Since time immemorial, there have been many great story-tellers, the world over. In Greek times there were Aesop with his fables, who entertained while providing moral lessons, and Homer with his epic tales that extolled the prowess of the Greek gods. In the Indian, Persian and Arab world too, one finds a collection of fantastic tales in ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. In Europe, famous writers, such as the German Grimm Brothers, and the Danish Hans Christian Anderson, created characters that still enthrall millions. These tales, do have parallels in distant countries, as they were spread by word of mouth to be adopted by other cultures. Maltese tales were not excluded from such influences. On the contrary many local folk tales seem to connect with similar ones in North Africa, in nearby Sicily as well as certain countries in Europe and the Middle East.
Story-telling is a pastime that may be performed to the enjoyment of children and adults alike. There still exists in the English vernacular an idiomatic expression that goes, ‘to spin a yarn’. This idiom could very well fit in a practical way, the Maltese way of life, of some 200 years ago, during the time when the cotton industry thrived. Hundreds of workers, mostly made up of the farmer’s own families gathered in rooms or courtyards of their own cottage, to gin and spin cotton into yarn. This time-consuming process was often done by the womenfolk accompanied by their young children. One may imagine that in order to cheer themselves up during the laborious and tedious hours, the matriarchal figure of the family, recounted anecdotes and tales to entertain those working or idling nearby. This may have been one way how legendary and fictitious oral accounts filtered down from one generation to the next.
Maltese Folk Tales
In Malta we come across a variety of folktales. Some of these accounts served to explain the peculiar phenomena of nature, such as astronomical observations, weather conditions, geological occurrences and even the origin of place-names. One may cite the case of the legendary sinkhole that exists near the village of Qrendi, known as Il-Maqluba, (M. the overturned). Legend has it that at that location there was once a village whose inhabitants lacked moral rectitude. To punish them, God destroyed the village and made it disappear from the face of the earth, thus leaving behind a deep pit in which today lush vegetation grows.
The Pioneers of Maltese folklore
At the turn of the twentieth century, various folkorists, most of them foreigners, collected oral folk-tales by interviewing people all over the Maltese islands. One of them them was the Italian Luigi Bonelli. Two others were the Germans, Bertha Ilg and Hans Stumme. Then there was the Maltese Jesuit priest, Manwel Magri, (1851 – 1907). Between them they recorded a couple of hundred local anecdotes, tales, legends and some variants of them. Father Magri recorded some sixty five folk tales that also included variants. It is interesting to note that of these, about eight recount tales related to intimidating giants and menacing monstruous creatures. Sixteen others tales involve an imaginary king, or as the Maltese called him is-Sultan, an authority to be feared as he was often threatening to hia subjects by his irrational edicts. The Sultan held power over life and death on one and all.
Giants and Megaliths
A couple of tales explain how the mysterious Maltese prehistoric megalithic temples were built by giants. In Gozo, several tales recount how a giantess transported a large boulder on her shoulder to set up a menhir, or a dolmen, at particular sites where they are still to be found today. This she did with ease, obtaining her energy by simply nourishing herself with broad beans. The megalithic temples of Ġgantija at Xagħra, as the name implies, were supposedly built by giants. Even Gian Franġisk Abela, Malta’s most ancient historian, wrote in his Della Descrittione di Malta (1647), that he believed that the Maltese temples were built by a race of giants that inhabited the islands in Pre-Deluvian times. This belief was corroborated by the occasional finds of large-sized skeletal bones in quarries and rock fissures. These remains, in reality, belonged to extinct animal species such as elephants and hippopotami, dating to the glacial and inter-glacial periods Malta.
Such fossils are not unique to Malta. Similar finds occur elsewhere in the Mediterranean. It was because of such oversized bones that the Greeks believed in a giant race, known as the Cyclops. This one eyed creature, made famous in the Odyssey, was indeed created out of fantasy as people believed that the central large cavity in the fossilised elephant skull which to which the elephant’s proboscid is attached, was surely the socket that contained the eye of this fantastic creature.
Menacing giants outdone by mortals
Of the eight giants’ tales, there are: ‘The woman who carried the huge stones for building’. ‘A young boy kills nine giants’; ‘The giants’ bastions’; ‘The giant and the bird hunter’, and ‘A girl kills a female giant’. I shall summarise here the last two to elaborate on the gist of these tales.
