestism or as a more permanent lifestyle choice, reinforced the normative situation of female as shaman, and femininity as the vehicle to the spirit world.”

The “Bolinao Manuscript” is one piece of document that is important in the study of the female role in spirituality during the pre-colonial era as it is a record of 236 Dominican interviews of suspected catalonan, (priestesses in the Pampanga region) most of whom are elderly women. Occurring between 1679 and 1684, the interrogations provide valuable details of the practices and paraphernalia associated with ‘animism’, supplying clear evidence of the persistence of spirit veneration. The document reveals the interactions between individual catalonan and their group bonding as daughters, mothers and grandmother. In this manuscript, there is a suggestion that rather than a complete transgendered existence, the three male shamans in the document (Calimlim 70, Calinog and Mamacuit) dressed in women’s clothes only when they performed the ceremonies for the anitos. (Brewer 1999) This would suggest that these men dressed as women to perform the ceremonies of sacrifice and that the transvestism was seen as a drawing in, or rather an immersion into the realm of the spiritual which was feminine.

Balyana and Oryol

In the Archivo del Bibliofilo Filipino in Spain, a copy of the “Breve Noticia Acerca del Origin, Religion, Creencias y Supersticiones de los Antigous Indios del Bicol” by Wenceslao Retana (1895) can be found; it is an account of the ancient Bikolanos, their origin, superstitions and beliefs, a Spanish translation of an ‘epic-fragment’ later entitled Ibalon. It was written for the Archivo by Fray Jose Castaño, a Fransiscan, then rector of the Colegio de Almagro in Spain. 

The structure of the fragment found is divided into two sections. The first part is a request of Yling, a legendary Bikol name of a magical bird or perhaps representing a group of listeners, seated under the cool shade of a daod tree, to the poet Cadugnong, imploring him/her to sing of the historic events in the realm of Handiong.

The second part is the song of Cadugnung which narrates in poetical verse the events of long ago in a trilogy centered on Baltog, legendary first man and king of the Bikolanos and his two mighty warriors, Handiong and Bantong.

One stanza in the original Spanish of the Bikolano epic-fragment, Ibalon, speaks of the ‘sibilas’ Hilan and Lariong:

Separó del continente

Las isleta de Malbogon

Donde moran las Sibilas

Llamadas Hilan, Lariong.

The same stanza translated in English and Bikol is the following:

A torn part from the mainland formed

The islet known as Malbogon

Where went to live the two witches

Whose names were Hilang and Laryong.


Igwang nakasiblag daga na kaputol

Asin pinagapod na purong Malbogong,

Duwang aswang iyong nagerok na lolong

Pinangaranang Hilang asin Laryong.

We take note of the term sibilas in the third line. The word means “sibyl,” and in the modern understanding is defined as “seer”, “clairvoyant”, “spiritualist”, “mystic” and “diviner”. The term is a Greek original and refers to the prophetess of the Hellenic god Apollo in his temples. Although it is not clear how the original writer intended the term to mean, the over-all temperament of the people to supposed sibyls and witches was not positive during the time of the Inquisition (founded in the 12th century for the purpose of exterminating those who held the wrong ideas about religion or heresy). Other indications of the distrust to sibilas and witches were present in writings of that century. Literature of the Inquisition points at witchcraft as arising from female carnality, and “all wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman.” (Kramer and Sprenger, 1971) Laws of the Medieval Church took away most of women’s traditional roles one by one: priestess, midwife, healer, landowner, lawmaker, judge, historian, craftswoman, merchant, record keeper, spiritual advisor, prophet, funerary official, and intermediary between heaven, earth and the underworld.

It is of interest also to note how the translation from the original Spanish evolved. From the Spanish sibilas (sibyls, mystics, seer) to the English “witches” and the bikol “mga aswang”. The term changed in meaning. If the writer of the Spanish version meant it to be witches, the right word to be used was brujas instead of the more polite sibilas as it was the term used that time.

The supposed ‘sibyls’ Hilan and Lariong are important. Ma. Lilia Realubit pointed out that Hilan is a corruption of the Bikol term hilang (sickness) while Lariong is a distortion of lagdong or idols of the anitos which was considered to be the souls of departed ancestors who looked after their living descendants. (Realubit, 1983) We may assume that these sibilas may be balyanas, priestesses that were also parabawi(exorcist), hokluban (witch doctor), mangkukulam (sorcerer) and parabulong (healer/herb doctor). Suggesting that they conceived the source of both therapy and anti-therapy, healing and the power to cause harm and injury, as the same, or issuing from the same source.

