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Malta’s mysteries

Imagine a place and time when men worshipped goddesses, when there were no weapons or warfare and when big, fat, womanly curves were the body ideal. Where could such a utopia exist? Traces of it are there for the finding, albeit 6000 years too late, deep in the navel of the Mediterranean in the tiny group of islands known collectively by the name of the largest, Malta.

Its strategic position between Europe, Africa and Asia has made this arid but starkly pretty group of rocky islands the subject of much squabbling throughout history. Yet these days, Malta is in no way thought of as a world player. In fact, most people know little about it, other than those with a Maltese heritage or an interest in ancient history and archaeology.

Which is where this island republic comes into its own. Though most of us might imagine the Pyramids or Stonehenge are the world’s oldest human-built structures, in fact the Neolithic temples found on Malta win hands down in the antiquity stakes. Who built them and why — and how they managed it — remain a mystery, though some information has been gathered and interpreted over time. While there are huge gaps in the archaeological records and no written history until later in the piece, linguistic research tells us people in ancient times moved around a lot, and quite far, trading and no doubt looking for greener pastures. It’s generally agreed that Malta was settled around 5200 BC by people from Sicily.

The "temple culture" seems to have begun around 4000 BC, developing a style and iconography unlike anything seen elsewhere from the same period, although certain motifs are found throughout Europe, particularly the spiral. The temple features and the artifacts found inside or near them strongly suggest a goddess/priestess or fertility cult was practised by these people, and geological records indicate they were a farming society.

For around 1500 years, it seems, the "temple people" lived in peace and harmony with each other and their environment. Among the surviving artifacts and implements of daily life, and the ruins of the buildings, nothing has been found that could be considered a weapon or a defensive structure, leading to the belief they were a peace-loving people.

Around 2500 BC, it all came to an abrupt end and the temple/goddess culture disappeared for reasons unknown. Over the next several millennia the still-impressive structures virtually returned to nature, their roofs falling in, many of the stones that made up their walls pillaged by local peasants for other uses, weeds sprouting in and around the stonework.

One theory about why there were so many temples in the first place (more than 30) could also explain the demise of the culture. In his acclaimed (and roundly criticised) book The White Goddess, Robert Graves suggested that as militaristic, patriarchal societies moved in on the sedentary, agricultural communities that worshipped the Mother Goddess, the priestesses migrated to sacred caves and secret islands like Malta, Crete, the Cyclades, Cyprus, Ireland and even Iceland, taking their icons and practices with them. Perhaps the Maltese temple people disappeared so suddenly because they were ultimately found and destroyed by aggressive, armed invaders.

Others suggest drought or other climatic change caused by volcanic eruptions led to a decline in food supplies for these essentially agricultural people. Or perhaps they were wiped out by some epidemic. In the absence of any clear evidence, we can only speculate.

 

The Fat Ladies

The idols and statues discovered inside the temples and in the prehistoric underground burial chambers, most notably the Hypogeum, suggest a goddess cult that celebrated fertility, though the gender of some of the figures remains a subject of debate. Many have no breasts or other sex characteristics that might give it away. Some appear quite feminine with long braided hair and pleated garments, while others seem more masculine with wider jaws and angular bodies.

The figures are modelled in various poses: standing, seated and, as in the case of the lovely Sleeping Lady, reclining. They may be solo or in pairs. There are also theories about the headlessness. Many have a socket between the shoulders and a hole that might have been for manipulating a cord of some sort, and several were found with separate heads nearby, leading to the speculation that the heads and bodies were meant to be interchangeable and that perhaps they were deliberately androgynous and made to be used as oracles.

In any event, whether male or female, goddess or priestess, and despite the preference of some scholarly types to call them by the more prosaic "obese figures", they are generally known collectively and irreverently as the Fat Ladies of Malta.

Goddess worship, especially of the mother goddess, or Magna Mater, shows up at some time or other in just about every culture on earth. It lives on in concepts like "Mother Nature" and we’re seeing a huge Western interest in the re-emergence of the ancient goddess. And nowhere on earth is the mother goddess’s presence more powerfully felt than in Malta.