The giant and the bird hunter
Once upon a time there was a hunter who ventured into the woods and came by chance upon a giant. The giant confronts the hunter and challenges him to a wrestling match before devouring him. The hunter kept his cool and retorts that not even dogs behave like that before they attack one another – because they would first sniff at each other’. He thus challenged the giant to a contest of skills to prove to him that whatever the latter did he could outdo him. The giant picks up a pebble (ċagħka), places it in the palm of his hand and crushes it to dust. Not to be outdone, the hunter secretly picks up a ġbejna (a typical Maltese cheeselet) from his hunting pouch, hides it in his hand while he bends over to seemingly pick up a pebble. The white Maltese ġbejna was indistinguishable from the pebble and so the hunter shows it to the giant and then proceeds to crush it in his closed fist. The juices inside the ġbejna squeeze out from between his fingers. The giant is amazed that this mere mortal is able to crush the pebble so hard as to liquify its matter. The story goes on with other challenges which the hunter always wins by his clever tricks. Eventually the giant lets the man go.
A girl kills a giantess
Another fable recounts the story of a small girl who had a limp and who was kept captive by a giant couple, a husband and wife, in their home with the intention that some day she would be devoured as their lunch. This day finally arrives, and while the husband is away, the female giantess decides to give her husband a treat by cooking the girl for him. The giantess lets the girl out of her cage and tells her to come to over to help her with her cooking. The girl immediately sees what is coming for her. So when they approach the oven the girl suggests to the giantess to sit on the ledge of the oven so that she (the girl) would teach her how humans bake bread. The giantess being dim witted, does as she is told. Once the giantess positions herself on the ledge of the oven, the girl promptly shoves her through the oven window and slams the door behind her. She stokes the fire and makes a good giant roast out of her captor. The cooking was ready by the time the giantess’s companion returns home and the girl serves him the nice giant rump for him to devour. But the story does not finish there.
Following dinner, the giant instructs the girl to fetch him a glass of water from the well. The girl laments that there is not enough water in the well and she suggests that the best way to retrieve the little water there is she would hoist the giant down the shaft so that he would dredge the water from the bottom into the bucket. The dim-witted giant obliges, and is hoisted down to the bottom of the well. He fills up the bucket with water. Then he cries out, ‘I am ready … you may haul me up young girl!’ The smart young lady says to the giant: ‘You must first say appa! first’. (Appa is a meaningless Maltese word used to poke fun at any given situation). The giant obliges and says ‘appa!‘ to which the girl mockingly replies with a rhyming expression: ‘il-ħabel skappa’ (the rope just slipped), and the girl lets the rope fall down the shaft, thus leaving the giant in the bottom of the well to die.
In all the tales, whenever giants intimidate humans, we observe that these creatures, threatening as they may be, are no match for the witty minds of their puny human adversaries. Both stories cited and others are entertaining to the listener as the hero of the tale wins in the end. The story plot works on the premise that brains are more efficacious than brawn in order for one to win a challenge. In the second of these tales, empathy is more evident as the girl is not only young but also lame.
Tyrannical Sultans and defying heroes
In Maltese folklore another cluster of tales abound that deal with the whimsical wishes of the authoritative and tyrranical monarch, the Sultan as the Maltese called him*. The nemesis of the king would often be depicted as a simple young man often from a poor family, who is audacious, smart and adventurous enough to try his luck by wandering away from home. The hero of the story would be summoned by the king to render his service in some perilous task, such as slaying fabulous serpents, monstruous birds, or even giants. In return the king promises riches and sometimes the hands of his princess daughter in marriage. But he would often be threatening with executions, should the dauntless fellow fail in his tasks. Riddles were sometimes posed to the young contestant to solve. Occasionally, the hero of the story would be the youngest of three brothers or more, that hailed from a poor family. Whilst the older brothers fail in their tasks to satisfy the king’s wishes, the younger one succeeds, using his wit, albeit, often aided with the wisdom of an aged man or woman that he comes across. Knowing that the hero of the tale is young and artful while risking his life, makes the listener of the tale empathise with him.
