MALTA DIARY: Ghosts, ogres, myths, legends and traditions that have shaped Malta and Gozo down through the centuries
Apps, computers, tablets, social media and instant news are today’s modern influences. Not so long ago it was vastly different because the influences were provided by nature – whether natural or unnatural – and included weather patterns, animal behaviour, social status and the ‘power’ to forecast, curse, interpret and of course – invent, and all mainly underpinned by religious influences.
Roman emperors, senators and centurions always sacrificed an animal on the eve of any great event – particularly a battle – and studied the condition of its liver to obtain omens. A perfectly formed liver was a good omen while a tainted and scarred liver was a terrible omen and forecast defeat and tragedy.
Malta, Gozo and its people have been influenced by these forces down through the centuries and need to be recorded for posterity because most have had their day and their usefulness and the bulk of today’s youth are totally unaware of them and only remain vaguely in old-timer memories.
Here are some of them.
Being born on 24th December was considered a most unfavourably disastrous day to be born. According to superstitious belief which lingered on in the islands right up to the end of the 19th Century, persons born on this day risked being transformed into a ghost at night while they slept.
To make it more effectively out-ranging, the “Gawgaw” manifested itself by wandering around and groaning during the night and was used as a means of controlling children who misbehaved. These were threatened the “Gawgaw” would kidnap them and drag them away to a far off land where they would be exiled to a life of hunger and loneliness.
Towards dawn the persons transformed into a “Gawgaw” would return home exhausted. By the time they woke up in the morning they would have resumed their human form, quite unaware of their nocturnal peregrinations. The remedy against this transformation was a particularly one and consisted in inducing the sufferer to sit up all night counting the holes of a sieve from eleven o’ clock at night to the following Christmas morning!
Children were also a target of this scam! This was a time when a household running water supply was non-existent. Households either had a well in their backyard on otherwise on the corner of a network of streets there was a common, public water pump and the household wife or her children would have to visit the pump daily, armed with various buckets and other recipients to fill up and take home the day’s supply.
Children (and there were plenty of them!) would spend their day playing around in the backyard and children being children always had the curiosity to prise open the well cover and peer down the well – sometimes with fatal consequences.
The remedy was to threaten children with “Il-Belliegha”, a terrible monster who lived in the well and would grab any child who opened the well cover, and devour them. This was one of the threats my grandparents used in my case!
On the more realistic side, most house owners kept a few eels in their fresh water well because the eels would eat away moss and vegetable growth and help purify the well and keep it clean.
Saint Paul’s Grotto
According to legend, St Paul’s Grotto at Rabat in Malta always remained the same size no matter how many people chipped away bits of rock to take away as souvenirs. This was supposed to be due to the miraculous influence of St Paul who always ensured his grotto would remain intact!
A comical legend was attached to this too concerning one of the early travel guides taking tourists around but whose command of the English language was extremely limited. His explanation was said to have been “cut and cut you never cut”.
Another legend in connection with St. Paul says that when he was preaching at Burmarrad, his voice carried as far away as Gozo where the people there flocked to the coast to hear his sermon. He must have had an enormously large megaphone!
Saint Paul and the Venomous Viper
Yet again St Paul was at the centre of probably the best known legend in Malta because it is recorded in the Bible description of his shipwreck in Malta. After struggling to make land amidst the ravages of the storm, he was gathering wood to make a fire for the shipwreck survivors when a venomous viper sprang out of the sticks and bit him. The Maltese “barbarians” (as described by St Luke as their native tongue was not Latin) and who were ruled by superstition interpreted this as a sign that the new arrival was an evil man and although the Gods had spared him from death by drowning they took revenge on him in another lethal form. However, St Paul suffered no harm and it is said that from that day onward all poisonous snakes and scorpions were eliminated from the Maltese islands.
Men later extended on this to their advantage by adding that St Paul may have eliminated the poison from snakes and scorpions but had transplanted this into women’s tongues!
The Legend of Ghajn Razul
It is believed that the water spring known as Ghajn Razul, in the area of Burmarrad, was the work of St. Paul who needed water for his shipmates after their shipwreck. The name ‘Razul’ is derived from the Phoenician language and means ‘apostle’, thus giving more credibility to the Pauline connection. Of more importance is the fact that this indicates his shipwreck was in the St Paul’s Bay locality and not at Mistra where there was another spring although nowadays there is a totally different contention that in fact the shipwreck took place in the south of Malta and not in the northern part.
Treasure at Fort Ricasoli
A Maltese ghost is referred to as “il-hares” perhaps a derivation from the Latin “Lares” (i.e. household gods). Once, a “hares” in the form of a Turk, woke a workman at Fort Ricasoli (in the Grand Harbour region) and told him of an enormous treasure within the fort area. This workman told one of his colleagues and together they went to search at the indicated spot where they found a treasure of coins. As in other local folk tales because of his greed and the betrayal of the secret imparted to him only by the ghost the coins were immediately turned into coal. The following night the “hares” reappeared and beat up the workman for sharing the secret. The moral of this legend is that if a ghost gives you information, keep it to yourself and don’t share it!