Symbolism in the
Maltese Megalithic Temples
There are on the Maltese islands some 26 megalithic sites, that are recognisable as having been used as places of worship, all dating back roughly between 3,800 – 2,500 BC. In many of these archaeological sites there were found multitudes of objects, many of which when in use held a symbolic meaning. It is believed that these were produced specifically to express spiritual beliefs that correspond to the cult that was practised in the megalithic temples. The purpose of this article is to focus on the symbolism of these objects.
To discover the meaning of the objects found one must follow various disciplines, firstly, by interpreting them in the context of the archaeological site they were found in; secondly, by comparing these objects to similar findings in other past religious cultures; thirdly by referring to anthropological behaviour of other primitive societies both past and present.
Were the objects really connected to a religious belief?
In order to understand this question it is important first to seek out who the temple builders were. An essay on this subject has already been published on this website: ‘Malta’s Megalithic Temples – 18.01.2023 (plse click here: https://kliemustorja.com/2023/01/18/maltas-megalithic-temples/ to read article. The builders of the megalithic temples, and the artisans who were commissioned to carry out the artistic and symbolic representations all belonged to the farming communities that inhabited the Maltese islands some 5,800 – 4,500 years ago. On an archipelago where no perennial rivers exist, one dry season would suffice to cause a catastrophic famine that would wipe out all the islanders. The farming communities simply could not wait and hope for nature to go its course to ensure a good harvest. It was necessary to invoke the spirits or deities responsible to make the land fertile and yield crops year in year out. Shrines were built to honour such deities and to turn to them whenever it was felt necessary. Statues that represented fertility goddesses were housed within the temple precincts; talismans were worn by the temple priests, the communicators between the deity and man. In turn the simple folk consulted their priests and brought them gifts in the way of sacrificial animals as well as ex votos.
The fat statues and statuettes – goddesses or symbols of fertility?
About half a dozen small stone statues in the human form were discovered stacked away in a corner of the temple complex of Ħagar Qim. Many of these statues are between 30 and 50 centimetres tall and represent a broad-hipped, broad-shouldered figure that many scholars have interpreted as representing the female form. In truth, some statues were carved with little care and attention to the real life form as these showed little in the way of breasts or genitalia. Other figures which are portrayed squatting, were sculpted in a more realistic perspective, albeit with pronounced hips and thighs. Yet, these figures hardly ever show a bulging belly to portray pregnancy. One tends to assume that these statues were placed in the temples as cult objects. The question remains, however, as to what or who do these figures represent. Could these statues represent a caste of priestesses or priests that officiated in the temples? Or were the statues meant to portray a symbol of fertility as is more commonly believed?
Of all the statues that survived, one in particular literally stands above the rest by its massive size. This statue was positioned on the right hand side of the courtyard of the Southern Temple of Tarxien. Its height would have originally reached up to around two metres. Surely, this particular statue must have qualified as the visual personification of ‘the Goddess’ in persona.
Decorated stone surfaces – The pittings and the spiral designs
The predominant decorative designs discovered in the prehistoric temples of Malta are mainly of two types: the pittings – i.e. a multitude of tiny holes drilled side by side – that act as a decorative filler applied to a blank stone-block surface. These may have been mere decorations or else may have well held a symbolic meaning. Perhaps the tiny holes represent rain drops, or a profusion of seeds that were typically sown in the fields by farmers. This symbolic design on sacred stones was a way of propitiating a physical abundance of crops.
Then there was the spiral motif that seems to have been created and replicated during the later phase of the temple period. In the Southern Temple of Tarxien the spirals are very elaborately executed in a more sophisticated manner on almost every sacred stone block that formed part of the altars. In one instance there is a pair of spirals that stand alone in the Tarxien Central Temple. The stone block on which these are depicted seems to have purposely been positioned to bar access to the inner and sacred part of the temple. These spirals in particular have been interpreted differently as they recall a pair of eyes in stylised form that were meant to guard the sanctuary.
The spiral design must have been inspired by nature itself. For instance, the design could be an artist’s emulation of the movements of the sea waves as they crush against the rocky coast. Otherwise, such spiral designs might also be a visual interpretation of something invisible, namely the gale winds that the Maltese islands are so often exposed to.