* The Maltese used to call the Grand Master of the Order of St John that ruled Malta (1530 – 1798) by this name. Indeed, there is a placename known as Ġnien is-Sultan, near Rabat, and Bieb is-Sultan, a gateway into the Cottonera Fortifications.
The titles of the sultan taless include: ‘‘The baker’s son sets three riddles to the Sultan’s daughter’; The Sultan’s daughter answers no to three questions’; The eighth son saves the Sultan’s daughter from the dragon’; ‘The son of the wise woman makes the bird sing’. Then there is ‘The tale of the old man buried in the cave’, which I shall recount briefly.
The tale of the old man buried in a cave
In this tale there is a young lad who takes his old and decrepit father to the ‘cave of death’ where as tradition dictated, he is meant to shut him behind a wall to spend the last few days of his life before he passes away. Such a sepulchral cave is known in Maltese as a demus. In any case, when blocking the cave by an outside rubble wall to imprison his father, the boy takes pity on him, and so he leaves a small opening for his father to breathe some fresh air. Besides he keeps on visiting daily to nourish him with goat’s milk.
It just happens that on the same day the son takes over his father’s work in the fields, the king issues an edict by which he forbids that any of his subjects tend to their fields – not before they finish off all that is required to have the king’s own agricultural land, tilled and harvested. Confounded as he was, the young lad visits his father at the cave to seek his advice.
The old man tells him, ‘If the king wishes that you take care of his fields then do so. Till his fields during the day, but also make sure that you work our own fields during the night. The boy agrees and he manages to till both his land as well as that of the king. Harvest time comes and he is the only one in the kingdom who successfully harvests both the king’s crops as well as his own. The king is puzzled as to how the boy manages to gain such a good harvest in both cases. So he summons the young lad to demand an explanation. The boy admits to the king about his working both fields on the same days, one in the morning and one at night. The king is amazed at the boy’s skills and astuteness.
‘Young man, you seem to be quite a shrewd fellow. So now you must do this for me’, says the king: ‘Tomorrow you must come to visit me on foot but also riding a donkey’.
The boy goes back to his father’s cavern to seek advice as how to solve this problem. The father tells him: ‘Oh that may be more simple than you think. Choose a donkey of a modest size. Mount her but ensure that you can touch your feet to the ground as you ride her. Then walk, while astride the donkey. That should satisfy the king’s wish.’
The boy did this and on the morrow he rode his donkey all the way to the king’s palace while threading his feet on the ground. The king greets him and laughs, ‘My goodness you are a clever lad’. ‘And now that you have passed two tests, you have still another challenge to face, so hear this: tomorrow you must come to me barefooted but at the same time wearing a pair of boots’.
This mystifying challenge once again made the boy run back to his father’s cave for help. The father scratches his head for a moment, but soon comes up with a solution. He tells his son: Take your boots to a cobbler and tell him to strip off the sole of each shoe. Then wear your shoes and go to the king. In this manner you will be both clad in your shoes and at the same time remain barefooted. This is exactly what the young boy does, and then walks in the soleless boots all the way to the king’s palace.
The king asks the boy, ‘how is it that you seem to find a solution to all my challenges?’ and the boy says that it is his father from his sepulchral grave who gives him advice. ‘You mean to say that your dead father speaks to you?’ – ‘No’, says the boy, ‘my father is alive, but he is locked up in one of the sepulchral caves’. The king shakes his head in disapproval. He immediately issues an edict that forbade anyone to lock up their aged parents in sepulchral caves when nearing the end of their lives. And since then, in Malta, no more aged people were being locked up inside such caves. Not that this custom has ever been proved real.
While these amusing tales were simply meant to delight children, the stories were also a way to impart moral lessons to the listener. Faced with peculiar and perilous situations the heroes of the tale found solutions by thinking outside the box, as the modern saying goes.
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Cassar Pullicino Joseph, Studies in Maltese Folklore, Malta University Press, 1992.
Magri Manwel, Ħrejjef Missirijietna, Provinċja Maltija ta’ Ġesu, 1967.
Mifsud Chircop Ġorġ, Manwel Magri – Ħrejjef Missirijietna, Publishers Enterprises Group, 1994.
Grima Lily, Stumme’s Folktales from Malta, Malta University Publishing, 2019.
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