CUSTOMS, LEGENDS AND PLACES IN MALTA
Frank L Scicluna
Adelaide Australia 1999
L-IMNARJA – FEAST OF ST PETER AND ST PAUL
Besides the local village "festas", there are others which are celebrated on a national scale. The most colourful and boisterous festa in Malta is the Mnarja a typical Maltese folklore festival with plenty of music, folk dancing, feasting and colourful horses and donkey races. The "Imnarja" (a corruption of the Italian "luminara" - illumination) is centuries old tradition and is referred to as a harvest festival which is celebrated on June 29th, the feast of St Peter and St Paul. It is characterised by a nightlong picnic at Buskett Garden, Rabat, on the eve of the feast during which the native dish ‘fenkata’, stewed rabbit, is consumed in large quantities accompanied by equally large volumes of locally produced wine. Exhibits of local produce, marching bands, decorated carts and folklore singing competitions enliven the night-long proceedings.
The traditional singing ‘l-għana’ is a simple and spontaneous songs of the Maltese peasantry sung by the village bards. The għana are melancholic, half oriental airs, something between a Sicilian ballad and the rhythmic wail of an Arabic tune which seem to express the sadness of centuries old tales of impassionate love. Similarly two peasants often carry on a conversation in rhyming quatrains chanting lampoons with speed and ease producing roars of laughter from the crowds, an evidence of native skill and humour. The singers, called ‘għannejja’, are accompanied by the trilling of guitars. The festivities last until the early hours of the morning.
The following day in the afternoon, the festivities reach a climax when bare-back donkey and horse races, an event which traces its origin from the time of the Knights. Racecourse Street on the road to Siġġiewi, which stands at the bottom of Saqqajja Hill, is the venue for these historical races. The prizes for the winners of these races are "palji" (special brocaded banners) which the winners traditionally donate to their village church to be used as an altar cloth. At the winning post there is a large arched loggia built in 1696, in which years gone by the Grand Master used to watch the races attended by members of the Council of the Order. (More >>)
2. SEPTEMBER 8 - REGATTA
Every nation has its hour of glory in battle. The Regatta held on September 8th in Grand Harbour celebrating Malta’s victories during the Great Siege of 1565 and the Second World War. The magnificent Fort St Angelo provides and imposing backdrop to the sleek and colourful Maltese boats. Band marches, water-carnival, boat races and display of colourful fireworks are the main features attracting large crowds to the capital city, Valletta and the Grand Harbour.
Rowing teams from the cities bordering Grand Harbour, Valletta, Vittoriosa, Senglea, Kalkara, Cospicua Marsaxlokk and Marsa, participate in a number of very exciting races, marked by extreme rivalry between participating teams and their respective supporters. For weeks on end , the best dgħajsa men from these areas, prepare for the races with fanatic zeal and rivalry. In the afternoon of Regatta day thousands of people crowd the waterfront and the surrounding bastions and craft of every description converge to the Gran Harbour to watch the races.
The Maltese, being traditionally religious people, a religious connation was consequently given to the day - ‘Il-Bambina’ as it falls on the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady or il-Vitorja short for Our Lady of Victory. There is also the ceremony of the lay of wreaths at the Monument in Great Siege Square.
The Maltese really let their hair down in the revelry of Carnival few days before the beginning of Lent. Malta’ traditional Carnival is a treat alike for the Island’s inhabitants and for the ever increasing number of tourists. This three day festivity was introduced in Malta 1535 under Grand Master Pietro del Ponte, five years after the Knights took over the Island. The main celebration takes place in the capital, Valletta, but in every town and village children dress up in colourful clothes to camouflage their identity. The Valletta parata (parade) is very spectacular, including King Carnival followed by many floats of a high professional standard. Until some years ago, Carnival was also the event of the year for dances and masked balls. This type of entertainment during Carnival had an old tradition behind it. Under the Knights the Auberges remained open and were delightfully decorated. The burning of King Carnival on the last day of the festivities also survived, up to some years ago.
A carnival attraction was added in 1721 called Il-Kukkanja (the cockaigne) which proved to be extremely popular. It did not last very long as Grand Master De Rohan suppressed it and an attempt by the British to revive it were unsuccessful. The Kukkanja was held in the city main square.