Inserted also in the Relacion de las Yslas Filipinas of Pedro Chirino (1582) are the names of Naguined, Macbarubac and Arapayan, described as being “demonios” of Ybalon to which the people pray to and offer crocodile teeth for kulam or anti-therapy. It is of interest to note that the Relacion which was published in 1582 have included the names of the three witches stated in the dictionary of Lisboa which was published in 1794. This would presuppose that the names of these three “demonios” have been known widespread among the Bikolanos.

What surprised me is the name of the first “demonio” Naguined or Nagini (as described by Lisboa) which in India refers to the feminine form of the word Naga or snake beings. Can this be a demonization of the Bikol Nagini[d], displacing the images associated with indigenous religious leaders and divinities transforming them into “demonios” and witches in the conversion project of the Spanish colonizers? Perhaps.

Oryol, the snake woman of the Ibalon epic, and Naguined are connected in this light. The connection of snake and the feminine is mostly in the sense of rhythm and tides. In ancient times, the snake was seen as the earthly counterpart of the moon, which rules the tide of the sea and of women. Women in turn was seen by the primitives as the embodiment of the earth and master of the rhythms, seasons and tides of the earth and the creatures on it.

This is where the character of Oryol in the epic Ibalon finds significance. Three things are important in this discussion: Oryol being a Nagini or a snake being, Oryol as the daughter of Aswang and a killer of men and lastly, Oryol and her supposed fickle-mindedness in the epic Ibalon.

As a snake-woman, she is a Nagini and master of the seasons and the tide – of change. The reader is reminded of how Oryol shifts from a beautiful woman to that of a snake, always luring men to their death in the Higabo spring. (Realubit, 1983) The snake as chthonic, as opposed to telluric (the tilled soil) is the highest symbol of the unknown, of the mysterious, as it lives in caves and the crevasses underground. This association to the woman is important because the woman can be considered as also being chthonic, inward, whose body was seen as a mystery, capable of giving birth like the earth. Oryol as a snake-woman is a symbol, an image of mystery that guides the unseen forces of pregnancy, ebbing and flow of the tide and phallus and the rhythm of planting and harvests so useful to the agricultural Bikolanos of that time.

The story also tells us that Oryol is the daughter of Aswang, god of evil and the brother/sister of Gugurang, chief of the gods. Many have accepted the image of Aswang (the Bikol god and not the nocturnal ‘monster’) as masculine  but it is also possible that Aswang is female, the sister of Gugurang.   Being the daughter of Aswang, one is immediately exposed to an icon of evil. But analyzing how in the rituals the balyana is ambivalent, supplicating Aswang one time and then giving offerings to Gugurang in another, may show how the pre-hispanic Bikolanos viewed evil occurrences as controllable. The balyana in a way becomes a daughter both of Gugurang and Aswang of good (karahayan) and evil (karaotan) or more precisely, light and darkness, an intermediary between the two extremes. Oryol on the other hand, as a symbol of the dark, the night and the dark soil, is an image of the wilderness, the untamed earth in which no man has ever conquered. In a sense, the imagery of her luring men to their deaths may be construed as an initiation, just as the men of Kali, Ishtar, Kore, and other mystery cults have to die symbolically, which means losing a part of themselves, and facing the darkness of the untamed regions of their psyche, in order to emerge as the hero.

But Oryol is also ‘fickle-minded’. The epic states that Oryol sometimes helped Handiong in the killing of wild creatures that roamed Bikol like the Pongos. Only recently, Prof. Zeus Salazar authored a book about an archeological find in Libmanan, Camarines Sur entitled “Liktao at Epiko: Ang Takip ng Tapayang Libingan ng Libmanan, Camarines Sur.” It is interesting to note this research as Salazar asserted an important part of the epic Ibalon, how Oryol ‘changed her mind’ and helped Handiong. The epic-fragment itself is silent on why Oryol changed her mind and later on helped the principal hero Handiong. The said cover of the burial jar (now in the Museum of the Holy Rosary Minor Seminary in Naga) purportedly implies an ancient civilization in Libmanan possibly founded by a Historical Handiong. Important in the argument of Salazar is the part in the artifact where a man seems to be talking to a snake whose left hand is holding a deer, perhaps an offering. Salazar asserted that this was the missing part in the epic where Handiong talked to Oryol.

