Malta Diary When candles flickered and shadows were ghosts or ghouls
My father was a great story-teller having acquired the knack from boyhood days in the late 1920s when electricity in many towns and villages was still rare and non-existent in remote and rural country areas. Entertainment was sparse – remember no television, no electronic communication, only the very rich could afford a crackling radio set and films were just converting from the silent screen into “the talkies” and were still a luxurious rarity.
Human imagination had no fertile ground to work on except for the day-to-day surrounds of deeply superstitious religion, the foul works of “the devil” and the doings of evil men and their criminality. Communities were small, introvert, restricted and had no dialogue or communication outside their sheltered fold in which everybody knew everybody else and all knew each other’s scandals and woes.
On a hot summer’s evening when the heat made early sleep virtually impossible, these small communities would gather on somebody’s doorstep, bring out their chairs, light candles or a flickering paraffin lamp and give vent to their tittle-tattle or their deepest fantasies, mainly centred on the evil and the sinister.
The men played cards and drank wine and discussed the latest price of bread and what the politicians in “far away” Valletta were up to and how the latest edict from the British Governor General was affecting their family life.
There were children in droves. It was quite normal for a family to have ten or more children (like my father’s was) and a number of still-borns. Over-worked women looked after their droves and rested from a day which had probably begun at 5am and stretched to 8pm non-stop, cleaning, cooking and looking after their offsprings.
And the tales would commence…about the man who had a secret pact with the devil and was found strangled in his bed…about the crumbling villa down the road from which mysterious screaming sounds could be heard at night and lights were seen to flash….about the boy who disobeyed his mother and woke up with blackened hands….about the Arab who lived nearby for a while and worshipped evil…..and on and on.
Flickering candles made shadows and each shadow was a devil or a ghoul. In winter with everybody behind closed doors and candles flickered even more, the howling wind seemed to carry screams of anguish that made the spine shiver; flying leaves and debris rustling against glass windows were devils trying to enter. Darkness and evil were everywhere.
As late as my own boyhood in the 1950s, such tales were still popular and evil still abounded everywhere. I remember attending a convent school and in the classroom there were two striking paintings.
One featured the dreaded downhill road to Hell, a slippery slope full of scantily clad male and female sinners playing cards, drinking wine, being dissolute and lewd in general and at the bottom of the slope the evil-looking devil stood leering with an enormous fork in his hand and an even more enormous fire raging behind him.
The other painting was the upward road to Heaven, a wide well-paved path strewn with exotic flowers and slowly trudging uphill a procession of pious looking men and women, hands clasped in prayer and a radiance beaming on their facial features. At the top of the hill stood a genteel-looking St Peter welcoming the fold to the Gates of Heaven.
These pictures made an impact on me but secretly I always felt the Road to Hell appeared more attractive, more fulsome, while the Road to Heaven appeared stale and dry, bereft of any fun and laughter.
Another painting featured the naughty boy who raised his hand to strike his mother and remained paralysed with raised hand.
My Godfather Uncle Edwin and his dear wife my Auntie Annie had a summer residence at in those days remote Bugibba and I spent most of my summers there, swimming, fishing and traipsing about the dry and barren fields in hot summer sun. Electricity had not yet reached the area (in the late 1950s) and on summer evenings there was the customary gathering of neighbours to see out the hot evening outdoors.
Their residence was one of the last in the area, a few metres away from the sea-shore and the swishing sea waves. On one hot and windy evening somebody heard the faint tinkling sound of a bell. A hush fell over the gathering and the tinkling continued at regular intervals.
What could it be? Speculation and fantasy was rampant, but the ultimate conclusion was that the sound was coming from the sea-shore and was probably that of somebody who had drowned and his or her Guardian Angel was tinkling a bell to catch our attention.
The men decided to form a search party. Lanterns were brought out amongst many hushed whisperings and the party wend its way down over the rocks towards the sea shore, men with their flickering lanterns at the front, women and children a safe distance away at the back with much ear cuffing and face-slapping for children who tried to get nearer the men or were asking too many questions for their own good.
Down at the shoreline all was revealed and solved. A poor goat had fallen into the sea and drowned. The waves had jammed its body into a crevice half-in, half-out of the water. It had a bell around its neck and the bell tinkled each time a wave motioned its bloated and jammed body.
Flickering candles produce shadows and shadows are laden with ghosts and ghouls and Maltese and Gozitan folklore down through the centuries abound with tales of evil spirits, evil devils, the fires of hell, sinister men and women and marauding Moorish pirates, the everyday fears that straddled their life on earth and instilled fear and superstition.
The cleverer played on these fears. One ruse was that if you wanted people to keep away from a certain building or a locality, the best remedy was to invent sounds of screaming being heard, strange whisperings at night, flickering lights and eerie happenings – certain remedies to keep people well away day and night.
Over the coming weeks I will be giving more insight into the most enduring folklore tales and legends that either dogged or enriched life in Malta and Gozo – for example, if you were unfortunate enough to be born on Christmas Eve…..well, God help you!