This is how it was described by one of the locals: "Long beams were fixed against the guard house opposite the palace, and between each beam, rope-ladders were fastened the whole being covered over with branches of trees in leaf, to which were tied live animals, baskets full of eggs, hams, sausages and all kinds of provisions. The wooden edifice was crowned with a globe, made up of hoops and covered with linen cloth, on which stood the figure of Fame holding a flag with the Grand Master’s coat of arms. Crowds of people assembled in the spacious square and at a given signal started the attack on the Kukkanja. The provisions became the property of those who, having seized them, were able to carry them safely through the crowds.
To the first individual who reached the figure of Fame was allotted some pecuniary remuneration which was well earned, considering the struggle he gone through to reach the object, an on the standard being taken to be returned to the Grand Master, the cloth-covered globe burst open and out came a flight of pigeons
The Luzzu is another boat, also uniquely Maltese, but bigger than the dghajsa. It is painted in the traditional colures of red, blue and yellow. The Luzzu is a sturdy and reliable sea craft and can be put to sea in almost every kind of weather. Primarily the Luzzu is a fishing boat but it has other uses namely ferrying locals and tourists across the Grand Harbour and the impressive bastions and fortifications that surrounds Valletta and the Three Cities.
Many Luzzus have the eye of Osiris painted or carved on the bow, a symbol brought to Malta by the Phoenicians. This seems to suggest that craft of this type must have been common in the harbour since the time of the Phoenicians and Carthaginians. Luzzus today run on outboard motors.
6.CHRISTMAS IN MALTA
In Malta and Gozo, as most other places, special church services and other celebrations are held to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. Most of the streets are beautifully decorated with festoons, multi-coloured lights and garlands. Every shop window displays the usual Christmas tree and a variety of toys and things to lure Christmas shoppers who jam the streets. To add to the joy and excitement of the Christmas rush and bustle there is also the joyful ringing of the church bells which ring our all over the islands to greet the nativity of Christ.
In addition to all this the Maltese Islands have their own characteristics. The artistic presepju (crib) believed to have been introduced in Malta by the Franciscan friars who settled at Rabat in 1370. The Presepju is a miniature representation of the nativity scene in Bethlehem. The churches are decorated with flowers and crimson tapestries and they all display the figure of Baby Jesus. During midnight Mass a young boy dressed as an acolyte recites the special sermon on the Holy Infant.
Among those things which distinguish the Maltese from other nations we find the Karrozzin (horse-drawn carts). The Karrozzin was introduced into Malta around 1856. Queen Victoria was the reigning monarch at that time and these horse drawn vehicles were first known as ‘Victoria’. For many years were the main means of transport until the arrival of cars, trams and buses in the beginning of this century.
The ceremony of the quċċija (choosing) is an old custom concerning a child’s first birthday. A basket is filled with a number of objects representing various trades or profession - Rosary beads, an ink-well, a book.... and the first object the tiny hand of the child chooses foretells the little child’s future. It is believe that such a practice is found in remote villages in Greece and Sicily.
9. EVIL EYE
The Evil Eye is commonly accepted as a fact. To ward off the ill effects of people either make the Sign of the Cross or more frequently pointing the index and little fingers at the source of the menace. It is believed that certain families possess this unfortunate gift and since the disastrous consequences of their admiration of your wife or husband, your child, your pet or your house are beyond their control, it is permissible to make the sign of bull’s horns behind your back to avoid causing them hurt and embarrassment.
A traditional women’s costumes which has disappeared completely from the Islands of Malta and Gozo is the Faldetta or għonnella. Nobody knows the origin of this stiffened head dress. Some say it derives from the eastern veil, or from Spanish mantilla. Others maintain that it was first introduced in 1222 as a sign of mourning by the women of Celano (Italy) who were expelled to Malta following the massacre of their men folk.
Yet another theory is that its origin is evolved from necessity for women to veil their head when entering a church; the poorer country girls, lacking cloaks or lace shawls, placed a spare skirt over their head. The Għonnella is made of cotton or silk and is always black except around villages of Żabbar and Żejtun where it is sometimes blue.
