Christian shamanism revisited: Philippines’ and Siberian case compared
TAIVANS Leon, Professor
Head of the Asian Studies Department,
University of Latvia
Comparing the spiritual healing with heathen Shamanistic practices in Philippines on one hand,
and similar practices in Siberia, on another, one can discover a number of parallels in the ritualistic
structure of these ancient belief systems and its healing practices.
The calling of a Filipino shaman, or mumbaki contains nothing special when compared to the
classical Siberian pattern. Calling to the healing ministry both in Siberia and Philippines is dramatic
one: it starts with unusually sickness, strange experiences and possession by spirits.
Healing normally starts with the recitation of local myth; in Christian practice the myth is
replaced by healing stories from the Gospel, then a ritual dance is performed (in Christian
communities replaced by singing of chorals) during which the medium, or shaman is being
possessed by spirits (in Christian case – by spirits of the saints). This process is seen to the outsider
as a trance of different intensity.
Traditional Shamanistic paraphernalia (the shamans mantle, gong, drums, certain trees and
grasses, e.a.) used at the healing ritual in the Christian case are replaced by icons of the saints,
crucifix, “surgery” and similar symbols of the contemporary religious practice and medical care.
The parallels indicate a gradual evolutionary process of the primitive religion which is more intense
in Philippines than in Siberia.
Leon Taivans, Dr. hist., 62, was a research fellow at the Institute for Oriental studies, Russian
Academy of Sciences from 1973 until 1990. In 1990-2004 he was Professor of Religion, University
of Latvia and from 2005 L.Taivans is the head of the Department of Asian Studies at the University
of Latvia. Anthropology and history of Southeast Asian Religions are the major fields of his studies.
He is the author of 6 monographs in Russian and Latvian.
To outward appearance, the modem world was born of an anti-religious
movement: man becoming self-sufficient and reason supplanting belief. Our
generation and the two that preceded it have heard little but talk of the conflict
between science and faith; indeed it seemed at one moment a foregone conclusion
that the former was destined to take the place of the latter.
But, as the tension is prolonged, the conflict visibly seems to need to be
resolved in terms of an entirely different form of equilibrium - not in elimination,
nor duality, but in synthesis. After close on two centuries of passionate struggles,
neither science nor faith has succeeded in discrediting its adversary. On the
contrary, it becomes obvious that neither can develop normally without the other.
And the reason is simple: the same life animates both.
P.Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.
P.Teilhard de Chardin drafted a series of philosophical works about evolution that has
reemerged as a foundation for new evolutionary and ecological theories. In particular, Teilhard and
his Russian counterpart Vladimir Vernadsky inspired the renegade Gaia hypothesis (later set forth
by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis): the global ecosystem is a superorganism with a whole
much greater than the sum of its parts. This vision is in part theological - everything, from rocks to
people, takes on a holistic importance.
Noogenesis is the name given to this process of creating a new planetary envelope formed
entirely by human thought. It deals with man solely as a phenomenon. Teilhard de Chardin chose
man as the centre, and around him he tried to establish a coherent order between antecedents and
consequents. He was not so much interested in primitive religions. We should reminded that
Herder, the forefather of the contemporary anthropology, believed that religion was the
phenomenon which detached mankind from animals carrying instincts instead. Contemporary
anthropology argues that religion is an important element of the greater process of intellectual
evolution. In a way it is exactly what Teilhard de Chardin called "Threshold of Reflection"
contributing to noogenesis.
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This presentation deals with so called spiritual healing well known in the outer world as the
Filipino phenomena. This author’s opinion is that spiritual healing is Christianized shamanism. Let
us have a look at the standard report dealing with healing by Jaime T. Licauco:
Alex L. Orbito, the most renowned psychic surgeon and healer in the Philippines,
is unflaggingly carrying out his preordained mission.