As a couple of domestic goddesses sadly lacking in any knowledge of Neolithic culture, it was the Fat Ladies — along with their former temple homes — that lured us from Sicily across to Malta. It intrigued us that Malta, so close to Italy and Greece, had these stupendous archeological treasures that are so unknown and uncelebrated outside the country.

 

Starting point Valetta

The general advice in the guidebooks is to first visit the National Museum of Archeology in Valetta before going off to any temples so you will have a better idea of what it is you’re looking at when you get to the sites. In any case, the original figures, along with all the other material recovered from the temples, are held in the museum. In other words, you won’t see the Fat Ladies in situ, so you make your acquaintance with them here at this marvellous museum.

So on our first day, we hopped on a bone rattler, as the ancient local buses are called, and duly took ourselves off to Valetta from our waterside hotel in Sliema. We were keen to have a look around the city, anyway, and visit St John’s Cathedral, built by the Knights of St John and so breathtakingly beautiful that it’s in the league of Monreale, Notre Dame and San Marco. In fact, the cathedral, its contents and the history of the Knights’ occupation of Malta are an intriguing story for another time and place.

The museum, too, is a must-see, well laid out and full of fascinating and beautiful items dating from 5200 BC. The Neolithic collection includes artifacts, architectural fragments, altar stones and, of course, the beautiful Fat Ladies. Most noteworthy are the Magna Mater, possibly the world’s oldest colossal figure and now little more than a pair of massive legs in a pleated tunic; the tiny Sleeping Lady, originally found in the Hypogeum; and the voluptuously rendered Venus of Malta, a headless clay nude that bears the hallmarks of having borne children and eaten well to reasonably mature years. In other words, she has gloriously heavy thighs and large saggy breasts.

It’s hard to imagine another location with as much to show and tell about the Neolithic period of human history. In our ignorance we were quite amazed at how "civilised" and spiritually developed these prehistoric people must have been.

 

Mystical Mnajdra

On our second day we hired a car to make an excursion to the Mnajdra Temple on the main island. Looking at the map we could see we would have to drive right across the island so allowed ourselves a couple of hours. Imagine our surprise when, even with negotiating peak-hour traffic on the outskirts of Valetta, we puled up at our destination in less than half an hour!

We looked at each other and decided it couldn’t be. Besides, where were the tourist hordes we’d found at every site of antiquity in Sicily? There was literally no one to be seen except a friendly carpark attendant who took some small change to watch out for our car and pointed us in the direction of the temple.

Following his directions, we strolled through the sun-soaked landscape towards the sea and came upon a breathtakingly beautiful sight. The temple ruins are situated down a long, gently sloping hill, so we could take it all in slowly as we approached. With the cobalt blue sea and sky and the islet of Filfla as its backdrop, and no other buildings to spoil the picture, it has a mystical presence and stark but gentle — dare I say, feminine — beauty, even at a distance.

Up close, it’s even more mystical with its oracle holes and astronomical alignment. As the only temple with an alignment to the equinoctial sunrise — so that at the spring and autumn equinoxes the first rays of the rising sun penetrate to a stone slab on the rear wall, while at the summer and winter solstices the rays fall on two stone pillars — it’s possibly our oldest existing calendar. Decorated stones and recessed cavities clearly mark the passing of time and changing of the seasons.

How did the ancient builders accomplish the sophisticated orientation required for Mnajdra’s solar calendar? The sheer weight of the stones means it must have been accurately calculated beforehand. A post-hole found on the Maltese cliffside is thought to be a prehistoric point of reference for aligning the axis of the south temple before construction.

After Mnajdra we continued along to the Dingli cliffs, the highest point of Malta, to the Blue Grotto, legendary home to the sirens — sea nymphs who lured hapless sailors to their death with their song.

 

Going to Gozo

On the third day we took our rent-a-bomb on the 20-minute ferry ride across the one-mile channel to Gozo, passing the tiny island of Comino, to have a look at the temple at Ggantija (meaning Giant’s Tower), believed to be the oldest surviving freestanding structure in the world. Located inland in a much less auspicious setting than Mnajdra’s, it comprises two separate temples. The bigger, southern one was built around 3600 BC, the northern one about 600 years later.

