The Goddess in the Temple: Life, Death & Rebirth at Maltese Temple Sites
by Cheryl Straffon
The temple sites on the islands of Malta and Gozo are the oldest Goddess temple sites in the world, dating to over 5,000 years BP. They are also some of the most complex and intriguing. It is well known that the temples were deliberately shaped to form the body of a woman, or as a living reflection of the Goddess. This can be seen most clearly in Ggantija on Gozo where the South Temple in particular has the characteristic 5 apse construction, looking like the thighs, arms/breasts and head of the Goddess [plan right]. This anthropomorphic temple is the oldest one to be dated: the top part was built around 3600 BCE and the bottom one added in around 3200 BCE. Mnajdra on Malta is also an early site, and the same characteristic shape can be seen in the Central Temple, though here the head area is rather smaller and the thighs are larger. Other sites obviously started out this way, such as Hagar Qim and Tarxien, but were then added to and modified over the years. Nevertheless, the same classic shape can still be seen in the Central Temple at Tarxien.
Many of the temple sites are twinned with 2 or 3 separate temples forming the complex, one often larger than the other (for example, Ggantija South & the smaller North temple, and Mnajdra Central & the smaller west and east temples). Marija Gimbutas suggests1 that these may have been used for different rites at different times, the larger temple perhaps representing the Mother Goddess and the smaller temple the Daughter Goddess; or the larger temple the one used for spring and summer rites (youth and maturity) and the smaller one for autumn and winter rites (death and regeneration).
Entry into these temples then was actually through the vagina of the Goddess – an incredibly powerful initiatory experience, with the ‘holy of holies’, the inner sanctum, often reserved for the space represented by the head (such as the west & central temples at Mnajdra, the SW and central temples at Tarxien, & the south temple at Ggantija). These temples were also originally roofed over, so entering them must have been experienced as a dramatic crossing of a threshold from the world of light and day (the bright clear Mediterranean sky and sea) to the world of dark and night (the body of the Goddess herself). So we may imagine that the process of entry was a very sacred experience of going into the Goddess and the self, perhaps a movement from life into death.
Inside the temples, there were probably ritual practices being performed. Animals may have been sacrificed: it has been suggested that the stone slabs with holes in them at the entrances of Hagar Qim and Tarxien were for the tethering of animals ready for being ritually slaughtered. There were undoubtedly chambers set aside for particular ritual work. In Hagar Qim, almost immediately on the left as you enter, is an altar with what have been described as ‘plant reliefs’ carved on it, with two eye-like features at the base which perhaps symbolised an owl-like epiphany of the Goddess. Marija Gimbutas says that stones like these represent the “celebration of plant energy and the springtime renewal of life”.
Behind this is a stone carved with two spirals running in opposite directions, similar to the entrance stone at Newgrange in Ireland, which has been interpreted as the unfolding of the passage of the sun to and from the winter solstice sunrise. The entrance of Newgrange faces the winter solstice sunrise, so the meaning of the site may be encoded in the pattern on the stone. In exactly the same way, the entrance of Hagar Qim also faces SE, the direction of the winter solstice sunrise (as does Ggantija on Gozo, and also probably the other temples as well). The similarities are perhaps more than a coincidence. Like Newgrange, these temples may have been used at special times like the winter solstice to celebrate the return of the sun and the rebirth of life from the winter’s darkness. Mnajdra (West) temple is oriented east, and it is the rising sun at the spring and autumn equinoxes that shines its rays directly into the chamber illuminating the interior. Once again this is identical to a site in Ireland, Loughcrew in the Boyne Valley not far from Newgrange. All these sites reinforce the notion of their symbolic meaning relating to rebirth of the sun/Goddess at ceremonial times of the year.