The middle-aged man reportedly suffered from acute abdominal pains caused by
a tumor in his stomach. In full view of the crowd, Alex bade him lie down on the
operating table and covered him partially with a white bed sheet. Except for a thick
wad of absorbent cotton and a plastic, nothing else was seen in the way of surgical
Alex bowed his head and with eyes closed mumbled a short prayer. Then he
bared the man's stomach and tentatively ran his hands over it. He began kneading the
man's exposed belly… He made as though to cut the man's stomach, and a tearing
sound (as though a tough cellophane was rending apart) was heard. Blood began to
trickle out, streaming on both sides of the man's tummy. With his right hand, Alex
dug his thumb and forefinger into the bloody aperture and after a few seconds
triumphantly came up with a large tumor-as gelid as tin foil and looking like a slab of
putrefying meat… Alex then massaged the spot where the "incision" had been made,
blew on it, then removed his hand. There was no gaping wound, not even a scar, only
traces of blood, which Alex forthwith wiped away with cotton. The "operation" was
over. The patient sat up and walked away jauntily… 1
This sort of stories, common for Filipinos and sometimes unusual for Europeans is met as a
miracle which has appeared somewhere in the mysterious depths of Asian religious life. It is
considered to be the completely new phenomena, a sort of a new product of that very mysterious
Asian religious matter. The real situation is different: no religious phenomenon is created ex nihilo.
This is also true of spiritual healing.
Spiritual healing is the term used instead of another, anthropological term – shamanism.
Shamanism refers to a range of traditional beliefs and practices based that claim the ability to
diagnose and cure human suffering. The central acting person in shamanism is the shaman itself. He
is a master of archaic techniques of ecstasy. This mastery of shamanic ecstasy (flight) is the heart of
1 Jaime T. Licauco. Magicians of God. Faith Healers in the Philippines and around the World (Pasig: Anvil, 1991), p.
the shamanic experience. It is the cornerstone of the shamans experience and practice. Not all
shamanic techniques and experiences are ecstatic, however, the ecstatic journey is the primary and
distinguishing technique of shamans worldwide. The excerpt from J.Licauco’s report says nothing
about healer Orbito’s shamanistic flight.
In Filipino healing case we are dealing with non-traditional Shamanism: Often at least loosely
based on one or more traditional shamanic systems, non-traditional shamanism is usually a hybrid
of ecstatic techniques of shamanic journeying and other aspects of contemporary psychological,
religious and spiritual practices. Rather than attempting to continue a pre-existing tradition, the nontraditional
practitioner focuses on utilizing the ancient techniques of the shaman in ways
appropriate to a modern audience. Some of the resulting systems and practices can no longer be
properly called "shamanism." The proposed term "Post-Shamanic" is intended to address such grey
areas as well as more fully developed systems and practices which contain shamanic elements.
Filipino healing is corresponding to this sort of definition.
Becoming of shaman
According to the contemporary knowledge a classical shaman must correspond to a set of
conditions. They are: shamanic illness, contact with a ‘helping spirit’, mediation between the
spiritual and phenomenal world, capability to cure illnesses, i.e. to fulfil the main task of the
The starting point of the career of a healer, or shaman is the calling of a shaman. The calling
takes a form of shamanic illness. Shamanic illness is a psycho-spiritual crisis, observed among
those becoming shamans. The episode often marks the beginning of a time-limited episode of
confusion or disturbing behaviour where the shamanic initiate might sing or dance in an
unconventional fashion, or have an experience of being "disturbed by spirits". The symptoms are
usually not considered to be signs of mental illness by interpreters in the shamanic culture; rather,
they are interpreted as introductory signposts for the individual who is meant to take the office of
shaman2. In case the would-be shaman, that is, the person elected by spirits turns down the offer to
become a shaman, the illness progresses to the person’s death or he/she becomes mentally ill.3
Jaime T. Licauco describes Orbito’s calling to the healing ministry in a way which differs from
typical shamanic illness taking place in Siberian taiga, where a future shaman behaves in an
unconventional fashion, suffers from unusual symptoms of malaise and meets for the first time his
helping spirits singing or speaking somewhere in the lonely place in forest. Orbito’s calling is
taking place in a contemporary provincial town, but it is not difficult to find out the main features of
shamanic calling even here. Orbito recollects that while employed in a studio at Cagayan, fate
bounced him into spiritual healing. One night when he was partying 10 km away instead of being
asleep in the studio, someone broke into the premises and stole the photographic equipment. Alex
was accused of thievery and put behind bars. In jail he heard voices that said he would be helped if
he returned home and continued using his healing powers. A few days later, the real culprit
confessed and Alex was freed.
