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How TikTok neo-shamanism is threatening traditional healers in the Philippines

Filipino folk healers, or albularyos, are now living national treasures, but an emerging subculture of self-healing may threaten their place in society

26 May 2021

Illustration by Maïté Marque

The pandemic paved the way for the emergence of commodified spirituality. Stronger now than ever, it’s become an industry of its own. Supplemented by contemporary witchcraft and astrology, the extent of its influence has grown globally; the hashtag “#witchtok” alone has amassed over 11 billion views on TikTok.

The Philippines has not been exempt from this sweeping online phenomenon. A country embraces definitive religiosity and an affinity with superstitions, it was just a matter of time before modern trends in mysticism were assimilated into the existing ways of Filipino spirituality.

There is a New Age of shamanism and it’s being practised largely by a self-organised occult community on Instagram. Aside from sharing their spiritual experiences, some of these practitioners also sell home-crafted ‘tools’ channelled toward different intentions like abundance, sexual attraction, and more popularly, self-healing. 

If these claims are proven right, these new novice mystics may actually stand to contend with the albularyos – Filipino folk healers – in the field of ethnomedicine. 

Who are albularyos? 

My childhood is riddled with vivid memories of awkwardly sitting through sessions of tawas. This is a ritual led by an albularyo, or a Filipino faith healer, a consultation check-up of a mystical sort. Be it fever or a sprain, the first person my grandmother would call was Mang Predo, the albularyo who lived a few blocks away from our home. 

Mang Predo would wear a rosary around his neck and kiss the cross before opening a bottle of oil infused with herbs. He would pour the oil onto his fingers and draw a cross on the underside of a plate. Then he would light a candle and burn the oiled face of the plate until the surface turned black. Sometimes, he’d ask for a half-full basin and let the wax drop on the water until it hardened. Either way, he mouthed words no one could hear, presumably Latin spells lifted from the Lihim na Karunungan, the Filipino mystics’ doctrine. A figure would appear on the blackened plate or abstractly shaped wax – the being who was causing the illness. 

Throughout my childhood, the figure had been different beings: a witch, a stranger who accidentally caused me harm by way of usog (evil eye), once even a tikbalang (a human hybrid with horse-like features). To heal me from my bodily pains, he would douse me in oil and perform massage therapy or hilot, which albularyos are best known for. My back would be covered in leaves and my forehead in oil. He’d ask for a glass of water, drink from it, and request me to take a sip from the same glass. 

“Be it fever or a sprain, the first person my grandmother would call was Mang Predo, the albularyo who lived a few blocks away from our home”

Dubbed ‘witch doctors’ by some, albularyos are practitioners of physical and spiritual healing aided by herb lore. Scepticism has weakened their influence in society over the years, but their precolonial equivalents were well-respected icons of their time. Before the 333-year Spanish colonisation, Filipino Indigenous healers, called the babaylans, shared the same level of authority and power as the reigning datus or community leaders. Believed to have worked closely with forces of nature, they controlled the weather, healed ill people, and, much like witches, used spells for good or bad. 

As Catholicism was introduced to Filipinos, faith in healers like the babaylan wavered, though never completely died out. Traditions were adapted instead of forgotten, birthing the succeeding generation of healers: the albularyos, whose new namesake was coined after the Spanish term herbolario or herbalist.

“The National Commission for Culture and the Arts announced that albularyos were officially ‘living national treasures'”

Opinions about the albularyo are polarised, with both the Catholic Church and medical practitioners casting doubt on their age-old practices. Still, many Filipinos turn to the albularyos – finding their services a much more affordable alternative to costly hospital rates.

In 2015, the Department of Science and Technology launched the Albularyo Certification Program, with a fund of ₱100 million (£1.4 million) devoted to research and development of traditional herbs used for healing. Together with the Philippine Institute for Traditional Healthcare, the DOST also offered official recognition to existing albularyos as alternative healthcare providers. And in November 2020, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts announced that albularyos were officially “living national treasures”

“We have several cases of illnesses that cannot be cured by doctors alone,” says Salvacion Magro, a 56-year-old albularyo from the province of Romblon. “Only albularyos can heal a person suffering from both physical and spiritual pain.”

New Age shamanism 

Gabriel Dacanay, a 22-year-old novice practitioner from San Juan City believes his products have the ability to bring about the same results. 

While he admits to having little knowledge of Filipino mysticism, he claims to use the same spellwork used by albularyos in order to affix specific intentions into his products. In 2020, Gabriel founded a spiritual shop on Instagram where he offers tools for ‘smudging’ or energy cleansing, as well as manifestation ritual oils.

He describes this New Age of Filipino shamanism – or ‘neo-shamanism’ as he calls it – as a modern method to “connect with the spiritual realms by entering altered states of consciousness”. Save for the use of crystals, the main aspects of a novice practitioner’s rituals, like spellwork and botanicals, are quite similar to those of the albularyo. Still, Gabriel maintains that his practice isn’t strictly based on the albularyos’ work alone.

He chooses to lift from various cultural traditions, often Indigenous, that he learns about online and resonate with him to formulate his own hybrid practices. He recalls seeking guidance from Native American ancestors when he first launched his online shop. 