11. HOLY BREAD
Before cutting a new loaf the Maltese used to kiss it and make the sign of the Cross on it with the knife. Bread is treated with great respect as it is considered, in its form and ingredients, the holy bread at the Mass or the Divine presence.
12. PARISH FESTAS
Every town or village in Malta and Gozo have at least one feast which they celebrate each year. Some village feasts have kept their particular characteristics: At Birkirkara, for instance, the villagers retained the tradition by holding its procession with the statue of St Helen in the morning braving the hot sun of August. At Mġarr an auction is held among those wishing to carry the statue of Santa Marija, the job going to the highest bidders: the money to the Church.
In the Old days Lapsi - the Feast of the Ascension of the lord - was the old time for families to go swimming and play at swings. Exposure to the sun was considered dangerous ( they did not know about the Ozone layer) as well as immodest. So the ladies, wearing far too many clothes, used to go up and down in shallow water in long shafts which ballooned and floated to the surface.
14. LIZARDS ON FILFLA
Filfla is a tiny islet off the coast of Malta. It was used for target practice by the British Mediterranean Fleet. There was a persistent rumour that there lived unique two-tailed lizards on this islet. Lizards shed their tail when trying to dodge a predator. It was later explained that some of the tails did not come off completely and when a new one was generated it fused with the old part and hey presto we got two-tailed lizards.
15. SAINT PAUL AND VALLETTA
Before Valletta was built there was a road leading to Fort St. Elmo at the end of the peninsula. This road was called Sancti Pauli in honour of a shrine to St. Paul on the site of the present church dedicated to Saint Paul. It was presumably desecrated by the Turks who laid siege to St. Elmo in 1565. During the building of Valletta it became a chapel dedicated to Saint Paul and was the site of the first investiture of a knight in Valletta.
There is a legend that states that St. Paul's cave remains the same size notwithstanding that people remove pieces of rock from the cave as souvenirs.
16. SAINT PAUL AGAIN
Another legend says that when St Paul was preaching at Burmarrad, his voice carried as far away as Gozo where the people there flocked on the coast to hear his sermon.
17. SAINT PAUL AND THE VIPER
This is well known legend. It is believed that St Paul was gathering wood to make a fire to warm himself and the other shipwrecked people, when out of the sticks came a venomous viper that bit him. The Maltese expected him to die of poisoning but instead no harm happened to him. It is said that from that day snakes and scorpions in Malta are quite harmless and non-poisonous.
19. GĦAJN RAZUL LEGEND
Tradition has it that the spring known as Għajn Razul was the work of Saint Paul who needed water for his shipmates after their shipwreck on Malta. The name ‘Razul’ is derived from the Phoenician language and means ‘apostle’ thus giving more credibility to the Pauline connection. Of more importance is the fact that if this was truly the work of Saint Paul it would point to his shipwreck being in St. Paul's Bay and not at Mistra where there was another spring.
20. MUTINY IN FORT RICASOLI
Mention of the Froberg Regiment in Malta is associated with a serious mutiny. This regiment, part of the British Army that garrisoned the island before 1813 was made up of Greek, Sicilian and Corsican mercenaries. Raised in 1806 they were brutally treated and on 4 April 1807 the Sicilians revolted and shut themselves up in Fort Ricasoli. Negotiations proved futile and after a week they blew up the powder magazine. Loyal troops overpowered the mutineers. 30 were condemned to death by court martial and Malta's first mutiny was over.
21. TA' FRANKUNI
Originally Franconi was an Italian family name. Fabrizio Franconi, a one-time general on the Order's warships was given a piece of land in Floriana in 1739 to build a house with garden. The house grew and grew, so did the garden and around 1802 it began to house the mentally ill. When overcrowding set in they were moved elsewhere. In 1871 it was used as a mess for British Officers. Today it is no longer in existence.
22. THE CAMARATA
Lutheranism in Germany, the Reformation in England and France and the arrival of the Jesuits in Malta all contributed to the erection of the Camerata. It was noticed in 1592 that many knights were in need of spiritual help. The Jesuits built a house for private spiritual retreats for the knights near the hospital at the end of Valletta. It was subsequently enlarged and had rooms holding the hospital linen. The British tore it down and built a massive block of flats to be used as married quarters. When Malta became a great naval base it became the Camerata a naval hostel. Today it is a housing estate.