Scholars have often attributed the spiral design to a metaphoric representation of ‘the continuity of life’, because it is a design that contracts and expands onto itself. At first instance, this theory may sound like a repeated cliché, picked up from other ancient religions but is somewhat difficult to apply to the Maltese context. Perhaps a more direct and simpler inspiration for this design should be sought.
The spiral could simply be representing a creature that in the life of the farming community was omnipresent – the snail! It is a fact that upon the onset of the rainy season, one notices a sudden abundance of snails emerging from their hiding place under the stone boulders, following a long period of aridity. Thus, the spiral form that is so evident on the back of snails may have well become synonymous to the rebirth of life in nature and consequently to the return of productive seasons.
A similar spiral design, albeit painted in ochre which perhaps merits a somewhat different interpretation was drawn on the ceiling and side walls of the so called ‘Oracle Chamber’ within the underground cemetery of Paola, known as the Hypogeum. This time the spiral curls into ‘branches’ that have fruit attached to them. One wonders what sort of fruit these were. Pomegranates maybe? Just like snails, the pomegranate also matures and is ready for harvesting in the first months of the rainy seasons. The same fruit also features in the fertility tale of Persephone of Greek mythology. Thus in the context of the underground burial chambers of the Hypogeum, the spiral might hint at the spiritual aspirations of man in the resuscitation of all those deceased and buried in the womb of mother earth.
The animal designs
Excavations inside the Tarxien temples site held in between 1914 – 1916, yielded definite proof that animals such as sheep, goats and pigs were sacrificed as part of a ritual to appease Mother Earth. Not only were such animals carved onto stone altars; inside one particular altar in the Southern Temple there were found remains of a goat and a flint knife lying close by.
On one of the stone slabs in the same temple there are two bas reliefs. One depicts two rows of goats, 22 of them to be exact, the second drawn on a similar stone slab shows four goats, one pig and one ram. While the first set may well have served as a decorative filler on an otherwise empty stone face, the second group indicates a precise number of sacrificial animals that may have been ritually killed on one particular occasion.
Further inside the temple, in a space wedged between the Southern and the Central temple, there are two megaliths, on which there are bas reliefs of two bovine animals and that of a sow with thirteen piglets hanging onto its breasts. Below one of the two bovine bas reliefs, a small squarish opening pierces the megalith allowed just one or two domesticated animals, such as swine or sheep to be kept locked in the inner recess, separate from the rest.
Playthings or Ex votos?
In many of the megalithic temples as well as in the Hypogeum and in the Xagħra Circle on Gozo, there were found a significant number of tiny figurines, in the human and animal shape as well as tiny representations of water or food vessels. These statuettes were often made of clay but sometimes of other material. The true meaning of these handmade objects is uncertain, but many agree that each of these objects was presented to the temple priests as a kind of inexpensive gift, an ex voto of sorts, a reminder and appreciation for a grace received. Some were discovered close by to the so called ‘Oracle Hole’ of the Tarxien Eastern Temple (Temple number 2). Similarly, inside the Hypogeum, small figurines, amongst which, the famous ‘Sleeping Lady’, were also found inside one of the pits. The latter too must have been left behind as an ex voto. In this instance, this figurine might have well represented a sick woman who was brought into the underground complex on a litter in order to be seen to by the priest or medicine man to be cured from an illness or condition that she suffered from. Then again, the donor of the statuette might have wanted to invoke the powers of ‘Mother Earth’ for her intervention to cure her. Some scholars suggest that the effigy of this reclining figure might also reflect the act of communicating with the dead through dreams when she slept inside one of the chambers.
Even more intriguing and telling is the twin limestone statuette found at the Xagħra Circle in Gozo. Two adjoined female figures are seated side by side. One is holding a cup or a bowl in her hands while the other is holding a child. Could this statuary set represent a particular instance when two women went into the sanctuary to pay homage following a safe deliverance during childbirth?
Having said all the above, when interpreting these objects, one must bear in mind that the megalithic temples were in use for more than a thousand years and so were the type of objects found within them. Thus one must reckon that while the religious concept of fertility may have been retained throughout, the value of the symbolism of some of the objects may have altered in time.
March 15, 2023
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