MALTA DIARY: The mists of time and old wives’ tales
I was quite astounded this past week to hear the news that some well-known fairy tales dated pre-history and were subsequently and diligently handed down from one generation to another over the centuries with the tales of Rumpelstiltskin and Beauty and the Beast estimated to be over 4,000 years old and The Smith and the Devil stretching back even further to 6,000 years until the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen among others started writing them down in documented form.
Hearing this was a welcome break from the usual sorry tales of bombs going off here and there, terrorists doing this and that and the run-of-the-mill political claptrap of much parlance but little substance. Putting two and two together these thousands years old tales match the media fairy tales of today where it has become standard form for journalists of all hues to make up tales, fabricate and spin news to “scoop” the headlines.
Folklore has its place among al nations, all nationalities and all creeds and many consider it to embrace the habits and customs of any given civilization, its numerous activities, the type and quality of houses people lived in, the clothes they wore, the food available at the time, and of course their social dealings. Standing paramount above all these were and are folklore centred around religion, love and nature.
Maltese folklore is heavily entwined with all of these particularly religious faith and the escapades of the godly with the devil and his merchants, a history of heroes and brigands, literature, folktales, old wives‘ tales, legends, children’s rhymes and games, traditional herbal medicine, nicknames, birth and death rituals, feasts, memorable murders and old customs of people who are known to have inhabited Malta and Gozo over 7,500 years ago.
A very common feature in Maltese and Gozitan legends was the popular attempt to attribute the site of a church or a statue of devotion to supernatural intervention prevailing over the whims of mere humanity.
The “village“ of Qormi – a misnomer today because Qormi has evolved to be Malta’s most populated town – claimed that the original village church had to be erected at one particular site. However, the Knight Templar Stagno was known to be a wizard and wanted the church to be built nearer his home to save him the vexation of having to walk or ride to the church. Every night he wove his magic spells and the mystery of magic transported the foundation stones to the site he desired and where today stands one of the two parish churches. The naive people interpreted this as a sign that their patron saint St George wanted the church on the alternative site and, that was that.
Naturally, Gozo has its parallel to this event – as of course it would. The present day cathedral is in the capital Victoria in the enclosure known as The Citadel (Cittadella – which has recently been completely renovated). However, the original intended site was at a place called Gelmus Hill, a few kilometres away from Victoria. However, in the stealth of night the buidling stones were supernaturally transported to the hill topping Victoria and as the cathedral had been intended to glorify Our Lady, it was obvious this was the site Our Lady wanted – and again, that was that. The probability is that at a time of Ottoman piracy and brigandry it made more sense to build it on a fortified hill….
According to another Gozitan legend, the villagers of Nadur were in disagreement over the site for their church. Arguments were vehement and furious but then a gnarled old veteran proposed a solution. A mule was to be loaded with stone and allowed to roam and at the first place where the mule stopped would be the site chosen by God for his church. The mule was loaded at Xewkija and ambled off going uphill towards Nadur where it stopped on the highest spot – directed by God no doubt – and that was that and the church was erected.
The Ottoman invaders of course were always cast in the role of evil “bad boys“ and disbelievers, the very devils incarnate with imminent expectations of military invasions or piracy. A full-scale military invasion by massive Ottoman forces became a reality in 1565 when a large naval fleet appeared on the horizon. At first the fleet appeared to be sailing on but then turned and began landing thousands of soldiers at Marsaxlook where they then crossed over to St George’s Bay In Birzebbuga.
The Knights and their soldiers and Maltese volunteers were led by Umberto de Murines who vowed to personally finance the building of a church dedicated to Our Lady of Loreto if the Ottomans were defeated.
Defeated they eventually were and the building of the church began to take shape. However, the stones were “miraculously“ transported some 150 metres further away from the original site to a slight rise overlooking the bay. An old painting in the church shows de Murines kneeling in prayer with the approachiung Ottoman armada in the background.
An intriguing story is that related by the 19th century historian Count Ciantar who records happenings in the area known as San Pawl Milqi where it was traditional for the farmers and inhabitants in the area to celebrate the feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck in Malta by preparing a sumptious banquet. Farmers fattened a bull for slaughter and consumption and donated grains, fruit and vegetable products and others donated money. However, over the years the traditional banquet began to develop into an orgy of drink, over indulgence and debauchery.
Finally, the Bishop decided that enough was enough and prohibited the banquet in line with the recommendations from the official cleric of the Holy See (probably the Inquisitor) and ordered that donated monies go to the church for the holding of Holy Masses for the benefit of the souls of the dead who had lived in that area.
The farmers refused to accept the ruling and as the following 10th February approached fattened the customary bull and made the usual preparations. Early on the morning on the actual day, the bull broke loose and headed for the nearby church where he paused and then continued his headlong run, finally plunging into the sea and drowning.
This disaster convinced the local peasants that St Paul had spoken from heaven and had directed the whole affair from Heaven to show his displeasure at the Bishop’s order who however stood firm and adamantly refused to withdraw the decree and thus the whole affair came to an end.
Unsurprisingly enough, such stories are to be found in countries worldwide with divine authorities and magic thwarting or modulating the efforts of feeble humans. If I remember correctly one of the legends of the Stonehenge (UK) prehistoric temples is that the wizard Merlin ordered the huge blocks of stone to be transported from Ireland to England and of course, in the stealth of night.
As the playwright and poet William Shakespeare is attributed to have correctly written, “all the world’s a stage……“