Itneg - The Chilling Adventures of Seberina, a 19th Century Filipino Witch

ARTS AND [WITCH]CRAFT An Itneg shaman renewing an offering to the spirit shield (1922, Philippines)

The latest season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is soon to be released on Netflix, drawing various references from the world of the occult and spiritual Satanism, with some teenage sass on the side. While viewers of the show may be familiar with the witches of Greendale, some may be surprised to hear about the witches of the Philippines.

In 1999, Professor Greg Bankoff of The University of Auckland published “Devils, Familiars, and Spaniards: Spheres of Power and the Supernatural in the World of Seberina Candelaria and Her Village in Early 19th Century Philippines” in the Journal of Social History. In the scholarly work, he uses the 19th century trial of Seberina Candelaria to discuss the appropriation of Christianity into pre-Hispanic animism and mythology in rural areas of the Philippines, as well as the role of babaylan, the female priestess, to “raise doubts about the extent of Spanish control over the rural Philippines.”

If you are interested in reading the full article for fun, it is free to download on ResearchGate. Below is a summary of the case, which Bankoff wrote from centuries-old trial transcripts, including statements from the accused, witnesses, and evidence from spiritual interrogators.

Seberina was a 22-year-old woman, illiterate and “otherwise historically unremarkable,” from Obando, Bulacan. In 1808, she was arraigned before an ecclesiastical court, accused of associating with the Devil through a duende, a demon familiar, who went by the name Isac.

During the inquiry, Seberina recounted how she became associated with Isac. One night, as she was walking home after saying some prayers, she felt as if she was being followed. When she addressed what she thought was a man, asking why he was following a married woman, her pursuer replied with crude, defamatory remarks. As she continued walking, approaching her mother-in-law’s home, the trees around her began to shake.

Greg Bankoff - The Chilling Adventures of Seberina, a 19th Century Filipino Witch

Professor Greg Bankoff of The University of Auckland

There was no sign of a man, or a creature, until several days later. Working on the family sementera, Seberina was offered a golden rosary and a purse of money by a small familiar. When she refused the gifts, Isac lashed out, became violent, and left. The familiar continued to accost her. Eventually they would converse, and he would even answer her questions.

The news spread and word got around of Seberina and her powers. People from all around the area would come to her house, offering her money and asking her about the whereabouts of lost goods. It was suggested that Seberina even had the powers of a healer, as people came to her regarding their ailments. In the report, few clients said they saw the familiar, those that did said there was “a shape dimly perceived in a dark corner.” All, however, heard him.

When first brought to the attention of the parish priest of Obando, he considered the familiar merely “the delusions of a ‘weak mind’ (fantasia debil) so common to her sex.” As Seberina was invited to the homes of the upper class, and more people from further away heard of her and the familiar, the parish priest became alarmed. She was eventually arrested and brought before the bishop’s representative for trial. Seberina claimed that she had no way of stopping the visitations, that even in confinement Isac would come to her.

That was until one night. Isac visited the confined Seberina, after teasing and calling her the bieja loca the day before. She contronted him, begging him to leave her alone, and began reciting the Apostle’s Creed.

Apostle’s Creed. Creo en Dios, Padre todopoderoso, creador del Cielo y de la Terra

The guard outside reported that there was a deafening noise, large pieces of wood hurled around, and that Seberina began crying out for help. When they finally got to her, she was trembling and so cold they thought she was going to die…

source - The Chilling Adventures of Seberina, a 19th Century Filipino Witch

Seberina was able to recover. She never reported seeing or hearing Isac again.

There are various similarities that can be drawn between the case of Seberina and the pre-colonial babaylan, shamans, and mediums who were said to be able to communicate with the spirit world. They were predominantly female, as the role was considered feminine, on the same level as pre-colonial nobility. During the time of Spanish colonization, the babaylan were persecuted as witches and “priests of the Devil.”

“Not only is Seberina able to tap into Hispanic and Christian forms of secular and spiritual power but she also uses this new source to give her greater influence outside a male dominated authority structure,” writes Bankoff. “As Seberina becomes a central or focal point of an alternative means of accessing power within her village, she, intentionally or otherwise, invests herself with the symbols and trappings of recognized authorities. At any event, her activities are seen as a threat to the male monopolization of power wielded by the gobernadorcillo and ultimately the parish priest.”

Your Girl Friday is a youth column that discusses social issues and current culture that are young, female, and feminist in the opinion of the author. Kerry Tinga is based in Metro Manila and can be found teaching at Meridian International (MINT) College.

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