MALTA’s MEGALITHIC TEMPLES – part 1
Why were they built?
There are on the Maltese islands some 26 megalithic sites, that are known as having been used as places of worship, all dating back to between 3,800 – 2,500 BC. Some of these temples are grouped in clusters of two or three, others stand alone. In many of these archaeological sites within the stone structures themselves, there were found multitudes of objects, some of which were used as implements, others as cult objects that were related to the same spiritual beliefs for which the megalithic temples built. The purpose of this article is to seek the understand the details as to why the temples were built.
The investigation of Malta’s archaeological sites was conducted by a multitude of scholars who approached the subject from various angles. Some studied the style of the architectural features that resemble one another in all the megalithic sites. Others took an anthropological approach and focused on the society of the Maltese islands and the environment in which this society lived. To delve deep into the mindset of the temple builders, another approach was to focus on the beliefs and religions of other ancient Mediterranean societies and apply that information to the Maltese context.
Who were the megalithic builders?
It is generally assumed, and rightly so, that the builders of the megalithic temples were simple farmers who lived in semi-isolation on the Maltese archipelago, and were spread in small communities across Malta and Gozo. For these communities to survive they must have relied on such basic natural resources as a good supply of water as well their agricultural produce. An appropriate amount of livestock too would have been an important asset in order for the population to support itself with a daily nutritional intake, irrespective of what was provided in the fields. All was well as long as the number of inhabitants remained limited to a few hundred families, sharing between them an area of a mere 315 square kilometres. However, the situation would have become precarious once the population grew further in number. The restrictive size of the islands for agriculture and the small amount of water springs could not cater for more. It only took one season with less rain, to cause a drought that endangered the farming communities by depriving them of the water supply needed for 365 days of the year. One bad harvest was all it took to cause famine and thus annihilate the population at large. The farming community could not simply wait for rainfall to happen and for the sun to ripen the crops to ensure itself a good harvest. It was necessary to invoke the spirits or gods responsible for the natural elements to provide them with the required climatic conditions and fertility in the land. It was for this reason that shrines needed to be erected wherein rituals were held in order to communicate with the supernatural beings responsible.
Fertility Cults all over the Mediterranean
Anthropologists maintain that one of the earliest religions that was formulated was based on animism, that is, the belief that all of nature, which included the heavens, the earth, plants, animals and humans, has a soul, one that generates energy and thus assists life to flourish. This belief is easily discernible when studying the religious traits of many ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern societies. Let us try to check briefly on some of the better known religions that once existed to see if these could also be applied to the Maltese temple culture.
In order to describe how the ancient gods controlled what went on throughout the life cycle of plants and nature at large, people created mythological tales, (could also read legends). These tales formed the basis of religious cults that are found in ancient societies as the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and others. Such tales were considered as the the logicl truth as they provided a plausible explanation for the yearly cycles of nature.
In Greek mythology there was the tale of Persephone daughter of Demeter and Zeus, who was kidnapped by Hades, the god of the underworld. The story goes that Persephone was obliged to live with Hades for six months of the year, while during the following six months she would return to Mount Olympus to live with her mother Demeter who was the goddess of fertility. Demeter was pleased when Persephone stayed with her and so propagated fertility in the land. Otherwise, when Persephone went back with Hades, she let the land become sterile.
The Phoenicians believed in the god Baal who was in charge of rain, as well as in the god Mot, who was the god of sterility and the underworld, (mewt / mwt is a Semitic word which means death). Similarly, in Egyptian mythology there is the story of Osiris who, when killed by his brother Seth, became the god of the underworld who took care of the dead. It was Osiris who ensured the yearly replenishment of the Nile that flooded the land in the summer months by the waters that came down from the Ethiopian highlands. By October, the flooding of the land abated and so the fields could be tilled and crops were sown. In all these myths and many others, there is a recurring theme that explains the cycle of life and death in nature as dictated by the gods. Although such tales were never textually in prehistoric Malta, similar beliefs could well be applied to the local scenario, as we shall see.
What went on inside the temples?
Each of the the temples was constructed in a series of apsidal chambers that surrounded a courtyard. The central apse was often identified as a main chapel, altar or niche. The lateral apses that adjoined the central apse completed a trefoil shape. Altars of various sizes were distributed in various parts of the temples. One may assume that these temples were used as a place of rituals that were officiated by a caste of priests who probably were also regarded as the leaders of the community. The priests were the official communicators between the spirits and the simple folk. One may envisage that on particular days throughout the agrarian calendar, farmers attended special ceremonies held in or just outside the temples. On such occasions, the farmers would bring their land produce or else their livestock, or both, to be offered to the deity worshipped in the temple. One might may also conjecture that such gifts after being offered to the deity were later consumed by the temple priests. These ceremonies were held to either invoke, propitiate, or thank the gods or more specifically the goddess of fertility.
In front of the temple facades, a pair of tethering holes are sometimes seen. These could have well been also used to receive liquid offerings, such as water, milk or blood as part of the libation rituals by which the earth could be symbolically ‘fertilised’. Such rituals when held in front of a congregation proved to one and all that the libation ensured that ‘Mother Earth’ was satiated and would therefore be pleased to provide the natural resources to man.
The significance of the ‘Holy of Holies’ in the Hypogeum
Together with the megalithic temples, the farming communities developed other shrines, this time, to bury their dead. The Xagħra Circle in Gozo and the Hypogeum in Paola were two such underground cemeteries that were dug out contemporaneously with the above ground temples. Both sites were dug out of the live rock and enlarged over time into numerous underground chambers. Inside the Hypogeum, a small sized ‘chapel’, similar in shape to the above ground temples was hewn out of the live rock. While the rituals held in the above ground temples were intended to propagate the growth of crops, the rituals held inside the Hypogeum were meant to ensure the well being of the defunct in their afterlife and possibly lead to their re-incarnation. The earth was thus regarded as a ‘mother’ and a ‘womb’ if you will, where from, following a gestation period, all plants, animals and humans were to be ‘reborn’.
Having said all the above, when interpreting any of these temples and all features and objects found inside these sacred archaeological sites, one must be wary of the fact that the symbolic images discovered may have morphed in their scope and meaning throughout the hundreds of years that the temples were in use. That which was uncovered by the archaeologists is only interpretable according to the last purposeful function of that object as related to the space of the temple wherein the object was found. Earlier practices might have changed over time, but could have well been discarded and forgotten and so shall remain elusive to present day scholars. However, the fertility cult survived for more than a thousand years. This was part of the communal psyche of the farming communities on the Maltese islands.
January 18, 2023
Bibliography (selected titles)
Bonanno Anthony (Ed.), Archaeology and Fertility Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean. B.R. Grüner Publishing Co. Amsterdam. 1985.
Cavendish Richard, ‘Earth’, Man Myth & Magic Encyclopedia. Vol 2.
Chadwick H., ‘Dying God’. Man, Myth & Magic Encyclopedia, Vol. 2.
Evans J.D., The Prehistoric Antiquities of the Maltese Islands: A Survey. The Athlone Press. 1971.
Mifsud Anthony & Savona Ventura Charles (Ed.), Facets of Maltese Prehistory. Prehistoric Society of Malta. 1999.
Pace Anthony (Ed.), Maltese Prehistoric Art, 5000 – 2500. Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti. 1996.
Ridley Michael, The Megalithic Art of the Maltese Islands. Dolphin Press, Dorset U.K. 1971.
Sharpe. Eric J., ‘Fertility’, Man Myth & Magic Encyclopedia, Vol 3.