There are carvings too in other temples. In Tarxien (SW) temple there are altars with spiral motifs, and one with a procession of animals (sheep, pigs and goats) and in Tarxien (Central) temple there are stones carved with figures of a bull and a sow with 13 sucklings – a clear symbol of the nurturing aspect of the Mother Goddess and also representing 13 lunations of the year. The spiral snake-coil carvings have been interpreted by Marija Gimbutas as the ‘eye of the Goddess’ motif: “The limestone blocks with oculi in relief serve to partition corridors and chambers in the temples, accentuating the presence of the Goddess”.
Some of these spiral carvings could also have been meant to represent the Tree of Life with its branches hanging over the earth. The Earth was the Goddess that grew the tree, and the branches were the spirals that gave the fruit to nourish the people. When the spirals were carved next to each other, this represented continuity of life and beyond that reincarnation. The spirals could also have represented the coils of a snake. In addition, an actual carving of a snake was found in Ggantija (South) temple, near to the entrance of the ‘holy of holies’ and opposite a small chamber that has been interpreted as a birthing chamber by Joe Bezzina, site guardian at the temple. Joe also points out that the snake is an important symbol of rebirth in the Hindu religion and it may have denoted the same function here. He says; “As the snake changes the skin, the soul changes the body: this supports the idea of reincarnation in Neolithic times”.2
So, the movement through the temples may have been symbolically the movement from outside (light/life) to inside (darkness/death), and then on, by means of ritual and initiation, to rebirth and new life. The suckling cow carving, the snake-like spiral stones, and the snake carving stone are all indicative of a rebirth and nurturing aspect of the Goddess inside the temples.
There are also other stones in a number of the temples that are in the shapes of pillars and triangles and are juxtaposed with each other. These have been interpreted as phallus & pudenda or pubic triangle stones, symbols of sexual congress and new life. One such “phallus stone” is in the SE chamber of Hagar Qim, with a pubic triangle stone opposite it in the NE area of the site. In Tarxien a sculptured pair of phalli were found in a temple niche, and the remains of a pubic triangle stone in the ‘holy of holies’ of the Central temple. And in Ggantija the base of a phallic stone can be seen in the upper left-hand apse of the South temple (the stone itself now removed to Gozo Museum of Archaeology), opposite a pubic triangle stone in the same apse (now partly broken off). However Marija Gimbutas says that the phallus carvings and stones may have been thought to be part of the same divine energy of the Goddess and are often fused with the life-creating female body (for example, the Goddess carvings sometimes have phallic necks). She also suggests that the large pillars may in fact be representations of the Goddess herself.3
An unambiguous Goddess statue can be found in the first right-hand apse of Tarxien SW temple. The base of a giant Goddess figure was discovered here, consisting of her feet, legs and skirt. the original is in the Archaeological Museum in Valetta with a replica on site. The top part of the statue has been lost but it must originally have stood some 3m/10ft high, and must have been an awesome experience to encounter as the initiate entered the temple.
What is often overlooked however is the base of the statue which is engraved with a border of what looks like double axes and eggs. Double axes as a symbol of the Goddess are known from the Minoan civilisation, but not recorded elsewhere at these Maltese temple sites. The egg shape however is well known from elsewhere in the Aegean and Mediterranean area on vases and pots, where it probably represented rebirth. A dish found nearby to Tarxien at the Hypogeum depicted eggs on one side and bulls on the other, further linking the association found at Tarxien between the egg carvings on the giant Goddess base and the bull and cow frieze found in the neighbouring chamber. Both eggs and bulls are symbols of the fertility of the Earth Mother. The remains of a sculpture depicting what may be two pairs of feet can also be seen on the outside of Hagar Qim temple. This too may originally have been a giant Mother Goddess figure.
As well as these giant Goddess carvings, the Temples are of course famous for the wealth of small Goddess figurines they have yielded. At Hagar Qim in a chamber to the left of the entrance were found 7 of the classic headless Goddesses, including the so-called ‘Venus of Malta’ [photo below]. This was perhaps a shrine room where offerings of/to the Goddess were made, or perhaps it was the room where the figurines were kept ready to be taken out for rituals and ceremonies.
