WOMEN in MALTESE FOLKLORE
Myth or Cultural Legacy
by Rita Saliba *
If we think of folklore as customs and traditions, it takes us back to distant times when words were transmitted from one generation to the next. I have always considered folklore as built on cult, beliefs, superstitions; however, I believe that the roots of all these go much deeper. Notwithstanding Malta passed from under the hands of numerous conquerors and was exposed to the most varied cultures, the female of the species in Maltese history took on various roles: at times as a deity, at times as a giantess, and generally as a mother of a family and a farmer – a protector that adapted herself to the different needs. It would be enough for us to take a look at our prehistoric heritage to feel a strong devotion towards the female image.
The oldest artefact discovered in our prehistoric temples is one depicting the goddess of fertility: an ample figure taking care of the land, ensuring it would give bountiful crops and wealth for the sustenance of the community. A tale passed down through generations is that of a Gozitan giant woman who built the Ġgantija temples in Xagħra, whence the name. One wonders why it had to be a woman and not a man to carry the heavy monolith. Some versions of the story say that the woman even held her child in her hand while in the other she held the megalith. In the collective psyche this must reflect the power that women held, being both maternal as well as physical and tenacious in character.
The Phoenicians brought with them a civilisation and a generation of seafarers. The temple of the Phoenician era in Tas-Silġ at Marsaxlokk, dedicated to the goddess Astarte, which was converted to the temple of the goddess Juno in Roman times, protector of seamen, demonstrates that there was always a strong devotion to the female deity. We find several images representing this deity in abodes across the islands; it is pertinent to note that fertility was considered to be something beyond the human realm. Assistance from a higher entity was needed from birth to death.
Christianity brought with it drastic changes: the roles of Astarte, Tanit and Juno were taken over by the Virgin Mary and her mother Saint Anne. It is said that the starry track which is better known as the Milky Way was referred to as it-Triq ta’ Sant’ Anna; Saint Anne’s Row. Tradition holds that those stars are drops of mother’s milk emanating from Saint Anne’s breast, hence the role bestowed on her as a protector of mothers nursing their offspring.
The Marian cult was carried down through many generations. It suffices to see the great number of temples, better known as churches and shrines that are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, under various titles and attributes. Perhaps people felt the need for the protection or the intercession of a female divine figure. Or was it that society found solace only in these myths?
I grew up in the 70s, when textbooks used to show women as stereotyped characters of our community. A woman had to take care of feeding her family, do the shopping, and tend to a spotless home. Stories of naughty boys were recommended, but stories of a carefree girl, or one with little schooling were questionable, at the most we could learn from her erroneous behaviour. Only a few girls would complete their studies or were encouraged to take them further. Women seemed to have paused in their advancement in society. But here I do perceive some contradiction. In past centuries, women in rural villages were taking care of the agricultural industry together with their husbands. And this too, besides the fact that following a day’s work in the fields, there would be more chores for them to do at home and to provide for their families. If we go further back throughout the centuries, women were the ones who kept the Maltese cotton industry running.
This work would be done without any compensation, as there was only one coffer – that of the family – and a woman’s duty was complementary to that of her husband in order to conclude where he left off.
And that, I think was what kept women on a leash, as women were dependent on their husbands. The idea that a woman was the property of her husband is not too distant from us. Society looked at women as subordinates, doing only what was expected of them. The structure of society was however built through the silent strength of these women, and in spite of all difficulties and even in times of crisis, she maintained her family solidly under her care.
Some rituals demanded that the eldest woman of the household to take the lead too. Not only was she expected to keep her house physically clean, but she was to ensure that the place had a ‘purified’ air free from any negativity and evil that might somehow have gained access. Whenever the need to purge the house arose, she would carry out the sacred rites, burning olive leaves with candle wax all over the house while chanting a special incantation or prayer to chase away evil spirits.
A woman’s hidden strength could also give rise to fear. Till today we refer to death as Ċensa l-Mewt, conjuring up a female character to whom outer appearances do not matter when one’s lease of life on this earth expires.
In a male dominated society, where only the husband read the newspaper while the illiterate wife was at her chores, women became the butt of the joke. During times when opportunities for women were far less than those of men in an ever changing society, jokes about women, or on women, were the accepted norm. Shortcomings in women were highlighted so as to make the joke even more absurd and funny. In humour, sexist attitudes towards women were documented as far back as Roman times. (Mary Beard: Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up, 2015). And it could be that present day society inherited this attitude too. Women too used to laugh at mother-in-law jokes, often influenced by British humour. This kind of perspective is no longer acceptable nowadays to women, whether young or old.
Women in employment today have become more independent and are free to develop their distinct identity and personality. This is an ongoing process. The road is long and the course may be slow, but I believe that there is a strong will and a solid foundation in Maltese women that are very determining. Education is the key – here I am not only referring to education for women but also for men, whereby women are given free access to study in all spheres of education – and men accept that their wives or girlfriends may pursue their own careers. The number of female students who are pursuing higher studies is proof that this is happening.
Today we see the trajectory of Maltese women’s role in our society: from the heights of the matriarchal role a woman had in the ancient times of the Temples they were made to stoop low in a patriarchal society whereby the wife and children were considered as the husband’s property (patria potestas).
Thanks to education and mindset this has changed considerably – I am referring to the mindset of our society – the way society looks at women. No longer are women considered as servants who tend to homes and fields at no expense, they are now working side by side with their male counterparts, at par with them in all aspects of modern society. They keep showing that in their ability to care for others and in their willpower lies all the strength that shaped our culture and our heritage, a truly unique identity that we can be proud of.
Today we reap the fruits of what our forebearers sowed. Had women in Malta’s folklore been paid for their toil and labour, would they have been considered to be more worthy? Would it have had an effect on our culture today and the way we look upon gender roles in the community?
* Rita Saliba is an artist and illustrator, the author of a number of children’s books. Three times winner of the National competition for Young Adult literature which led to the publication of three teen novels.
Between 2014 and 2018 she published three collections of short stories. Her two collections of microfiction, Fuq Widnejn Torox u Stejjer Żbukkati Oħra and MittKelma were published in 2018 and 2020 respectively. She wrote her first fully fledged novel, O.B.E., in 2019; this time intended for her more mature readers.