Malta Diary By the power of Satan – and in the eyes of many, he still reigns!
We have reached the 16th year in the 21st Century; man’s landing on the moon is now old hat – not even worth mentioning any more. The current discussion is when man will land on Mars with NASA scientists stating it will not just be a landing, but living there for a sustainable period.
There has been substantial scientific progress all round and in every sector but in the sphere of the occult and inherently and basic human beliefs, time has apparently stood still.
Recently, Maltese historian Yanika Schembri Fava thoroughly researched on whether the people of Malta and Gozo still believed in the power of the Evil Eye and all the relative curses attached to it, and the answers she obtained were a resounding “Yes!” Many still take precautions to also ensure the antidote to this effect by going through various “cleansing” ceremonies.
In her report Yanika stated that when a person for some reason or other, maybe out of anger or because of an envious jealousy wishes to put a curse on somebody else, a rival, or somebody who has crossed them, or simply out of hate, and in a great number of cases are paid to cast a curse by a third party, according to the beliefs of many, they may well be able to.
The deeper implication of course is that for a person to cast “evil” they have to invoke the evil power of Satan, either because they themselves are in league with Satan, or because they are driven by Satan to carry out his works.
When interviewed recently, she said, “From my research it emerges that there is full belief in the curse, although perhaps in poetry one doesn’t find it anymore, but in general people still believe that there are those who can put a curse on others, and many still believe in the evil eye and making the two-finger sign of the horn to ward off evil is still very popular”.
Her research also showed a surprising number of people who believed they were “born unlucky” and equally envied a person who they deemed to be thriving as having been “born lucky”.
It therefore comes as no surprise that the paid services of “professional” fortune tellers are much sought after whether over romantic matters of the heart, suspected infidelity or taking a gamble. Astrology too is still very popular. Palmistry and Tarot Cards are equally popular.
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, as Yanika Schembri Fava experienced, 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!