Forget the goddess theory, which you hear every tourist guide trying to explain the huge statues at the National Museum of Archaeology or while touring Hagar Qim.
That may not have been the original religion of Malta.
This was the startling starting point in a lecture “Ritual, Space and Structure in Prehistoric Malta and Gozo: New Observations on Old Matters”, given by Dr Caroline Malone, co-director, Xaghra Stone Circle excavation during the recent Heritage Malta international conference held at the Grand Hotel in Gozo.
Dr Malone is senior tutor at Hughes Hall, Cambridge, and Director of studies in archaeology and anthropology and principal research investigator for the Cambridge Templeton Project “Explorations into the conditions of spiritual creativity in prehistoric Malta” at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
The goddess theory may not have been adequately investigated and structured from the many archaeological remains in Malta and Dr Malone dismissed it summarily as a “faulty” theory.
All human societies are based on structured ritual and deal with such themes as life and death, male and female, right and left, good and bad, clean, and polluted. The human body is very important in that it constitutes a universal cipher for these themes.
The temples were for ritual, “the goddess”, fertility, sunrise, priests. Hypogea were for burial and also for the cult of ancestors.
Cult places in general are very special places, for the most part man-made, but possibly also using natural locations. They were mostly enclosed spaces, with controlled access. They were directional – orientated towards the sunrise. The presence of altars and libation holes in the temples in Malta shows this was a highly organised and repetitive religion with ritualistic symbols, participation in offering, with priests and a hierarchy.
The Maltese prehistoric society was a relatively stable, agricultural community, an intense and densely populated island, celebrating cyclical cycles of life, rites of passage, transitions between different stages of life, from separation to reintegration, fertility, ancestors, good spirits welcomed, bad spirits avoided, all in a cosmological context.
The Maltese prehistoric temples contain elements expected of ritual and cult – a regular layout along axis lines, enclosed spaces and public spaces offering only restricted views from the outside. The axis orientation (at Mnajdra it is clearly based on the solstice) is linked to a cosmology in an awe-inspiring location. Hagar Qim is surrounded by performance areas to which everybody had access. There are also oracle holes and even shrines in the outside wall focused on fertility and gender. But there are also barriers and thresholds controlling access to the interior. This is evident from the doorjambs and the holes for barriers. There are also thresholds, steps, in a word, exclusion.
It is also very significant to study the location of various objects. Libation holes, for instance, are always to be found on the left or in the middle, never on the right. The oracle holes in the restricted areas are always on the right. This was the domain of priests, the shaman, and altars.
Left means profane, unclean, female, death, rubbish, dark, weak. The right means sacred, pure, male, life, food, light, strong.
There are still some unresolved issues: Hagar Qim is a monument in the round, interesting inside, but equally so on the outside. It is also somewhat complicated to decipher: it seems to encourage increased audience participation and the pits for ritual rubbish and the fire pits are on the right.
Tarxien is the only temple where not only do we know what was there but also its exact location, thanks to Temi Zammit’s notes. Access was more controlled here: you did things in a particular pattern.
Hal Saflieni and the Xaghra Stone Circle conform to the left-right general orientation but with some differences. They are both enclosed underground sites, reserved for the (bad) dead spirits who must be controlled and kept safe underground.
You enter the Xaghra circle from Ggantija, from east to west. The right has a pit of male ancestors, the left a pit for young women. The purification area is on the left, while the phallic stone is on the right.
Dr Malone obviously based her observations and conclusions on the recent excavations of the Xaghra Circle. Dr Simon Stoddart, the co-director of the Xaghra Stone Circle excavation, submitted a fuller explanation.
Dr Stoddart has held posts in Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol and York and recently retired as editor of Antiquity. He has also directed several fieldwork projects in Malta, central Italy and Scotland.
The full analysis of the circle’s bones has shown there are 220,000 body parts buried there, mostly small bits of bone.
The circle itself was a colossal collection of ancestors. Some 800 skulls were found – this gives an inkling of the quantity of the bodies originally buried there. Interestingly, and curiously, the bodies seem to have been moved around. Some bodies remained intact – these were mainly male (thus undermining the goddess theory Dr Stoddart said and concurring with Dr Malone), while other bodies were sectioned off: the skulls collected at the top, the limbs on one side and the other bits on the other side. Some male corpses have older male corpses (ancestors) on top of them.
This burial ground thus preserves the memory of male ancestors. In a few cases, where some intact corpses were found, the man seems to have been buried first, followed by a woman.
Dr Stoddart also propounded a theory for the enigmatic double statue found at Xaghra of two seated persons. He suggested that this could symbolise the cycle of life: the figure on the right symbolises birth and that on the left death.
There is one curious unexplained detail: broken toes and limbs are very frequent. The Xaghra Circle is a great resource that requires further study, especially medical study. The broken bones and other evidence of stress could possibly point to a state of crisis in society.
The broken statues found at Tarxien further confirm this: these seem to have been broken up deliberately: it was the end of an era.
Professor Anthony Bonanno also seemed to agree that Malta’s original religion was more an ancestral cult than a mother goddess one. Ancestor memory provided social cohesion in times of stress.
Like Prof. Bonanno, Professor David Trump said the closest to the Maltese prehistoric temples seem to be the nuraghi, the massive stone monuments in Sardinia.
The location of the prehistoric sites can also shed information about population movements and events in those very distant times.
In a very interesting presentation, Dr Reuben Grima, Senior Curator of world heritage sites at Heritage Malta, plotted the location of the sites against their known history.
The basic feature of the Maltese Islands is that they are a series of river valleys – widien – and also that Malta, as opposed to other islands, is an archipelago. For these two reasons there seems to have existed a preference to travel by sea from one point of the coast to another, even though vast parts of the Maltese coastline are inaccessible.
There must have been a link between the location of temples and that of people but this is very nuanced and complex. There does not seem, for instance, to have been a preference in the siting of temples for elevation, nor specifically on slopes. It seems there was a preference for access to the sea and a short distance from the plains.
(Incidentally, the place names with Bir seem to be in the plains and those with Ghajn on the highlands)
Generally speaking, the direction of the slope seems to have been the most favourable for human settlements, natural gateways between the land and the sea.
However, there is a further twist, or complication: sites that started being built at around the same time do not seem to have had the same history. For instance, there is a site at Ghadira which dates roughly from the same time as Ggantija. But the Ghadira one remained small while Ggantija flourished. It seems that only those temples with a prosperous hinterland flourished.
In time, Malta and Gozo came to have one principal site each. Food resources seem to have dwindled and only those communities with an abundance of food grew larger while the other communities died down.
If food did not seem to have been shared between the various communities, knowledge and ideas appear to have been shared: there is a homogeneity of cultures evident in the various temples of Malta and Gozo, although there were also some specialised products.
One final point: there does not seem to have been any evidence of a centralised hierarchy.