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MALTESE MYTHS & LEGENDS
Malta, a tiny country replete with mysterious temples, ancient buildings, a rich history and beautiful natural sites.
Taking into account the Maltese people’s romantic, emotional and frequently quirky temperament, it’s no wonder that Malta is also a treasure trove full of legends, myths, and folk tales.
The inspiring atmosphere of our beautiful country serves as the perfect muse for these stories. However, we must also remember that there’s generally a kernel of truth in every tale, so who knows which of this lore is fiction, and which actually stems from facts? As Shakespeare had written, “There are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of.”
Let’s take a look at some of the most well-known Maltese myths and legends:
The Lost City of Atlantis
It’s always been a mystery how the islands of Malta and Gozo, covering just over 316Km² of land, could house seven of the oldest known Megalithic Temples in the world, the oldest one being Ġgantija in Gozo, which is actually the second oldest known man made temple in the world (the first one being the recently discovered Gobekli Tepe complex in Turkey). Small wonder that so many writers and theorists have speculated that Malta is in fact the only remaining remnant of a much older civilisation, perhaps in fact that of the fabled lost city of Atlantis. Legend in fact states that when this city was destroyed due to its own evolved experimentations with the natural forces of the earth, the landmass which comprised Atlantis was split asunder and sunk into the sea, apart from a small fragment, which drifted on the earth’s crust until a huge Tsunami blew it from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Kind of staggers belief right?
The legend of Tal-Maqluba
Have you ever been to Tal-Maqluba, just south of the village of Qrendi? If you have, you must’ve noticed the strange 50m round crater exactly in front of the Chapel of Saint Matthew. The story goes that on that exact spot there used to be an evil village, full of corrupt and depraved people. God in fact was so angry at them that he punished the whole village by sinking it into the earth, which swallowed it whole. Others maintain that the hole was formed during an earthquake which took place in 1343, when a natural sink-hole was formed. Truth be told, I rather prefer the first story – it’s rather more exciting, right?
During the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a popular superstition stating that it was bad luck to be born on Christmas Eve. When pressed to say exactly why this was so, people would tell you that this was because those born on this date were cursed to transform into a monster called il-Gawgaw on their birthday, right after they fell asleep. Angry and deranged, they would roam the streets kidnapping children who had been naughty and disobedient. When they woke up in the morning however, they’d have transformed back from a monster into a human, without ever remembering what they had done, or where they’d stowed the naughty children.
The Underground City in Valletta
It’s well known that there are a number of underground rooms and passages beneath the eight Auberges in Valletta, as well as underneath a number of other important buildings pertaining to the era of the Knights of the Order of St John. However, the extent of these tunnels is a mystery. Folklore, as well as a number of historians and writers, tell us that in fact these tunnels used to link all the Auberges, making up a sort of underground city which also linked one to rooms and storage spaces found underneath St John’s Co-Cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace, the Grandmaster’s Palace and Square, the granaries at St Elmo, as well as underneath most of the city itself. Some say that today these are blocked off. Others say they are full of angry spirits and ghosts, while others still maintain that they’re used for smuggling stolen goods, or used by secret semi-sacred groups to meet and confabulate during long winter nights.
Calypso Cave in Gozo
In a medium-sized open cave hidden inside the high cliffs overlooking Ramla Bay on the Western side lies what is known as the Cave of Calypso. According to Homer’s Odyssey, Calypso was a water nymph who could not leave her abode – the island of Ogygia. After losing his ship and his comrades, the King of Ithaca and great hero Ulysses was blown on the shores of the island and found by Calypso, who fell in love with him. Ulysses remained in Calypso’s cave for seven years, before being allowed to sail back home to his wife.
However, Calypso was still in love with him, and legend says that she’s still waiting for him on her island. The way Homer describes the location of Ogygia within the Mediterranean Sea – as well as a number of other ancient writings on the subject – have led popular theory to state that Gozo is Ogygia, and that the cave was the one in Ramla Bay. If you want to take a look at it, all you have to do is visit this amazing beach, set between the villages of Xagħra and Nadur. Who knows, maybe you’ll even hear the sound of Calypso, moaning and crying for her Ulysses, in the sound of the crashing of the waves below.
