Malta has an extensive history, stretching further back than the ancient pyramids of Egypt, boasting some of the oldest structures in the world. However, although everyone has heard of the pyramids and of Stonehenge, very few people outside of the islands and outside of this field know about our prehistoric heritage. Given that our myriad of temples are some of the best preserved in the whole world, and also that on an area of less than 300km² there are more than 50 of these sites, it is quite bizarre that these sites are still relatively unknown. Thousands of questions still hang in mid-air .. Why were these constructed? Who built them? What kind of technology did these people have? How did they manage to lift the massive menhirs using just manual labour? Why are there so many temple sites on such a small area of land? Why Malta? These are all questions which remain to be answered, and up til now archaeologists and historians could only throw wild guesses as to why and how these were constructed.
Il-Mara l-Hoxna (The Fat Lady) found in the Temples at Tarxien
During the past few years, some other theories have cropped up, hinting that the temple structures might have been used for reasons other than sacred worship of the notorious 'Fat Lady'. In this article, we shall explore some of these other alternative approaches, asking questions along the way - questions which might not have an answer yet, but which are compelling in our quest to find out why.
Hagar Qim Temple, Qrendi
One of the most widely accepted theories regarding the temples (mostly the temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra) is that they were constructed with the summer and winter solstices in mind. The south temple of Mnajdra is constructed in a way that on the equinoxes (20th/21st March and 22nd/23rd September) the rising sun aligns with its main axis. During the solstices (21st June and 21st/22nd December) the sun rises in line with the corners of the door jambs so that only a very narrow beam of light enters the temple. At Hagar Qim on the solstices, sunlight passes through a hole known as the oracle hole onto a chamber on the northeast side of the temple. Here the sun forms a disc of light onto a stone slab at the entrance to the apse. As the minutes pass the disc becomes a crescent, then elongates into an ellipse, then elongates still further and finally sinks out of sight as though into the ground.
Hagar Qim Temple, Qrendi
We know all this, yet still, we know nothing. Why were the temples constructed with the sun's movements in mind? Why was the moving of the sun relevant to these peoples? Was a ritual held on each equinox and solstice? If yes, honouring what/whom?
Mnajdra Temples, Qrendi
Sound Chambers/Sound Healing
As if the incidence of the sun's positioning was not curious enough, another theory regarding the temples fuels more interest and more plausibility that these structures were indeed not used as Temples of worship (as we have hastily superimposed) but that they may have served different and much more intricate purposes. Studies have been carried out regarding the frequencies of the stones used in the Temples as well as the frequency of sound in the Hypogeum, an underground structure of a depth of 11m, and spanning over 500m². This frequency results at 111Hz, which coincidentally is the same frequency found in other sacred sites around the world. When the human brain is exposed to this particular frequency, the prefrontal cortex switches off, deactivating the language centre of the brain. The brain then switches from left to right-sided dominance, the side associated with intuition, creativity, and holistic processing and can induce a state of meditation and trance. It is thought that chanting at this frequency in these sites induced a state of meditative trance, through which emotional and social intelligence was increased.
Hypogeum, Hal Saflieni
This still raises some questions - how did these ancient people calculate this frequency? Why did they engage in trance-like activities? Was it to create a social unity? Was it part of a much more complicated ritual we are yet to discover? From where did they get this knowledge? Were they just 'troglodytes' as we imagine them, or were they a much more superior race than ourselves?
Hypogeum, Hal Saflieni
The Fertility Goddess
Another much-lauded theory is that the Temples were built in honour of the fertility goddess, to honour this deity and to hold sacrifices for better harvests. According to Joseph Campbell, who is regarded by many people in the USA as an authority on all ancient mythologies, the "Goddess" religion was an expression of "that primordial attempt on humanity's part to understand and live in harmony with the beauty and wonder of Creation". This cult is thought to have worshipped the feminine form as a creator of life and as a connection to mother earth. The 'fat lady' figure has been found in various archaeological discoveries around the Mediterranean, with several figurines bearing buxom figures, mostly evidently feminine. This sparked the idea that there could have been a Feminine Deity cult around the Mediterranean, which later on developed into Ashtarte, Aphrodite and Isis. When viewed from above, some of Malta's temple structures also resemble this 'Mara l-Hoxna' figure, with semi-circular enclosing forming a seated fat lady figure.
Ggantija Temples, Xaghra Gozo - aerial view
The bottom half of a massive 'fat lady' statue found at Tarxien Temples
Could this fertility goddess cult be the answer? Were the 'temples' built in her honour? Was this why they bore the same semi-circular shapes? Was this cult spread throughout the Mediterranean?
Sleeping goddess, found in the National Museum of Archaeology, Valletta
Twin 'Fat Lady' Statuettes, found at the Gozo Archaeology Museum
This article has not done much in terms of shedding light onto the meaning of these Temples if they even were temples after all. In reality, a big question mark still hangs on these structures, and since writing had not yet been invented, we have little or no way of knowing this civilization's way of life, their traditions, the reason why they built such imposing and massive structures, structures we are still in awe of today - nearly 7000 years later. The 'mystery' of the Maltese temples is as intriguing as any best-selling crime thriller, yet with the added bonus of having taken place, in reality, many aeons ago. Our search continues, and we shall continue to uncover all we can about these Herculean structures. Until next time!