What is folklore?

Folklore may be considered to embrace all the habits and customs of any given civilization, all its numerous activities, the quality of the houses people lived in, the dress they wore, the food they ate, their social dealings with one another, their education and religious life, their festivals and amusements, together with beliefs in the afterworld, as well as innumerable other facets of human life.

Maltese folklore is concerned with all this. It explores the history, literature, folktales, old wives tales, legends, children's rhymes and games, traditional herbal medicine, nicknames, birth and death rituals, feasts, long-forgotten murders and old customs from Malta and Gozo.



A characteristic feature common to some Maltese and Gozitan legends is the popular attempt to attribute the present site of a church to supernatural intervention prevailing over human decisions. The following stories illustrate this common motif, which occurs in foreign legends as well.

Tradition claims that originally the village church at Qormi was to be erected on the present site of St Francis' Church, but the knight Stagno, who was reputed to be a wizard, wanted it built nearer his house, to this day called 11-Palazz ta' Stagno. So every night he exercised his occult power until he carried the foundation stones to the present site of the parish church. The people finally came to the conclusion that their patron saint was in favour of the latter site, and accordingly the church rose on the site where it now stands.

Gozitans say that the foundations of the present Cathedral church were being laid on Gelmus Hill, about a quarter of a mile from Victoria, but the stones were transported by supernatural agency to the present site of the Cathedral within the citadel. The Gozitans interpreted this as a sign that Our Lady did not want the temple on Gelmus Hill, but on the Citadel Hill.

According to another Gozitan legend, the villagers of Nadur could not ' agree on a site for their church. An old villager, Grejger by name, suggested that if they loaded an ass with quarry stones they could erect their church at the place where the beast first stopped. The others approved of this plan and the ass was accordingly laden at Xewkija, from where it went uphill towards Nadur not stopping until it reached the highest spot of the rising ground. There the villagers built their present temple.

Crossing over to Malta, we find that people still recall how the Turks, having landed at Marsaxlokk, proceeded from Zejtun towards St George's Bay, Bir-zebbuga, as far as Tal-Brolli. The Maltese were under the command of the knight Murines (Umberto de Murines), who vowed that he would erect a church in honour of Our Lady of Loreto if the Turks were defeated.

In the ensuing struggle the Maltese came out victorious and the church was erected to fulfil the vow. But the stones were miraculously transported some 200 yards to the rise overlooking St George's Bay, on top of which the church now stands. An old painting (1548) in the small church shows a knight kneeling in prayer while the Turkish armada is approaching the island.

In a variation of this intervention theme the 19th-century historian Count Ciantar mentioned an old custom which was subsequently abolished. On St Paul's Day (February 10) it was customary for the farmers in the vicinity of San Pawl Milqi to prepare a banquet. Each one gave some grain or its equivalent in money, and a bull was fattened for the feast. But these banquets gradually came to be a source of great disorder. The Bishop prohibited them and, together with the Apostolic Visitor, ordered that the money usually spent should, in future, go towards the saying of Masses to be celebrated on feast days for the benefit of the inhabitants of that neighbourhood.

And so it happened that on the day of that saint a strong bull, tightly bound though it was, broke loose of the ropes that bound it and set out at a run until, arriving before the door of the church, it paused for a while, then continued its headlong run to the shore and plunged into the sea.

On account of this those peasants believed that it was a clear indication that the Apostle was displeased because the feast was no longer being celebrated in the original manner. And they went before the Bishop, pleading their case and asking permission to continue the custom of preparing the usual banquet; but the prudent prelate, following the orders of the Holy See, instructed them to abide by the decree and thus that custom came to an end.






Legends of Maltese origin



WEANING: To wean their young, Maltese mothers smear their breasts with an extract from the aloe tree (sabbara), which tastes very bitter. Mothers sometimes preserve the umbilical cord of a newborn child in powder. if the baby then develops a cold, the umbilical cord is given to the child to smell. This, it is believed, drives away the cold.

 Now let's mention a few aspects of medicinal lore and practice in Malta and Gozo. Needless to say, while some of the herbs and actions have a recognised curative virtue and still flourish among peasants, most of the popular remedies mentioned are nowadays being discarded and relegated to the limbo of forgotten things, as they are bound to be with the spread of education among the masses.

COMMON ONION (basal): When some spikes of the sea-urchin get the skin, an onion is cut up, roasted over a fire and then applied hot to the skin to draw out the spikes. Sliced onions are also rubbed over the parts of the skin affected by a wasp's sting.

SQUIRTING CUCUMBER (faqqus il-hmir): A concoction of this cucumber is especially prescribed for persons suffering from jaundice. Another remedy is to make patients smell the squirting cucumber, and people believe this is enough to drive off jaundice.

RUE (fejgel): If a mare stamps on your foot, you have only to applythe triturated leaves of this plant to the swollen footand this will prevent the collection of extravated blood under the skin. Others apply some rue leaves fried in oil as an embrocation to crushed parts of the body. And to heal an eye disease called gidri tal-ghajnejn peasants often chew some rue leaves and then breathe the smell into the affected eyes.

BORAGE (fidloqqom): A decoction of this plant is taken by persons suffering from frequent fits of coughing. The same holds good for the plant known as marrubja (white horehound).

A popular remedy against measles (hozba) consists in putting a piece of red cloth on or near the patient, or in covering him with red blankets. This practice was prevalent among mothers attending the child health clinics during the measles epidemic of 1946. The custom of hanging red clothing in case of illness characterised by the appearance of a rash is by no means new, nor is it confined to the Mediterranean countries. It is recorded thatJohn of Gaddesden, court doctor under Edward II of England, got rid of smallpox by wrapping the sick person in red clothes, and that he thus cured the heir to the throne himself.

Also from the child health clinics come two other popular beliefs.

According to one, the mother of a newborn babe has to eat a hen's neck and head on the day following childbirth, and if she fails to do so the child will take more than three months to start keeping its head erect. The famous Sicilian folklorist Giuseppe Pitre' gives an interesting parallel in Sicily, but with the difference that it is the father, not the mother, who has to eat the hen's neck in or the baby's neck may move freely.

The other belief requires the placenta to be macerated with rain, or buried in the soil and then watered to prevent the baby suffering from skin eruption.

LEMON (Iumi): Sliced lemons are rubbed over warts and ringworms to stop their growth.

A common remedy to stop nose bleeding is. to place an iron key on the sufferer's neck. Carrying a dried fig in one's pocket is a good preventive against piles, while those suffering from rheumatism carry a dried fish in their pockets as a charm.

DYSENTERY: The white or albumen of the egg will cure children, suffering from dysentery, and when applied to the broken legs of goats will help to reset them.

XGHIRA: To cure a sty (xghira) children throw seven grains of barley into a well. According to what I heard from the Market fishvendors, sailors carry a dried fish called serduq il-bahar (sea cock) next to the skin as a protection against malaria.

WHITLOW: To cure whitlow (diebes) one has to boil some crumbs and ask a breast-feeding mother for the favour of some drops of her milk on them. This mixture is then put over the swollen finger. Mothers, however, will not volunteer to give this service unless the patient assures them that he will keep away from the fire when applying the medicament because, if the patient stood too near the fire, it would dry not only the crumbs but also the milk in the mothers' breasts.