Ggantija is built of huge blocks of limestone, probably brought (who knows how!) from nearby quarries. The largest stone is 4m x 5.5m and weighs 55 tonnes. This was the first temple to be cleared and is more roughly hewn and without the intricate decoration we saw in the younger Mnajdra temple.

Again, there were no tourist hordes and minimal fanfare, just a guidebook salesman and two other visitors. The quiet isolation was palpable and we tried to imagine it as a working temple with goddess worshippers coming to learn what oracular wisdom might be delivered to them by the priestesses.

In this still and timeless setting, undisturbed by the sort of crowds we’d come to expect at sites of antiquity, we were able to simply soak up the ambience; to ponder the commitment of these ancient people to their beliefs and practices, not to mention their cultural advancement beyond what we might have expected; and to simply feel the mystical energy of these structures built to last, perhaps forever, in this Spartan landscape.

 

Malta’s mysteries may never be solved, but the romantic picture of the temple people (and the one we liked) is that they were peaceful, artistic, intelligent and resourceful. Their culture blossomed for 1500 years then mysteriously disappeared without trace. Archaeological records came to an abrupt halt and there’s no evidence of any outsiders visiting Malta during that time. The Neolithic people were attuned to the cosmos and at peace with the earth and each other.

Their limestone temples and artifacts of daily life and religion are immensely important in human history. Even more remarkable than their existence at all, and sadder than their sudden demise, is the fact that they are so relatively unknown outside Malta.

Malta as a travel destination

With its sunny climate and small area, Malta is an easy and worthwhile sidetrip from Sicily, either by plane or ferry. Sliema and St Julians are the most built-up, touristy areas of the main island, with loads of waterside accommodation, good restaurants, bars and cafes and a lively nightlife.

You can drive to the significant Neolithic sites over the course of three or four days, and Valetta and the cathedral deserve a full day. Gozo, too, warrants at least a day so you can spend some time in the main town of Rabat, or Victoria. Hire cars are cheap and generally manual, quite basic because of the bad state of most of the roads. Buses are known as bone rattlers and are the ancient kind middle-aged Australian tourists might remember from childhood. The fishing village of Marsaxlokk (pictured) is not to be missed with its colourful boats, morning market and waterside restaurants offering spanking-fresh seafood — and there’s a busy fish market every Sunday.

If you want to do all that plus laze about on sandy beaches, swim in turquoise waters and browse the markets for bargains in lacework and embroidery, you’ll need a good week or more.

 

Goddess tours

Though we saw less than a handful of visitors at both temple sites, we were told that goddess groups flock there to experience the reported "healing energy" of the temples. Danica Anderson, an American psychotherapist and tour organiser wrote: "I ache with sadness at the sheer loss of the feminine in our lives today. Many of the daughters that come to Malta with me on the work/study tour become angry at the sheer absence of ‘herstory’ in their lives, schools and studies. Malta is one ancient site that triggers memories so old that they seem to be flowing from the First Mother. The huge silent limestone temples and sites urge the world to remember the power of the mother and daughter relationship."

One theory about the healing energy is that Malta lies at the pathways and intersections of ley lines, areas of electromagnetic energy that traverse the earth and are said to run through all Neolithic sites. It’s believed that the temples were built where the force was the strongest, accounting for the "healing energy" felt there.

There are some well-established goddess tours that Australians can join. Contact:

Goddess Tours To Malta, E: info@goddesstourstomalta.com: W: www.goddesstourstomalta.com

Purple Mountain Tours, E: hshik@sover.net, W: www.purplemountaintours.com Well Within’s Earth Mysteries & Sacred Sites Tours, E: earthmysteriestours@tesco.net, wwithin@nccn.net, W: www.nccn.net/~wwithin/

Kerry Boyne

Kerry Boyne

Kerry Boyne loves good food and is the managing editor of WellBeing.

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