“For one week, I languished in jail not knowing what to do and not having any friend or
relative to turn for help. I prayed that the real culprit would come. Then one night, I heard
voices talking to me. They were at first indistinct, but after several days, they became clearer
and clearer. The voices said ‘Do not be afraid, my son. I will help you. But promise me that
you will go back home and continue to use the healing power in your hands./…/
2 V.I.Kharitonova. Zagovorno-zaklinatel’noye iskusstvo vostochnikh slavyan („Spelling-conjuring tradition of the East
Slavs,” in Russian), (Moscow: Russian Academy of Science, 1999), p.89.
3 E.A.Torchinov. Religii mira. Opit zapredel’nogo („World Religions. The Transpersonal Experience,” in Russian), (St.
Petersburg: Peterburgskoye vostokovedeniye, 1998), p.90ff.
“I could not believe my ears and I didn’t know what to make of these sounds. Two
nights later the same message came to me; then again for the third time. So finally, I said,
okay, I will go back and continue to heal the sick. Only then did I have a peaceful evening.
“Instead of going home to Nueva Ecija, I decided to proceed to Roxas City.
“Hardly had I settled there when I was taken seriously ill. That was on November 5 of
1962 or 63. For several months, I suffered from a mysterious ailment that rendered me week
and feverish. It was when I was hovering between life and death that I again heard the voice
that came to me in jail. It said, ‘My son, why have you abandoned me? Go home and follow
“Despite my condition, I decided to go home. Incredibly enough, as I came close to my
home, the fewer slowly left my body and I began feeling stronger until I was completely
healed. “From that time on, I dedicated my life to the service of humanity through spiritual
A typical Siberian shaman never acts without his spirits who are his advisors and helpers. The
spiritual healer Orbito mentioned for several times a mysterious person who spoke to him in
dreams5 during his shamanic illness which took place in the form of an unfair prison term and a
long ailment on the verge of life and death:
“…[in dreams] he would see himself talking to a wise old hermit in white garment and
with white hair and beard. This mysterious old man was to be his constant spirit guide who
later gave him a secret word which enabled him to go into another level of consciousness
almost at will.
Here we are coming to one more peculiar feature of shamanism. Orbito spoke about “another
level of consciousness”. A classical Siberian shaman is a trained initiate who maintains a tradition
of walking between this and other worlds (while in a state of ecstatic trance known as shamanic
ecstasy, or shamanic flight) and then acts as a bridge between the worlds. He or she then uses the
knowledge thus gained when working in the community or with a client. This is the case of Orbito
as well. Normally ‘other worlds’ or ‘another level of consciousness’ (trance) are achieved using
drums and shamanic dance. Orbito avoids all this complicated and old fashioned paraphernalia but
he uses contemporary term ‘level of consciousness’ which comes from the new religious
Russian anthropologist V.I.Kharitonova divides the traditional shamanistic healing practices
into three ritualistic stages. The first one is preparatory and it includes the narrative echoing the
ancient stories of a mythological past, or narrating a personal account of trance, initiation, or
healing, is the carrying frequency for the timeless symbols that characterize this most archaic of
sacred manifestations. In the voice of the shaman-narrator, other voices can frequently be heard, the
voices of gods and ancestors or the shadowy spirits of the dead, the voice of the mushrooms, the