Salazar writes:

Malinaw na naging batayan ng pagsimula at pag-usbong ng kalinangang Bikolnon ang pagkakasundo nina Uryol at Handiong… Sa pagkakasunod-sunod ng mga pangyayari, naganap ang pakikipaglaban ni Handiong sa mga buwaya at sarimaw bago niya kabakahin ang mga “ahas na may boses na parang sirena” (las serpientes, que tenian/cual la sirena la voz) na kalahi/kampon ni Uryol. Sa katunayan, tila kampon nitong huli hindi lamang ang mga kalahing ahas kunid gayundin ang lahat ng hayop at nilalang sa balat ng lupa at karagatan – kasama ang Usa na sa “epiko” ay tila iginalang ni Handiong simula’t sapul (hindi niya pinagpapatay; sa katunayan, walang nabanggit na Usa sa “epiko.”) Nagmimistulang panginoon ng kahayupan, kakahuyan at lupa si Uryol. Kung kaya’t sa tingin ni Uryol nilapastangan ni Handiong ang kaayusang likas sa rehiyong Bikol nang ito at ang mga Bikol ay dumating at pakialaman dito ang mga hayop at iba pang nilalang, sapul ng kapaligiran/kalikasan. (2004)

The seeming fickle-mindedness of the snake-woman in the Spanish version of the epic is understandable in this light. This conceptualization of Nature-Woman, Snake-Change is parallel to the mystery cults in the western traditions (represented by the cult of Demeter) and eastern traditions (represented by the cult of Kali-Ma). The balyana as an important social figure comparable to the hadi, raha or datu is an embodiment of the power that is symbolically portrayed by Oryol in the epic. As daughter of Aswang, the balyana is also the initiator in the community as she performs the rites of initiation to one stage of human development to the other; From menarche to motherhood, to crone-stage and for men, puberty, adulthood and then death. But not only is the balyana the officiator in these rites, she is also an initiator to the mysteries of life. As daughter of Aswang, she teaches the community to face their fear of death and to accept that evil (karaotan) is an integral part of life.

As snake-woman, the balyana teaches the community of change, of the seasons and the tides and women as the governors of seasonal change, the ebb and flow of water and phallus. Being the officiator in major planting rituals, the community acknowledges her as an embodiment of the seasons (birth, life and rebirth) capable of calling the seeds to grow and the earth to be fertile as her own womb. As snake-woman, she is wild and nubile, the personification of the ancient forests and the fertility of Nature, later on subdued (talked-over as pointed by Salazar) by the civic-minded Handiong, himself a symbol of a different change that foreshadows a great revolution in the culture of the ancient Bikolanos.

The balyana and Oryol relate and connect such heterogenous things as birth, becoming, death and resurrection; the cosmic darkness, prenatal existence, and life after death, followed by a rebirth as seen in the moon. The balyana’s and asog’s rituals were expressions of these experiences. Oryol is the symbol of the earth and the mystery of its transformative powers.

We then wonder how these images were transformed, infused or maybe appropriated in the Bikolano’s devotion to Ina – Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia. How did the Cimarrones, the ‘pagan’ inhabitants of Mt. Isarog, saw and conceived in their minds the stories of the Virgin riding the moon? How did they feel and apprehend their first glimpse of white priests in their skirts? What were the gossips in the village when the Black Virgin, shaped like the distant mountain of Mayon , brought to life a decapitated dog, in the riverbank of Naga (-Nagini)?

[Illustration of the Haliya (done during lunar eclipses) ritual re-imagined by Mr. Pen Prestado]

Sources Cited:

Brewer, Carolyn. (1999). “Baylan, Asog, Transvestism, and Sodomy: Gender, Sexuality and the Sacred in Early Colonial Philippines,”

de Lisboa, Marcos. (1754) “Vocabulario de la lengua Bicol”.

Eliade, Mircea. (1961). “The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion,” (New York: Harper & Rows) p. 11.Reyes, Jose Calleja Reyes. (1992) “Bikol Maharlika,” (Manila: JMC Press).

Kramer, Heinrich and Sprenger, James. (1971). “Malleus Maleficarum,” (New York: Dover).

Salazar, Zeus. (2004). “Liktao at Epiko: And Takip ng Tapayang Libingan ng Libmanan, Camarines Sur,” (Quezon City: Palimbagan ng Lahi).