At other sites, such as Mnajdra and Tarxien, the figurines were often found in the innermost chambers or the ‘holy of holies’, indicating that once again they were used in the rituals or stood on the altars. The statuette at Manajdra [photo on front page] looks as if could have been meant to represent pregnancy, and one of the ones from Tarxien is a small (7cm high) beautiful Birth Goddess with a distended abdomen, also suggesting pregnancy. She has upraised legs and a swollen vulva, with one of her arms pointing directly to it. Nine lines are engraved on the back of both of these figurines, perhaps representing the nine months of pregnancy. These are Goddesses of fertility and birth.
Many of the Goddess figurines are headless, a phenomenon unique to this Maltese culture. The reason for this is a matter of some speculation. It appears to be a deliberate feature and not that the heads have been accidentally or deliberately broken off. There are holes built into the top of the figurines for the attachment of heads. Detached heads themselves have been found as well, most notably at Hagar Qim, Tarxien & Ggantija. It has been suggested that perhaps different heads were attached to the bodies at different festivals and ceremonies to indicate different meanings for the participants. Or it may have been more deeply spiritual. Perhaps it was felt that the soul resided in the head, (as we know it did for example for the Celtic peoples). The position of the ‘holy of holies’ at the head of the Goddess-shaped temples would seem to reinforce this idea. So the attaching of the heads, perhaps at the start of the ceremonies may have been a dramatic way of bringing spirit into the Goddess figurines, and their removal at the end of the ceremonies a way of bringing the ritual to its conclusion. Perhaps the heads, containing the spirit of the Goddess, were then passed around to the people so that they could ‘imbibe’ the breath of the Goddess-power. We shall never know for sure, but clearly the removable heads were part of the ceremonial meaning of the figurines.
The location of these figurines in some of the inner chambers and holy sanctums was significant. Equally, other chambers may have served particular functions in these temples to connect with the Goddess. Most of the temples have “oracle rooms” – places where a priestess could sit or stand on one side in a hidden chamber and the celebrant or initiate on the other, with a holed stone between them. It is supposed that a priestess in the chamber communicated the oracular pronouncement through the hole to the worshippers assembled on the other side.
These oracle chambers can all be found in Hagar Qim, at Mnajdra (Central), at Tarxien (East), at Ggantija, and at the Hypogeum. The holes are all carved at the same oblique angle at all the sites. The holed stone in Ggantija is on its side, but if it were upright the hole would be in the same position (60cm from hole to ground) as in the other temple sites.
Sometimes access to these Oracular Rooms by the priestesses was effected from a different direction or location than that by the worshippers. For example, at Hagar Qim the people would have entered the room from inside the temple, while the priestess approached the oracular chamber from outside (or it may have been the other way around). At Mnajdra (West) a similar configuration occurs, while at Tarxien (SW) temple access to the holy sanctum is reached by the people perambulating through the temple to its head, while the priestess could have reached it separately by a hidden staircase from the Central temple. Overall, these were clearly very sacred spaces. One can imagine the initiate going into the temple, perhaps leaving an offering and then going into the inner sanctum or oracle rooms. There would be incense burning, and in the dark rooms, with the walls and ceilings painted in red ochre (symbolising rebirth of life), pronouncements or messages from the Goddess would be spoken and interpreted by the priestesses. It must have been a very powerful and deeply mystical experience.
Part 2 of this article will appear in GA18.
1. Marija Gimbutas – Civilisation of the Goddess [Harper Collins, 1991]
2. Joe Bezzina The Ggantija Temple p.14
3. Marija Gimbutas The Living Goddess [Univ.California Press, 2001] p.117
4. Marija Gimbutas Civilisation of the Goddess [Harper Collins, 1991] p.286
5. Joe Bezzina The Ggantija Temple
6. Marija Gimbutas Language of the Goddess [Thames&Hudson, 1989] p219