4 Jaime T. Licauco. Magicians of God...p.24-25.
5 Shamans calling received in dreams is one of the variants of the becoming of shaman in Siberia. The case study
among Siberian Buryats (Northern branch of Mongols, living in Russia) by B.C.Gomboyev discovers that the process of
calling received in dreams is less dramatic one, but it is as inevitable, as the calling received through instant shamanic
illness in the ‘classical’ circumstances. Cf. B.C.Gomboyev. “Snovideniya kak put’ obreteniya shamanskogo dara”
(“Becoming of shaman by calling in dreams”), in Shamans Talent//.Ethnological Studies of Shamanism and Other
Indigenous Spiritual Beliefs and Practices, Vol. 6 ed. N.L.Zhukovskaya, e.a. (Moscow: Russian Academy of Science,
songs of creatures and the elements, the numinous sounds of the far-off stars, or echoes of the
underworld. The first stage may include the narrative dealing with great ancestors, creation myth or
like. The classical pattern includes the shaman’s and his helpers’ dance, drumming and the
participation of the common public according to local tradition.6 In Orbito’s case Christian
evangelical elements supplant the heathen narrative and ritual:
As one enters the room, he gets the feeling of being in a chapel instead of a healing
clinic. /…/ During the healing session, Alex Orbito usually sits on a chair just below the
pennant of his spiritist church. A typical mass healing session always starts with a prayer.
When Orbito enters the room through another entrance, he immediately proceeds to his chair
at the middle of the table, sits down and prays intensely for a few minutes, usually covering
his face with his hands. When he lifts up his face, his behaviour undergoes a visible
transformation. His facial expression becomes more intense and serious /…/ He moves as
though he is in a slight trance. In fact, the audience feels that another personality has taken
Before this, a male assistant named Camilo asks the audience to stand up and pray with
him. A lady assistant reads a passage from the Holy Bible in English and then Camilo
speaks in Tagalog and implores divine guidance. He asks to provide strength to the healer so
that he may succeed in his task and also reminds the healer as well as the audience that it is
God that heals and is merely using the healer as His instrument or channel for the healing
force or energy.7
J.Licauco reports that ‘He moves as though he is in a slight trance. In fact, the audience feels
that another personality has taken over.’ The same happens to a Siberian shaman after the first part
of the shaman’s dance. Shaman’s mind has reached the alternate state. The traditional explanation
says that his soul has left the body and is traveling through the upper or lower world and
communicating with spirits. This is the ritualistic stage when healing proper is taking place.
It should be noted that the classical pattern of healing in Siberian shamanism included a number
of rites such as shaman’s and those present dances at the bed of the sick person. Sometimes
manipulations of a shaman pretending to extract out of the body the ‘cause of sickness’ (small
bones, or stones) was taking place. In Philippines’ spiritual healing case the shift to new modern
ritual symbolism is taking place. The elements of medical surgery and other attributes of the
contemporary medical practices are imitated. My personal experience when I was watching the
manual surgery convinced me that the opening of the tissues is not taking place and the healer
admitted that real surgery is not the case. There is only an imitation of the surgery. The woman
healer explained me that even the blood is not really blood, but it is the ‘materialization of the
spiritual evil of the sick person’. Therefore the blood is an imitation either.
The third stage of the healing ritual is called by V.I.Kharitonova ‘the locking’ of the healing. It
includes some additional spells; shaman is returning from his ecstatic journey, the cured sick
receive final recommendations. I observed at the 3 hours long curing ritual that everybody of the
cured was ordered to kneel at the altar for a prayer. This could be the final gesture of the whole
In case of the evolution of the shamanism we may guess that the circumpolar Siberian
shamanism could be considered a sort of early stage of shamanistic practice. Philippines look like
modern stage of the development of this very ancient religious, or near religious practice.8
6 V.I.Kharitonova. Zagovorno-zaklinatel’noye iskusstvo vostochnikh slavyan („Spelling-conjuring tradition of the East
Slavs,” in Russian), (Moscow: Russian Academy of Science, 1999), p.305ff.
