Mythic Travel: Malta’s Neolithic Sacred Temples

The Mediterranean island of Malta has always fascinated me because of its long and variegated history: Neolithic ruins; it being the island where (according to tradition) St. Paul shipwrecked on the way to Rome (Acts 27:41-28:10); cultural influences from Phoenician, Greek, Byzantine, Norman, and other European control; ancient and medieval fortresses and churches; the ruling Knights of Malta holding off the Ottoman siege of Valetta in 1565, thus preventing any Muslim control of the island ever; and Malta’s critical role in WWII. Most interestingly for me, Malta boasts the oldest religious temples in Europe, which one can still visit. Malta witnessed the dawn of Neolithic religion in Europe. So when I and my wife Elena decided to get away from the harsh Chicago winter this year and retreat to southern Europe for a couple months, we naturally made out-of-the way Malta one of our major destinations, and we stayed there for about a week. It turned out indeed to be full of myth and mystery. We focused on visiting several Megalithic-Neolithic temples on Malta and the neighboring island of Gozo to the north. The most spectacular were those at Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra, each perched above the island’s western seaside cliffs about 600 meters from each other. Standing before them, I felt the brisk sea breeze and listened as the waves crashed on the rocks below; I could imagine what it was like at night under the stars in those ancient days when religious rituals were performed. It is a mythic spot that evokes spirituality. In 2009 canopies were installed over the temples to preserve them from the elements, but they are in harmony with the setting and scarcely disrupt one’s experience. Better to have these priceless treasures last for posterity.

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Front view of Mnajdra temple, protected by the new canopy.

Both temples date from around 3,600 BCE, about a millennium before Egypt’s Great Pyramid was built. They have roughly circular outside walls consisting of megaliths weighing up to 20 tons each. Inside are a number of bean-shaped apses arranged in a clover-like pattern and accessed through doors, some of which are carved through solid rock. In the apses are niches and altar platforms where statues and offerings were placed. Some of the interiors, especially doorways, feature carved spirals and other, mostly abstract designs. A prominent deity venerated there was a mother goddess now known in Malta as the “fat lady.” Parts of some limestone statues of her corpulent form were found there and in other temples on Malta. In some cases she is in a sitting position, while in others she is standing and the bottom of her pleated skirt is visible. (In the museum at Valetta there is a famous tiny but full clay statue of her, elegantly sleeping on her side.) Some specialists have suggested that the temples’ apses are arranged in such a way that worshippers are entering her womb through the birth canal. The temples are also astronomically aligned, much like Stonehenge and the Mayan buildings.

Fat Lady

Statue of the seated “fat lady” goddess found at Ħaġar Qim. Interestingly, unlike many Paleolithic and Neolithic goddess statues elsewhere, her breasts are not prominent. Also, when she is seated, her forelegs are usually slanted in one direction as here rather than being crossed.

A few miles away there is also an amazing underground Neolithic necropolis and temple known as the Hypogeum, dating from about 3,300 BCE, making it the earliest known underground temple in the world. It was mostly carved out of solid rock with primitive tools, but resulting in elegant architectural lines. Some of the cave paintings are still partially visible. It held the remains of up to about 7,000 people (now gone). It is a serene and eerie place, full of mystery. In order to preserve the cave paintings, the atmosphere is regulated and only a certain number of small groups are allowed in per day, so reservations well in advance are essential. These temples make a tremendous impression. It is not yet clear how these supposedly primitive, pre-literate people were able to transport and erect such large megaliths into architecturally integrated structures with accurate astronomical alignments. This ability of the local people to build them arose abruptly, and later they stopped building and abandoned them just as abruptly, and no one knows why. I heartily recommend making the trek to Malta to see these ancient mythic wonders, together with the many other fascinating historical sites and museums, and the old town of Valetta itself. The Maltese cuisine and wines are enjoyable too!

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Here I am at Ħaġar Qim by a 5.2 meter high menhir in the outer wall.

Recommended reading: David H. Trump, Malta: Prehistory and Temples. Midsea Books. 2002. © Arthur George 2015

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