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1. The legend of Ggantija Temples
Until the recent discovery of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, the Ggantija Temples in Gozo were long considered the oldest freestanding structures in the world. What may be even more awesome is that they were reputedly constructed by a female giant, as implied even by the name. Indeed, the UNESCO World Heritage site was built with megaliths over five metres high and weighing over 50 tonnes.
Ggantija dates back to between 3,600 and 3,200 BC and references to giants have existed even since biblical times. They also feature in several ‘legends’ around the world – could such a legend be merely a piece of indigestible history for our times?
2. The legend of il-Maqluba
Another story that makes some reference to giants, as well as angels, a pious lady and evil men, is the legend of il-Maqluba. There are many stories that attempt to explain the provenance of what is scientifically established as a 6,000m² sinkhole situated in the village of Qrendi. All of them unanimously point to a village of evil people once inhabiting the area. The variations lie with the way they were, um, disposed of.
The most famous legend is that God caused the entire village to be swallowed up by the earth, leaving only the house of a pious lady surviving on the edge of the village – on the spot a chapel is now built. Sweet! The other variations also explain the provenance of the islet of Filfla, which lies nearby.
3. The legend of Filfla
Lying just five kilometres south-west of Wied iz-Zurrieq, the islet of Filfla is said to be born of the earth of il-Maqluba. One version claims that angels were sent down by God (in response to the pious lady’s prayers) and flung the village of evil people into the sea. Another version claims that it was a giant (of course!) who scooped up the entire village in one hand and threw it into the sea, sparing the sweet lady.
The bottom line? It pays to be pious and sweet, lest angels or giants come to act as hit men on behalf of God.
4. The legend of Calypso’s Cave
The root of the legend of Calypso’s Cave in Gozo is Homer’s Greek epic poem The Odyssey, whereby Gozo is reputed to be the island of Ogygia. It tells the story of how the heroic Greek warrior Ulysses was kept a prisoner of love by the beautiful nymph Calypso in a cave in the cliffs, high above the red sands of Ramla Bay.
Ulysses was returning home from the siege of Troy when disaster struck, but while his shipmates perished, he battled a storm single-handed for nine days and nights, until he washed ashore on an unknown but utterly beautiful destination. Drawn by the song of the nymph Calypso, he ventured to the cave in which she dwelled. Now this is where we’re not sure whether to believe Ulysses’ rendition of the story or not. Calypso, daughter of Jupiter, the God of War, and the Queen of Ogygia, was beautiful indeed, and she offered him all the food, wine, love and power any man could desire. Nonetheless, Ulysses’ own desire was to return to Ithaca, his homeland, Penelope, his wife, and Telamon, his son. However, it was seven years later and only after Jove and Hermes intervened that Calypso allowed him to set sail towards home. It could sound like a sweet excuse he gave his wife, no?
5. The legend of Ghar Hasan
Ghar Hasan is named after Saracen Hasan who inhabited this beautiful large cave in Birzebbugia. Legend has it that he lusted after a girl from a nearby village and kidnapped her. Keeping her captive in his cave, he must have been hoping she would develop Stockholm Syndrome and eventually fall in love with him too!
From here, the legend goes two ways. Local farmers hunted down the girl, found Hasan’s hiding place and tried to rescue the girl. In a panic, he flung the girl over the cliff (true love!) and jumped after her, probably hoping to run away with her into the sunset once reaching the bottom. Erm. The other version claims the desperate girl threw herself over the cliff and, in despair, Hasan soon followed. Okay, now you almost feel sorry for the guy.
6. The legend of Wied Speranza
The legend of Wied Speranza offers hope to the faithful, hence the name by which the valley is now known. A young girl and her sisters were in the fields watching the family’s sheep when the invading Turks came upon them. The girls ran but the youngest, who was limp, could not keep up. She saw a cave and went into hiding.
Afraid, she prayed to Our Lady for protection. That’s when a spider came along and wove a thick web over the entrance to the cave, such that when the Turks showed up, they couldn’t imagine anybody had been in there for a very long time. And thus the girl was saved from what could have been an awful plight, thanks to a good-willed spider working on behalf of Our Lady.
7. The legends of the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum
The oldest underground temple and necropolis in the world, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, is the king of legends, with several attributed to it. So what’s all the mystery about?
