It is safe to say that in general, the Maltese are not an overtly superstitious lot. In the present world, they adhere in their convictions to the common laws of nature as backed by scientific rules. They also do not stray into superstitious beliefs that are not sanctioned by the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
Nevertheless, some may still hark back to the beliefs of old on various matters. Like in any other culture one will always find people of a gullible nature who tend to stick toward one or two superstitious practices when faced with certain situations. For instance you will find those who are wary of walking beneath a ladder, lest this brings bad luck. Another frivolous case is the belief about black cats. And what about Friday 13? Is this Friday not related to the day when Christ was executed on the cross – the 13 being related to the twelve apostles having their Last Supper with Christ. These three superstitious beliefs cannot be so ingrained amongst the Maltese, these being of an English cultural origin. With these, there are other credences that are importes from Italian culture, via Italian TV channels. All these are taken with a pinch of salt and a observed with a ‘just-in-case-it-is-true’ attitude.
Having said that, there are still some quasi-religious habits that verge somwhere between the religious and the superstitious. For instance the belief in ghosts – once Roman Catholics believe in an afterlife. There are various beliefs related to the danger of lightening. We still pray to Santa Barbara whenever there is a thunderstorm. In olden times people used to go further by hanging an elaborately designed small piece of dough (known as għażżiela) in Maltese with the Mater Maria symbol (see above), on the door of the house to ward off such dangers. In olden times there was the custom of the pealing church bells in order to quell thunderstorms.
In the modern world, there still are numerous instances where people adhere to such beliefs and seek folkloristic solutions in various aspects of their life and beyond. Here are some examples:
* The moon may be regarded by some possessing in its gravitational force the power to influence our lives. Some firmly believe that the moon casts its effect not only on the sea, vegetables and animals, but also on humans. For instance a person suffering from an epileptic fit is said to be influenced by the moon – we say ‘tah tal-qamar’, – that is, one is reacting according to the physical influence of the moon. There is a proverb that says: (Maltese) Torqodx fid-dawl tal-qamar għax jagħtik ħmar-il-lejl, Eng. Do nor sleep under a moonlit sky lest you shall suffer from nightmares.
* A person, when eating, should be wary if a pregnant woman is in his presence, so that he offeers her from his food lest the expectant mother’s child be born with a birth mark. This instance I have experienced when my wife was pregnant. While promenading in Marsaskala a woman enjoying a barbeque on the rocky beach came over and offered my wife an apple.
* Young children are to be protected from the evil eye. Hence it is expected that whenever a stranger compliments a child for his healthy looks one should always add the words (Maltese) ‘Alla jbierek’ god bless or ‘imbierek alla’ – god be praised. Otherwise, the mother of the child might be suspicious that one’s compliments were actually meant to harm the child.
* Up to a generation or so ago, whenever a child opened his mouth to yawn, the mother would quickly make the sign of the cross with her thumb over the child’s mouth, to ward off any evil spirits that might be ready to enter that orifice. The sign of the cross is seen here below being marked on a heap of salt that has just been harvested.
* On the child’s first birthday, a game is set up to test the child’s inclination towards any possible profession when reaching adulthood. This game is known as ‘il- quċċija’. Numerous objects are laid on the floor by the parents, and the toddler is coaxed to crawl towards this cluster of ‘toys’ to pick up one item of his choice. The item picked up by the child will hint the child’s inclinations. For instance, if he chooses to pick up a writing implement he would be expected to choose a clerical job. Similarly, were he to choose, say, a labourer’s tool, such as a hammer or pincers, he might want to become a craftsman. This game is all taken with a pinch of salt really.
* Bad luck in marriage – There is a saying in Maltese that goes: ‘Ix-xebba li tiekol fit-triq ma ssibx tiżżewweġ’ – Eng. ‘The girl who eats (any sort of food) in the street shall never find her man to marry’.
* A bride should not be seen in her wedding dress by her groom prior to wedding ceremony lest this brings bad luck. Another saying relates to the bride who gets wet in rain when on her way to the wedding ceremony, shall enjoy good luck. This comes from the Italian saying. ‘Sposa bagnata, sposa fortunata’.
* Some people believe in the evil eye, and therefore they carry on them tiny horns as amulets or key chains. Real horns of bulls are sometimes set up on farm gates or elsewhere to ward off the malignant eye especially to protect cattle, people or objects, even cars. A person feeling threatened by the evil eye would position his thumb and little finger to point outward as if in the shape of a bull’s horn to ward off any evil intentions. I once assisted to a street altercation between two women. One was accusing the other of having pointed her fingers towards her in the horn position as if she was afraid that the other was casting the evil eye on her.
* The eyes portrayed on the prow of the Maltese fishing boat – the luzzu. Nowadays, these are painted mainly as a decorative design, but in olden times the eyes were believed to ward off any mishap at sea. The belief in the power of the eyes is said to have been brought to Malta originally by the Phoenicians who regarded the Egyptian God Horus, the falcon god as a protector from evil beings.
* Some believe in the rwiegel – an asssumption that purports that the weather of the who year is pre-set on a pattern that may be observed on each of the twelve days prior to Christmas. Thus, if the first day of the rwiegel, that is, December 13, happens to be a rainy day, it implies that January, the first month of the year, should likewise prove to be wet. Similarly, each of the other days leading up to Christmas will foretell the weather conditions of each of the forthcoming months in a sequential manner.
* On Good Friday if the weather is cloudy, humid and dusty red, it is thought to herald an earthquake. This is regarded as re-enactment to similar atmospheric conditions that are believed to have occurred while Christ was on his death throes on the cross. Indeed in Maltese parlance, whenever such dark and cloudy conditions prevail the Maltese claim tht these are ‘Good Friday weather’.
* There still persists the practice of blessing the house with palm twigs and fumigating the house with the smoke emitted from the slow burning twigs. The palm twigs are blessed in church on Palm Sunday and taken home by members of the congregation to be fixed to a wall in order to keep the house blessed. The smoke would be allowed to permeate into all rooms of the house and behind furniture to exorcise the home from any evil.
Some proverbs are based on superstitious beliefs. Here are a few examples of proverbs I picked up from the book Il-Qawl Iqul (‘The Proverb says’). These are mostly forgotten:
- (Maltese) Għajnejn żoroq jisirqu n-nies mit-toroq
Blue-eyed persons (tend to) kidnap people from the streets
- Kewkba ħamra nar, dell ħażin.
A red hot star denotes bad luck
- Mejju x-xahar tad-disgrazzi
May is the month of tragedies
- Tiġieġa tidden oqtolha qabel toqtol lilek.
Kill the crowing hen before it kills you
- Min ma jsumx f’Ras ir-Randan jikluh il-klieb
He who does not fast on Ash Wednesday will be eaten by dogs
- Tfajla li titwieled il-Ġimgħa fl-istess jum il-kelb jigdimha.
A girl born on a Friday shall on the same day be bitten by a dog
- Tisħetx il-qamar fl-art għax iġiblek għawġ u mard.
Do not curse the moon ’cos it will cause you trouble and diseases.
16, October 2020
Cassar Pullicino Joseph, Studies in Maltese Folklore, Malta Unversity Press, 1992.
Lanfranco Guido, Drawwiet u Tradizzjonijiet Maltin. PIN. 2004.
Mallia Fiona, Il-Kultura Maltija. Klabb Kotba Maltin. 2012.
Manduca J.S. & Mifsud Ġ., Il-Qawl Iqul. PEG. 1989.
Zarb Tarcisio, Folklore of an Island, PEG 1998.
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