The Megalithic Temples Of Tarxien In Malta: The Shrines To An Earth Mother

The temple complex of Tarxien found beneath a field in Malta is one of the largest ancient monuments in Europe. Who built it, when, and why? How is it linked to other sacred sites in Malta? Is it part of a megalithic culture found elsewhere in Europe?

The Megalithic Temples Of Tarxien In Malta
The Megalithic Temples Of Tarxien In Malta

In 1902, a new housing development was underway in Paola, a suburb of Malta's capital of Valletta. Workmen, cutting through the rock to make water cisterns, suddenly broke into the top of a great subterranean chamber. Descending into the bowels of the earth, they found a series of interconnecting caverns containing a multitude of human bones. Fearing delays, the building contractor hushed up the discovery until the houses were finished.

By the time the find was reported, much damage had been done: the upper levels of the site had been disturbed by building works, and the underground chambers used as waste dumps. To make matters worse, the first official investigator of the site died without leaving written records. Yet what had been discovered turned out to be one of the most ancient and mysterious structures in western Europe, if not in the world.

The Hypogeum Of Hal Saflieni

Between 1905 and 1911, the father of Maltese archaeology, Sir Themistocles Zammit, explored the Paolo site and revealed to the world the Hypogeum (from the Greek for 'underground chamber') of Hal Saflieni. It consists of a series of more than 20 caverns, both natural and manmade, which lead off one another. The main sequence of large chambers running north-south has, at its southern end, a "Holy of Holies" where a temple facade carved out of the living rock gives access to an inner sanctum.

To one side of the north-south sequence is the Oracle Room. A small oval niche in one of its walls produces a high echoing sound when someone with a deep low voice speaks into it. In the later classical world, oracles were associated with the dead, as at Cumau in Italy. Anyone hearing the echoing voice issuing from the hole could easily believe that the Oracle was a medium through whom a dead ancestor spoke. A statuette of a so-called "sleeping lady" was found at the Hypogeum in a votive pit into which thank-offerings were thrown, either after a consultation with the Oracle or following the cure of an illness. The Sleeping Lady shows, according to some authorities, the practice of "incubation": the act of sleeping in a shrine in the expectation of prophetic dreams or dreams effecting a cure.

In accordance with this idea, two sets of rock-cut niches, placed one above the other in a side wall of the Main Hall, are sometimes interpreted as cubicles for sleepers awaiting dreams, in ancient times thought to be communications from the dead. However, others share the more prosaic belief that the dead themselves occupied these niches, as in a mortuary.

The Megalithic Temples Of Tarxien In Malta

Many small side-chambers lead off the large series of caverns and it was in these that most of the bones were found. Whatever else it may have been, the Hypogeum was plainly a collective tomb. It belonged, in principle, to the same tradition as the communal rock-cut burial chambers of Sardinia, Italy, southern Spain, and Portugal. Like the surface-built megalithic passage-graves also found in Spain and Portugal, these burial chambers in the west Mediterranean were in use in the first half of the third millennium BC, though they may have been constructed somewhat before. But Malta's Hypogeum differs from what is normally meant by "megalithic" building, in which the surfaces of the great stone blocks were usually left rough, for its doorways and facades were carefully shaped. Who had done this and why?

The Temples Of Tarxien

More of Malta's past was discovered after a local farmer told Zammit what he had found in his wheatfield at nearby Tarxien (pronounced Tarshen). Encouraged by the potsherds thrown up by the farmer's plough, Zammit began work in 1915 and soon realized he was uncovering a prehistoric temple.

The Site of Tarxien stands amid the modern housing blocks of suburban Valletta, but in its original form it must have been considerably more impressive. The three temples whose remains can be seen today were built here consecutively to meet the changing needs of the local worshippers. From the evidence of potsherds, they were thereafter used at the same time. In 1929, Zammit dated their construction to the end of the Stone Age, about 3000 BC. Radiocarbon tests have since pushed back by 500 years the construction date of the first temple.

The Megalithic Temples Of Tarxien In Malta

At Tarxien, Malta's inhabitants worshipped a deity represented by a "fat lady". They sacrificed cattle and sheep to her and may have consulted an Oracle. A vivid testimony to animal sacrifice is a panel carved in realistic relief showing sheep, pigs, and bulls. The goddess in whose name these beasts were slaughtered is still present in replica form - the original is in Valletta Museum. She must have stood 2.4m (8ft) high, judging from what remains - the lower part of a pleated skirt and two bulbous legs.

The Cult Of The Earth Mother

Statuettes and figurines of enormously fat women have been found elsewhere in Malta. In his book The Search for Lost Cities, British writer James Wellard suggests that, in view of Malta's rocky terrain, the dread of hunger must have been uppermost in the minds of the island's ancient inhabitants. He proposes that this was the inspiration for the "fat ladies" of Malta: "In other words, are we not seeing here the glorification of obesity, so distasteful to well-fed Westerners, so admired by all under-nourished races?" Wellard also takes the view that the statuettes may represent, not a goddess, but an earthly Venus, "beautiful because her plentitude of flesh typified a plentitude of food". Others, however, agree with British archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes who, in her Atlas of Early Man, concludes that representations of this "very ample" lady "prove beyond reasonable doubt that these temples were devoted to the ancient Mediterranean worship of the Mother Goddess".

The proximity of Tarxien to Hal Saflieni - the sites undoubtedly form a pair - confirms this view. If, at Tarxien, neolithic people honoured the goddess in obese shape signifying the abundance of crops springing from the fruitful Earth Mother, may they not, at Hal Saflieni, in burying their dead in underground chambers, have seen them as returning to her womb?

The Maltese temples flourished for about 800 years but they were abandoned and their users vanished. Drought, plague, famine, and invasion are among suggestions as to the cause. Whatever it was that eclipsed this civilization, when Bronze Age settlers arrived at the end of the third millennium BC, they seem to have found Malta empty.

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