23. TREASURE AT FORT RICASOLI
The Maltese ghost is mainly called ‘Il-hares’ perhaps a relative of the Roman ‘Lares’ (household gods). One such entity, in the form of a Turk, awakened a workman at Fort Ricasoli and told him of a big treasure within the fort. This man told one of his friends and together they went to look at the indicated spot. They found a lot of coal coins. As in other local folk tales the coins were turned to coal. The following night the hares reappeared and beat up the man for sharing the secret. Moral: What the ‘hares’ tell you, is for your eyes only!
24. WATER FROM RABAT
The Arabs separated Mdina from Rabat turning the former into a fortified camp. The geological formation of the land thereabouts made the area Malta's main water producer. The Arabs, well used to arid climates, built artificial channels to bring water to the fields below Saqqajja. Grand Master Wignacourt started his aqueduct there in 1610 to take water to Valletta. Grand Master, De Rohan built the fountain on the hill leading to Saqqajja.
25. FAMILY TREES
‘L-arblu tar-razza’, building a family tree, requires lots of research. The Public Registry in Malta started functioning in 1864. Any information before this date has to be gleaned from parish registers. It is an age old custom in Malta that the marriage ceremony is celebrated in the bride's parish. So that is where the research should start. Recently Pieta has had a tremendous spate of birth registrations: Malta's main maternity hospital is situated there!
26. THE FEAST OF SAINT JULIAN
The feast of St Julian takes place on the last weekend in August. St Julian is the patron saint for hunters, having been a hunter himself. So every year on the Sunday of the feast a large number of hunters are allowed on the roof of the church from where they fire their shotguns as the statue is being carried out of the church.
26. THE NORMAN HOUSE IN MDINA
Mdina is the Oldest town in Malta. The Arabs named it Mdina (meaning "Capital") It was the Capital city untill Valletta was built in 1571. Mdina , also known as Citta Notabile, dates back to Roman times. It is a typical medieval town. Fotr its tranquility it is also known today as the "Silent City". Historival and architectural sites abound.
The Cathedral was originally built on the house of Publius, the Roman Governor, and later first Bishop of Malta. The present Cathedral was built by Lorenzo Gafa in 1697.
Mdina- The City on a Throne
The history of Mdina and its suburb, Rabat, is as old and as chequered as the history of Malta itself. Its origin can be traced back more than 4000 year. Over the years , the city had different names and titles, depending on who was ruling the island ain the over all power -game. Even from a distance they can sense that nobility is a main characteristic of this city. Mdina flourishes under Roman Rule: Following the Phoenicians, the Romans called the island "Melita" a derivation of the Phoenician word "Malet" Under their rule , the island prospered. Famous poets and politicians of th time, like Cicero, Livy and Diodorus Sicilus, described Melita as a town with beautiful buildings and possesing a generous life style.
Melita becomes Mdina
The city received its present name, Mdina from the Saracens who took over the island in 870 AD. For reasons of defence, they separated Mdina from Rabat by a deep moat, and surrounded the hilltop section of the city with stronger walls and bastions. They called this part of the city Mdina which roughly translates " the city surrounded by walls". They named the rest of the city "Rabat", which means suburb. From this time on , Mdina has barely changed. Its structure and street plan is the same as 1000 years ago. The Saracens of that period where by no means barbarians, or meer exploiters> Many of their contributions are still visible today, and still function as efficiently as they did then,
Christianity is restored by the Normans.
In 1090, Count Roger the Norman took over the city. One of his first official activities was to build a new church on the site of a small, neglected chapel- the place where Publius according to legend converted to Christianity. This newly magnificent church was dedicated to St. Paul.
Neglect follows the Normans
During this time the local Maltese nobility concentrated themselves in Mdina due to its excellent defense possibilities. Viceroy of Sicily granted the nobility the right of Internal autonomy. Mdina gained importance for the Maltese.
The Order of St . John (Knights) takes over:
In this gloomy situation, Emperor Charles V, the real patron of the island removed his responsibility for the island by a clever ploy. He "generously" donated the donated Malta to the Order of St. John. At first the knights were not very pleased, as the described it as an empty rock with a few poor ancient terrified humans! They Characterized Mdina as an ancient, deserted city. The ideal strategic position of Malta and its well protected harbors finally made the Knights accept the offer, as they were tired of wandering around Europe in search of a new home.