One ‘legend’ is that of the lost children that was reported as actual fact in the National Geographic Magazine in 1940. The story goes that a group of children and their teacher mysteriously disappeared in the underground tunnels of the Hypogeum. A certain Ms Lois Jessup also reported strange underworlds leading from the Hypogeum. To make the story even more intriguing, elongated skulls were found in the Hypogeum among thousands of skeletons; skulls which were mysteriously removed from public view in the mid-eighties. Some say legend, others conspiracy theory.
Truth or fiction?
Not a bad lot of legends, is it? And that’s not counting other legends and mysteries associated with many buildings on the island. In fact, the whole island is shrouded in mystery, even being attributed the legend of Atlantis.
Truth or fiction? Your guess is as good as mine.
Tales, Legends and Folklore of Malta
Before I start sharing posts on all the different destinations you can visit on the islands of Malta, I thought I’d first pass on some tales and legends that I came across during my month exploring Malta. Sitting at a crossroads in the Mediterranean, Malta lies both between Italy and Africa, but also the Middle East and the Atlantic. This means, the island has often featured among other cultures’ stories. Aside from that, there’s also plenty of local folklore of Malta regarding its history and people. During my time on Malta, these are just a few of the stories and tales of local folklore that I learned about.
Isle of Calypso
One of the greater tales of Greek Mythology is Homer’s Odyssey. The story follows the long journey of the hero Odysseus and includes his troubles with the nymph Calypso on her island of Ogygia. Calypso lived in a cave on the island and fell in love with the hero, bewitching him so as to keep him on the island eternally. For seven years Odysseus stayed with Calypso under her enchantment. It wasn’t until the intervention of the gods that Odysseus was released from her spell and allowed to return home to his wife in Ithaca.
What makes this tale relevant to Malta is that it is widely believed that the island of Ogygia and the Maltese island of Gozo are one and the same. Since the 4th century BC, it has been suggested that Gozo is indeed the Isle of Calypso. Further reinforcing the idea is the presence of a cave by Ramla Bay on the island’s north. Since it is believed that this cave is where Calypso is said to have lived, it is now known as Calypso’s Cave. The cave is in fact a series of caverns and according to legend leads right down to the sea. The cave just recently had a small collapse and is not currently visible from its regular viewing platform.
When you visit Gozo, it becomes easy to understand how a legend arose about the island having a magical hold on you. Gozo is full of enchanting places and the vibrant red sand of Ramla Beach by Calypso’s Cave is a wonderful example.
The Megalithic Giantess
Scattered throughout the islands of Malta are stone structures that date all the way back to the 3600-2500 BC. These 5000 year old structures are historically known as megalithic, due to the large stones used to construct them. Thanks to their age, these millennia old temples are recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and interwoven into the local folklore of Malta.
According to local legend the ruins were remains of temples built by giants who once resided there. One such place with several ruins is the area known as Ggantija or the Giant’s Tower in English, in the heart of Gozo. This large temple complex still stands to this day and are the earliest of all the megalithic temples in Malta.
One legend from Ggantija tells of a giantess who was seen carrying boulders overhead in order to build many of the stone structures found throughout the area. It was said that she only ate broad beans and honey and built the places of worship all the while carrying a child too.
Shipwreck of St. Paul
The country of Malta has a deep relationship with Christianity, which according to legend had quite the fantastic start. It is said that Christianity came to Malta with the shipwreck of the Apostle Paul on a small island just off its coast in 60 AD. As told in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was en route to Rome as a political prisoner when the ship he was on got caught in a vicious storm. Its passengers were shipwrecked and washed ashore on an island that’s now known as St Paul’s Island. The island lies just across the bay from the town of Bugibba on the northern coast of Malta.
The tale says that once on Malta, the passengers were met and welcomed by the locals under Roman rule. Invited to a fire, Paul was suddenly bitten by a poisonous snake but miraculously didn’t fall ill. The people saw this as a sign that Paul was indeed an exceptional man. Paul would end up staying on Malta the entire winter and began the spread of Christianity on the island when he healed the Roman Chief’s father from a fever. It is said that very chief named Publius would become the island’s first bishop. Malta would become one of the first Roman colonies to convert, so quite an auspicious start indeed.
Which of these stories and folklore of Malta do you find the most interesting? Do you know of any other local Maltese legends? Please share in the comments below.
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