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The Death Cults of Prehistoric Malta [Preview]

New archaeological excavations reveal that as the ancient island societies suffered from environmental decline, they developed an extreme religious preoccupation with life and death

The Mediterranean region is a fine laboratory for the scientific study of early religions because so many emerged there. Everyone has heard of the mythology of Greece and the cults surrounding the Roman emperors. Yet those were the religions of city-states not far removed from our own modern societies. Far less well known are the religions of the agricultural communities that preceded the advance of Greco-Roman civilization.

In several of the latter, images of corpulent human figures played an important role. Because some of these figures are recognizably female in shape, archaeologists sometimes refer to them as "fat ladies" and associate them with the celebration of fertility, both human and agricultural. On one small group of islands, those of Malta, such figures became the object of an infatuation that was closely linked to the construction of the earliest free-standing public stone buildings in the world.

Those temples and the underground burial chambers related to them contained many images of obese humans--some no larger than a few centimeters, others the size of giants--as well as of animals and phallic symbols. A collaborative project between British and Maltese archaeologists, of which we are the directors, has made spectacular discoveries about the artistic representations of the so-called mother goddesses. These findings have cast new light on how certain religious practices evolved on Malta and perhaps on why they eventually disappeared. They suggest the religion itself encompassed much more than a worship of human fecundity. They also tell a cautionary tale about what happens when a people focus too much energy on worshiping life rather than sustaining it.

Traditionally, archaeological discoveries in Malta have been interpreted--or perhaps we should say misinterpreted--against a backdrop of broad conjecture about the significance of mother goddesses. Figurines fitting that general description date from the Upper Paleolithic era (about 25,000 years ago) to the dawn of metal-using societies in the Neolithic era. A few have been found in western Europe, but the yields have been much richer at sites in Egypt, the Levant, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and the Balkans. The most elaborate figures come from the islands of Malta in the third millennium B.C.E.

Unfortunately, many of these figurines are far less informative than they might once have been because of the unscientific ways in which they were collected. The dating of the figures is often inaccurate. The records of where and how they were situated are often incomplete, so we cannot know whether the figures were peculiar to burial sites, shrines or houses. We do know that in the Balkans such figures were kept in houses inside specially constructed niches in the walls. In Turkey, at the site of the eighth millenium B.C.E. settlement Çatalhöyük, the finest figurines of clay and stone were associated with the burials of high-status people in special shrines, whereas cruder figurines were found in houses [see "Women and Men at Çatalhöyük," by Ian Hodder, on page 34].

The discovery of similar figurines at far-flung sites and from disparate eras inspired a long tradition of scholarly speculation about a widespread prehistoric religion based on the worship of the mother goddess. In the middle de-cades of this century, for example, some archaeologists tried to show that a cult of the Eye Goddess (so called because of eye motifs on Mesopotamian idols) diffused throughout the entire Mediterranean. More recently, claims have been made that the Balkans were the center of an Old European religion.

Most modern scholars appreciate that the early cults were radically different in each prehistoric society and that the cults of domestic life were distinct from the cults of death and burial. The example of Malta demonstrates that variation most emphatically. Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, the cults generally involved simple domestic rituals; little effort was invested in religious art or architecture. In Malta, however, the worship of corpulent images gradually blossomed into a consuming passion. That fixation may have been able to take root because conditions there enabled a closed, isolated, introverted society to develop.

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