Malta Diary The Inquisition, the “Evil Eye” and the two-finger sign in Malta and Gozo
Heresy, witchcraft and devilish evil were preoccupations of the Church of Rome almost from its inception. Malta was converted to Christianity by Paul of Taurus in approximately 60AD and has remained steadfastly Roman Catholic ever since, barring a 200-year period when it fell under Moslem Caliphate rule until the Arabs were expelled by a force led by Count Roger of Normandy early in the ninth century.
Needless to say such blind faith had to be enforced and who better to do it than a permanently appointed Inquisitor to ensure that nobody, but nobody strayed from the long and narrow path. Straying from such path entailed being in cahoots with Satan and in turn required being either executed or given “treatment” to force the expulsion of the evil Satan.
Malta and Gozo however were fortunate in this. The real force of inquisitorial power came into full effect from the middle of the 14th century but the stroke of luck was that The Pope decreed that Malta should fall under the Roman Inquisition and not the Spanish – and there was an enormous difference between the two.
The Spanish Inquisition was dour, vindictive, cruel and unsparing. The Roman Inquisition had a much gentler operation. Death sentences were rare and physical punishment was strictly controlled and limited – and in most cases subject to medical supervision. In comparison to today’s Guantanamo enclosure, Malta’s operations were quite meek.
The torture of pregnant and aged women was strictly prohibited. Lashing and whipping were limited in number and a medical representative present could stop the punishment if he decreed the miscreant was suffering too much, or bleeding too profusely.
Perhaps the hardest sentence was that of males being sentenced to serve time on the galleys of the Knights of Malta, a strenuous and debilitating time of forced maltreatment and quite often resulting in death during battle engagements.
It is interesting to note that the Inquisitor did not only deal with religious heresy but acted as a Police Commissioner too. A study reveals that cases included a prison warden who stabbed a fellow Maltese to whom he was in debt; another was that of a prison warden who entrusted his money to a prisoner but the prisoner misappropriated the money; another case was that of an individual who bore false witness against a neighbour.
There was of course the religious side. One fellow was given a one-day prison sentence for insulting high Church dignitaries; two Greeks admitted to having converted to Islam and should have been sentenced to the galleys but because they were disabled they were given a four-year prison sentence instead.
A very stern view was exercised of sorcery and witchcraft, particularly of gullible people in exchange for money. Illiteracy was virtually total and the more clued-in made a lucrative career of being wizards and witches. Incantations to cast off evil spells were popular as well as for health reasons or as a means of achieving a desire and indeed that of vesting harm on an enemy.
From the middle of the 14th century until the start of the 17th century, The Pope appointed a continual succession of Italian Inquisitors who were directly responsible to the Vatican. With the French invasion at the beginning of the 17th century and the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte, all forms of Inquisition were abolished. When the British expelled the French, the Church pressed for the Inquisition’s continuation but the British would have none of it, and that was that.
The position of Inquisitor was a powerful one and there were often raging conflicts between the Inquisitor, the Maltese Church authorities and the ruling Knight Grandmasters, the three entities anxious to flex their powerful muscles and rule the roost.
The greatest clash was that of 1768 when Knight Grandmaster Manoel Pinto banned the Jesuits from Malta on grounds they were too inquisitorial (in fact because they were challenging his power). The Inquisitor Giovanni Ottavio Macinforte Sperelli strongly objected to this and lobbied the Vatican to over-rule the Grandmaster – to no avail and the Jesuit ban remained for some time.
The Inquisitors themselves had a fairly comfortable time. A large palace at Vittoriosa was assigned to them as their abode and the location of prison cells. Later, an Inquisitor decided to build a summer residence with a chapel at Girgenti where he could enjoy the summer in relative comfort.
Some of the Inquisitors themselves were far from holy and easily strayed from the path. To a considerable number the lure of women and sex were too powerful and their appointment was terminated for showing such affection.
Above all, their main preoccupation was that of dealing with the enormous number of cases involving the “evil eye”. This was a process whereby a person could invoke the powers of Satan to cause harm to an enemy, the enmity usually resulting from being jealous, greed or vesting evil powers to settle a score against a rival or an enemy.
This in turn gave rise to a substantial trade in bodily ornaments to ward off the “evil eye” such as amulets and bracelets and necklaces adorned with a miniature bull’s horn. There was also a two-finger manifestation with the two fingers symbolising a pair of bull horns (not an “up yours” sign!) to neutralise the evil.
Individuals who felt they had fallen under the “evil eye” resorted to the services of a wizard or a witch and the most common treatment was that of being made to stand in a circle whilst the wizard/witch burnt dried olive leaves wafting the smoke over the individual and then the burnt ashes over the individual’s head – together with a droning incantation.
Traditions and superstitions die hard and the “evil eye” is still strongly manifest today with many people still wearing charms and using the two-finger exercise. All Maltese fishing boats have an eye painted on both sides of the prow, looking down into the sea and warding off the evils of the deep.
Village rumours single out individuals decreed to be “acting in the power of Satan”, such power being invested in the look in their eyes and even their tongue. It is still very common for two people to meet and if one compliments the other with such an innocuous remark as “you’re looking well and healthy” to have this returned with the two-finger exercise either openly or behind their backs!
My late mother swore that it was as a result of the “evil eye” that my brother Edward was constrained to wear spectacles from the age of four to-date, 60 years later. She used to recount meeting an acquaintance of hers who looked at my brother and remarked “what beautiful eyes he has”. According to her the very day after Edward began to cross his eyes and a visit to a specialist determined he had “a lazy eye muscle” and would as from henceforth have to wear spectacles.
Nothing convinced her otherwise, even on her death bed. Such is the power of superstition.