“[Whenever] I choose to incorporate a specific cultural practice into my own, such as despacho rituals from the South Americas or tobacco ancestral offerings from the Native Americans, I would try to stay [as] accurate as possible, but not to the point I ignore my intuition,” Gabriel says. “If ever I’m called to intuitively sway away from the exact practice, I will – as long as it resonates in my heart.”

On the other hand, some practitioners of neo-shamanism look back to the pre-colonial Filipino deities such as the Bathala, the highest-ranking god in local lore. There are also those who prefer foreign icons such as Pachamama, the Earth Mother to the Indigenous peoples of the Andes. Gabriel says it all depends on ‘intuition’ – he picks what resonates.

Spiritual products for sale 

The first product Dacanay ever offered was a liquid spray of ‘intuitively’ home-brewed Palo Santo and white sage, two staple items used for smudging. Despite other practitioners’ call to stop the use of white sage as it appropriates the Native American culture, he says the product garnered overwhelming, positive feedback from the Filipino occult community online. Dacanay’s products, which have limited runs, sometimes of 100 bottles, do typically sell out during live sales. 

28-year-old Marge Monasterio is also an active presence in the occult community on Instagram. She describes her practice as eclectic given her modern and traditional influences. She first learned of folk rituals through her mother-in-law, who is a native from the province of Bohol where knowledge in traditional healing was passed down by community elders. In 2017, Marge opened an online shop for “ceremonial-grade” pure cacao, catering to earlier seekers on the same social platform. Headquartered in Rizal, her shop sources cacao from the artisans in Bohol.

“Expansion is a natural part of our life … adapting and learning modern practices is part of the expansion”

Marge Monasterio

Pure cacao has been popular among rural communities in the Philippines, but its origins, according to Marge, have been traced to the Aztecs and Mesoamericans. Known for its many healing properties, cacao has only recently been linked to the heart chakra, as well as the moon cycles, by practitioners of neo-shamanism like Marge. 

While neither the concept of the heart chakra nor celebration of the lunar phase is native to the Philippines, Marge believes her adaptation of cacao as a ritual tool pays respect to its origins, with the business model crafted to generate employment for the community itself as fair compensation. “Expansion is a natural part of our life,” she says. “Adapting and learning modern practices is part of the expansion. Hence, remembering and applying the old ways will also help us to preserve what our ancestors have for us.”

Will albularyos become obsolete?

Magro admits that novice practitioners can be a threat to her and fellow albularyos’ vocation – mainly because of the business aspect. 

Neo-shamanism’s most marketable feature is that it sometimes banks on the concept of giving spiritual seekers the option to conduct healing rituals on and by themselves. 

“I don’t want to be labelled as a healer or shaman,” Marge says. “I believe that we are all born as healers. We just have to awaken that inner shaman within all of us, that full potential that we have for us to heal ourselves and the world.” But if anyone can be their own healers, wouldn’t that render the albularyo obsolete?

It shouldn’t be the case, says Magro. Although she says the human body naturally has the ability to heal itself, making everyone capable of self-healing,  she believes not everyone can truly become a healer in any greater sense than that. Her ability, she explains, is a gift that is only accessible to a select few, and the same goes for other albularyos. This wasn’t random either. A native of the Romblon province, Magro has direct ancestors in her lineage who also practised the ancient craft of healing. 

Still, neo-shamanism seems to cater to a specific, financially-capable demographic. The price range of products and services can be ₱1,000 (£14.75) for crystal-infused oils and ₱5,000 (£73.75) for ‘spellwork’ alone. The minimum monthly wage in the Philippines is ₱7,385 (£108.83). Novice practitioners are able to aim for prices that the albularyo will have difficulty in implementing.

While albularyos sometimes land clients who are willing to pay more than their usual rates, their regular clientele are typically those in rural, lower-class communities. As the job doesn’t always pay well, some albularyos choose to practice healing on the side and secure a full-time job. 

“Only albularyos can heal a person suffering from both physical and spiritual pain”

Salvacion Magro

Margo, now a full-time healer after years of working as a housekeeper in Manila, admits that she once considered turning her back on healing after a financial strain. During the ongoing lockdown, she migrated her services online where she still finds time to offer free services to those who cannot afford her rates.

Neo-shamanism ultimately sells the idea that everyone, so long as they can afford the tools, can become healers in their own right. The cultural appropriation found in neo-shamanism – as evidenced by the promotion of self-developed ‘rituals’ that individualise a community’s collective experience and trivialises their history – pales in comparison to this selling point. The frenzy for healing tools has even fueled a sort of spiritual consumerism among occult enthusiasts, providing fertile ground for their businesses to thrive as albularyos make do with average earnings.

While there’s nothing wrong with adapting ancient traditions, there’s always the risk of losing grip on their origins in the process. In the case of Filipino neo-shamanism, there is great reason to believe that modernisation can weaken the influence of the albularyo among the younger generations. The idea of weaving elements of various cultures into one practice may inevitably result in a smorgasbord of ideas that have lost touch with their true essence. Encouraging everyone to see themselves as healers in their own right is empowering, but at what cost, really?