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

No parallels for any of these strange objects have ever been found elsewhere in Malta or the central Mediterranean. Even so, our knowledge of the context in which they appear is informative. Whereas the figures associated with the dead in their burial chambers are fat ladies, those from the central shrine are much more complex. One cannot find an emphasis on images of female fertility in the shrine. Indeed, where the imagery is interpretable, it seems to be male and animal. The context of their discovery suggests that the shrine objects were the paraphernalia employed by the ritual specialists or priests and that their symbolism was meant to evoke much more than just a mother goddess.

Unprecedented discoveries at the Brochtorff Circle have encouraged us to reconsider the whole basis of ancient cults and religions in prehistoric Malta and Gozo. As the old ideas had supposed, the worship of fertility may well have been a component of the prehistoric religion. But the recent findings argue that it would be a mistake to concentrate exclusively on any one facet or historical period: the prehistoric religion of Malta was not only an infatuation with fat females.

During the Zebbug period between 4000 and 3500 B.C.E., the cult focused on the provision of caves and underground tombs as burial places. Accurate depictions of people do not seem to have played a part in the local rituals: the closest representations of human forms in the tombs are the very crude faces on the menhirs and the curious bone pendants with budlike arms and heads. Red ocher was the predominant decoration. Exotic axes of green stones and other objects made of flint and obsidian were also used as grave goods. In many ways, the early ritual developments appear to have paralleled similar trends in Sicily, where rock-cut tombs and simple collective burial rites were developing at the same time. The Maltese islands during this early period were still relatively fruitful and may not have been overpopulated.

But by half a millennium later, Malta seems to have been shaken by major changes. The erosion of the soil and other signs of environmental degradation may have become apparent; in this environment, population levels almost certainly began to pose problems. Artifacts from that period--the obese human and animal figurines and the phallic symbols carved in stone or bone and modeled in clay--point to the idea that the people had an obsession with the living world and its successful propagation through the descent group or lineage. Malta seems to have become an island world under powerful economic and environmental stress, where the communities were struggling to maintain their former standards of living and to feed the population. Yet fewer materials may have been imported during this time of crisis than in the more fruitful era. The prehistoric Maltese society seems to have let a fixation on sculpture and art replace contact with the world beyond the islands rocky coasts.

That debilitating fixation may explain why the temples are so numerous on so small a group of islands. Some scholars have theorized that they were built by perhaps half a dozen rival clans or tribes, each competing for land and water. The colossal size of the temples, and the later architectural additions that made them even more prominent, could have been inspired by such a competitive spirit. Religious and cult influence and social control over the population may also have been inportant.

Cult activities seem to have reached a feverish pitch in the final phases of the Tarxien period around 2500 B.C.E. The society was becoming increasingly dominated by a religious hierarchy in which cult specialists or priests controlled much of the industry of the people. Vast amounts of human time and energy were invested in temple building, artistic endeavors and ritual feasts. The dead were honored within cults and linked to animals and human obesity. The people seem to have expended relatively little effort on the building of villages or domestic structures, on terracing or on farming methods. The obsession with the cults of the temples seems to have been complete.

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