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The Healing Arts of the Philippines

by Virgil J. Mayor Apostol

Therapeutic massage in the Philippines is a tradition as old as the island's first inhabitants. Most widely known as Hilot or Hilut, the massage tradition is known by a variety of other names.

Some names for massage therapy in different dialects of the Philippines

Photograph of the author using Ablon to waken sleeping nerves.
  • Aplos (Bontoc)
  • Aptus (Ivatan)
  • Unar (Kalinga)
  • Kemkem (Pangasinan)
  • Ilot or Ilut (Ilocano, Itawis, Zambal, Pampango)
  • Ilu (Ibanag)
  • Ilat (Isneg)
  • Elot (Ilongot)
  • Agod or Agud (Maguindanaon, Maranao)
  • Hagud (Bukidnon)
  • Ablon (Northern Ilocano)
Photo:   The author uses Ablon to waken sleeping nerves

All are part of the traditional folk medicine that has survived the ages despite the coming of modern technology.

There are various categories of folk doctor (arbolario) including the practitioner of Ablon or Ilut (mangablon or mangngilut), the herbalist (mangngagas), the bonesetter (mammullo), the obstetrician (partera), and other specialists such as snake- or animal-bite curers (mannuma) and shamans or spiritual healers (mangallag).

All of these practices have common roots with other healing modalities in Southeast Asian countries including those of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and other outlying islands.

Lying just above the equator, the Philippines is situated in the Pacific Ocean, north of Indonesia, east of Vietnam, and south of Taiwan. A tropical climate is endured with a cooler dry season from March through June, and a wet season the rest of the year. Filipinos belong to the Austric stock of peoples that inhabit an area extending from Madagascar off the coast of East Africa, to Easter Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

There are even those who believe that the Philippines was once part of the ancient continent of Lemuria that was swallowed up by the Pacific Ocean long before Atlantis was in the Atlantic Ocean.

Virgil uses diluted vinegar to treat a baby's heat condition

Photo:   Virgil uses diluted vinegar to treat a baby's heat condition

As the natives migrated into the three major islands - Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, with them came their animistic beliefs and customs. Assimilated through migration and trade was the influence of Hindu-Malayan and Islamic-Malayan cultures via the islands to the south, as well as the European influence of Spanish conquest, a domain that lasted over 300 years since the 16th century.

Thus, practices from a conglomeration of sciences, religions, arts, and medical practices, are still evident throughout the islands to this present day.

Most prevalent, though, is a spiritualism overseeing the etymology or diagnosis of an illness to the actual healing.

On a metaphysical level, sickness may be caused by several factors including disturbed spirits which dwell in animate or inanimate objects, nakadalapus - when one has accidentally walked through or met with a bad spirit, or even when cutting down a tree without asking permission of the spirit dweller.

In such cases, an animistic ritual offering (atang) along with a prayer or Latin oracion (kararag or incantation) is a possible solution. For healers versed in the physical arts, massage is also initiated to drive away any spirit that has lodged itself in the etheric level of its victim. By driving away the bad spirit, the sickness will go away.

From the metaphysical to the physical level, an indigenous concept of a hot-cold syndrome plays an important role in how nature affects the human organism.

For example, after one has worked hard in the fields, or any type of strenuous activity, the body is understood to be hot. But one who takes a cold bath shortly after, throws off the physiological state that the body is in, plunging it abruptly from hot to cold. From this point, the body becomes susceptible to illness.

The healer advises the patient not to bathe after a treatment because the body has undergone a similar process of working hard. The patient also needs time to regulate the temperature and spiritual energies through the transitory state that the body is undergoing.

Likewise, the healer allows his or her hands and body to rest before washing or else the same effect might occur. But if it is found necessary to wash, heated water, slightly warmer than body temperature, is used.

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