Mdina- refuge of the Maltese Nobility.
The Maltese nobility, who were mostly based in Mdina, did not like the Knights and looked upon them as unwanted Intruders. However, a gentlemen's agreement was reached. After all , the Nobles had no other choice, and began to see an advantage in the presence of the Knights on the Island against the pirate attacks they had to bear with before the Knights arrived.
The Grandmaster was acknowledged as master of the island, but had to swear to respect the internal autonomy of Mdina. Only after this formal acknowledgement did the Grandmaster receive the keys of the city. This ceremony took place at the main gate of Mdina each time a new Grandmaster was elected.. Further more there was a tacit agreement that the order of St. John should concentrate their living quaters in Birgu and Valletta, whereas the Maltes nobility should concentrate on Mdina.
A guerilla War against the Turks:
During the Siege of St. Elmo and Birgu by the Turks, Mdina made a big contribution to the final victory through their Sicilian connections, and by organizing a guerilla war against the Turks, who frequently swarmed across the island to find something to pillage and ravage.
Especially demoralizing for the Turks was that , after the fall of St. Elmo, a Turkish prisoner was hanged every morning on the walls of Mdina, visible to every Turk around. A desperate attempt by the Turks to eliminate the Fortress of Mdina failed.
One of the Norman houses in Mdina has a large number of small pyramids embellishing its facade. The only problem is that most of them have had their points knocked off. Tradition has it that diamonds were planted within each point. Many years ago thieves broke off all the tips tried to get at them but their efforts were in vain.
27. WHAT IS A ‘KENUR’?
Due to the lack of fire-wood ovens in centuries past, a slow cooking method was used to prepare most Maltese dishes. Food was placed in earthenware pots over a little stone hearth called "kenur" which needed constant tending and fanning. Subsequently, slow simmering became something of the hallmark of many Maltese dishes and despite the introduction of gas and electric cookers, slow cooking is still the housewife's favourite.
28. IL MAQLUBA
This legend states that there was an evil village just south of Qrendi. The people were so bad that God punished them by opening the ground and the whole village was swallowed by the earth. The large hole is around 50 meters in circumference and around 40 meters deep.
29. CHOLERA IN MALTA
Cholera made no exception of Malta. A serious outbreak of the plague occurred in 1831. Enteric fever carried in goats’ milk once claimed the lives of thousands as witnessed by the lonely graves in the cemetery of Chambray.
30. THE ART OF LACING
Malta lace is a traditional craft famous for centuries. It is beautiful to look at and apparently permanent. It is hand made by women on both islands, particularly in Gozo, where visitors can watch women sitting at their doorsteps nimbly plying the flying bobbins to turn out a traditional or more modern pattern. One can choose from table cloths or tea-towels which look fabulous at any occasion from causal to formal. Lace making in Malta and neighbouring Gozo trace their origins back to the 16th century. Needle lace was made there as in was in Venice. This continued until the 19th century when the depression that descended upon the islands nearly led to its extinction. One of the most recognizable traits of Maltese and Gozo lace is the creamy, honey coloured, Spanish silk from which most of it is made. Black silk was also used until the 20th century when it declined in favour so is harder to find today.
31. STATUE OF ST GEORGE
The Statute of St George at St George Basilica in Gozo was carved out of wood in 1841 by Master Paolo Azzopardi, a sculptor from Valletta. This statute was ordered and paid for by a member of a Maltese family who wanted to remain anonymous, in thanksgiving to the Saint after recovering from a very serious illness. St George was one of the patron saints of Gozo through his intercession the island was delivered from plague and cholera in 1814.
32. A MATTER OF TEETH
For along time it was believed that there was proof of the presence on the island of Neanderthal man, who lived about 100,000 years ago, since human teeth characteristic of prehistoric man were found in the grotto. Unfortunately, one day a dentist extracted a tooth from a local inhabitant and found it was identical to the one found in the cave!! The doubts which then arose were later confirmed by modern scientific methods of analysis.