7 Jaime T. Licauco. Magicians of God...p.25-26.
8 It is noteworthy to mention a theory stating that shamanism has its roots in Arctic. Thailand Hmong origins, for
instance, suggest Arctic. Known to have been settled in China before the Chinese, Hmong may have come to China
Spirits, gods, and saints
Classical definition of shamanism states that this sort of religion deals with heathen spirits but
the God-creator as a rule is not worshipped. Almost all the mountain peoples of Philippines
venerate a creator-deity or culture hero or both. Virtually everywhere among the Kalinga there is
simply one such creator god called kaboniyan. This deity is directly appealed to only in rare cases
such as when a man has lost a loved one through death or accident, or when a man has suffered a
sudden calamity such as the destruction of his rice fields by storm. On such an occasion a man
might exclaim: “Kaboniyan, look thou upon me and have pity for see what has been taken from
me!” Kaboniyan is not invoked by the mediums (or shamans), however. Each medium has her own
spirit helpers to whom he/she appeals when performing a ceremony.
The key of Siberian shamanistic rituals is the discovery the names of the spirits. To heal the
illness the first step is to clarify the name of the spirit who has caused the harm. When a would-be
shaman is called by spirits an experienced shaman is asked to discover the names of the spirits who
will become helpers of the future shaman. Yet, nowadays everywhere the religious syncretism is
taking place and the old names of spirits are replaced by Catholic saints in the countries of the
western spiritual inheritance. Similar process is going on in Siberia. Sign of the cross, Jesus Christ,
Our Lady, all Saints, St. Nicholas, Lord’s Prayer and a number of conventional Orthodox Church
prayers are used as shamanistic spells and charms.9 During Soviet regime in Siberia under the fierce
persecutions of shamanism the Communist propaganda spread the myth of the ‘Good Lenin’,
comforting Russian people. Under the influence of the official ideology Lenin became one of the
‘good spirits’ invoked during the shamanistic rituals.
The theological problem occurs in case the existence of spirits is considered real. The answer to
this question is given by a Russian shaman T.V.Kobezhikova. The spells and charms and
invocations to ‘saints’, says Kobezhikova, are the Christianization of the heathen religious practice.
The old names of the spirits are forgotten, and they are replaced by the new names of the Christian
saints, Mary, and like, but the spirits are the old one.10
At the same time the Filipino Christian spiritual healing denies any connection to evil spirits
and heathen content of the rituals. It seems to me that the problem should be given some theological
thought. Healing was a part of Jesus ministry. Jesus as a healer is one of the stories repeated at the
healing rituals. Simultaneously, the Good News is not about healing, but the resurrection of dead, or
theosis, as the Orthodox Church teaches.
Comparing the spiritual healing with heathen shamanistic practices in Philippines on one hand,
and similar practices in Siberia, on another, one can discover a number of parallels in the ritualistic
structure of these ancient belief systems and its healing practices. At the same time traditional
shamanistic paraphernalia (the shamans mantle, gong, drums, certain trees and grasses, e.a.) used at
the healing ritual in the Christian case are replaced by icons of the saints, crucifix, “surgery” and
similar symbols of the contemporary religious practice and medical care.
We can conclude that shamanism contains mechanisms of adaptation, transformation and
modernization which contradicts to the opinion that shamanism has not changed fundamentally
since Neolithic time, the period when representations of shamans and shamanic themes are first
found on cliffs in large numbers. Shamanism had to be changing continuously, but very slowly, so
that the change was barely perceptible. All the religions have their ‘vocabulary’ and ‘grammar’.
from Mongolia or even from the arctic regions of Siberia according to Mottin “because their legends speak of ‘frozen
plains,’ of ‘days lasting six months,’ of which they presently have no experience”. Jean Mottin. A Hmong Shaman’s
Séance. “Asian Folklore Studies” vol. 43, p.99.
9 V.I.Kharitonova, p.312ff; 533, 538.
10 Ibid., p.592.
Similarly to the history of languages the grammar of Shamanism is much more conservative than its
vocabulary, where considerable changes are taking place. The present changes are taking place at
the time when our whole way of life, established over decades is changing more rapidly than ever
earlier. The changes in shamanism are just as great as those in life itself, and probably this is the
way it should be.
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